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A Commentary on the Profound Changes Envisioned by the National Science Standards

by John C. Wright & Carol S. Wright - 1998

The national standards for science education set the goal for all students to attain scientific literacy, but they do not specify how to reach that goal. This article seeks to achieve a clearer understanding of scientific literacy from the viewpoint of a university faculty member. For scientific literacy, it is essential that all students acquire more than mere knowledge and appreciation of science. They must also develop a “can-do?attitude and effective problem-solving skills and apply them in their everyday lives. These attitudes and skills require inquiry experiences at all grade levels, and it is crucial for university faculty to provide similar experiences for our future teachers. Attaining those skills requires student control over their own learning if they are to have ownership. Successful curriculum reform requires changes in the attitudes and traditions that shape how students, faculty, and parents perceive the learning process. The article concludes with the question whether there are still crucial questions to answer before the foundations are strong enough to support massive systemic reform.

The national standards for science education set the goal for all students to attain scientific literacy, but they do not specify how to reach that goal. This article seeks to achieve a clearer understanding of scientific literacy from the viewpoint of a university faculty member. For scientific literacy, it is essential that all students acquire more than mere knowledge and appreciation of science. They must also develop a “can-do” attitude and effective problem-solving skills and apply them in their everyday lives. These attitudes and skills require inquiry experiences at all grade levels, and it is crucial for university faculty to provide similar experiences for our future teachers. Attaining those skills requires student control over their own learning if they are to have ownership. Successful curriculum reform requires changes in the attitudes and traditions that shape how students, faculty, and parents perceive the learning process. The article concludes with the question whether there are still crucial questions to answer before the foundations are strong enough to support massive systemic reform.

The goal of this article is to provide a commentary on the national standards for science education from the viewpoint of a faculty member who teaches in the physical sciences at a major research university. The commentary is directed toward Senta Raizen’s paper, Standards for Science Education (1991)) the National Research Council’s (NRC) National Science Education Standards (1996)) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993). Our first observation is that the standards are brilliant. The standards represent a complete and deep framework of goals that will profoundly change the capabilities of our society if they are reached, and they can be reached. However, severe problems may impede the attainment of these goals. The most severe problem is embedded in the mechanism for reaching these goals. In order to reach the goals, the educational community that created the problems must be involved in their solution. The standards call for a systemic reform of the educational process, but the implementation of the reforms requires a change in attitudes and expectations. Attitudes and expectations are the result of past experiences and our understanding of how society expects things to be done. Changing attitudes and expectations is among the most difficult things an individual can be asked to do. The individual must ask in his or her soul:

Why should I change?

How do I change?

Can I change?

Will the change bring success?

These are the central questions for each individual involved in the educational system. However, the standards do little to address any of them. The standards are focused only on the goals, the definition of what success is.

The standards purposely do not help the individual understand how to accomplish the goals. They intend systemic reform to use a bootstrap approach. To achieve scientific literacy in students, teachers must change the nature of the learning experience so that it incorporates scientific inquiry and self-discovery. The NRC standards recognize that teachers themselves must be scientifically literate if they are to succeed in modeling a scientific approach to problems. However, teachers were once students who were taught in ways that did not foster scientific literacy. Consequently, systemic reform requires that both teachers and students reach scientific literacy concurrently. The NRC standards recognize correctly that this problem is so fundamental that change will occur slowly and will require great patience. Since we are an impatient society, there needs to be a clear vision of what scientific literacy means and what it will look like when we reach it. If this vision is not clear, there will be no answers to the questions, Why should I change? and Will the change bring success? If we do not see or experience any models of successful reform that reify educational reform for us, we will not be able to answer the questions, How do I change? and Can I change? (Reify will be used extensively in this article. Its definition is “making the abstract concrete.” Reification plays a central role in Judy Roitman’s discussion of the mathematics standards.) If it is clear to people that change will benefit them as individuals, they will be willing to participate in the struggle. However, there is a limited window in which to discover a personal vision before patience is lost and the systemic reform effort becomes just another educational fad.

A number of points will be developed in this article, and they all focus on the definition of what must be done to implement the standards successfully. First, the grain size of the systemic reform standards is purposely large (Raizen, 1997) in order to ensure that disagreement over details does not obscure the important ideas behind what must be accomplished. However, this large grain contains the seeds for the demise of the reform effort because failure to appreciate the exact nature of what the standards intend will result in programs that do not attain the profound changes in skills and attitudes that are necessary for students. In particular, the standards do not define the problem they are trying to solve, nor do they define scientific literacy with the precision required for implementation in a classroom. This article attempts to provide a clearer understanding of how the framers of the standards would define scientific literacy, which is their central goal. It argues that, in addition to the normal teaching of content, concepts, skills, and appreciation for the beauty and power of science, student experiences must both reify the curriculum and make fundamental changes in the attitudes and skills that are at the heart of scientific literacy for students. This article will further argue that a central problem of systemic reform is adjusting the relative amount of control and freedom that must be present in all student classrooms, including those in colleges and universities that not only teach our future teachers but also should be teaching our current teachers. It concludes with a question of whether we are ready to engineer a massive systemic reform or whether there are still crucial questions that must be answered before the foundations are strong enough to support massive systemic reform.


One of the key ideas a successful researcher learns is that the first and most important step in performing original scientific work is to define the problem clearly. It is therefore particularly striking that, although both the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the NRC standards describe the problem of scientific literacy as their central focus, neither really defines the problem it is trying to solve, nor does it define the scientific literacy it is trying to attain. Definitions are not given in fundamental terms that suggest an understanding of how to implement the solutions or how to recognize solutions.

Senta Raizen (1997) quoted a state mathematics supervisor “One of the brilliant characteristics of the Curriculum Standards is that the grain size is big enough that the bullets are not damaging” (p. 67).” The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) clearly defines the goals that must be achieved by all concerned, but they do not define many of the details that are required to put those standards into practice. Although this approach draws broad support for systemic reform, the framers of the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) postpone the difficult implementation issues where the different participants might not agree at all. Although the standards provide many examples of curriculum materials, they still do not define the details required to implement the standards in a classroom or the assessments needed to document student success. As with the Rorschach test, faculty will see different messages about the goals and attitudes underlying the framing of the standards. They will always possess their own perceptions of what scientific literacy is. This large-grained approach provides the freedom to develop an implementation to match the needs of local districts, and it represents a strength of the standards. However, for the vision of systemic reform to be clear, it is crucial to establish models that show the educational enterprise how to attain the standards and provide credible assessment of student success. If the vision is not clear, the implementation will fail.

There are two predominant definitions of a scientifically literate person:

1. A person who possesses reasonable knowledge of the scientific concepts that control the world and of the scientific issues that the typical citizen faces and who also possesses an appreciation for the beauty and power of science, mathematics, and technology.

2. A person with knowledge and appreciation of science, the attitudes and problem-solving skills that typify scientists, and the inclination and ability to apply those qualities in his or her everyday life.

The second definition represents a far more ambitious goal. Many educators think it is unattainable. The definition we choose should be the one whose attainment solves the problem perceived by parents, educators, business leaders, and politicians. Better yet, it is the definition that maximizes human development. If we have not precisely defined the problem, we cannot define what we expect of a scientifically literate populace. We must also realize that our secondary school teachers will acquire the attitudes and skills that reflect the definition we choose and that they will teach toward that definition.

The most important task for our definition of scientific competence is to determine the depth and breadth of student accomplishment that meets the baseline standards and the teaching approach that is needed to realize them. Whom are we teaching? Future scientists? or all students? Are we teaching all students at the same depth? Should all students have experience with exercises requiring more sophisticated problem-solving skills, or will experience with one-step problems where novice strategies work be sufficient? Should all students be exposed to problems requiring abstract thoughts, or should those problems be given only to excellent students as challenges? Do the baseline standards require only that students appreciate the richness and excitement of the natural world, or must students be involved in scientific inquiry deeply enough that they actually experience the logical thinking of a scientist? Do the standards aim for incremental improvements in our school systems, or do they aim for profound changes in the ways our children think? Are science courses teaching only science, or are the skills learned in science applicable to the everyday lives of everyone? Since educators hold different ideas on what students are capable of learning and what the objectives of education should be, their individual viewpoints will provide different answers to these questions. Perhaps the defining criterion should be, What must we do to maximize human development?

Objective reading of both the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the NRC standards leaves little doubt about the views of their framers. They both set the reform goal as the attainment of scientific literacy by all students. National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) defines scientific literacy as being able to

● experience the satisfaction of understanding the natural world

● use scientific thinking in making personal decisions

● participate intelligently in societal decisions on science and technology

● attain the skills and knowledge that are required for being productive in our current and future economies. (p. 13)

This last statement makes it clear that the writers of the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) are optimistic about the ability of all students to master science. The standards state that business requires even entry-level workers to have the ability to learn, reason, and think creatively, to make decisions, and to solve problems that learning science can provide (p. 12). Workers should have the skills required to solve the problems given to them without constantly returning to ask, “What do I do next?” The standards speak of creating a community of scholars and lifelong learners. These goals require a profound change in student attitudes. In both sets of standards, a central strategy for attaining literacy is to engage students in meaningful inquiry, including experiments requiring inquiry over extended periods of time, so students experience the highs and lows of success and failure that characterize authentic problem-solving. Novice problem-solving strategies fail whenever authentic problems are encountered because there are always unanticipated consequences that become readily apparent when students put simplistic ideas into practice (Schoenfeld, 1987). The need to plan is never so much appreciated as when students have to repeat work because they purposely decide to “go for it” without planning, only to find problems that could have been anticipated. Genuine inquiry brings the perspective and insights to scientific ideas that are necessary if the ideas are to become part of a person’s usable knowledge and skills (Newmann, 1991). Inquiry, which is central to the process of reification, is a central feature of the standards.

It is crucial to recognize the importance of mathematics, science, and technology to the development of student’s abilities and attitudes. Science is the one subject area in our schools that encourages concrete action. Not only do children enjoy it, but they also have the opportunity to transform thoughts into action with their own hands and initiative. The successful completion of a project can be very rewarding, because students have the opportunity to own their accomplishments. They also have the opportunity to fail and discover what to do next. Unfortunately, there are few other places in the curriculum where students experience these attitudes and skills. Students will face countless problems during their lives, and we would all like our students to be able to master them. Will they have the confidence and experience to take on important problems, or will they react emotionally and say the problems tire bigger than they can handle? Will they have the discipline to gather the facts carefully, define the problems, and plan solutions, or will they act impulsively and try something, anything? Will they think critically about what the experts are telling them, or will they accept recommendations without question? Will they exercise good judgment about working cooperatively with others, or will they do the entire task themselves? Will they be paralyzed by small problems, or can they be counted on to think and exercise initiative? Successful people have experiences that give them the confidence to tackle challenges. They know how long to spend on a problem and when to get help. They have a “can-do” attitude. Is this attitude inherited, or can it be learned? If it can be learned, can it be taught in our schools?

The answers to these questions are clear to the framers of the standards. They expect that successful implementation of the standards will provide the experiences and develop the attitudes that all students will need for success in life. This vision is very different from what most people think science courses are intended to do. Traditionally, science courses are intended to develop the chosen few who will become scientists and provide the remaining multitudes with enough insight that they will have a basic understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Where is the can-do attitude developed for the multitudes? If one looks at the possibilities in the core curriculum, there are not many subjects that potentially offer the same depth that mathematics, science; and technology can provide. It is a remarkable and sad, but true, fact that many people have found that participation on sports teams has instilled the attitudes required for success. Perhaps it is in only sports that students have the meaningful experiences that give them the insights into the attitudes that foster success. One need only observe the permeation of our business and political vocabulary with sports terms to understand the close relationship between the attitudes required for professional success and sports. Perhaps that direct connection between extracurriculars and success in life is responsible for the 60 percent of citizens who think that extracurriculars deserve their emphasis and resources in contrast to the 35 percent who think that money should be diverted to academics (Toch et al., 1996). Would it not be wonderful if the new standards caused intellectual fulfillment and sense of accomplishment to displace some of the intellectually less meaningful experiences? The lessons of success and failure, the lessons of teamwork, and the lessons of meaning can be taught outside of sports if we bring authentic scientific experiences to our students.


If the skills and attitudes learned through scientific inquiry and problem solving can play central roles in a person’s everyday life, how do we design an educational strategy that will create an environment where those skills and attitudes are learned? There are probably many answers to this question: problem-based learning, cooperative and collaborative learning, discovery-based learning, mastery learning, topic-oriented approaches, holistic education, and so forth. Despite the multitude of possible approaches, the standards make it clear that successful strategies must contain some common central elements. Two of these elements merit special consideration because they are so central to the success of the systemic-reform initiative.


Science, technology, and mathematics are powerful vehicles to develop students’ abilities to connect the concrete world around them with the abstractions that allow them to see connections and make the generalizations necessary for creativity, perspective, understanding significance, and seeing the big picture in their everyday experiences. These abilities have their roots in reification. It is the key idea in Judith Roitman’s paper in this issue on mathematical standards. A central failing in our current educational system is that, although our students have learned the definitions, algorithms, and facts that define science and mathematics, reification has not occurred. The definitions, algorithms, and facts remain isolated and have not been incorporated into everyday skills. They do not spring from memory when a creative insight is required or a new situation is encountered. Students do not have ownership. Our lower-level courses are ineffective if reification has not occurred. Reification is a central goal of the standards; it essentially defines scientific literacy. It is the foundation for common sense about how the world works that we find abundantly in the people we need for leaders. Its attainment requires schools to provide inquiry experiences in mathematics, science, and technology at all grade levels, and it is crucial for university faculty to ensure that these experiences continue at the undergraduate level as well.

One of the central beauties of the national standards is that they include mathematics, science, and technology. A tragic failure, especially of the NRC National Science Education Standards (1996), is the lack of integration between mathematics and science in the structure of the standards and their examples. Although the standards do explicitly include coordination of the mathematics and science curricula as standard C in the program standards, the examples and descriptions in the content standards and professional development standards contain only superficial connections. To reify student experiences successfully, it is crucial to integrate mathematics, science, and technology. The integration should not be done at the expense of mathematical rigor. It is difficult for most students to attain mastery of the abstract mathematical and scientific concepts because they are not concrete or intuitive. Content standards build the experiences necessary to master abstract concepts as students progress through the educational program. The elementary grades provide students with concrete experiences that will develop an intuition for what happens in the world. Technology is introduced in these early grades in the form of building projects. There is no better way to see how something works than to build and manipulate the levers, gears, chains, and so forth, in a real machine or device. Progressing from technology to science increases the level of abstraction that is required. Scientific examples are introduced after the technological ones; first the concrete and then the abstract. The factors that control many scientific effects have a larger mental component than machines. The number of atoms in a gas as well as their pressure, temperature, and volume are concrete and intuitive concepts, but their interrelationships require mental pictures. Technology, such as computer animation, can provide assistance in helping students form mental pictures that interrelate physical quantities, but they cannot substitute for the mental pictures that must form if reification is to occur. As one progresses, mathematics enters and the level of abstraction increases. Mathematics enters the curriculum to support scientific and technological experiences for two reasons: (1) it is the only way for students to understand the relationships that define many physical phenomena, and (2) it is important for students to develop the ability to master abstract ideas. Success at this stage opens the door to extending the abstraction to mathematical ideas that do not have explicit connections with the physical world but represent pure mathematics. In addition to the connection that science and technology have between concrete examples and the abstract ideas required to understand them, it is crucial for students to have experiences where the abstract ideas are first encountered and the concrete pictures are added as a way to understand the abstractions. As Judith Roitman observes, this extension gives the opportunity to teach how mental pictures can help in the reification of abstract mathematics. It also helps student understand how to handle complex systems where many factors interact. Not only must one comprehend how the individual parts work, but their interaction leads to new behaviors that are often crucial to the system’s operation. It is important for students to develop a perspective that includes the details of the individual components and the “big picture” that affects us.


Systemic reform is intended to be a sustainable revolution in the nature of the learning process. In order to be successful, it must result in fundamental changes not only in the attitudes and expectations of individual students, teachers, administrators, and parents, but also in the traditions of the society that feeds those attitudes and expectations. Changes in attitude and tradition are the most difficult to achieve because they require changes in the ways that individuals view the world. As previously noted, it is necessary for individuals to see the need for change, see how to change, believe that they can make that change, and be convinced that the change will profoundly improve their skills and attitudes. The changes should occur in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools.

It is clear to people who subscribe to systemic reform that the architects of the standards expect that the standards will result in this revolution if they are implemented successfully. Volumes have been written about current student attitudes and what must be done to change them (Tobias, 1990a, 1990b). All of the reform strategies assume that more responsibility for learning should transfer from the teachers to the students (Barr & Tagg, 1995; Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992; Heller, Keith, & Anderson, 1992; MacGregor, 1990). Our society has placed a high premium on providing our children with a safe and supportive environment that will teach them the lessons of life. With the best of intentions, we have tried to raise our children by anticipating their needs and telling them how to function successfully in the world so they will not have to experience the problems and failures we did. Consequently, most of students’ experiences are passive: they listen and the teachers teach; they watch and the media show and tell. When they arrive at a college or university, they expect the faculty to “make them learn” (Katz, 1996). They, and we, have believed that, if they go through the system and do as they are told, they will pop out the end of the pipeline as successes and have a good job waiting. Problem solving starts with looking at the textbook and notes, going to reference materials in the library, or checking the Internet for some place where the answer is available. If the course is being taught by a “good” teacher, he or she will have covered all of the important problems. If answers cannot be found, one finds an authority or a generally smart person who already knows the answer or can figure it out quickly. Hard problems are solved by putting the conditions into a computer and letting it chug through the work. If it does not work, we just need a more powerful computer. Thinking independently is far down the list of options for many students because they have little confidence that it will be successful. In fact, they expect to get only partial credit for almost anything they do in life.

In contrast to the NRC standards, the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) emphasizes the importance of student’s attitudes. In a separate chapter on habits of the mind, Benchmarks discusses the values, attitudes, and skills that define how students think and act and what students consider important in their lives. These habits of mind transcend the individual parts of the core curriculum and encompass a broader change in students than those associated with better problem-solving and thinking skills. There are a number of specific changes that are expected in Benchmarks:

● It states explicitly that to be scientifically literate, a student must have the knowledge; the quantitative, communication, manual, and critical response skills; and the attitudes and inclinations required to solve problems (pp. 282-283, emphasis added).

● It stresses the importance of linking quantitative and estimation skills with learning about the real world, so students develop intuitive feelings for what is reasonable (p. 288). Mathematics must be brought in at all grade levels when science, technology, social studies, health, physical education, and so forth, are taught. The results should be checked against estimates based on student intuition so real-world connections are made and students become accustomed to checking their results constantly throughout the problem-solving process.

● It emphasizes development of the manual and observational skills that connect the mind to the world (p. 292). These skills include measuring, repairing, troubleshooting mechanical and electrical devices, building structures, constructing devices, keeping notebooks, making electrical connections, taking things apart, and using common tools, audiovisual equipment, calculators, and computers.

● Finally, it states that scientifically literate adults respect and use the clear and accurate communication skills that are characteristic of scientific work. They should use, and expect others to be, quantitative in their assertions and arguments. They should recognize when vague and unsubstantiated arguments are used when quantitative ones are possible and relevant (p. 295).

Most importantly, these habits of thought are acquired only when students are personally engaged in scientific inquiry.

Even more significantly, the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) requires students to go beyond merely acquiring these ideas, skills, and attitudes. They require that all students are actually likely to use them and to make the necessary connections between them in new situations when it is appropriate. This expectation to use the lessons of science, mathematics, and technology in new contexts is one of best examples of how profound a change in student skills and attitudes is intended by Benchmarks. Why is such sophisticated mastery of scientific ideas expected from all students? Is it an actual expectation or simply an aberration that entered Benchmarks without broad support? The answer permeates one chapter in Benchmarks, where it is acknowledged that even though most students will not be scientists (p. 287) they must still internalize these mental strategies because they apply to everyday life:

● The scientific attitudes associated with critical thinking are particularly important in relation to medical, political, commercial, and technological claims. Individuals must make informed decisions about medical treatments. Parents must make decisions about when to seek medical attention for their children. Adults must decide whether a physician’s diagnosis of an elderly parent’s illness makes sense. Consumers must determine whether the salesperson, advertisement, or repair person is honest. Voters must determine which of the political arguments offers the best hope for the future. Managers must decide between two vendors of a product about which they do not have a clue. Do we ask questions and develop a picture that allows us to be part of the decision process, or do we give up and say we need a rocket scientist? Do we have the perspective and confidence to make choices intelligently?

● Everyday life involves quantities and numerical relationships. Although there are many situations where answers are known; more typically, however, they are not. It is important to be comfortable with the estimation process and have the common sense to judge whether something makes sense.

● Although students will rarely use scientific instruments, the products of modern society have become so sophisticated that a scientifically literate person will extend to those skills of his everyday life. In particular, it is expected that manipulative skills will unite with scientific and mathematical skills to help people solve problems and increase their understanding of how the world works throughout their lives. When something does not work, scientifically literate persons will have the judgment required either to fix it themselves, if it can be done with ordinary troubleshooting techniques, or to get the assistance of experts, if necessary.

It is easy to overlook or trivialize the message of this chapter in Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) if one does not believe that all students can attain these standards. It is crucial to recognize that the foundations of systemic reform are based on this very assumption. If it is false, the ideas underlying Benchmarks lose their meaning and importance.

National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) includes similar views on the attitudes and depth of skills that must be part of the standards. They are not discussed in a separate chapter, but the same ideas are integrated throughout the standards. These standards have the same goal of establishing high levels of scientific literacy for all people in the United States. They define scientific literacy as the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. Scientific literacy expects that a person can ask and answer questions that arise in their everyday lives. It expects people to describe, explain and even predict natural phenomena (p. 22). The NRC explain in the sections on teaching methods, professional development, and content standards that scientific literacy is developed by having students engage in scientific inquiry so they internalize depth of understanding, creativity, insights, judgment, logical skills, modeling, picture making, clear communication, skepticism, and discovery as well as the ability to work in groups, the ability to see alternative viewpoints, and the ability to monitor their progress and self-correct as necessary. They also expect that the emphasis on inquiry will give students the disposition to use the skills, abilities, and attitudes associated with science.

These goals are largely the same as those Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993). Interestingly, the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) does not explicitly state why all students are expected to engage in the depth required for meeting the standards. They do not make the same argument that scientific skills and attitudes are transferable to the everyday lives of everyone, but they emphasize the science context for skill development. This difference is puzzling. It suggests that the NRC standards do not hold the same expectation that problem-solving skills learned in the classroom will transfer to the everyday problems that individuals face in their lives and professions.

Another major difference between the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) is the central role of the teacher in the National Science Education Standards. The NRC standards recognize that even though every part of the system must be involved in systemic reform, the changes in teaching are the foundation for all change (p. 28). The way that teachers view science and technology and the way they view and understand their students and their students’ abilities deeply affect their approach and effectiveness. They must first of all believe that all students can master the standards. They must have a deep appreciation for the tenets that underlie the standards and science. They must be able to guide students through their teaching, nurturing, and modeling. They must provide opportunities for students to attain the habits of the mind. They must decide on the delicate balance between breadth of topics and depth of understanding. They must have the creativity and insight to incorporate inquiry into their courses in ways that are challenging, interesting, and relevant. They must balance individual, small-group, and large-group work. They must encourage examination of alternative viewpoints. They must assist in developing judgment about when to struggle with a problem and when to proceed. They must judge when and how much to help and when to let the students work things out for themselves. They must invent assessment mechanisms that do justice to the new-found skills students are acquiring and recognize the creative nuances in a project about which students are thrilled and for which they have genuine ownership. These tasks require teachers with judgment, insight, and experience that they can hone only by engaging in authentic inquiry themselves. It will be impossible to develop a community of learners in schools if students see large discrepancies between what should be happening in schools and what is actually happening.


The Control versus Ownership Continuum

The Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) are permeated with the theme that, for systemic reform to be successful, responsibility for learning has to be increasingly placed on the shoulders of the students. Almost all educators and teachers will nod their heads in agreement, but very few understand the true meaning of that statement. These educators require the large grain size of Senta Raizen’s (1997) bullets. All educators are blinded to various degrees by an “Atlas complex,” the belief that they control all learning (Finkel & Monk, 1983). The weight of the world of learning is on their shoulders. We feel a great responsibility for ensuring that students learn the material at a depth that allows them to see the beauty and structure of our fields, and we try very hard to build controls into our courses that ensure that students will achieve the depth of mastery we think is essential. We really enjoy our time on stage in the role of Atlas. We test students to define whether they have mastered the material, and we pronounce judgment on the merit of those students. Our tests are artificial inducements to learn, but our judgments can shape how students think and feel about themselves for a lifetime. This need to control the learning process can prevent us from seeing and understanding the different viewpoints, goals, and attitudes about teaching expressed in the standards. If we have complete control over learning, students can own only what we give them; they must be able to accept what we give them and make it their own. If students have control over learning, the ownership is very different because they discover ideas themselves. Reification is most effective when students are responsible for their own learning.

Perhaps the most important challenge in the implementation of systemic reform is developing models that span a continuum of strategies. We certainly have a great deal of experience with control strategies. We have found they are very effective in covering content and ensuring that the students have been taught correctly. We have also learned that they fail terribly in helping students retain the knowledge and develop a “can-do” attitude. Our experience with strategies that abandon lecturing and embrace discovery suggest that reification is optimized but content coverage is sacrificed. Do students taught with a discovery-based strategy develop the attitudes expected by the standards? Do some of the student’s discoveries harbor misconceptions? Will the limitations in content coverage be solved later as the students use their new-found skills to fill in the missing pieces? Perhaps a blend of the control and discovery approaches is best. The answers to these questions require work by motivated teachers, and it is with them that the excitement of systemic reform rests. The only clear answer is that our old methods based on control are not successful in creating the outcomes our society demands. Why are the outcomes different from when we were students? Neither Bench marks (AAAS, 1993) nor the NRC standards gives us the answers.

Some guidance in exploring the question of how to optimize the learning environment is provided by analogy with watching students engaged in scientific research. When students work original research, content is sacrificed to the extreme. Students enter a deep mineshaft into a very specific part of a subspecialty. Teachers give up a great deal of control and are amazed at the phase change in student maturity that occurs as a result of research. The changes become evident in the first two years of research, and after four years students have developed sophisticated capabilities. It is most amazing and satisfying to see this development in students who have less-than-adequate backgrounds or thinking skills. Do misconceptions arise? Certainly, but they are easily managed. In fact, we know that misconceptions are common when we learn a new field ourselves. We are constantly on the lookout for the parts that do not make sense because they represent the opportunities for insight and discovery as we explore a new field. Students must learn the same process on their own. Does reification occur? Yes. Are attitudes changed? Profoundly. That is what the Ph.D. is all about. It represents certification that a person has developed the skills and attitudes to do independent work and be a lifelong learner. Can something like that occur in the K-12 system? That is what the framers of the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) thought but were reluctant to state explicitly because people with an ingrained Atlas complex may not be ready to hear that message.

Surely, we are not serious about all students K-12 acquiring the kinds of skills and attitudes that typify a Ph.D. degree! Our current system almost certainly does not have that aim because it both underestimates student capabilities and undershoots the challenges given in the teaching. Teachers who believe that students lack motivation and capacity and teachers who are accustomed to controlling learning will be systematic, sequential, simple, clear, logical, and forceful in developing subject matter so students cannot fail to understand. The chemistry section on Gas Laws at the university level will be taught by separately looking at the P,V relationships first, then the V,T relationships next, and so forth, with adequate and simple problems to ensure understanding. Students will leave the lecture saying, “Everything is so clear. That was a brilliant and enjoyable lecture,” only to find that their understanding fades quickly. They have no clue about how to approach a new problem or laboratory project. This approach is very different from giving a more authentic and challenging problem that requires understanding the Gas Laws as part of the problem. We badly undershoot, and we wonder why student interest in science plummets between sixth grade when they are excited and high school when they are terrified. Fear of failure can paralyze a student engaged in the inquiry and discovery process, which requires freedom and encourages mistakes in order to see the consequences. Teachers with the Atlas complex have a particular problem when asked to grade and judge the students engaged in this process. The very act of grading removes some of the freedom required to have a successful inquiry-and-discovery process.

Assessment, Examinations, and Judgments

If we are to reach the higher motivational plane envisioned in the standards, assessment strategies must also evolve. We must decide what the role of assessment is. Is assessment a method for allowing students to see where they need more work? Is it a method for allowing teachers to see where students are in their understanding? Is it a summative judgment on how well the students have mastered the material? Is it a measure of the relative merits of individuals within a course? Is it a tool that we use to enforce hard work? Is it a way for employers, universities, and medical schools to judge who deserves to employed or admitted? All of our teaching instincts are based on a reward and punishment system in which examinations and grades define the accomplishments and even the worth of individual students. Grading on the curve ensures that limited numbers of students can succeed. The standards expect that all students will be successful. Furthermore, the standards require courses to aim at developing skills and attitudes that are not measurable with our traditional examinations:

● the ability to inquire;

● the ability to reason scientifically;

● the ability to use science for personal decisions;

● the ability to use science for taking a stand on societal issues;

● the ability to communicate scientifically.

The standards expect students to participate with teachers in refining their expectations based on the outcomes measured by the assessments. Students resist and lose respect For assessment procedures that inadequately allow them to demonstrate the sophistication and maturity they have attained. They are discouraged when teachers criticize or do not recognize something of which the student is proud. It is necessary to reward the behaviors that are the focus of a course. Assessments have to be an integral part of the course structure and teaching strategies, and they have to reflect the standards. The traditional roles of teachers and students have to evolve as well. Teachers need to relinquish as much control and judgment as possible while students have to accept responsibility for acquiring life skills and attitudes that will shape their futures. Once again, the standards do not tell us how, but these changes must occur if systemic reform is to reach its potential.


The standards require experiences that are not part of our traditional teacher training. One of the central problems in accomplishing systemic reform is reforming the skills and attitudes of teachers and administrators. One cannot teach, model, or support what one does not know, feel, or accept. Teachers and administrators are products of a traditional school experience that has not taught, modeled, or supported the very principles the standards define. Teachers model the way they were taught, especially their most respected teachers. We all aspire to be Atlas. Few secondary school teachers have had the depth of scientific experience that can transcend their education. National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) put a particular emphasis on the importance of teachers’ acting as guides and models for scientific inquiry. The standards require teachers to have mastered the attitudes, skills, and habits of the mind (p. 28) required for performing authentic scientific inquiry. National Science Education Standards address this issue directly in the section on professional development standards. Many of the standards match those developed for the students. They require teachers to experience an active investigation of some phenomenon in order to lay the necessary experiential, conceptual, and attitudinal foundation. Even elementary school teachers are expected to have at least one in-depth experience with active investigation. The standards require courses for future teachers that are based on investigation, group work, and open-ended problems that are interesting and relevant. These experiences must allow teachers to reach the threshold required to be lifelong learners. It is expected that supporting and sustaining teachers’ skills should involve collaboration between colleges and universities, local schools, local industries and businesses, and the community. The standards make it clear that these changes will not occur rapidly and that patience is essential.


From the viewpoint of a university professor, the tasks required of us are striking. People in chemistry, for example, view their primary mission as educating the chemists of the future, despite the fact that we are a service department with the vast majority of our students coming from other disciplines. It safe to say that our physics and mathematics colleagues have similar views. Our curriculum is based largely on the assumption that our true clients will be taking upper-class courses, participating in undergraduate research, and going on to graduate school. We teach our courses in a logical and sequential fashion. The first courses in subject areas are meant to provide breadth. We teach facts and simple problem-solving skills in lower-level courses with the expectation that we will teach students how to put the facts and simple problem-solving skills together for scientific inquiry at a later time, usually through an independent research project. The vast majority of our students never experience the feeling of true scientific inquiry. We almost certainly miss providing most science teachers of the future with opportunities to engage in the discovery process or to experience the excitement of true science. It is not surprising, therefore, that the students we see are missing the thinking and problem-solving skills and intuitions required to succeed in our courses. We have not effectively taught their teachers what science is and how it is practiced. Future teachers desperately need to experience the inquiry-discovery processes if they are to understand science and model the attitudes and habits of the mind required to reach our children.

We have an important stake in the reform effort because it is becoming clear that the attitudes and skills of the students we teach in the sciences have changed, perhaps profoundly, and our old teaching strategies are not adequate for reaching the broad range of students at the depth required to reach our goals. Students fail to learn course material even though they have the ability. Even our best students are not the equal of the best from years past (Rubinstein, 1994). There are many reasons for this problem, many of which continue to be under debate. Regardless of the reasons, we must do something about this problem. The number of these students has increased to the point where they can force teachers to lower the standards of accomplishment and to teach them in ways that are enjoyable (“Sesame Street”?) and that do not require great effort from students (Katz, 1996). Graduate students no longer have the same interest or ability in the physical sciences that characterized the field in earlier days (Rubinstein, 1994). Society as a whole does not attach the same importance to promoting scientific knowledge and has cut back sharply on funds for research. These changes have our attention. Many research faculty think these changes threaten the viability of the scientific enterprise and our technological future. Regardless of the definition of our problems, they are clearly characteristic of our society and require a coordinated effort from everyone if the changes are to result in solutions. Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the National Standards for Science Education (NRC, 1996) are powerful documents that together lay out the directions that must be taken by educators, students, administrators, parents, and the community. They are encyclopedic and visionary. The attainment of the standards would result in profound changes in the character of our educational system.


We cannot teach true aesthetic appreciation. It must be experienced through the beauty of art, music, the world around us. Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the NRC standards make the same statement about science and mathematics. Students who engage in authentic inquiry and discovery will experience the aesthetic beauty of science and mathematics and the satisfaction of solving a difficult problem or creating something that came from their own minds. These rewards are far more meaningful than comments or grades from teachers. The universe provides the incentive and inspiration for learning. Self-discovery and creation build a respect and love for the universe that cannot be attained by passive activities. We can never destroy what we have come to love and respect. If we insist on teaching content and do not include the experiences that build the values of beauty and soul, the content will not be permanent. There will be little of importance that remains. Teachers must transcend their lesson plans and incorporate their own sense of the universe before they can create a learning atmosphere that is supportive and enriching. Benchmarks and the NRC standards provide the goals for which we must strive. We must discover how to reach them.

What is the best way to implement the standards? We must return to the basic questions that individuals involved in education must answer: Why should I change? How do I change? Can I change? Will the change bring success? These questions can be answered only by seeing exemplary models that individuals find credible and relevant to their own situations. Is the best implementation to mount a large-scale effort that unites school systems, cities, and even states to bring all of the parts together? It is if we understand the fundamentals that are required for successful attainment of the standards in a controlled environment. However, if there are important elements of systemic reform that are not yet adequately developed or accepted, it would seem that a wiser dissemination strategy would be to both create many smaller-scale projects that are more focused and to develop a more effective communication strategy that connects successful projects with preservice and in-service teachers.

The standards must to be transformed into workable teaching plans. This need is especially keen if more authentic, inquiry-based projects are to anchor the science, mathematics, and technology experiences. It is foolish to create a program to reach the moon if scientists have not done the basic thermodynamics on the rocket fuels or if the engineers who will be working on the rockets do not have or have not accepted the validity of the scientific information that is known. There is a right time to implement the big project, and it is the role of policymakers to know when that time has arrived. Teachers and administrators at the grass-roots level need data, teaching tool kits, and menus of approaches that have good assessment information so they can understand the profound nature of systemic reform. They need clear examples of how these changes are implemented and how they work. They need credible data about how students are able to master course content and how student attitudes change.

Lynn Stoddard (1990) argued that there are already model systems that are effective in helping all students develop into human beings who are valuable contributors to society. The design framework develops three aspects of students:

● their identity through a strong sense of self-worth;

● their social interactions, characterized by concern and respect for others;

● their thirst and skills for learning, creating knowledge, and solving problems.

This framework uses the same methods that form the basis for Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996); that is, putting the responsibility for learning on the students. This example is one of many successful implementations of active learning strategies. Not only is personal development advanced, but content mastery is also optimized, despite the fact that it was indirectly addressed. If such approaches are known to be successful, we already have models. Why have educators not accepted them more readily?

Stoddard (1990) answered these questions. Implementation is blocked by educators who believe that programs that are directed toward personal development of students cannot succeed in delivering content in a curriculum as effectively as programs that are focused on the curriculum itself. If a problem exists, we merely need to change the curriculum in clever ways. This approach is obvious, especially to people who require control over those things that are important to them. If we have control, we can turn out a quality product, a standardized student. What such people do not realize is that, by acquiring control over the product, we lose the soul of the student. Stoddard argued that this attitude stifles independent thinking and teaches the lesson that schooling is irrelevant to life. She argued that the pervasive atmosphere of control causes alienation, withdrawal, drug use, promiscuous sex, crime, and suicide.

The difference between methods that are based on control and those based on ownership is often subtle but deep. The difference appears most clearly in how the minds of the students are affected. Our central problem in creating the profound changes that systemic reform must accomplish is changing the attitudes of all the people involved in the educational process. It is exactly the same problem that we have in creating a more effective learning environment for our students. Reification and changes in attitude must occur. The standards clearly spell out how the reform of student learning takes place. The same process must occur for everyone else including the policymakers in charge of systemic reform. Do they understand systemic reform deeply enough that it appears in the policies and programs that are established? Should we have large-scale programs to implement change, or should we have many smaller and more focused programs that link directly with the teachers who have seen the new paradigm and have the passion for change? Do we sow our seeds in large clumps expecting there should be a beautiful bouquet at some spots, or do we scatter them more widely and allow the flowers to spread out to fill the empty spaces? People involved in the educational system will be able to appreciate and understand how systemic reform ideas work only if they experience them personally. That is the only way that reification and attitudinal change occurs. That is the only way that the questions and skepticism will shift from a focus on the old paradigm based on control to the new paradigm based on ownership. Dissemination of systemic reform needs a small grain size, and Senta Raizen’s (1997) bullets need to do damage. What are the best ways to disseminate systemic reform? What are the best levers for moving along reform? If we believe the standards, the answer is active learning. If we choose strategies and levers that provide the educational community with personal experiences of active learning strategies, we will reach their very souls. And we must do no less.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 1, 1998, p. 122-149
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10300, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 12:34:01 AM

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About the Author
  • John Wright
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    John C. Wright is Evan Halfaer Professor of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been deeply involved in reforming the way chemistry courses are taught at the university level and in the development of new assessment methods that are credible to university faculty.
  • Carol Wright
    Monona Grove School District, Wisconsin
    E-mail Author
    Carol S. Wright is coordinator of gifted and talented programming, Monoma Grove School District, Wisconsin.
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