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Go Beyond Method to the Civic Purposes of Science

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(I came across John Rudolph's article about the importance of John Dewey's thought to the current obsession with STEM education as I read the "American Educational Research Journal."  He kindly agreed to condense the argument to blog length, and he's done a masterful job. /ctk)


By John L. Rudolph

On a snowy day in December a little over a century ago—in 1909 to be exact—the well known progressive educator John Dewey appeared before the scientists assembled for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  It was as outgoing vice president of the Association's education section that he made his way to the main hall of the Walker Building on the campus of MIT in Cambridge.  His goal was to convince his audience that something radical needed to be done about science education in America.

JlRudolph.jpgFor too long, Dewey believed, the goal of science teaching had been to impart to students the vast catalog of natural facts that researchers had accumulated in their work.  But not only did this content-focused approach not appeal to the masses of students in schools across the country (who were turning away from science courses at alarming rates), but it failed to convey the true value science had to offer members of the lay public.  That value, Dewey insisted, lay not in the facts of science but rather in the methods scientists used to arrive at those facts about the world.

The text of Dewey's address was published in Science the following year under the title "Science as Subject-Matter and As Method."  It's an article that has since been held up again and again by educators as a classic statement of the need to teach scientific process over content.  Indeed, in that address Dewey was striving to find a solution to the problem of how a (then) modern society should go about preparing its citizens to live in an increasingly scientific and technological world.

Beyond Teaching Scientific Method

The challenge Dewey faced then is one we continue to face today, even more so given the tremendous advances we've witnessed in science and technology. And some point to Dewey's address to argue that if we really wish to achieve an appropriately enlightened public—a scientifically literate public—we just need to find a way to realize Dewey's vision of a science education grounded in the methods of science rather than its content. We all recognize, after all, the drudgery and counter-productive effects of rote content mastery.

This is where most policymakers, scientists, and educators often leave things. A focus on method (or inquiry or "research experience" or problem-based learning, or what have you), they believe, is the magic bullet.  Such an approach is sure to engage students in learning, generate positive perceptions of science, enhance critical thinking for everyday use, and potentially entice more students to consider scientific careers for the betterment of our national economic productivity.

There's a fundamental flaw in such thinking, however, and it lies in the assumption that science education is somehow a generic endeavor, that good science teaching can be "good" without any consideration of the goals we as a society are aiming to accomplish.  Here's where the hundred years since 1909 makes all the difference.

Beyond Vocation To The Civic Purposes of Science

In Dewey's time, indeed from the 1800s through the 1940s, schools were primarily about providing the knowledge and skills individuals needed for their moral development and intellectual growth so that they could engage in the affairs of life as full citizens.  Schools served as the "pillars of the Republic" in the words of the eminent historian Carl Kaestle—there was a moral and civic goal to schooling.  Science education, it was argued, had the power to contribute to this intellectual and moral development in its own way and could add some practical knowledge to boot.

Today the focus of our schools is primarily on workforce training or preparing students for the rigors of higher education of some sort with the promise of a good job down the line.  Learning about science or any of the STEM fields seems particularly attractive in this hyper-vocationalized environment.

The turning point from then to now was World War II during which government officials and policymakers came to recognize the power of advanced technical knowledge for national security in that conflict, during the ensuing cold war with the Soviet Union, and then later for economic development during global battles with first the Japanese and now with China and India.

The educational response to this was simply to overlay the technical-training goals of science education onto the earlier civic, general education goals of the earlier era.  If we did it right, so the argument went, good science teaching could prepare both citizens and more scientists and STEM workers.

But it has become increasingly clear that the civic goal has been well overshadowed by the workforce-training goal.  This has resulted in more content-focused instruction in classrooms in an effort to do everything from improving test scores in an ever-expanding accountability environment to expanding enrollments in Advanced Placement courses to prepare students for more advanced science instruction in college and university classes.

Feeding the STEM Pipeline Isn't the Only Goal

The lesson to be learned from Dewey's address is not that we just need to refocus science teaching on process over content.  More research-immersion experiences or hands-on science activities in the hopes of funneling more students into the STEM pipeline isn't the answer to the problem of living in a world infused with complex scientific and technological systems and problems.  Replacing a narrow content focus with a similarly narrow process approach is no solution.

When-fewer-than-10-of.jpgLooking back on Dewey's address at MIT a hundred years ago has more value in its ability to remind us of a time when science education (and education in general) was designed to help us live together as a community, as citizens with common interests in making sense of and ordering the world in ways that improve life for everyone.

For Dewey, such an education was necessarily about how we come to reliable knowledge about the world—it was about understanding the value of science and expertise not only for ourselves individually, but also so that society might better find the most effective ways to organize the way we live.  His science education was all about understanding science in the broad context of society as an instrument for social progress, not about narrow technical training.

In our current age, where various groups are willing to discount science (think climate change, the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes, supply side economics, and on and on), we need a science education for understanding how, why, and where science works, not for training the very small fraction of students who may end up pursuing careers in the STEM fields.  When fewer than 10% of students ever go on to STEM-related advanced education and careers, we would do well to re-think the purposes of science education for the remaining 90%.


(John Rudolph is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.  His work focuses on the history of science education and the portrayal of scientific epistemology and practice in schools. Email: [email protected])

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