Science Standards: Promises and Dangers

Robert F. Tinker
Hands On!, (Cambridge: MA, TERC),
v.16, no.1, Spring 1993, pp. 2, 17-19.

Joan Hinton recently returned to China with cattle semen, embryos in liquid nitrogen, and a PowerBook all designed to improve animal husbandry on her dairy collective. As with so many successful scientists, Joan's education illustrates the power of learning from projects and hands-on activities and their relevance of attempting uniform coverage of subject matter. From her primary education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she remembers vividly the second grade curriculum which consisted of creating a town of buildings large enough to crawl into; hers was a goat barn. Some of the buildings had lights and electric buzzers; city government and economic planning were integrated into the activity. As a high school student, she became fascinated with the idea of building a cloud chamber. Once at college, she let her academic work slide while she made one, forging the metal container, ordering special glass, building a beautiful wood container for it, and being thrilled when she saw her first tracks from radioactive decay. Even as a graduate student, her education was decidedly lopsided; she was taking high school calculus and physics at the same time. Did this "unconventional" education cripple her, leave her unable to learn other topics, or blind her to larger social issues? Not at all. Joan's fascination with advanced nuclear material was also her motivation to broaden her education and go further.

She got involved in physics experimentation, joined the Manhattan Project, studied with Enrico Fermi, protested the use of the bomb, followed her convictions by renouncing the United States and moving to China, and applied her energy to improving tractors and dairy farming. Her early educational experiences prepared her for the rewarding life she now leads, not by providing the facts and formulas she would use later, but by generating the motivation, building the confidence, and kindling the interest for lifelong learning that a broader but superficial education might have extinguished. She continues to innovate and apply her scientific skills to improve animal husbandry in her adopted country.

Joan's story has important implications for the kind of science education we want to offer our children and the expectations we create through national standards and assessment. Of course it is not sensible to base policy on anecdotal evidence like this, and it is particularly questionable to rely on the testimony of a successful scientist. However, there is ample evidence that science education for all students needs an injection of the kind of education Joan enjoyed.

If there is any single flaw in our current educational system it is the dominance of a narrow, fact-centered concept of the appropriate content. Science content is more than facts and formulas, more than lists of topics students should know. A shallow conception of content is at the core of the deadly cycle of huge textbooks that mention every conceivable topic, instruction that is didactic because so much must be covered, and "objective" testing that enforces broad, superficial learning. A deliberate effort must be made to prevent the reoccurrence of this defect in the standards initiative currently under development.

A substantial part of every student's science education must be concerned with science content centered on inquiry and decision making. There are many reasons for this: inquiry-based learning provides motivation, powerful content learning, and an accurate introduction to the process of science. The curriculum should not be exclusively devoted to inquiry; the British understand this, proposing 50 percent inquiry in the elementary science curriculum and 25 percent in the secondary .

Science Education Standards and Student Inquiry

For better or worse, the United States is now developing standards for science learning, teaching, and assessment. Right now, three major national and countless state and district efforts to define standards are underway. The promise of all this work is a new conception of science teaching that is superior developmentally and pedagogically --- one that will result in a better-educated public created through the promulgation of challenging but achievable educational goals. The danger is that narrowly conceived lists of required content will dominate the standards with the result that real learning will decline because instruction will become more fragmented and meaningless. The key issue is whether the standards will support creative, inquiry-rich science instruction or increase the pressure to cover more content ever more superficially . Most science standards to date have favored the latter.

Standards must make student inquiry central to science education. An inquiry requirement should not be interpreted as conventional labs, but as collaborative investigations of topics chosen by students, the results of which are not known in advance. The level, depth, and sophistication of these investigations should be developmentally appropriate and lead to serious research by the time students reach high school. Because a successful inquiry demonstrates the ability to learn independently, the inquiry strand should not be just another requirement, but the central goal of science instruction. The science facts we teach in school are less important than imparting a love of science and the desire and ability to acquire more science learning. Of course, science inquiry does not occur in a vacuum; it demands and encourages understanding of the substance of science, thus the distinction between content and inquiry is false; a full definition of appropriate science content eludes inquiry activities and skills.

By putting inquiry at the center of science education and supporting this with technical skills and information technology, it becomes impractical as well as undesirable to even attempt a bad, uniform treatment of science topics. The standards projects should acknowledge that many sets of topics are equally appropriate in the curriculum and that no school should attempt to cover more than a fraction of these topics. Schools must not only be permitted to select from among topics to cover, they must be actively discouraged from attempting to cover them all. This permission is not to be interpreted as laxness, it is essential to support inquiry.

The two most important science standard-setting projects are the "benchmarks" being developed by Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS Benchmarks) and the standards being developed by the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment of the National Research Council (NRC Standards). Early drafts of both standards indicate a commitment to increasing the importance of inquiry-based instruction; to maintain this purposefulness, final versions of these to standards must eschew the inclination to include long lists of required content.

The AAAS Benchmarks

The AAAS Project 2061 represents a monumental effort involving hundreds of scientists and educators and includes the physical and life sciences, mathematics, technology, and the social sciences. The January 1993 draft "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" contains only 12 of 19 planned chapters in more than 250 pages. There is no guidance concerning the amount of time schools might devote to various forms of education, but student inquiry, projects, and design challenges seem to pervade the image Benchmarks presents of a reformed science education. For instance, the first benchmark includes the following:

From the very; first day in school students should do science ---not study science. (p 3)

The key is for students to experience doing science themselves in way s that mirror how science actually gets done and that emphasize the mores of science. (p. 11)

Student investigations are an essential part of the total science experience . . . The investigations help students to learn how science works. (p. 9)

Year by year the investigations should become more ambitious and more sophisticated. Before graduating from high school, students working in teams, preferably self-formed, should approach [an investigation], estimate the time and costs involved, calibrate instruments, conduct trial runs, write a report, and finally, respond to criticism. (p 7)

On the other hand, Benchmarks is peppered with more than 1,000 topics that students must know, such as "Light from the sun takes a few minutes to reach the earth, but light from the next nearest star takes four years to reach us" (p. 45). None of the topics itemized focus on inquiry skills or processes. The relation between the relatively enlightened narrative of Benchmarks and the topics itemized is not explained. These seem to be in two different voices with the narrative suggesting good ideas and approaches and the topics setting forth the kinds of requirements that can be tested easily.

Though each of the topics sets reasonable requirements, their sum total is overwhelming. There is approximately one topic for each hour of instruction for K-12. Curriculum designers and textbook publishers may be tempted to make sure each of these topics is "covered" by direct instruction; in the resulting crush of facts, it is likely that inquiry could be squeezed out all together or relegated to a few relatively meaningless lectures. The topics are too numerous, detailed, and comprehensive. Rather the topics should indicate the level of performance expected, not its full breadth, as well as the explicit inquiry requirements.

The NRC Standards

The February 1993 draft of "National Science Education Standards: An Enhanced Sampler" provides a vision for a radically reformed science education system. Actually, the NRC standards document is about one fifth the size of the AAAS Benchmarks document; work on the NRC Standards began two years after the effort on the AAAS Benchmarks. It could well happen that, as more voices are heard, the NRC will also attempt to become excessively detailed. Let's hope not.

The NRC uses a broad definition of science content that includes subject matter, inquiry, applications, as well as the social and historical context.

But school science content is more than subject matter. It also includes the ability to carry out scientific investigations and understand modes of reasoning involved in scientific inquiry. . . (p. 13)

Inquiry is a critical component of the science curriculum at all grade levels and in every domain of science. (p. 55)

The NRC restricts its required subject matter to "fundamental understandings" that all students should develop. These need to be basic science concepts that are also meaningful to students and developmentally appropriate. The NRC has limited the amount of fundamental material; it anticipates that states and schools should add to this list using local resources, environments, people, and interests. This could be an invitation to create longer lists that take time away from inquiry.

The standards give substantial attention to the nature, applications, and contexts of science. For example, in the chapter on the nature of science, the discussion of modes of inquiry lists inquiry skills to be gained through student investigations. Providing a clue about the position it will take on assessment (a section yet to be written), the NRC indicates that the only reasonable way to demonstrate a mastery of these inquiry skills is to undertake a "full investigation" and be able to report on it in a way that illustrates an understanding of the process as well as the experiment.

This treatment of standards represents a major departure from previous standards and paints a vision of a far better kind of science education. If future NRC drafts continue in this initial direction, the NRC effort has a real chance of fulfilling its goal of improving science education for all students.

Inquiry and Technology

Another important lesson from Joan Hinton's experience is the role of technology in support of student inquiry in science: Joan built the goat barn and the cloud chamber; she repaired the tractors, designed the cattle program, and learned to use a computer. Science and technology are intimately bound together. To be able to "do" science, students must be able to construct, repair, design, and compute. Scientific inquiry and technological skills must be developed together.

The NRC Standards in the February 1993 draft are mute when it comes to the role of technology. In contrast, Benchmarks is clear about this as it concerns information technologies:

By this time [grades six through eight], student investigations should include greater uncertainty . . . students should now be using computers as science uses them, namely to store and retrieve data, to help in data analysis, to prepare tables and graphs, and to write summary reports. (p. 13)

In their study of science, students should use information technology to collect and analyze data from experiments, to simulate a variety of biological and physical phenomena, to access and organize information from databases, and to use programmable systems to control electric and mechanical devices. (p 159)

The AAAS Benchmarks also acknowledge the importance of computer-based modeling in science.

Both standards, however, need to emphasize the role of all kinds of technologies in the support of student investigations. From the earliest grades, students must learn how to cut, drill, and solder; they should learn wire gauges, screw pitches, wood types, and resistor codes; they must be able to compute, draw, and communicate electronically; they must adopt a "can do" attitude that makes them formidable solvers of practical problems. Industry is begging educators for such graduates. These technical skills are not final goals for science education, but co-requisites with inquiry goals. Only with these skills can a student undertake significant inquiries. For example, such a student might wonder about crop loss as ozone levels decrease and UV levels increase. To pursue this investigation the student might build an experimental growth chamber to study the effect of various levels on plant germination.

Neither of the standards projects is complete and each is soliciting input. Whether the standards will remain intact after the current round of comment from educators and scientists committed to inquiry and whether the standards will be strengthened depends, in part, on your input. Get involved: get your own copies of these documents, discuss your thoughts with colleagues in your own institution and over the networks, and send in your opinions. Contact Chick Algren, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1333 H Street NW, , DC 20000, and Elizabeth Stage, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, HA 486, Washington, DC 20418-1399 (

Reprinted from Hands On!, Spring 1993, Volume 16, Number 1 (TERC, Cambridge, Massachusetts).

Return to
Inquiry Education Information for Teacher Workshops Page

Institute for Inquiry Home

©Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon St., San Francisco, CA 94123