A new vision for reform of science teaching: beyond mindless progressivism

–Occasional commentary by Robert E. Yager (NSTA President, 1982-1983)
bored studentsJames Paul Gee (2012) has written a publication titled “Beyond Mindless Progressivism”.  He confesses his surprise that so many educators lapse into “mindless progressivism” with the assumption that children learn best by participation and immersion in activities proposed by teachers and/or the directions provided in textbooks and associated laboratory activities.  Students are merely expected to follow directions and repeat in classrooms what teachers or instructional materials provide.  Parents are often encouraged to help their children to do all that they are told to do and to be ready to report on it as evidence of their “learning.”  Teachers often report they want higher-order and meta-level thinking skills – but too often teachers and the curriculum do not help students reach such learning goals.
Gee indicates that most classrooms result in a few student “producers” while the remaining continue to be “consumers” (of real learning!).  He has called for more teachers to recognize that all students are different. He has found that students in typical classrooms are “divided into a small number of ‘priests’ (insiders with ‘special’ knowledge and skills) and the “laity” (followers who use language, knowledge, and tools they do not understand deeply and cannot transform ideas for use in new contexts).”  This situation is normal and should be expected by the most effective teachers.
Gee advocates “post-progressive pedagogy” and wants his readers to consider using the term “situated learning.”  He has offered 17 examples of such environments which can lead more students to useful learning and understanding.  Gee first suggests the learning classroom must acknowledge that there are multiple routes to full and personal participation for all members of a group, which is organized around common interests and passions.
His last feature of the learning classroom (#17) is that all learners will be well prepared to be active, thoughtful, engaged members of the public sphere which is the ultimate purpose of “public” education!  This means an allegiance to arguments and evidence over ideology and force.  It also means the ability to take and engage with multiple perspectives based on people’s diverse life experiences–not just in terms of race, class, and gender, but also the myriad differences that constitute the uniqueness of each person and the many different social and cultural allegiances all have.
Gee’s forward-looking suggestions are vital for current efforts to develop the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  This means defining Science as the exploration of the material universe seeking explanations for the objects and events encountered.  Science then is portrayed as a search for explanations found in nature, supported with evidence to establish the validity of the explanations offered both by scientists and others.  It often means work in collaboration with others – much unlike the products of art, music, economics, and physical training. Unfortunately this central ingredient of science is something few students experience as science in schools.
Wondering about the natural world is fun and rewarding, but it is seldom enhanced or encouraged in classes called “science” in K-16 educational settings.  For students to succeed in real science they must look beyond textbook information or their teachers’ explanations.  The best science students too often are the ones who do what they are told – and who remember the words defined and described in typical science classes.  In a sense, real science is missing in most educational settings (schools and colleges) where it is supposedly being provided.  Teachers seek to control by assessing what students do not remember rather than being involved in learning with a purpose.
Technology results when engineers apply their understanding of the natural world to design ways to satisfy human needs and wants.   It illustrates its effectiveness (necessity) of being central to educational reforms and how it can enhance the curriculum and the teaching in all K-16 educational settings.  One problem is that most educators define science as the information in textbooks and/or from state and national standards or from their own experiences with one or more science discipline in classrooms.  This ensures that progressivism will continue and result in no real reforms of science teaching/learning.
How can we get more educators interested and working to meet the reforms which Gee has so meaningfully defined and illustrated!  Instead progressivism and the teaching of a set curriculum will continue to result in failure.  Few graduates are prepared to provide science for all students for citizenship responsibilities.
–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa
Image of bored students courtesy of cybrarian77.

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