Prior to the 1920s, physics and chemistry were the two dominant science courses in U.S. high schools. They were “precollege” requirements, needed before acceptance to schools such as Harvard University. Every high school wanted its students to be admissible to the top colleges, so they offered courses in physics and chemistry. Dozens of other courses in the public school curricula – including health, hygiene, nutrition, agriculture, home economics, manual training, physical exercise, nature studies, cell theory, and human anatomy – were ultimately combined in the category of “Biology.” By the 1980s, biology had become the third science course in most high schools.
Since World War II, U.S. schools have typically included biology as a 10th-grade class, along with physics and chemistry for 11th- and 12th-graders. As the 20th century concluded, biology was often the only science course required for graduation from high school. Students were interested in biology and nature studies, but biology was taught, too often, in a teacher-centered fashion. Students were frequently asked to remember the content of textbooks, laboratory manuals, and lectures without any opportunity to focus on personal explorations and explanations of nature. This was done in spite of the continual plea that we must encourage more student experiences in the actual “doing” of science and focus less on remembering what has been done. After all, biology is a subject that even preschool children have explored on their own through interactions with the natural world. Students typically “do” biology even before they enter formal classrooms.
National Science Education Standards
In 1996 we saw the first major nationally focused reform of science education with the release of the National Science Education Standards (NSES), which provided major emphasis on how teaching should change in our schools. One of the crucial elements of the NSES was their definition of inquiry, or the “doing” of science. Science was not merely information provided by scientists and included in textbooks for students to remember. It was a place where scientists even found their own mistakes.
There were nine features included in biology courses that were designed to encourage students to be “doers” and not just “onlookers,” including a focus on student understanding and use of information, core ideas, and inquiry-based learning. These meant having students engaged in “active and extended inquiries as well as opportunities for discussion and debate among students” and “the sharing of responsibility for learning with students,” all of which indicate hallmarks of inquiry instruction.
The World of STEM
Science educators now live in a world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This STEM perspective is especially noteworthy because of the major funding initiatives, along with political and even public interest and support for it. While STEM has varying definitions, some suggest that STEM should be the vehicle that ignores the boundaries separating the four science disciplines and gives students increased opportunities to engage in the actual “Doing of Science” – encouraging student-centeredness. This means less attention on teacher-centeredness, as long as understanding of the individual disciplines do not get lost along the way.
Biology has enjoyed a relatively brief history as one science discipline. It has provided closer ties to the new STEM reform efforts of 2015. It is amazing to see “STEM” as having more meaning personally while also illustrating research that is labeled “Biology.”
Next Generation Science Standards
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been proposed by a consortium of states to be adopted widely, across state lines, to replace the NSES. In spite of the promises of the NGSS, there are some problems. First, the 41 individuals responsible for preparing the NGSS were well qualified in terms of their general credentials, but the team included only five experienced science-education researchers. Probably only a few on the writing team knew of the NSTA's “What Research Says to the Science Teacher” publications. Second, the developers seemed unconcerned about teaching; instead, they spent time adding interesting, but ultimately not particularly useful, elements such as “Crosscutting Science Concepts and Core Ideas Also Regarding Technology and Engineering.” Even the Core Concepts are offered without any focus on how to teach. These new standards do not relate to anything in the daily lives of students. The NGSS do not include student explorations, nor do they address societal issues. Still another problem with the NGSS is that they do not encourage student-centered learning. The focus of the NGSS has no relationship with actually “doing” science and including that goal as a major purpose for science education. This stands in direct opposition to the strong inquiry focus found in the NSES. The creators of the NGSS chose to use the term “practices” (because inquiry was too hard to define?). “Practices” might refer to the work of police or lawyers, but not to the teaching of science! Does this mean that we no longer value exploration, explanation, and inquiry?
Beyond the Acronyms
For decades, I and many other science educators have advocated a view of teaching with a focus more on students and less on simple concepts and core ideas. Certainly, we need to help teachers understand and address reforms such as those included in the NGSS. However, we must approach all such reforms critically and use what is appropriate from them while pushing harder for even more appropriate recommendations.
As is often the case, perhaps the best approach is one that looks backward and forward at the same time by keeping what makes sense even as we embrace new ideas. The NSES wisely advocated inquiry as the dominant instructional focus. The NGSS do contain an updated set of important Core Ideas that are generally worth knowing. Some increased “discipline integration,” as advocated by some STEM approaches, makes good sense for bridging the important disciplines of mathematics and science for exploration of nature, including technology and engineering concepts that address personal, “real-life” problems.
A hybrid of old and new parts of NSES, STEM, and NGSS makes the most sense for guiding science teaching in the future. No standards document can be perfect, no new teaching orientations should be accepted uncritically, and – most importantly – no student should be forgotten in the hurry to throw out the old in the quest for the new. The real-world applications and inherent student interests already present in the discipline of biology make it an ideal school subject for this union of ideas and recommendations. We must continually remind ourselves that both what we teach and how we teach are important only when we consider who we teach!