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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thoughts on History of Science in a Science Curriculum

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/23 at 09:00 AM

In “A Better Rationale for Science Literacy” Bruce Wightman reviews some of the standard reasons for studying science: surveys of basic science literacy show a lack of knowledge about scientific issues; basic scientific knowledge is important in an increasingly technological society; an increasing demand for technically skilled workers; democracy and science policy. In the end, he finds these reasons largely unconvincing—none of these reasons address why science in particular as opposed to other disciplines. Wightman argues that the best reason to increase science literacy is the transcendent payoff in studying science. Unlike the humanities and social sciences, he claims, which study human creations, the natural sciences “force us to confront the smallness and irrelevance of human beings; they serve as an antidote to self-obsession.” Somewhat confusingly, Wightman then says that science is best understood in the context of human creations and history because “science is, after all, a human activity.”

That last line raises the question of how to teach science literacy. While Wightman probably intends the teaching of contemporary science, his formulation suggests instead that science literacy be taught through the history of science, or at least is closely related to the history of science. Scientists are no doubt the best prepared to teach contemporary science, but they are arguably not the best for teaching about science in the past, science in the context of human creations and history. This approach seems to call for an effort “to understand how scientific knowledge relates to the society and culture in which it is produced,” that is, the history of science. As Frank James has recently suggested in his post, “What is the history of science for, and who should write it?,” history of science’s “primary practitioners should be those who have trained in history.” James provides an succinct summary of the discipline of the history of science from its early years when it was practiced largely by scientists seeking to tell triumphalist stories about the development of science. Although James, a professor of the history of science, is speaking more broadly about who should write the history of science, I think his conclusion applies also to the question: Who should teach the history of science?

Speaking of the history of science and teaching, Marie-Claire Shanahan’s post Escaping the rhetoric of ‘the past’ in science education has recently been attracting attention. She points out how there is nothing new about calls for teaching science as a process, despite the rhetoric surrounding those calls. Shanahan traces efforts to reform science education back at least to the 19th century, when Louis Agassiz called for students to “study nature not books.” (Agassiz’s claim was not particularly new, pedagogues and polemicists had been calling for students to study nature rather than books for centuries—Paracelsus famously boasted of rejecting books in favor of direct observation of nature and demanded that physicians do likewise.) Since then, educators have regularly called for some reform of science education. Nevertheless, science education remains mired in rote memorization and cookbook experiments. She faults the homogenizing effects of a standardized curriculum that can be held accountable to standardized assessments of teaching, of training, of student achievement.

Joshua Rosenau, in his post “The science education reform agenda hasn’t changed in a century” echoes Shanahan’s condemnation of a standardized curriculum that teaches out of prescribed textbooks to a set of standardized tests. He focuses on textbooks and their stultifying effects, especially the way they emphasize a “science-as-encyclopedia mindset” rather than some “science-as-process mindset.” These are certainly contributing factors, but they seem too easy a target. Focusing on the rhetoric attacking standardized testing and its curriculum risks obscuring other factors. For example, neither post asks about how a curriculum built around a hierarchy of prerequisite courses might also be implicated in this problem. Those prerequisites are often nested so that progress in one of the physical sciences requires not only previous courses in that particular science but also courses in other sciences thought to be propaedeutic. What consequences follow on dividing chemistry or physics or biology up into distinct stages to be encountered sequentially? Surely this decision makes good pedagogical sense. The sciences are, after all, systematic bodies of knowledge that structure and inform the way we understand the world. Mastery of those bodies of knowledge must be acquired piecemeal. Science, like all learning, is conveyed in discrete morsels, explained through examples, and practiced in small, controlled stages. Exercises—learning opportunities—need to be appropriate for the students’ level of knowledge and experience. In this context, what would it mean to “do a real scientific experiment” before reaching an “upper-level college science class?” Is doing a “real scientific experiment” merely implementing a form of “inquiry-based learning”? If so, great. But even “inquiry-based learning” occurs under the guiding supervision of a teacher, an expert. The idea of turning introductory chemistry students loose in a lab with reagents, glassware, a fume hood, and maybe some goggles seems like a recipe for disaster. Even if nobody is injured, what would a student learn in such a situation? To be sure, nobody is calling for such a radical and radically hazardous approach. But the calls for teaching science as process, for inquiry-based learning doesn’t distinguish science from most other disciplines.

One issue in Rosenau’s post seems problematic. He “[c]ompares how we teach science to how we teach English.” He praises how, in learning about literary techniques and how stories are structured, students read novels, short stories, essays, and plays. Teachers help students analyze the metaphors, the structure, and the language. Student engagement with these primary sources, he implies, is better than teaching of science from textbooks. Students might “not see primary scientific literature” until they reach upper division science courses. There is an implicit analogy here that seems faulty. Rosenau implies that when a teacher explains a metaphor by using Shakespeare, the student is doing English—or more narrowly, constructing a metaphor. Or when a teacher explains the structure of a story the student is somehow doing English—or writing a story. But in neither case is the student isn’t. What student is doing here is analogous to the “cookbook experiments” that Rosenau laments in science education. When a teacher explains a metaphor or simile, or analyzes the structure of a story, the teacher is exposing students to the nuts-and-bolts of analysis, of literary criticism, of composition. Students are not doing any of those any more than a student in an organic chemistry lab course is doing “a real scientific experiment.” Knowing what a metaphor is and how to recognize one, or understanding the structure of a particular story doesn’t mean the student will be able to produce either a metaphor or a story. Just as science students have to perform countless cookbook experiments, non-science students have to perform countless cookbook tasks—producing metaphors, identifying similes and explaining them, analyzing the structure of stories. Writing a poem, crafting a piece of literary analysis, constructing and using a good metaphor at the right point in a story requires practice. Students don’t become little Shakespeares through the process of having Shakespeare explained to them or even through analyzing Shakespeare. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the effortful, active nature of literary analysis and of writing.

Rosenau’s analogy leads him to suggest an improved textbook that contains a selection of “important historic papers (including those whose authors were wrong, but which influenced later and better work).” Students would be led through these papers so that they could learn “how scientists think about new results and devise new hypotheses and test them.” Assuming that doing English requires only being guided through the analysis of primary texts, Rosenau seems to fetishize “historic papers.” Moreover, it risks divorcing those “historic papers” from their historical contexts, the contexts in which they were meaningful, and uses them merely to illustrate some timeless, ahistorical development of science: “Even reproducing a handful of scientific papers in textbooks would make it easier for students and teachers to see how science works.” This statement rejects the notion that science is, as Wightman and James pointed out, a human activity best understood in its historical context.

I agree with Rosenau: “important historic papers” could be generative in a science curriculum. But I want to recast Rosenau’s suggestion for a reformed science textbook and suggest, instead, that what these “important historic papers” do is point to a role for the history of science in the science curriculum. And if there is a space for history of science in a science curriculum, there is a need for historians of science—not scientists telling triumphalist stories about science. Teaching “important historic [scientific] papers” is what historians of science are trained to do. Historians of science often have the expertise to understand the science articulated in those papers, the forms of expression and rhetoric used to convey that science, the relationship that particular science had to the broader historical context—whether political, cultural, religious, social, or intellectual. Historians of science typically can, should it be thought desirable, translate that science into terms understandable to students today. There are multiple payoffs for a more expansive role for the history of science in teaching science. Jane Maienschein has been calling for an expanded role for the history of science in teaching contemporary science for some time now, claiming boldly that “history makes science better” (see Jane Maienschein Discusses her Research and the Value of History of Science). But, as James pointed out in his post, “history of science can provide insights and inform current concerns, but that should never be its main goal.” History of science helps us understand how and why “scientists” have posed questions and formulated hypotheses. History of science reveals, in at least one sense, “science-as-process.” And if by “science-as-process” Rosenau means something like, science is practiced through certain habits of mind, articulates questions/hypotheses, either through observation or experimental intervention science then identifies and collects evidence that can test those questions/hypotheses within certain theoretical commitments, arranges that evidence for or against those questions/hypotheses, structures logical, rigorous arguments defending or rejecting those questions/hypotheses, and then reformulates the questions/hypotheses in light of previous results, then science doesn’t have a monopoly on the “discipline-as-process” model. History of science (and history and numerous other scientific and non-scientific disciplines) are every bit as much “discipline-as-process”. And perhaps, just perhaps, teaching “important historic papers” within the context of history of science would allow students to come to a better appreciation for both aspects of the “science-as-process” model: science as a historically informed/constituted mode of inquiry and science as an activity, a process of inquiry. It might also put people back into science. As Wightman put it: “science is, after all, a human activity.”

Tags: bruce wightman, frank james, inquiry-based learning, jane maeinschein, joshua rosenau, marie-claire shanahan, pedagogy, science curriculum, teaching history of science, teaching science

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