How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters

Review by Ayelet Baram-Tsabari

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The book is lively, and the story is coherent and entertaining, despite the amount of detail and the number of individuals involved.

John L. Rudolph: How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters, Harvard University Press, 2019; 320 pp.

“Public perceptions of the intricacies of scientific process are central to determining where the legitimate exercise of expert judgment leaves off and the rightful expression of public preferences regarding science research policy begins,” writes John Rudolph in this important work. He tackles why scientists are so invested in the school teaching of the science process — how scientists come to know, rather than what is known. The general public tends to have little exposure to how science works after leaving school. Such encounters may happen, however, when the authority or legitimate scope of science are perceived to conflict with other knowledge systems, norms or claims.

In this captivating narrative spanning more than two centuries, Rudolph shows how thinking about and teaching science have been radically transformed by changes in agenda, pedagogy, political and economic pressures, and the direct involvement of the scientific community. His examples are drawn from the United States but have wider application. In the second half of the 19th century, a moral argument enabled the sciences to be included in the curriculum which was dominated by classical subjects such as Latin and Greek. The “laboratory method”, specifically, was claimed to instill morality, mental discipline and virtue in individual students by providing an exercise in formal logic and skill.

In the first half of the 20th century, “the scientific method” was promoted as a foolproof approach to solving everyday problems in people’s lives, and a way to enhance their ability to reason more effectively. During the Cold War, with science as a “national security apparatus” but scientists defending free inquiry against political pressures, scientific inquiry was viewed as better reflecting the true creative, non-authoritarian and developing essence of scientific work. The science literacy and science for all agenda championed in the 1980s and 1990s was aimed at eliciting public support, a better understanding of the nature of science, epistemological issues, and the institutionalised aspects of doing science. However, it was taken over by vocational workforce needs and large-scale assessment that marginalises science for citizenship in deference to the standards of the new millennium. According to Rudolph, what these reforms in science teaching have in common is their failure, since science processes on a large scale are either taught in rote fashion or neglected in favour of covering science content.

Rudolph argues that these various reforms reflect different social purposes of science education that range from “habits of personal value, such as moral improvement or problem-solving skills” to public appreciation of the intellectual authority and expertise of science in the aftermath of World War II. The pendulum has swung between vastly different conceptualisations that, for example, view the science process as intertwined or independent of science content, consider procedural and epistemological issues as content to be explicitly taught or as experiences to be immersed in, create opposition between scientists and educators in taking the lead on educational reforms, represent science as part of the human experience or science as a disciplinary focus. But for the most part, reformers agree with the equation of scientific process as something to be learned and as a pedagogy — that students have to do science in order to learn science, and this assumption leaves Rudolph uneasy.

The book is lively, and the story is coherent and entertaining, despite the amount of detail and the number of individuals involved. Many issues addressed over the course of the history of science teaching are still being debated today within science communication and science education scholarship, such as the best ways to convey the idea that scientific knowledge is tentative, without suggesting that nothing counts.

One blind spot was hard to ignore, however. The book only explores and discusses science teaching in the US, except for brief mentions of the UK, Germany (because a group of American scientists were influenced by their training there in the 19th century), and Japan, China and India (because these countries were perceived as a threat to the US economy). The “we” in the title leaves out most of us as unnamed “they”, the yardstick against which American students’ scores are compared on international tests. One would expect a little more context about the similar waves of agenda-driven educational reforms, (many times heavily influenced by US initiatives) played out in other countries.

Due to the cultural prominence of the US, the rhetoric and the pedagogy are familiar since all have been adapted and implemented at some point in other countries as well. In this sense, reading How we Teach Science felt like reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology after years of acquaintance with Thor and Loki in their Marvel comic versions. Their true origin and relationships emerged and many details finally fell into place.

Ayelet Baram-Tsabari is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education in Science and Technology at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, where she heads the Applied Science Communication research group. Her recent publications include (with A. Sharon, 2020) ‘Can science literacy help individuals identify misinformation in everyday life?’

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