kirschner-ED

How do you repair something that’s broken? Do the same thing that broke it.

Unencumbered by the thought process: Tom and Ray Magliozzii, Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, Car Talk

The title of this blog seems to me to be the motto of the “Consensus Study Report of the National Academies of ScienceEngineeringMedicine”.

This report begins ominously with the opening sentence:

Science is an essential tool for solving the greatest problems of our time and understanding the world around us. Scientific thinking and understanding are essential for all people navigating the world, not just for scientists and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals.

Science isn’t a discipline, a knowledge domain, or any such thing. It’s a tool. Scientific knowledge isn’t “essential for all people navigating the world”, but rather “scientific thinking and understanding”! And this while we know that to understand something and think critically, creatively or however about it, we need knowledge about it and domain-specific skills in it.

They continue:

Our vision for K-16 science education is that every student experiences the joy and wonder of science, learns how science can be used to solve local and global problems, sees the pathways they can take into science-related careers, and feels welcomed and valued in science classrooms. This vision is grounded in decades of research on effective teaching and learning.

Their vision is not that all children K-16 get a fundamental knowledge of what the different STEM subjects have to offer nor that can use this knowledge to develop the skills necessary to understand the world around them or to discriminate between fact and fiction. It’s rather – oh Rousseau – to experience joy and wonder. It isn’t to gain the knowledge and skills to solve local and global problems, but rather learn how it can be used to solve those problems. And then, as a cherry on the whipped cream on the pie, this vision is, in their words, grounded in decades of effective teaching and learning. A perusal of the references shows that this wealth of research is nowhere to be found!

The study comes with seven recommendations. Most salient for me is what is in recommendation 2:

Accountability for science should focus on students gaining conceptual understanding of science and should not be based on single tests. It should involve a system of assessments and indicators that together provide results that complement each other and provide information about the progress of schools, districts, and states.

I have three bones to pick here. First, accountability should not be on “gaining conceptual understanding” but rather on gaining knowledge and skills and then and only then making the step towards demonstrating conceptual understanding. Second, we see here the beginning of the setting up of the perfect straw man which is then further built up in the rest of the report, namely that accountability should not be based on single tests. Throughout the report, we see this and terms like rote learning, simple memorisation, and so forth presented as if this is what good explicit instruction entails. The so-called progressive approach espoused here is placed diametrically opposite the straw man of explicit instruction being nothing but lecturing, chalk-and-talk, memorisation, and multiple-choice tests. What century are the commission members living in? Under what rock? Finally, apparently, their mixed-bag of assessments (they don’t anywhere discuss what these assessments are and their reliability or validity) will “provide information about the progress of schools, districts, and states” instead of what the student has learned, how the student is progressing, etc.

At a certain point, I begin to question whether I have read and interpreted the report correctly when I read:

For students to develop foundational knowledge and competency in science, they will need to have access to high-quality learning experiences focused on science. Activities that integrate across the STEM disciplines can be motivating, but they cannot replace high-quality science instruction for all students to help them understand the practices and principles of the discipline.

But my hope that I misinterpreted the report is dashed to smithereens when a page later I read:

To provide high-quality teaching and learning in science, our nation, states, and communities must reframe the way they think about students from kindergarten through college. Students do not learn best by passively soaking up bits of information and then regurgitating it through multiple-choice tests and other simple measures designed to assess factual knowledge. Rather, from the earliest ages, children and youth are actively working to make sense of the world. They are capable of asking questions, gathering data, evaluating evidence, and generating new insights, just as professional scientists do.

How many times does good empirical science need to show that this is pure claptrap?! While kids are/might be capable of asking questions, they definitely can’t gather good and useful data, evaluate evidence and generate new insights the way that scientists do. Derek Hodson[1] taught us that scientists do science and learners learn science, and thus, as I wrote in 1991 and then again in 2009[2], that the epistemology of the expert (the scientist) is not, should not, and cannot be the pedagogy for the novice learning science. Micki Chi, Paul Feltovich, and Bob Glaser[3] showed us unequivocally that learners aren’t little experts who just know less. David Ausubel[4] and others taught us that prior knowledge is the most important fact when it comes to acquiring new knowledge. And again, the straw man is set up in that the alternative for this incredible progressive, child-centred, romantic approach to learning is “passively soaking up bits of information and then regurgitating it through multiple-choice tests and other simple measures designed to assess factual knowledge”. Sorry, but I feel like regurgitating my lunch and not facts here.

Yes, and then the analogy:

If a person wants to learn to play the trumpet, they need to blow air into it, figure out how to position their lips on the mouthpiece, and what valves to press to produce the right sounds. They need to experiment and discover, not read about trumpet playing in a book. The same applies to learning science. Reading about science in a book, listening to someone talk about it, or memorizing key terms will not get the job done.

No! No! NO! If a person wants to learn to play the trumpet, bend a football (soccer ball for Americans) around a wall of defenders, bake a cake or whatever they need a good instructor with good instructions otherwise they will spend hours playing with mouthpieces and valves, kicking the ball into the line of defenders, or using baking soda or yeast in cakes that don’t rise, all with the eventual conclusion that they weren’t cut out to play the instrument, take free kicks, or bake, with its accompanying demotivation and disillusion.

And then again the decades-old progressive trope:

The vision for science education outlined in the Framework differs in important ways from how science has traditionally been taught. It emphasizes engaging students in using the tools and practices of science and engineering and providing them with opportunities to explore phenomena and problems that are relevant to them and to their communities.

First off, cut the crap. Science teaching in the United States has been modelled since the 1960s on a progressive approach. A good discussion of this can be found in Rich Mayer’s article[5] ‘Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction’, not to mention the article that I wrote with John Sweller and Dick Clark[6] on ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching“. Engaging students in the tools and practices… has never and will never teach them the science they need. As close as one can come to this is the 1:1 apprenticeship model in the guild system with one master and one apprentice and where even there, much time was spent on the tuition of the apprentice by the master before the apprentice was allowed to ruin a nice piece of woodworking on a lathe. Also, as I wrote here, this progressive approach is so old, we can now rightly call it traditional and now get really progressive by actually teaching science!

And the BS and rhetoric just keeps going on and on and on:

In the same way, students across elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education need opportunities to do the things that scientists do: pose questions, carry out investigations, analyze data, draw evidence-based conclusions, and communicate results in various ways. They need to engage with scientific phenomena and, as scientists do, debate with peers to develop the conceptual understanding of science that leads to factual understanding as well.

Science should also be meaningful and relevant to students so that they no longer ask, “What does this have to do with my life?” In the classrooms we envision, students will be able to make connections between the experiences they have in their homes and communities and the content they are learning in science. When educators limit science teaching to a set of facts to be memorized, they subvert students’ natural inclination to grapple with problems that are real to them. Meaningful science experiences that provide opportunities for students to explore questions they are passionate about foster the development of critical thinking and scientific skills, reinforce that science is relevant to students’ daily lives, and inspire them to consider science-related fields as career paths.

And what about teachers? Yes, the report does say that they need knowledge, but that they also need to “be fluent in the pedagogy [read here, progressive, enquiry based approaches: Paul] of effective science instruction, including how to promote the success of culturally and linguistically diverse students in the context of science

Effective teachers of science understand that their job is not merely to impart knowledge but rather provide opportunities for students to build their knowledge through problem solving and experimentation. In their classrooms, students learn by doing. Teachers play a key role as facilitators of small teams of student scientists working to conduct investigations, gather evidence, and discuss and debate with team mates what conclusions they can draw from the evidence. They know how to set up open-ended investigations through which students may arrive at and debate different conclusions that are always based on logical reasoning, evidence, and analysis. They recognize that communication in all forms is an essential part of science, and that in addition to teaching science, they are building critical communication skills.

How about knowing how people learn and how that influences how they instruct and why? How about knowing other pedagogical techniques which lead to effective, efficient and enjoyable learning? This is ruled out in the next sentence of the report:

Effective teaching practice does not come about by accident… This includes knowledge of science, an initial foundation in effective student-centered pedagogy [emphasis is mine] in science, and culturally and linguistically responsive practice, even for teachers of science in higher education.

In the Netherlands, we call this staatspedagogiek (state determined pedagogy). And what is the apparent goal of this all? Apparently it’s not learning science, but rather achieving student-centred practice:

While instructors also used some class time for group work, posing questions, and student writing, even flexible classroom layouts and small course sizes did not necessarily lead to an increase in these or other student-centered practices [emphasis is mine]. This suggests that multiple changes, likely including pedagogical training, are needed to raise the quality of teaching

And these butterflies who apparently forgot that they were once caterpillars want to rob the following generations of STEM knowledge and skills from the beginning:

In elementary school—starting in kindergarten—ensuring students spend sufficient time learning science each week is essential. Even the youngest children are capable of engaging in science investigations.

through high school:

As students move into all types of postsecondary settings, they will need continued access to student-centered, nonlecture-based instruction, and to facilities and resources that allow frequent opportunities to conduct scientific investigations and engage in small-group discussions.

And let’s not leave out the teacher/teaching straw man. We must not only indoctrinate new teachers, we must also re-educate veteran ones so that they all can teach in an ineffective and inefficient way so as to non-educate kids in what science actually is.

Starting in preservice, K-12 teachers need opportunities to learn about, try out, and refine instructional strategies for engaging students actively in science. These instructional strategies require a different set of skills and knowledge than traditional lecture and text-based approaches, so even veteran teachers may need additional learning opportunities.

I could continue to rant about this, but as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers would say, I’ve taken my pill and I’ll calm down. Speaking of them, I think I can use their election slogan from years ago: This report definitely is “not encumbered by the thought process”!


[1]     Hodson, D. (1985). Philosophy of science, science and science education. Studies in Science Education, 12, 25–57.
Hodson, D. (1988). Experiments in science and science teaching. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 20, 53–66.

[2]     Kirschner, P. A. (2009). Epistemology or pedagogy, that is the question. In S. Tobias & T. M. Duffy. Constructivist instruction: Success or failure? (pp. 144-157).New York: Routledge.

[3]     Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P. J., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 5, 121–152.

[4]     Ausubel, D. P. (1964). Some psychological and educational limitations of learning by discovery. The Arithmetic Teacher, 11, 290–302.

[5]     Mayer R.(2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14–19..

[6]     Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86.

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