Science Learning in the 21st Century:
A Perspective from Cognitive Science

Christine Massey
Institute for Research in Cognitive Science
University of Pennsylvania


The invitation for this conference asked for a contribution that characterizes our current thinking about "what it takes to enable students to learn particular ideas or skills." Although there are many issues to be raised based on the experiences of our Institute's precollege research and education programs, I would like to focus on just a few that I think are directly related to connecting the contemporary science of learning with the practice of teaching and learning in K-12 educational settings. The Institute for Research in Cognitive Science has been funded by the National Science Foundation for the last eleven years as a Science and Technology Center. Centers such as these (STCs) have a mission that extends well beyond the traditional roles of research laboratories to engage in scientific research and provide advanced graduate training in the field. Part of that expanded mission is to participate in building new and richer relationships between scientific research and education at every level. I direct a group that has focused on research and development as well as program implementation at the K-12 level. With funding support from several additional grants from NSF as well as private foundations, we have been deeply involved in curriculum development and evaluation in science and technology at the K-8 level; in basic research on children's thinking and learning in science, math and technology; in professional development for in-service teachers; and in joint projects with educators in informal learning environments, such as museums and zoos. Understanding the nature of thinking and learning processes and complex intelligent behavior is central to the related disciplines that make up cognitive science. Thus, we bring to our education initiatives theories, methods, and knowledge from the scientific study of learning. All of our work has been carried out through long-term partnerships with local individual teachers and schools as well as district-level staff and offices in Philadelphia. We have also been fortunate in being part of a very active effort sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania to create new forms of partnership between institutions of higher education and the local community, with a particular focus on urban education.

Need for more differentiated views of learning.

A problem that we have encountered in all of our educational partnerships related to SMET teaching and learning is the virtual absence of the means to evaluate learning in a differentiated way and to develop correspondingly differentiated teaching responses. School-based assessment activities that receive the most attention are generally end-of-unit assessments for grading and high-stakes standardized tests. Not enough attention is paid to diagnostic testing that is sensitive to and predictive of different kinds of learning and the detailed progress of ongoing learning processes; nor are classrooms organized to allow for this kind of learning-oriented assessment. Although the focus of the present conference is on science learning, I offer an example related to math learning because it compactly illustrates problems we've encountered repeatedly in science, math, and technology education alike.

We are currently in the process of completing individual math assessments with 6th-8th graders in one of our partner schools-an undertaking that has yielded surprises all around. Students are participating in individual interviews in which they are given a variety of diagnostic problems to solve or at least attempt, and detailed notes are taken on everything the students say and do as they work through the problems. A diverse team of interviewers from the University of Pennsylvania (ranging from senior mathematics faculty to undergraduate volunteers) is going to the school daily to complete interviews with each student. Standardized test scores from this school are discouragingly low, and teachers feel little confidence that their students are entering at the beginning of the school year ready for grade-level math or that they are departing at the end of the school year having made much progress. Despite the many weeks of standardized testing that these students undergo each spring, their teachers feel as if they have little insight into what knowledge and skills the students actually possess and what they are prepared to learn.

One of the most interesting-and ultimately heartening-surprises has been that many students are actually knowledgeable and even inventive in their use of problem-solving strategies and mathematical algorithms. They nevertheless perform poorly because they lack automaticity and fluency in basic math skills. Time after time we have seen students unable to capitalize on the mathematical knowledge and skills they do possess because they must put too much energy into incidental calculations, and they lose the thread of the organizing mathematical ideas and the overall problem-solving trajectory. For example, when one intermediate step of a solution to a problem involves adding a column of numbers, students who are unable to recall addition facts from memory must launch a separate round of problem-solving to generate each step of the addition task. While they often have strategies for doing this, their performance is also errorful and it taxes their ability to keep both the sub-problem and the larger problem in mind at the same time. For some children, the outcome is a sense of failure, frustration, fatigue, and a reinforcement of the belief that they are incapable of doing math.

Unfortunately, these students attend a school in which "drill" is out of fashion and teachers are fearful of being caught doing anything that looks like it. From a cognitive perspective, this particular learning problem is neither mysterious nor untreatable. It is to be expected that when the component processes needed to execute a strategy are effortful, there will be an overload on working memory and on the executive processes controlling the problem-solving plan. Fluency and automaticity can greatly reduce this cognitive load, and both can be achieved by targeted practice. (This, by the way, need not take the form of endless worksheets or flashcards of disembodied math facts. This area is ripe for the application of efficient learning technologies based firmly on cognitive principles, not just impressive graphics.)

Two points in particular distress me about this experience. The first is that the kind of diagnostic assessment that we are helping this school perform is seen as extraordinary and beyond the normal mission and capacity of the school environment. An educator might protest, with good reason, that the typical classroom teacher cannot possibly conduct lengthy individual interviews with each child to develop a profile of his or her learning in every domain. I would agree. However, that should not be a reason to abandon the goal. It is time to consider deeply whether incremental changes to the traditional organization, training, and staffing of public schools can accomplish the work that must be done to improve educational achievement in science and math (and other domains), or whether we must envision very different environments and practices for teaching and learning.

The second distressing point is that the conventional "wisdom" about what constitutes good teaching and learning is potentially biased, uninformed by evidence, and out-of-touch with the real learning needs of students. In the example above, a kind of teaching and learning that has an appropriate and necessary role in achieving competent, functional levels of mathematical performance has been dismissed from the repertoire for no adequate reason. (We have seen a similar scenario play out in the area of literacy, where "phonics" and "whole language" approaches to achieving literacy have been pitted against each other. In science learning, there has been a somewhat less heated tension between "process" and "content" approaches.) From a cognitive point of view, any complex human activity almost always involves an intricate interplay among different kinds of knowledge, perceptual discriminations, motor and cognitive skills, strategies, and performance demands and contexts. Correspondingly, many kinds of learning are involved, and they are not all achieved in the same way. The learning landscape within a particular domain will depend on the totality of this configuration, as well as where a particular learner is starting from within that landscape. In science, these cognitive landscapes are surely complex, involving conceptual change, representational fluency, epistemological development, technical skill, modeling ability, rich bodies of factual knowledge, quantitative and qualitative reasoning, and more. Of course, there is still much work to be done to map these landscapes in different domains and to find navigable pathways through them for various learners. We need both powerful, focused theories and systematic ways of generating and applying useful data in order to do this work. Neither one-dimensional prescriptions nor generic teaching "methods" will help advance this goal.

Need for robust connections between education and scientific research on learning.

While educators (and the public at large) are fascinated by popular media accounts of "brain research," they routinely overlook well-established understanding from behavioral cognitive science that could have much more immediate and direct application to teaching and learning.1 Curriculum and educational technology that is well-grounded in cognitive research is within reach, but we have not developed a systematic capacity to produce it. Cognitive science is generally not well-represented within professional schools of education, and there may be little communication between these fields. Indeed, there may be profound differences in the theoretical commitments, methods, and cultural practices of the cognitive science research community, on the one hand, and educational research and the professional training of teachers on the other. Undertaking research programs with explicit goals related to advancing educational practice has not always been highly valued within the cognitive science research community. Well-defined professional career paths for research and development activities that bridge the gap between the learning sciences and education hardly exist.

Standards and curriculum.

The movement in this country toward more systematic national standards for science education has generally been one that I welcome. Project 2061's Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards represent serious, well-informed efforts to present more uniform goals for what American K-12 students should know and be able to do. Both sets of standards present an ambitious learning agenda for public science education, and they also emphasize that this level of education should be achieved by all students, starting in the earliest school years. The scope of this enterprise far exceeds what has been attempted in the past in science education and poses new and somewhat varied challenges for education at each grade level. For example, in early elementary classrooms, the idea of science as a major primary subject is not yet well-incorporated and the in-service teaching force is not well-prepared for it. At the high school level, not only has the quantity and sophistication of the material to be taught in science courses increased, all students should now be learning at this level, not just a self-selected few.

Standards are a statement of desired learning objectives and outcomes, not a detailed description of the curriculum and processes for helping students achieve them. Yet time and again, we have seen teachers and administrators who seem to believe that standards-based teaching means that teachers must look at standards documents (or perhaps just brief summaries of them) and then invent or piece together their own curriculum day by day during a 30 minute prep period or on their own time at home in the evening. This is related to a tendency to treat standards superficially, as a set of topics that the curriculum should be "about." Thus an educator may conclude that growing marigolds on the window sill is a science activity that is "standards-aligned" because it is a hands-on activity and is about living things and their growth. The appropriate question, of course, is not whether a curriculum appears to be topically related to standards headings but whether it is reliably able to achieve the learning that is targeted in the standards.

Curriculum development should be done by teams of qualified professionals who have the capacity to engage in a robust, extended research and development process. AAAS and the NSF have played important roles in improving the quantity and quality of science curricula available, but there is still much to be done to raise many educators' level of discrimination in evaluating the quality of science curricula. Further, the odds are often stacked against the adoption of good curricula (a point that is probably not lost on curriculum publishers concerned with thin profit margins). High-quality science curricula are especially difficult to implement under the current conditions faced in many classrooms, and they demand more of both students and teachers. They are more time-consuming to prepare for and implement; they demand more resources and are logistically challenging in terms of time, space, staffing, and facilities; and they are expensive.

Envisioning systemic change.

Incremental changes in education-slightly smaller classes, more hands-on equipment, more workshops for teachers-may amount to no more than tinkering around the edges when what is needed is the development of an entirely new system and vision for how we develop, evaluate, and deliver teaching and learning environments that can yield consistent, high levels of science achievement for the broad cross-section of students that American schools are supposed to serve. As hard as it is to achieve systemic change within the bounds of the current borders of public educational institutions and organizations, that may not be enough. Even with an influx of new resources, the field of education may not have sufficient internal capacity to reinvent itself to the degree required.

Increasingly, I find myself drawn to an analogy with the transformation of medicine and healthcare in recent decades. Can you imagine modern medical schools and research and teaching hospitals that had no place for people with advanced expertise in molecular biology or organic chemistry or bioengineering? No systemic capacity to conduct focused basic scientific research on the mechanisms underlying various medical conditions? No systemic capacity to do large, well-controlled clinical trials of treatment protocols, leading to empirically justified recommendations for practitioners? No mechanism for doing comprehensive diagnostics for individuals or for updating the professional knowledge of practitioners? Can you imagine a system in which a physician who participated in research or attended a conference on the latest findings on prevention and treatment of heart disease would be criticized as negligent for being out of the office? The National Institutes of Health, for instance, have played a key role in funding national laboratories and institutes, teaching hospitals, and research centers that create an effective, functional pathway between research and clinical practice. Although we still face difficult decisions in providing adequate, affordable health care to all, there is no doubting that the state of medical knowledge and the standards for practice have improved phenomenally in recent decades in the field of medicine. We cannot claim the same dramatic progress for education. Despite advances such as new computer labs and internet connections, the structure of most present-day educational systems is still closer to the lone family doctor from the first half of the 20th century with a minimally equipped office and a black bag. We need entirely new capacities as well as a solid national process for generating and evaluating progress. Of course, the analogy between the practice of medicine and the practice of education is not apt in all respects, but I think it is instructive to think in terms, not just of a profession, but of an entire sector that is essential to the quality of our modern life and that is in need of a major overhaul.

Although I am in many ways critical of the current state of public education, I do not mean to be harsh toward educators-especially classroom teachers. Adopting punitive and denigrating attitudes toward educators only undermines their ability to strive for excellence and to attract capable new people to the profession. High-quality ongoing professional development is certainly necessary for practicing teachers to be able to reflect on and improve their own knowledge and practice, and our group regularly devotes a lot of attention to developing professional learning experiences for teachers and to providing an integrated community of support for them. However, I do not think that workshop after workshop will solve fundamental systemic problems. I think of the underlying problem not as one of providing more individual educators with individual opportunities to overcome "deficits" in their background, but as one of creating a pathway for the occupation of teaching to transform into a much more sophisticated profession. This transformation will not be rapid, and we should perhaps be thinking in terms of generations within the profession. Steering such a long course would require resolve and strategic oversight over many years.

Helping to develop and support communities of educators who are interested in changing their practice is, perhaps, a useful intermediate strategy, but I fear that it is insufficient as a mechanism for large-scale transformation in science education. Our experience has been that such communities are difficult to grow beyond a certain size and to sustain over time. They require massive amounts of external support-both in terms of outside personnel and resources, and they tend to be fragile and easily disrupted by any of the many disturbances that characterize public schools. Our situation is perhaps unusually challenging, in that we tend to work with distressed urban schools, where there is a high turnover of staff and administrators, unreliable resources, a prevailing crisis atmosphere, and frequent abrupt changes of policy at the district level. The difficulties of this environment, of course, lead directly to the heart of the challenge inherent in improving science learning opportunities for all students.

At a minimum, improving science education in a dramatic way requires the involvement of higher education institutions in a newly committed form-and not just schools of education, but the scientific research community as well. Colleges and universities can contribute to K-12 education not just by graduating a new generation of highly qualified science educators but by coming to the table in other ways. Institutions of higher education are potentially an invaluable partner for public education, providing leadership, expertise, human resources, vision, stability, and physical resources. This magnitude of systemic reform also requires the involvement of other sectors outside of education, including government, private foundations, business, professional organizations, and leadership in local communities.

I believe we also need to think seriously about creating new career paths and possibly even new institutions in which people who presently have no secure professional home can work in this crucial juncture between research in the learning sciences and professional practice on education. Although there are noteworthy exceptions, graduate schools of education, with their focus on the professional training of teachers, have not done as good a job with basic and applied research in learning. People who can successfully move between the scientific research and professional practice communities are rare and may feel, professionally speaking, that they are neither fish nor fowl. Professional curriculum development or the development of new learning technologies or providing professional development for teachers, for instance, may fall awkwardly between the gaps of institutional missions. To the extent that these activities are not basic research, people who engage in them may have difficulty finding a home in research-oriented academic institutions. Few school districts-even very large ones-have the capacity to carry out these missions successfully in-house. Professional publishing houses or publishers of educational software may not be interested in underwriting either the lengthy and extensive research efforts that should underpin major efforts in curriculum and technology and or the kind of ongoing professional development that supports implementation. Short-term grant funding does not lend itself to cultivating a highly experienced group of professionals with an appropriate mix of advanced scientific and professional training. Valuable staff and their collective experience may be lost when a funded project ends, and it can be difficult to assemble or reassemble an experienced team to pursue new initiatives.

Yes, this kind of overhaul would be expensive, and, yes, we'll continue to have painful and heated debates over how much we can realistically afford to spend on education-just as we have these debates in health care. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that it is better to have a research-driven understanding of what an educational sector would look like that is demonstrably capable of achieving high levels of achievement for all students than to keep pouring money into a system that was not initially designed to achieve the goals we now require of it and that may never have the capacity to do so.

1 A comprehensive analysis of this issue is provided by John T. Bruer in the November 1997 issue of Educational Researcher.

Bruer, J. T. Education and the brain: a bridge too far. Educational Researcher, November 1997.