Teaching Science

an introduction to Hillsdale College’s approach to teaching science in the K-12 years

Science has become a focal point for K-12 education reform. Scientific knowledge has long been esteemed as important and trustworthy in American culture, and we seem to place a higher value on scientific literacy than on any other form of cultural literacy. Politicians and policy makers focus evermore on the critical importance of getting the so-called STEM fields right. So while some fields of study (e.g., Latin, art, and music) are fighting to avoid being left out of the conversation—and the curriculum—the STEM fields are being trumpeted as most vital to education. But why?

The motivation is almost always about jobs. It is unusual to hear a politician talk about science education without making a direct connection to the skills necessary to secure a job. The idea is that technical knowledge holds the key to economic progress, ergo education should focus on the STEM fields. This very utilitarian approach is woefully inadequate to the fields of scientific inquiry and ultimately fails our children. Science should not be studied primarily for the acquisition of technical skills and knowledge intended to be put to use for economic means. Science education is much more, much richer and deeper, than just preparing students to work in the global economy.

Hillsdale’s free online course, “The Great Principles of Chemistry,” pursues a deeper appreciation and understanding of the material world through an examination of the history, principles, and major discoveries of chemistry.

Science should be approached with respect and wonder at the knowledge that has been gained. We are right to be impressed, even overwhelmed, by how well we have come to know our universe. But this must be tempered with an understanding of the limits of science. The methods of the natural sciences are limited to consideration of only certain kinds of experience and are not well suited to exploration of all truth. In fact, the great success of science in the ongoing project of understanding the history and structure of the physical world has been realized by limiting its ambitions to addressing only physical phenomena —and limiting itself further to specific material, formal, and efficient explanations of physical phenomena. So science is an important part of the human account of reality.

In education, we should point children to what is good, true, and beautiful. Understanding the natural world plays a significant, but not exhaustive, part in that. Therefore, our primary motivation for including science within the classical curriculum is that it contributes to understanding ourselves and our surroundings. Science is not an austere, foolproof method for acquiring factual truth, but is one of several important disciplines in the search for truth. As such, science is complementary to the humanities in that they study different dimensions of truth and are both necessary to provide a satisfactory account of reality.

The modern view of science education is warped in part because the scientific enterprise has become a victim of its own success. Systematic investigation of the natural world over the past 300 years has yielded a staggering amount of understanding and control of nature. The enterprise has been more powerful than anyone could have imagined. How should we respond to the acquisition of so much knowledge and power? Some have been so impressed by science as to conclude that the methods of the natural sciences are the only reliable way to acquire factual knowledge. In other words, they view science as the only real source of truth. Others have in equal measure grown suspicious of science due to perceived conflicts with their religious or political views. They have come to distrust science, fearing that as the sphere of scientific knowledge grows, the spheres of religious or political knowledge shrink. Both of these temptations should be avoided.

The first distinctive aspect of science at a classical school is then scientific knowledge for its own sake—knowledge of the physical world is inherently worthwhile, regardless of whether or not it allows us to do anything. This is not a special rationale for studying science that is separate from the other liberal arts, but rather science fits well into a program that respects and seeks knowledge for its own sake and is an essential aspect of that endeavor. Second, science at a classical academy should be characterized by a spirit of excellence and rigor. The high standards of conduct and hard work that are part of a classical school should extend to the science curriculum, starting in the early grades. Many elementary schools give lip-service to science while covering very little actual content; in a classical school, a content-rich curriculum should begin in elementary school and continue through high school graduation, including attention at all levels to both the content of science and also the rigor in observation and experiment that are its natural modes. In the youngest grades, students especially need to learn the attention to detail, careful work, and careful observation skills necessary to excel in science.

The third distinctive characteristic of science in a classical school is that study should be steeped in historical context, including the reading of primary sources. This is important for three reasons. First, it provides necessary context for learning scientific information. The personalities, circumstances (personal and political), friendships, rivalries, and lucky accidents of scientists allow for a narrative quality to be brought to science instruction. Science can be taught as well-told stories. Second, historical context allows students to begin to develop an accurate picture of how science progresses. They see that new understanding requires persistence, passion, and time. They see that revolutionary breakthroughs are infrequent occurrences. They see that the actual practice of science is subtler than the simplified account of the scientific method that is typically presented in school. Third, historical context allows students to appreciate science as a human endeavor, one in which they can participate. A scientist is not necessarily a mysterious and distant person in a lab coat mechanically performing experiments. A scientist is not necessarily an eccentric genius. A scientist is a person who is curious about how the world works, and is subject to the same personality flaws, mistakes, loyalties, etc. as a student.

The fourth distinctive aspect of a classical approach to science is that it includes some philosophy of science. This does not mean teaching directly on the philosophy of science in science lessons, but it does mean that students will be taught to recognize the limitations of science. They will learn to see that there are certain questions (e.g., of beauty or morality) that are not best addressed by the scientific method. They will also develop a healthy skepticism in which they become practiced at evaluating truth claims based on scientific evidence (e.g., claims pertaining to health or the environment). Finally, science instruction in a classical school should have a strong focus on reading and writing. Students will learn that scientific findings are communicated primarily through clear and concise writing, and so precise, well-written observations and explanations will be expected of them.

From the combined effect of the science curriculum, students should learn that we live in an orderly (albeit complex) and intelligible universe that can be understood through careful, systematic investigation. They should also realize that science is a part of the innate human desire to know and understand, closely related to big questions that humans have always asked about the nature of reality.

From the combined effect of the science curriculum, students should learn that we live in an orderly (albeit complex) and intelligible universe that can be understood through careful, systematic investigation. They should also realize that science is a part of the innate human desire to know and understand, closely related to big questions that humans have always asked about the nature of reality.

A serious study of science begins in early elementary school and builds toward mastery in the upper school grades. When a student graduates from a classical charter school, our goal is for them to have an accurate understanding of the fundamental content: the models, theories, and laws of biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. They should also have an accurate understanding of the process of science, achieved through personal lab experience and historical study. They should have a deep appreciation for science—this is not to say that we try to recruit future college science majors, but rather that each student is moved and impressed by their study of science regardless of their primary academic interests. Finally, graduates should develop indispensable academic skills through their study of science. They should develop into clear and concise writers and speakers, be able to perform careful experiments and observations, and learn excellent problem solving skills.

A classical school science curriculum begins in the elementary grades with a content rich program covering important ideas in the natural sciences in a coherent and orderly way. This approach to science seeks to avoid both early specialization (study for career preparation) and disordered or purposeless generalization. By developing background knowledge and skills in the early grades, we can push students to high achievement in science during their middle and upper school years. By focusing on knowledge for its own sake, we can maintain enthusiasm for science throughout primary and secondary education, fostering curiosity and wonder, encouraging hard and careful work, and molding deep thinkers on their way to being liberally educated citizens.

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