Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Towards an agreement on the goals of science instruction?

At a conference here at LessonLab on the use of video in teacher education, I was struck by the lack of consensus on what we should be teaching in science, what good instruction looks like, what we're asking teachers to do and why. I kept thinking that the findings of others' studies can scarcely inform my research because I'm interested in very different ways of speaking, talking, and doing science.

Mathematics education, I frequently hear, is much "farther along." And the few presentations and papers I've read from math ed convince me that this is true. But is science ed even having the necessary conversations to become "farther along"?

Reading Schoenfeld's "Purposes and Methods of Research in Mathematics Education" and "The Math Wars" now provides some interesting background on what mathematics education research is all about.

He notes that there are two main purposes, on pure and one applied:

- Pure (basic science): To understand the nature of mathematical thinking, teaching and learning;
- Applied (engineering): To use such understandings to imporve mathematics instruction.

Simply put, the most typical educational questions asked by mathematicians-- 'what works' and 'which approach is better?'-- tend to be unanswerable in principle. The reason is that what a person will think works will depend on what that person values... Just what do you want to achieve? What understandings, for what students, under what conditions, with what constraints?

The appropriate way to proceed was to look at the curriculum, identifying important topics and specifying what it means to have a conceptual understsanding of them. ... As a result of extended discussions, the NSF effort evolved from one that focused on documenting the effects of calculus reform to one that focused on developing a framework for looking at the effects of calculus instruction.

Looking at the evolution of the mathematics standards and the spirit behind this document, I wonder if science education was too quick to replicate math's success and create its own standards?

As Bruner said:
To instruct someone... is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach a subject not to produce little living libraries on that subject, but rather to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting. Knowing is a process not a product. (1966: 72)

How do the science standards support this view of instruction and knowing?

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