Science Education Retrospective

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In 1929, Science Teaching was published. This book, by Frederick W. Westaway, went through a number of printings and was the book on teaching science of that era. Westaway wrote many books, including one on scientific method. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and he understood what the goals and objectives of science teaching should be. Reading his thoughts remains valuable to this day.

science_teaching2In science education, you can truly see that those who do not read about history are doomed to repeat it. So much of what you read today was known 80 or 100 or even 140 years ago. Science teachers still repeat the same old mistakes that Westaway wrote about. To be fair, he makes quite clear that beginning science teachers have a very difficult task and takes great pains to explain how they can learning their trade more rapidly.

I believe that to understand change in education, we should know about the past, especially the best of past method and process. In that spirit, I’m going to provide some of the wisdom of Westaway to those among you who have a serious interest in teaching science and in improving it. He did not perform extensive studies of science teaching, but he was an inspector of secondary schools and understood what separated good teaching from bad from long experience.

I’ll begin with his separation of the old science teaching from the new. He points out that prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, science education was anything but a core subject. He writes, “Science teachers were few, and those few were engaged in fighting down opposition all round.”  He credits Canon Wilson with planting the seeds of change, writing that in 1867 he “rang up the curtain on modern science teaching.”

Here is one of the quotes from Wilson’s book as reported by Westaway:

Science is the best teacher of accurate, acute, and exhaustive observation of what is; it encourages the habit of mind which will rest on nothing but what is true; truth is the ultimate and only object, and there is the ever-recurring appeal to facts as the test of truth.

Here, he is presaging Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, in which Prof. Sagan speaks of scientists obtaining a “baloney detection kit” as a matter of course just by the nature of their studies and work. Wilson is making a strong case for the value of science education as a part of any liberal education.

Westaway’s quotes of Wilson continue:

It is important to distinguish between scientific information and training in science. Both of these are valuable, but the scientific habit of mind, which is the principal benefit resulting from scientific training, can better be attained by a thorough knowledge of the facts and principles of one science than by a general acquaintance with many.

We have been seeing an increasing call for more depth of science education and less breadth lately. Here, in a few words and 142 years ago, is this very point made and explained. Wilson distinguishes between the stuff of science and science itself. Science teachers generally place too much emphasis on words, laws, equations, and procedures and too little on what science truly is. Of course, it’s much easier to test for the former than the latter. The difference is crucial and insufficient comprehension of it has created many problems today in science education.

The next quote from Wilson is longer and brings science education forward to the modern era:

The lecture may be very clear and good; and this will be an attractive and not difficult method of teaching, and will meet most of the requirements. It fails, however, in one. The boy is helped over all the difficulties; he is never brought face to face with nature and her problems; what cost the world centuries of thought is told him in a minute; his attention, understanding, and memory are all exercised; but the one power which the study of physical science ought preeminently to exercise, the power of bringing the mind into contact with facts, of seizing their relations, of eliminating the irrelevant by experiment and comparison, of groping after ideas and testing them by their adequacy in a word, of exercising all the active faculties which are required for an investigation in any matter these may lie dormant in the class while the most learned lecturer experiments with facility and with clearness.

You can argue very accurately that the last 140 years in science education have been a continuing search for the means to fulfill this vision. (You’ll have to forgive the sexist nature of the references from 1867.)  The purpose of a science class is not the exercise of attention, understanding, and memory. The purpose must be to develop a mind that does not take evidence on face value, that can experiment and compare, that, in a phrase, can use scientific reasoning and will do so in daily life.

demon_haunted_worldWestaway’s final quote from Wilson speaks directly to the science teacher:

A master who is teaching a class quite unfamiliar with scientific method, ought to make his class teach themselves, by thinking out the subject of the lecture with them, taking up their suggestions and illustrations and criticizing them, hunting them down, and proving a suggestion barren or an illustration inept.

We should all ask what sort of teacher would be able readily to perform this service. What training would be required?  How many of our science teachers today are ready for teaching in this manner?

Given this perspective, what does change in science education mean?  Perhaps, it means going backward 140 years. Even Westaway writes, “All this reads as if written in 1928 instead of more than sixty years ago.”  So it might have been written today, except for some of the language details. Change must take place, but not from the old to the new. Rather it must take place from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The gauntlet was thrown down nearly a century and a half ago. We must not fear to pick it up.

How about technology in science education? How can someone in 1867 or 1929 even begin to imagine cell phones and smart boards? What should the purpose of technology be? One thing is clear. Technology must be the servant of good education rather than the reverse. Too often, we see educators attempting to fit a new technology with which they are enamored into their teaching methods without considering its real value.

Westaway understood very well that the teacher and not the method produces the best results. In using technology to produce positive change, we must seek to support the average teacher, the beginning teacher, the out-of-discipline teacher, and all who can improve their teaching results. We must provide the means to raise up the teachers and students and aspire to the best possible learning. Wilson set a standard that Westaway elaborates at length.

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