Haphazard vs. Systematic Science

The National Research Council has just released their latest report on science education standards, called “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross-cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.” The report, based on years of research and the recommendations of an elite committee of science educators, states that the overarching goal of their “framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.”

The report claims that our current education system just isn’t doing the job. It is too disjointed, haphazard, and focuses on memorizing discrete facts rather than concepts or processes. The committee members would like to see science and engineering taught earlier and with greater opportunities for students to see science being done, not something that has already been done. They created a framework for states to use in developing their curriculum standards, but I am more interested in how homeschoolers might use this information. I’ve always thought that science is one of the trickiest things for me to do with the kids because it doesn’t feel natural to me. I enjoy reading books and watching movies about science, but it seems that every project I attempt is a flop. So, I have always outsourced our science as much as possible by taking classes from museums and nature centers. This way, my kids got to meet people who were truly enthusiastic about their chosen fields and wanted to share it with someone else. Of course, outsourcing meant that our science curriculum truly was haphazard – just what that report claims is wrong with our education system.

Here’s my thoughts on this report:  Every one of the members of this committee was either a scientist, an educator, or both. That makes sense, but what do they know about not liking science? Or even appreciating science with no intention of pursuing it? I would have liked to see a few artists, writers, musicians, farmers, and other types on the committee too.  Perhaps I’m being unfair. I didn’t read the whole report, so maybe they interviewed or included research on non-scientists in the report. The one thing that jumps out at me when I study recommendations for curriculum, is how often the recommendations reflect the strengths or interests of the person doing the recommending. Artists believe in the value of art; musicians believe in the importance of music; grammarians believe in the importance of grammar; etc… It’s all good, but we can’t possibly hope to teach our kids everything. And what happens when our kids are not interested? Do we force them to learn it anyway?

My personal theory is that teaching somebody something that they have no interest in is a waste of time. They will not learn it well, if at all. So, it’s best to stick with a student directed curriculum, even if it seems haphazard. They may eventually learn about all of the things on the prescribed “scope and sequence,” even if it is out of sequence. I wonder how many scientists actually learned in a sequential teacher-delivered fashion? Einstein skipped science classes because the teacher wouldn’t teach what he wanted to learn, so he studied on his own. Edison was a voracious reader and experimenter, but he set his own pace and followed his own curiosity. Marconi (inventor of the radio) persisted in his own experiments even while his father actively tried to stop him. Pierre Curie was taught at home, but he could not bear interruptions from his mother when he was working on one of his projects. He required complete autonomy.

I would love to see research done on the value of freedom in education. Perhaps the way to make more scientists and engineers is to respect every child’s innate drive to learn what interests them. I think that school often interferes with that natural drive and children forget what it feels like to be curious. They may become very good at taking tests – but that’s not what these committee members really want. They want students will will grow up to help us solve our problems. They want innovators, not copiers. So, on behalf of self-educators everywhere, I will interpret the NRC’s framework from a freedom point-of-view. They intended for states to come up with their own detailed curriculum standards based on the framework, and I’m sure some homeschool science curriculum providers will come up with some nice packages, but what shall we self-educators do with this framework?

I’ll write more about this in my next article, but for now, here is the summary version of the NRC’s framework, organized around three “dimensions.” If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

1. Scientific and Engineering Practices
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing
solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

2. Crosscutting Concepts
1. Patterns
2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
4. Systems and system models
5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
6. Structure and function
7. Stability and change

3. Disciplinary Core Ideas
Physical Sciences
PS 1: Matter and its interactions
PS 2: Motion and stability: Forces and interactions
PS 3: Energy
PS 4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information
Life Sciences
LS 1: From molecules to organisms: Structures and processes
LS 2: Ecosystems: Interactions, energy, and dynamics
LS 3: Heredity: Inheritance and variation of traits
LS 4: Biological evolution: Unity and diversity
Earth and Space Sciences
ESS 1: Earth’s place in the universe
ESS 2: Earth’s systems
ESS 3: Earth and human activity
Engineering, Technology, and the Applications of Science
ETS 1: Engineering design
ETS 2: Links among engineering, technology, science, and society

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