I recently returned from the annual meeting of the Georgia Science Teacher’s Association where I was asked to speak on the role of college science teachers in teacher preparation and on the role of inquiry in teaching college science. I think these two issues are clearly intertwined, as do many of my colleagues. If we are to teach students how the methods of science are used to investigate the natural world, we need to engage them in the same types of practices and logic. If what has been suggested as to how people learn is correct, then we need to engage students in activities that promote development of a deeper understanding of concepts through investigations that encourage them to ask and answer questions. Finally, if people really teach the way they have been taught, then we need to teach future teachers using techniques that we would like them to use.
At the meeting, I was asked to offer my reactions to the recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, The State of the Science Standards (Gross et al. 2005). This comprehensive report reviews and grades the current science standards produced by each state and the District of Columbia. Few states received an A or B; 15 received an F, which the authors interpret as a poor showing given all of the time and effort expended in producing the standards. However, that is not what interested me most. My interests were in why the authors did not consider all of the states standards exemplary. To answer this, we need to examine the criteria they used.
In grading the state standards, the authors established criteria for the 2005 review that were in many ways similar to those they used before. These included the criteria of Expectations, Purpose, and Audience (that all students should be scientifically literate, assessments can be easily designed, text of the standards is jargon free); Organization (by grade levels, by themes reflecting scientific theories, with instruction that integrates science process skills); Science Content (replication of classic experiments, unambiguous terminology and rigorous definitions, explanation of historical shifts in scientific theories, adequate factual base established in early grades, adequate set of basic principles, and so on); Quality (demanding content, produces students ready for college work); and Seriousness (no pseudoscientific or supernatural explanations, no distortion of history). Two additional criteria were graded separately—Evolution and Inquiry.
My initial reaction to the basic criteria was generally positive. I would expect that the standards would lead to outcomes that could be easily assessed. States are now establishing end-of-instruction exams and these can only be meaningful (all other issues aside) if this is so. I applaud the goal of all citizens being scientifically literate. I concur that students must develop more than a superficial acquaintance (Bloom’s recall and comprehension levels of understanding) with scientific concepts. As a biologist, I am particularly concerned with the teaching of evolution and strongly agree that we need to educate the public about evolution so that every citizen understands what the theory is and is not (for that matter what any theory is or is not). I also would never oppose an effort to make a document concise, easy to read, and free of jargon.
However, the authors’ issues with inquiry disturb me. I think their overall conclusion concerning the negative influence of inquiry on science instruction is misguided and misleading. The authors elected to grade “Inquiry” separately because most of the documents describing the standards treat inquiry (or “process…or history of science, or philosophy of science, or science-and-society, or some combination of these” Gross et al. 2005, p. 14) separately. In their minds, “these meta-scientific issues, accompanied as they are by fulsome praise of hands-on learning, are sometimes little more than pedagogical advocacy” (p. 14). Is what is suggested in these standards just pedagogical advocacy and if so, is it inappropriate?
Among the authors’ main conclusions about the state standards is that most of the documents lack sufficient scientific content—they propose that many more facts and concepts be taught and taught at a deeper level than presently required. It is important in this context to realize that the authors are quite clear that standards represent a minimum—schools and teachers are free to strive to reach higher standards for science content. The authors suggest that the lack of sufficient content in many state standards is “due in part to the success of the inquiry movement” (p. 21), which they proceed to explain in a section entitled “Do-It-Yourself Learning.” Their argument proceeds along several lines. One is to argue that constructivism denies that knowledge can be transferred through lecture. Another is to question how students are to construct their “own theories of atoms and electrons, of stars and galaxies, of DNA and genetics” (p. 22). They also equate inquiry with discovery learning and insist that “good research at the population scale” does not support inquiry unequivocally.
I think these arguments are thought provoking, but misguided and incendiary. The authors contend that no science class is ever composed solely of lectures and that “the widespread polarity between rote learning and hands-on, minds-on learning is a caricature” (p. 24). Perhaps, but so is insisting that inquiry is discovery learning where students, unaided by teachers, are expected to rediscover every theory for themselves. Students can learn through lectures if the timing is correct (Weld 2002) and if they are motivated to do so (Druger 2002/2003). The issue is not whether they can—it is whether this is the best way for them to do so. Students’ understandings are challenged and clarified by the actions they take. That may involve experimentation, interactions with their peers, interactions with their instructors, or many other activities.
Discovery learning as an unguided format involving trial and error has been tried and tested and, at least at the elementary school level, been found wanting (Mayer 2004). However, Inquiry does not equal Discovery. Inquiry instruction follows a variety of formats, which reflect the roles of the instructor and the student (Bell, Smetana, and Binns 2005). An instructor should consider the different formats as different instructional tools to be used as the situation requires. I don’t expect students to rediscover the relationship between DNA and genetics unaided, but then again I have learned that my simply telling them about the relationship between DNA and genetics is ineffective as well. Providing students opportunities for them to test their own hypotheses (before or after they have had formal training in the concept) confronts students with the limits of their understandings.
The State of the Science Standards also encourages the performance of classic experiments (Gross et al. 2005). However, a step-by-step repetition of an experiment with known results may not engage students in thinking nearly as much as applying that knowledge to discover something new. By equating inquiry with discovery learning and criticizing the former for the limits of the latter, this report does a disservice to the audience that it is trying to inform. It encourages some to dismiss teaching strategies that engage students and it reinforces their predisposition toward lecture and verification experiments as the primary teaching methods. Explaining to students is one aspect of instruction; engaging, exploring, extending knowledge to new situations, and evaluating are also necessary components.
Our role then as instructors of future science teachers is dual and reflects the issues brought up in The State of the Science Standards. One important component is to help our students learn relevant content. This means interacting with them in ways that make us confident that they have a true understanding of the concepts we have chosen to include in our courses. In choosing content, we might look at our state standards to see what students should have learned and what they will be expected to teach. Emphasizing “unambiguous terminology and rigorous definitions” is not enough. We also have to instill in students the ability to ask meaningful questions and to find answers to questions on their own, using the investigative strategies common to the sciences. Secondly, we need to model recommended teaching practices that future K–12 teachers might use. This is not as much of a change in practice as it may seem. Encouraging discussion, collaboration, investigation, questioning; and promoting the use of the research literature; analyzing data; and interpreting graphs are all good practices at the college level and all characteristics of good scientists—they are the essence of inquiry.
Donald P. French (email@example.com) is the president of the Society for College Science Teachers and a professor in the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Bell, R.L., L. Smetana, and I.Binns, I. 2005. Simplifying inquiry instruction. The Science Teacher 72 (7): 30–33.
Druger, M. 2002/2003. Education for life. Journal of College Science Teaching 32 (4): 280–81.
Gross, P.R., U. Goodenough, L.S. Lerner, S. Haack, M. Schwartz, R. Schwartz, C.E. Finn, Jr. 2005. The State of the Science Standards. Dayton, OH: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Mayer, R.E. 2004. Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist 59 (1): 14–19.
Weld, J. 2002. Save your lecture for someone who cares. Journal of College Science Teaching 31 (7): 489–90.