Where Is Project 2061 Today?

Andrew Ahlgren and F. James Rutherford
Project 2061

First came Science For All Americans. Benchmarks are on the way. Blocks, Models, and Blueprints are in production. Project 2061 's approach may help other curriculum areas involved in systemic change.

Project 2061 has been in the business of radical curriculum reform for nearly 10 years, if one counts the planning years. We are part of a growing national movement of systemic change.

Our first product, Science For All Americans (SFAA), recommends the knowledge and skills in science, mathematics, and technology that students should retain after graduation from high school. Soon to appear is Benchmarks For Science Literacy, an elaboration of the SFAA recommendations detailing the progress students should make by the end of grades 2,5, 8, and 12.

To increase the options available to schools, Project 2061 is not designing a new K-12 curriculum model. Rather it is developing, with the assistance of school-district teams, tools that local curriculum designers can use to assemble their own. After the Benchmarks will come sketches of K- 12 curriculum "models" and a pool of curriculum "blocks" from which local designers can construct alternative curriculums. To maintain coherence within these models and blocks, Project 2061 teams typically work in cross-grade, cross-subject groups, instead of in traditional isolation by grade level and subject matter.

Beyond the basic tools of benchmarks, blocks, and models will be a dozen commissioned "blueprints," which recommend how other aspects of the education system may have to change to accommodate the new curriculum models. And work has also begun on a computerized system that combines a resource database with all of the tools already mentioned, enabling designers to draw on them in a coordinated fashion.

Our Basic Premises

Where is Project 2061 now, and how did it get there? We want to share some perspectives that may help other curriculum areas that are beginning to develop "standards." Let's first consider some basic premises.

The ends come first. Instead of trying to fix what's wrong with the current system, Project 2061 attempted to start from scratch. The first step was investing three years in developing a credible description of what all students should eventually know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology. Content was included in Science For All Americans only if it could be defended as being essential, enduring, and learnable. Once a reasonable body of knowledge and skills was defined, any new proposals had to specify what to drop to make room for it. Some traditional topics were left out because scientists, mathematicians, and engineers felt these topics were less important than others; some were omitted because cognitive scientists and outstanding teachers deemed them too difficult for most students to learn at a useful level.

Less is better. In contrast to the current overcrowded curriculum, less coverage makes possible more time to figure out what students are actually thinking and develop their understanding of key concepts and connections among them. A coherent set of well-understood facts and concepts provides a solid base for further learning. To be of much use, therefore, recommended outcomes must be limited in number and lasting in significance. Quality, not quantity, is the yardstick.

Nothing is simple. Education, a complex system with a tendency to revert to traditional form, cannot be significantly changed by one or another isolated reform. An obvious need is to make it difficult to revert to the content eliminated in SFAA. Curriculum, teacher education, learning materials, assessment, and more must be transformed if curriculum change is to be significant and sustained.

Teachers are central. The live action of education is in the hands of teachers. Without their informed ideas and judgments, curriculum design can be just an exercise in fantasy. Teachers can play a key role in inventing the schools of the future-if they are given the chance to do so. Project 2061 engages teachers in the creative act of design. To do so, they need time, workspace, computers, reference materials, travel funds, and academic collaborators. They must also have suitable curriculum-design tools.

The Benchmarks

Science For All Americans recommends knowledge and skill substantially beyond what is expected of most of today's students. It asks that students come to understand science as a dynamic, cross-connected enterprise involving mathematics and technology as well as the natural and social sciences. It also seeks to prepare them to view the world through the eyes of science and to develop scientific habits of mind.

Project 2061 is designing tools that local curriculum designers can use to assemble their own K- 12 curriculum models.

But SFAA presents only exit outcomes. Identifying intermediate levels of understanding has been at the heart of our most recent work. During the last four years, the six Project 2061 school-district teams, backed by university faculty, reformulated the SFAA recommendations to express what they believe all students should have achieved by grades 2, 5, 8, and 12. In the spring of 1993, Benchmarks For Science Literacy is being revised in light of extensive review by teachers, curriculum specialists, content supervisors, learning specialists, and scientists. Even after release in the fall, the document will undergo periodic updates as more information becomes available on how children learn and on what is useful to curriculum designers.

To give the flavor of the benchmarks, a few isolated draft statements excerpted from "The Living Environment" chapter are listed below. (In these statements, "know" is shorthand for understanding ideas well enough to use them in a variety of meaningful contexts.)

  • By the end of grade 2, students will know that different kinds of plants and animals living in different environments have characteristics that help them to live there.
  • By the end of grade 5, students will know that some characteristics of individual organisms are inherited and some are acquired.
  • By the end of grade 8, students will know that differences in some inherited characteristics allow some individual organisms to be more successful at surviving and reproducing than others.
  • By the end of grade 12, students will know that differing survival values of inherited characteristics may explain how populations of organisms change over time.

The discussion accompanying these benchmarks points out some difficulties in students' progression of understanding, as demonstrated in teachers' experience and in research on how students think and learn. For example, the difference between scientific and popular meanings of some words is a serious source of confusion in understanding the idea of natural selection-in popular language, "fitness" is robust health (rather than any survival advantage) and individuals rather than species "adapt" to changed circumstances. The idea that a trait may contribute to the survival of individual organisms is easy enough, but it has to grow into the more sophisticated idea that such a trait will increase its proportion in successive generations of a population. This sophistication requires a mathematical understanding of proportion, a notion of historical time scales, and experiences with phenomena for which abstract summary characteristics are interesting and important.

Benchmarks result from a process Project 2061 calls "back-mapping." Educators work in multigrade-level teams to think through the likely growth of understanding over K-12. Mapping involves identifying a plausible sequence of levels of understanding for every major idea in SFAA, including necessary "precursor" ideas that do not appear explicitly in its post-graduation recommendations. Then the process involves discerning connections among the ideas and establishing approximate grade, levels for every step. Back-mapping requires both logical structure of science and an understanding of learning; gleaned from teachers' experience and from research into how children learn.

Because such research is limited, mapping and benchmarking are difficult tasks. Further complicating the effort is the need to consider not only what students know, but what they might know if they had experienced optimal instruction from the beginning. Teachers, on the other hand, often lack time and training to analyze students' thinking in detail and relate it to the intended understanding.

In developing Benchmarks for early grades, Project 2061 teams decided that students' progress between grades K and 8 requires more than a single benchmark at grade 4. Instead of using the more traditional benchmark grades of 4, 8, and 12, Project 2061 designed them for grades 2, 5, 8, and 12. An important reason for benchmarks as early as grade 2 is to discourage teachers and materials developers from embarking on 5th grade goals when children are too young.

Characterizing Science Literacy

In developing Benchmarks, language posed a special set of problems. The greatest debate centered on whether to express them with knowledge statements or with action verbs. Performance is very popular in assessment- but not without problems, unless the required performance is exactly the outcome desired. When special cases of performance are given as examples of what students would be able to do, they carry the risk of becoming the criterion for understanding.

For example, consider the following draft statement: "The student should know that scientific problems have sometimes led to development of new mathematics." A reasonable indicator of this Benchmark would be: "The student should be able to give examples of cases in which a scientific problem led to new mathematics." But is that performance the real goal? For general science literacy, thinking about current developments might seem more important. Thus, a statement closer to the literacy goal would be: "When reading in the newspaper about a new development in mathematics, the student would wonder whether it had resulted from working on some scientific problem.''

Project 2061 teams typically work in cross-grade, cross-subject groups.

All the ideas stated in terms of knowledge in SFAA and Benchmarks should be "known" in a way that relates them to one another and allows using them in making sense of ideas encountered in conversation or the media. For example, if the science-literate reader encounters an article about intensive logging of a particular species of tree (say, for a valuable chemical in its bark), he or she will think about how trees harbor other organisms, consider how the complexity of interactions in a forest system makes it difficult to predict the effects of the tree loss, and hope that someone competent has thought about it so that there won't be unpleasant surprises about die-offs or gluts of other organisms.

Say that the article also mentions that an environmental impact statement is being prepared. Now our reader would wonder about whether a computer model was used to estimate impact, the information plugged into it was accurate and adequate, the software was appropriate for this kind of setting, and the interpretation was biased by political or economic self-interest. (All of this before the "critical response" skills would kick in to evaluate possible misrepresentation of data or faulty arguments.)

Some Inevitable Issues

Widely accepted by scientists and educators as a statement of what it means to be literate in science, Science For All Americans is serving as a significant input to the creation of national standards. The Benchmarks, even in draft form, are already influencing curriculum reform at local, state, and national levels. But inevitably for new formats like Benchmarks, some misunderstandings creep in. Three prevalent ones concern the relationship of the Benchmark recommendations for teaching.

First, the chapter-by-chapter organization of Benchmarks is sometimes taken too seriously. For example, some readers advise that Chapter 12, "Habits of Mind," should come first because of its importance. Other readers regret that Chapter 1 ("The Nature of Science") and Chapter 3 ("The Nature of Technology)') have "separated" science and technology. But the organization of SFAA and the corresponding Benchmarks was chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, only for convenience in specifying goals. No implication is intended for the relative importance of ideas or for how instruction should be organized.[1] Desirable curriculum blocks will typically aim at multiple benchmarks from different chapters.

Second, Benchmarks is sometimes misunderstood to be primarily about how to teach (perhaps by analogy to the NCTM's Standards.) Some readers find too little about how students should be taught and, in particular, too little about hands-on activities. Benchmarks is, however, mostly an elaboration of outcomes, not a treatise on instruction. This is clearly true for the buffeted statements of what students should know. But those lists are supplemented by essays whose purpose is not so obvious. They are primarily intended to clarify the intended outcomes-by describing difficulties students are likely to have and kinds of activities that might help to avoid or overcome them. Project 2061's recommendations for activities, resources, and assessment will appear later in the form of curriculum blocks.

A third misunderstanding concerns advocacy, particularly in sections on technology and social science. Some readers see too much emphasis on either benefits or ills of technology. (There are about equal numbers on both sides.) But SFAA explicitly states that Project 2061 does not intend to persuade students that science or technology are either good or bad. Rather the goal is that literate adults' opinions of science and technology (good, bad, or more likely mixed) should be based on sound understanding of how those enterprises operate, not on ignorance or prejudice. Similarly, Project 2061 does not intend to advance approval or disapproval of any particular societal process or value. In itself, science literacy implies being familiar with ways in which social science tries to characterize human society, not socialization into a particular society. (We leave the schools' contribution to that important task to other components of the social studies curriculum.)

Using Science For All Americans and the Benchmarks

SFAA appeared at a time when many states were rethinking their science education efforts andlooking for direction. Some states were so eager to incorporate Project 2061's ideas into theirown initiatives that they worked directly from draft copies of the 200-page report. For many of these educators, SFAA has become a potent force in their reform efforts.

In California, educators used SFAA as a blueprint for their 1990 Framework, outlining goals for curriculum and instructional materials. In fact, the Framework incorporates many aspects of SFAA-most notably its Common Themes and its narrative style.

Maryland sponsored several workshops for district science supervisors to discuss specific chapters of SFAA. The workshops gave local educators a chance to explore the recommendations and to ask questions.

The Benchmarks are intended primarily as a guide in developing curriculum. They can help educators make choices about what to eliminate from curriculum as well as what to include, and to screen suitable materials. But there is some risk that the Benchmarks might be misused in planning instruction or designing assessment. Benchmark statements might be isolated and taught one at a time, rather than as part of rich and meaningful contexts. Similarly, statements might be tested, one at a time, even verbatim. We hope that the blocks will illustrate how multiple benchmarks should be embedded in rich learning contexts-and should be assessed in meaningful contexts as well. No doubt there will be some inappropriately isolated teaching and testing, but we are trying to discourage that as much as possible.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Benchmarks will be the conversations they stimulate among teachers. Though teachers spend time developing curriculum and discussing the needs of individual students, they rarely have time for intellectual give-and-take about what students are actually learning, the nature of science, and what kinds of instruction work best.

General Warm-up for Reform

Steps in the direction of reforms like Project 2061 can of course be taken outside the Project's own deliberate, long-term approach. The more that schools and teachers do now in the spirit of Project 2061's vision of reform for science literacy, the better equipped they will be to use the tools and resources that are developed. For example:

School districts might set up cross-grade, cross-discipline teams to think through the implications of SFAA for their curriculum, practices, and policies. Their recommendations could be the basis for engaging educators and citizens in a long-term, districtwide plan.

Within schools, teachers could begin gradually eliminating the least important content in order to have time to put more emphasis on the most significant knowledge and skills. In doing this, they may seek collaboration with colleagues in nearby colleges and universities (which could lead to a continuing and mutually helpful relationship).

Teachers can begin to try out interesting ways to make connections across disciplines. Some reduction of barriers among the sciences and among science, mathematics, and technology will contribute to the connectedness and therefore the usefulness of knowledge.

More generally, teachers can help one another incorporate into their teaching the principles that underlie any of the curriculum models being developed by Project 2061. The first step might be to hold a series of seminars to examine in detail the principles of effective learning and teaching from SFAA, which could lead to classroom changes, such as:

  • finding out how students already think about major topics;
  • giving students enough evidence and time to change their inappropriate ideas;
  • increasing the use of team approaches that allow more active participation by every student;
  • shifting classwork toward ideas and thinking and away from vocabulary and predetermined answers;
  • making sure that females, minorities, and the disabled are fully engaged in all class activities in science, mathematics, and technology;
  • expecting and rewarding clear and accurate reports, both written and oral, of students' thinking and activities.

The task ahead is monumental. The needed reform of science, mathematics, and technology education will take the best long-term efforts of all of us. To have our collective contributions add up to progress toward reform, however, we must pull in more or less the same direction. For now, Science For All Americans provides some guidance. Soon it will be joined by Benchmarks, and later by Blocks, Models, Blueprints, a computerized curriculum-design system, and other tools to expedite reform. Before long we have to get involved in how science, mathematics, and technology can be related constructively and systematically not only to one another, but also to the arts, humanities, and other domains of curriculum.

1 For one thing, many topics are found in more than one chapter, making it impossible to simply read one chapter to find out everything discussed. (Many readers have reported that they gained a very different impression in reading the whole book compared with just dipping in for their favorite topic.)

Ahlgren, Andrew and F. James Rutherford, "Where is Project 2061 Today?," Educational Leadership 50, May (1993): 19-22.