AAAS Conference on Developing Textbooks That Promote Science Literacy

February 27-March 2, 2001
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, D.C.

Strategic Approaches to Achieving Science Learning Goals

Edward L. Smith
Michigan State University

This is a summary of the argument for a paper I have revised for this conference. This full paper presents an example "strategic approach" and explains how the Project 2061 Curriculum Analysis Procedures contributed to my thinking about the spproach.

Well formulated standards can serve to focus a broad range of activities and resources on the achievement of common goals. Often, most attention gets paid to the assessment and accountability aspects of standards. However, the setting of standards and assessment of the extent to which they are achieved is not sufficient to bring about improvement in that achievement. Teachers need knowledge and resources for teaching of the standards for which they are responsible. That is, they need to know how to teach those things. An important contribution of standards is to lay out a research and development agenda for the development of a professional knowledge and resource base to support teachers.

An important set of issues has to do with the adequacy of the standards. Do they capture what is worth knowing? Is the total set of standards feasible to achieve? While these are critical issues, I will not address them in this paper. I simply argue that the current national science education standards (NSES and Benchmarks for Science Literacy) are sufficient to move the enterprise forward in substantial ways, and that improvements in the standards themselves will come from taking them seriously into account in research and development work. Given this assumption, what can be said about the knowledge base needed to support effective teaching of the standards?

My primary purpose in this paper is to introduce the idea of a strategic approach to teaching a related set of learning goals and to illustrate this idea with an example. By a teaching approach, I refer to a generally sequential pattern of activities in which students become engaged over a period of time. A strategic approach is more than a collection of activities, all of which are related to the topic, interesting and doable. It is more than a logical order of presentation of information and more than a logical sequence of activities. An approach becomes strategic when each activity is selected and sequenced to serve particular purposes in moving students from where they are toward the intended learning. Of course, a strategic approach doesn't necessarily work.

My basic thesis is that specific approaches can be developed for teaching particular sets of specific learning goals and that these approaches can be improved until they work reliably for a significant range of teachers and students. Such approaches are not mechanical or rigidly linear, and there is no such thing as a teacher-proof approach. Any successful approach requires a knowledgeable teacher who understands and implements it intentionally and wisely. Providing the systems to support teachers in acquiring this knowledge is an other major challenge. However, if teachers do not know effective approaches for achieving the goals for which they are responsible, it is unlikely those goals will be achieved. I maintain that curriculum materials in which effective strategic approaches are embedded can be a critical, if not essential, resource in improving the achievement of learning goals on a large scale.

Assuming that effective strategic approaches are feasible and desirable, what makes one effective? I would argue that the Project 2061 Curriculum Analysis Procedures (CAP) capture many important features of effective strategic approaches. They can serve as design criteria or as a way to evaluate an approach that has already been devised. However, another important function of this framework is to provide a common way of describing an approach. The CAP criteria and the constructs in terms of which they are described define a set of categories of knowledge. These categories can be viewed as fleshing out Shulman's "pedagogical content knowledge." (Shulman, 1987; Wilson, Shulman and Richert, 1987) The instances of these categories-representations, phenomena, naïve conceptions, etc.-constitute a repertoire from which a particular approach can be crafted. A shared knowledge base is essential for a professional community. CAP is based on theoretical perspectives with broad support in the science education research community. They perform an important function in providing a common language and conceptual categories.

The adequacy of CAP in defining necessary and sufficient features of curriculum materials and the teaching approaches embedded in them is something to be determined. Research-based arguments might be made for additional or alternative criteria. Ultimately, empirical evidence that use of highly rated materials tends to result in higher levels of achievement would be important evidence. Of course, adequate professional development and ongoing support are essential, and research will need to sort out the role of teacher implementation and other factors in explaining the results. However, I maintain that having effective strategic approaches as a fundamental component for a professional knowledge base and building those approaches into curriculum materials is a powerful, if not essential component of standards-based science education reform.

Strategic Approaches to Achieving Science Learning Goals