May 11, 2012

Next Generation Science Standards Open for Public Comment through June 1

by Anthony Carpi

Science Students in Lab

Among other things, the Next Generation Science Standards aim to emphasize the process and practice of science. Photo Courtesy: Argonne National Laboratory (CC)

Today, a draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was released for a three-week public comment period. The new Standards are based on the National Research Council’s (NRC) Framework for K–12 Science Education and are the first update since the original National Science Education Standards were released in 1996.

Among other things, the new Standards are intended to place a broader emphasis on the process and practice of the scientific enterprise. This is highlighted by the fact that the very first Dimension of the Framework on which the Standards are based is entitled Practices, and is meant to describe how scientists work. This is an ambitious and long-overdue goal, and we are excited to see more emphasis placed on it.

Over the past decades, science education has migrated away from teaching about science and has migrated towards conveying facts and figures. As Bruce Alberts, editor of the journal Science has said, “Rather than learning how to think scientifically, students are generally being told about science and asked to remember facts.”

There are many reasons proposed to explain this migration—an emphasis on standardized test performance, lack of specialized teacher preparation, etc. But probably the most reasonable of these explanations is the fact that science textbooks fail to describe the scientific process and instead present science as a series of facts and predetermined endpoints.

In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published almost 50 years ago today, Thomas Kuhn wrote:

Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. …Yet the textbook-driven tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed.

To educate students about science, we need to present the discipline as it is practiced, not as a series of inevitable facts discovered by fate.

In 2006, we began an initiative to develop a series of modules that expressly describe the Process of Science. This initiative—possibly better described as an ongoing journey—has been both incredibly rewarding and at times slightly maddening. As the core authors of the Process content, Anne Egger and I have invested thousands of hours into researching these ideas, writing about them, editing, rewriting, and eventually launching these to the public.

Writing some of these modules was relatively straightforward. For example, there is an extensive literature underscoring the concept of Scientific Ethics, and there are well defined ideas about how a scientific Experiment differs from a Comparative study. However, there is less written about many other core ideas underscoring scientific practice such as how and why individual scientists collaborate, how subjectivity affects data interpretation, and how error and uncertainty in data are quantified and expressed. Still other concepts that need explaining, such as “What is the Scientific Method?” or “How does scientific knowledge differ from other types of knowledge?” are sometimes defined by scientists in the same way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”

In fact, Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar once said, “Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he adopts an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare.”

We hope that the Next Generation Science Standards will help catalyze a shift back towards teaching about science as it is practiced. In the meantime, please join us in reviewing the new Standards and submitting comments to make sure they emphasize the practices used by scientists.  Comments are due by June 1.

Need help getting started?  The National Science Teachers Association has created a “study guide” for organizing a group discussion, including questions to consider for each section of the new standards (see page 11).

Anthony Carpi

Written by

Anthony is the founder and president of Visionlearning. He is a Professor of Environmental Toxicology at John Jay College of the City University of New York with extensive experience in teaching and educational research. He has authored articles for the Journal of Chemical Education and the Journal of College Science Teaching on the design and effectiveness of Web-based teaching resources. He is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants for the development of online science teaching resources, and he was one of the designers of the HETS virtual plaza, an online education cooperative for Hispanic students. He has published extensively on the fate, behavior and toxicity of mercury as an environmental pollutant. In addition, he is active in research in the area of environmental forensics.