Thomas H. Huxley on Teaching Science

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left
Frederick W. Westaway wrote on many subjects, especially about teaching science. He wrote the definitive volume, Scientific Method, Its Philosophy and Its Practice, for example. In 1929, he spoke clearly to us today about science education in his book, Science Teaching. He quotes Thomas H. Huxley, also known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” at length about science education. This Huxley quote from Westaway’s book dates to 1869!

Huxley said: “It appeared to me to be plainly dictated by common sense that the teacher who wishes to lead his pupils to form a clear mental picture of the order which pervades the multiform and endlessly shifting phenomena of nature, should commence with the familiar facts of the scholar’s daily experience; and that, from the firm ground of such experience, he should lead the beginner, step by step, to remoter objects and to the less readily comprehensible relations of things. I conceived that a vast amount of knowledge respecting natural phenomena and their interdependence, and even some practical experience of scientific method, could be conveyed, with all the precision of statement, which is what distinguishes science from common information. And I thought that my plan would not only yield results of value in themselves, but would facilitate the subsequent entrance of the learners into the portals of the special science.”

This statement from 140 years ago sure looks like a rough description of constructivism to me. As I’ve studied science education from the time it became a separate educational discipline, around the time of Huxley’s statement, to the present, I’ve been struck with how frequently “new” ideas are really old ideas with new labels attached, sort of an inverted “new wine in old bottles.”
Huxley does not, however, require that all new learning be based on outside experience. He clearly enunciates the concept that, once the foundations are laid, students may move farther and farther away from their experience in the world outside of school as long as the progression builds stepwise. For most students, leaps in learning don’t work.

What happens, then, when students in the United States transfer from one state to another, and the states have very different science standards? Students can suddenly be thrust into regions of knowledge for which they have no preparation. Despite state standards, students moving from district to district or, in some jurisdictions, from teacher to teacher find a disconnect between what they’ve been learning and what they’re expected to learn. National standards may be of some help in this dilemma, but they’re just a standard against which states can measure their own standards.

In order for science education to work as it should, children should be doing science from their earliest days in school. Given that few elementary school teachers have prepared to teach science and many are even science-averse, you might expect to meet some difficulties in implementing such a program. I might have given up on the entire concept had I not been reviewing a K-6 science textbook series that provides full support for both teachers and students in learning how to do science.

We have no need to invent new ideas of how to provide science learning for students. We’ve known how to do it for over 100 years. It just seems that we repeatedly reject the “old way” of doing things and constantly seek new ways. But they’ve all been tried already. For example, we know that inquiry works but that it’s too difficult to do in many modern classrooms. It’s even more difficult with teachers who don’t understand science in enough depth to run a real inquiry program. The technologies that we’re experimenting with today hold the promise of overcoming these barriers and making good science education available to even the poorest schools.

The technologies that we’re experimenting with today hold the promise of . . . making good science education available to even the poorest schools.

John Adsit recently wrote eloquently about how we don’t have to tailor our courses to each student’s individual learning style. Teachers simply must teach using all learning style techniques throughout their courses. We’ve known this as a society for a long time just as the central idea of constructivism was known 140 years ago. We should stop trying to find the new “silver bullet” of education and implement the ideas that we know work in situations where severe overcrowding, lack of early education, serious health problems, and all the rest aren’t preventing good schooling.

I find it incredible that the U.S. Department of Education is still asking for innovative ideas in education. We have all of the ideas. We just must have the means to implement them. I happen to believe that technology, appropriately used, can allow us to do just that.

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