Cedar’s Digest on the Fordham Report on the new NRC K-12 Science Standards Framework

Or, in which I decide to make a descriptive title instead of a good one.
I’ll admit that I have little experience with evaluating national science standards, or with constructing curricula meant to be used by thousands of teachers. So I’ll just describe some of my impressions of the new standards, from what I can tell of them by reading the report from the Fordham Institute.

Paul Gross, the author of the review, found much to like in the new framework. Three main themes that I found were:

1) content vs. skills (learning science facts vs. actually “doing” science) He reminds us that of course both are necessary, and that existing standards may be accused of being based on “rote memorization of facts” but are clearly not. The deficiencies in current standards are rather in the limited content, rather than an emphasis on facts.
2) depth vs. breadth – Again, both are necessary, but we should not let the goal of a broad understanding of all areas of science interfere with rigorous and deep projects.
3) The logical process of science as it should be vs. the anthropological/sociological/historical process of science as it actually is

With those tradeoffs in mind, Gross begins with a review of the content and the dimensions of the framework.
Gross begins by saying that the emphasis on inquiry-based learning and science skills has been avoided. The framework is rich in content.
In reviewing which content has been selected, Gross concludes:

The scientific content in this framework is on the whole well chosen, sufficiently complete, and suitably rigorous to form the basis of excellent K-12 science standards.

It is in the section entitled Content and Rigor II: Emphases that Gross gets to his third theme, and finds some possible flaws and controversy. He quotes the report:

The authors insist, “Any education that focuses predominantly on the…facts of science—without developing an understanding of how those facts were established or that ignores…important applications of science in the world misrepresents science and marginalizes the importance of engineering.” [Emphasis ours.] The key concern is about how science really works.

This seems so right, and Gross admits sympathy with the uselessness of these disembodied facts. But what body do we give them? What context is necessary? How does science “really work”?
This is an open subject of current inquiry, and Gross is rightly cautious of two avenues that these questions could lead us down.
The first, Gross criticizes the field of “science-studies” as overly reliant on sociological and historical approaches to science. He dismisses the claim that all “truth” is local and that scientists negotiate the truth just as everyone else, as “standard-issue postmodernism.” Gross notes with relief that the Framework ignores the “postmodern attitudinizing.”

My thoughts for a second on this: like many good scientists, Gross does not want politics, history or sociology intruding on a good rigorous science curriculum. I am mostly with him. But I think there is a way to integrate the fact that scientists are human, make mistakes, and that science is just about as imperfect, competitive and hostile as any other human institution without resorting to “there is no truth and science can’t find it.” The way science really works also includes the way scientists really work. And this includes human nature. The birth of my field of science, psychology, was inspired by an astronomer firing his apprentice because he couldn’t get the “right” observations of star transit times. As it turns out, observations do depend on the person making the observation. In this case, this insight inspired more systematic observations of individual differences in psychology, not the turn into postmodern relativism, as Gross fears.
We shouldn’t let history and sociology take over or dilute the science curriculum. But there are ways that a historical or sociological approach can deepen ones appreciation, and yes, understanding, of science. Understanding the limits of Galileo’s instruments and observations can lead us to appreciate the limits of our own. Humility and modesty are key values of science, and they are not encouraged by ignoring the history and sociology of science.

But back to Gross: He is glad that the new Framework demotes “inquiry based learning,” but he is concerned with what it is being replaced with. The (not so new) Framework makes scientific reasoning an explicit part of content and standards. Gross cites a study comparing Chinese and US physics majors, which found that American and Chinese students were equivalent in their general scientific reasoning skills. This is great right? Our physics majors are just as good as Chinese ones on scientific reasoning! The problem is that we teach scientific reasoning directly, and the Chinese don’t; they teach a lot of physics content. The Chinese students of course kicked our butts on the physics content tests. He concludes that we should limit our teaching of scientific reasoning and focus on teaching scientific processes, in the context of specific content.

Gross concludes the report by giving full marks (7/7)for the science content chosen (the Content and Rigor of the framework) but by giving the Clarity and Specificity a 1/3, for its lack of help, and possible distraction, on integrating science and engineering processes with core disciplinary science knowledge. In addition to that, he finds the sections on equity and diversity confusing and distracting.

My ending thoughts? I like the framework as it is described and outlined, and I appreciate the way they have structured the content. And I am likewise glad that inquiry-based learning seems to be kicked to the curb in this report. But I have a nagging doubt that as standards get filtered down, they become the curriculum, and the wonder and joy of discovery get lost. Let me be clear: Curiosity does not belong in this framework. Wonder does not belong in an outline. But these should be apparent in the science classroom, and in the students’ eyes. I am reminded of the excellent set of stories at Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes blog on science writers remembering great teachers. What frameworks such as these should do is to support science teachers, give them a structure on which to hang their wonder and creativity not constrain them.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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