Toward Learner-Centered Science Education

by Michael Rossman


        I like to teach with stuff that stinks, with sparks that bite, with bloodied hands laying open the mystery of the intestines, rather than with books laid open to the tame nomenclature of shapes of leaves. It's this charged frame of excitement and mystery to the whole affair of science's inquiry, established and repeatedly recharged by electric lessons, that sets the learning of the stages of a seed's sprouting, an insect's life and metamorphosis, electricity's generation, in proper perspective, enabling children to home toward the heart of the matter, the outer frames of fact made vivid by the life within.

        The perspective and methodology involved in this approach are as systematic as those of traditional content-oriented science instruction. The difference lies more in the values these contrasted pedagogies implement, than in my particular style of implementing one. Indeed, as for factual content and grasp, my students do outstandingly well on the standard national test scales. But this is a byproduct of the motivation of interest, of deep connection, which is the primary purpose of the rich and varied input that nourishes it through this approach.

        In longer perspective, the schools descended to us from previous generations with traditions of content-centered scientific instruction focused on detailed factual knowledge and rote drill. A generation ago, a movement developed to shift the focus of scientific pedagogy to developing the critical skills of inquiry, of observation, experiment, hypothesis, critique. It has made slow progress. It represents a shift from content-centered to learner-centered pedagogy -- or rather a shift in this direction, not reaching all the way. For though it focuses on individual development rather than on individual retention, its purpose is to train individuals simply and uniformly to those skills of mind commonly, and short-sightedly, understood to be the basic stuff of "science," conceived as an impersonal and indeed depersonalized enterprise.

        A further move toward the individuation essential to fully learner-centered pedagogy is promised us, or rather tantalizingly suggested, by certain potentials of computer-aided learning. The hope is that the sorts of individual tracking and support, already modeled by programs offering learning algorithms in response to categories of student error, can be extended to less-mechanistic aspects of personal learning and mastery. The danger is that the aspects of scientific thought modeled and modelable through computers may come to be taken in practice as the full set -- leading toward a pedagogic mythology that seals over connection with the deeper human reaches, rather than seeking to uncover and develop this.

        My approach and perspective begin at the furthest pole of this continuum: at the point of engagement of individual passion with particular object in the world. The passion is of curiosity, knowledge, mastery, extension and deepening of the self; the first purpose of this pedagogy is to help this passion emerge and connect, wherever in whatever ways, encouraging it to find its own. Any interest can become in effect a totem animal, which the child chooses as an initiation into the hunt and the hunter he becomes, learning through its pursuit how to hold himself, how to notice and to interpret what he perceives, how to use his own strengths, ways of persisting.

        The focus of this pedagogy is to help the connection grow broadly and deeply within the person -- the connection of self with world through inquiry, the sense of entitlement not only to visions into the mysteries but to the self as seer; both growing not simply in mind but deep in emotional ground. With this developing at the core, the next layers of pedagogy fall into place around it in natural order, like an onion of integral learning. Neither are novel; their meanings are simply transformed and their action supported by the light shining through from inside.

        Next from the core comes the layer of skills, somewhat differently framed than in the textbooks of "inquiry" methodology. I see the critical skills as involving the application to scientific inquiry, and through this the specialization, of the broad set of skills characterizing self-directed learning. I have written elsewhere about this as a general pedagogic frame; substantial literature and many people's experiences have accumulated to suggest its systematic potentials. From this perspective, my approach to the reconception of science education can be understood as an implementation of this frame and through it of the democratizing social values that motivate its recognition and development.

        (From this perspective also, the role of science education in general education becomes differently visible. Science inquiry can serve as a sharply-focused and exemplary training-ground, much as Latin and geometry did for the patrician pedagogy of 19th century English education, with this difference: that its exercise develops not simply the cognitive mind, but a broader web of skills and capacities essential to self-managed learning throughout life. All this depends on proper framing and appropriate processes. To take this potential seriously would involve both a radical expansion of the time and energy given to "science education" from early on, and a radical evolution of that education's perspective and curriculum, proceeding from the understanding that its primary purpose is to develop rich and powerful personhood rather than to impart technical facts.)

        Here what is important to observe, to differentiate this approach to "skills" from the "inquiry" approach, is that the individual's skills are conceived as idiosyncratic. Actually, there's an extra layer to the conception of the process. Certain "standard" skills of self-directed learning are identified as goals, just as in "inquiry"; but emphasis is placed on the learner's developing his or her own way to approximate them. In effect this approaches the surface, "objective" goal of learning skills from within, through the person, rather than through the materials used to teach them.

        Around this core of developing motivation and layer of developing skills, the outer layer of factual knowledge grows. One can think of this knowledge as accreted item by item from experience, reading, and other information sources. It's this layer we most often test in school, but what's of value escapes grading, for the issue is not what grades measure, but how much is retained through time in ways that make it useful.

        The traditional approach to "content" loads the learner with information applied from outside, the individual items being organized by the offered structures of text and lecture, arrayed for quick recall, and quite often so loosely attached to the self, so weakly integrated into inner and personalized structures of understanding, that they are quickly forgotten. To approach this layer of "content" or knowledge from within rather than without, as the stuff through which motivation develops its skills of expression, is to provide the learner's external accretion of facts with a natural structure of a different sort -- one anchored as much in the biography of personal development as in the anatomy of particular sciences, and for this reason more likely to retain the facts, not just in storage but prepared for use.

        Nor does this sort of personalization of knowledge, of the dynamic structures of meaning the facts form, violate the traditional structures of knowledge of objective science. These are as well and readily learned through this pedagogical approach as through any other; and are made richer by being interwoven with the other structures of connection and meaning that emerge from the individual forms in which each searcher grasps and holds the facts.

        Things take their shape and meaning as explanations of the mystery beheld.


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