Inquiry, Systems, Relationships, and Learning – and the Loss of Integrity in Science Education

Once upon a not so distant time, I was a “science educator,” and more specifically a science teacher educator. Some of you who may read this may have known me in that role or an even further back role of science teacher. However, for most of my career, I felt somewhat uncomfortable with these roles, but much more so in the new millennium.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, science education research and practice were rather exciting. Many of the past assumptions were being questioned and new directions were being explored. The national science teaching standards of 1996, even though they had some problems, were basically pretty decent. They heavily emphasized teaching through inquiry and trying to manifest a sense of the nature of science. Personally, I liked these two emphases. I’ve never been a fan of conceptual standards, but in the 1996 version, these standards were general enough not to be too restrictive on what could be explored in the classroom.

In the 2013 “Next Generation Science Standards,” inquiry receives only cursory treatment. In fact, what they’ve done is to trivialize inquiry and remove it as the core around which children’s curiosity and engagement can revolve.

Here are a couple of second grade standards:

2-LS2-1. Plan and conduct an investigation to determine if plants need sunlight and water to grow.

2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.

These types of simplistic inquiry standards miss the essence of inquiry almost entirely. Inquiry arises from curiosity and one’s engagement and play within a certain context or set of contexts. Teachers might as well just take the lead and tell children what to do step by step. There’s no context for the inquiry, no curiosity, no engagement.

The second of these standards makes “observation” look like some secondary and not very good option for getting information. Observation may be the entirety of inquiry in some fields, like astronomy and some parts of earth sciences. And, there is much more one can do with observation in second grade than just compare the diversity of life. What the hell were they thinking? I guess they weren’t. What about the patterns of form and function? What about such patterns and their appearance across diversity? There is so much young children can explore given the opportunity, but too much knowledge is certainly a problem for a corporate oligarchy.

Teachers need to be creating environments where children can explore and play with materials. They need to be ready to capture the questions and curiosity of children and help them design more engaging and complex (aka “real”) inquiries. Children should leave school everyday with questions and come back the next with more questions and maybe some ideas for further inquiries. Maybe they’ll even come back with evidence to support some idea they’ve had.

I don’t want to do a complete analysis and critique, but there is another confounding point I must discuss. Ecology only receives superficial treatment and a very poor one at that. Ecology appears briefly in kindergarten, grades 2 and 3, middle school, and barely in high school. Ecology should be the central focus.

Although they mention cycles and interdependent relationships, they keep emphasizing linear cause and effect processes. Ecosystems are “complex systems,” and they interact with a number of human social—political—economic systems, which are also complex systems. Complex systems do not have linear cause and effect relationships. They are unpredictable and self-maintaining systems. To discuss these systems as if they were mechanical systems and to dissect them into parts (which they do) is yet another abomination.

And then, in a high school section, what does this standard “sound like” to you?

HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

This standard appears under the category of Human Sustainability.

To me, it sounds like a side-step to the issue that current climate change is due to human activity. It reverses the statement to how climate change influenced human activity. What? If one was studying early humankind this may be an interesting question. But, in a contemporary high school, this standard is an abomination to the integrity of science and scientific inquiry.

I think the science education community has lost its integrity. It’s sold its soul to the corporate oligarchy. Look at the standards. Every section throughout deals with technology and engineering. And, they make a concerted effort to align with the highly flawed Common Core (SEE my earlier posts about Common Core: The “Common Core” of Ignorance; More on the Common Core: Who Decides?; & The Common Core Standards – Keeping Our Kids Dumb).

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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