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14. Issues and Language

  1. Essays or Lists
  2. Characterizing Knowledge
  3. Grain Size
  4. Grade Levels
  5. Connections
  6. Vocabulary

Published reports typically imply that their recommendations were arrived at quickly and without confusion or dissent. But smooth sailing does not describe Project 2061 as it wrote Benchmarks for Science Literacy (or, for that matter, its predecessor, Science for All AmericansSFAA). There was much debate on substance and style, on meaning and language, on organization, and on what was missing and what was superfluous. The first part of this chapter describes some of the issues debated by the Project 2061 team members, consultants, and staff during the three years it took them to formulate the benchmarks. The second part has to do with our desire to be clear on what meaning we attach to the language we use.

As pointed out in Chapter 13: The Origin of Benchmarks, the early work that led eventually to the benchmarks started out as "progression-of-understanding" mapping. It became convenient later to collect the entries from the maps into lists and then enlarge the lists without always writing out maps in full detail. As the lists grew, so did the conviction among members of the six Project teams that the lists by themselves were too stark, too isolated from instructional issues, and not clear enough about what "knowing" means in different cases.

The teams developed three kinds of materials—maps, lists, and essays—suitable for their task but not necessarily for publication. Maps were not the best choice for publication, for although they were central to developing the benchmarks, they were far too specific and complex and would require much written explanation anyway. The lists and essays presented two important problems, one substantive, one organizational.

The substantive problem was this: Essays might give the publication the appearance of a curriculum guide, rather than a statement of goals supported by commentary. But readers wanting more than what a brief essay provides might then think the report disappointing and inadequate as a guide. We hope our introduction and our efforts to clarify what is and is not a benchmark will lessen this danger.

The organizational difficulty was deciding what constitutes a benchmark in Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Are they individual listed items or groups of items with a companion essay? In the first view, for instance, we would say that 5C: Cells is composed of 17 benchmarks distributed across the grades. In the second view, we would say there are four benchmarks, one for each grade span, each one a set of items-plus-essay. The conceptual difference here is not trivial. It seriously affects how Benchmarks will be used. The individual items are not to be taught or tested. They help guide the development of a curriculum. In developing learning experiences (curricula), designers will select benchmark items from different sections of a chapter and from different chapters. This is difficult if one must move an entire list and its essay from place to place. Moreover, it is awkward to talk or write about benchmarks when the term refers to a report rather than referring to the parts that make it up. We are putting Benchmarks on computer disk to make that sort of moving, talking, and writing easier.

In writing Benchmarks, we found that language issues emerged in two different but related contexts, one scientific, the other educational. The first has to do with the terminology used in the benchmarks to indicate what is to be learned by students, the second with how best to indicate the sense in which students are to acquire the benchmarks.

SFAA uses only those technical terms that scientists believed ought to be part of every adult's vocabulary. The clear purpose was to free teachers from spending most of their time and energy teaching science vocabulary and let them concentrate on teaching meaningful science. The pressure to cover the curriculum and test the students often leads people—teachers, administrators, test makers, and parents—to be willing to accept the glib use of technical terms as evidence of understanding. Students will soon forget all of those technical words anyway. Few adults can confidently distinguish between revolve and rotate, reflect and refract, meiosis and mitosis, mass and weight, orders and families, igneous and metamorphic rocks, nimbus and cumulus clouds, mitochondria and ribosomes.

In that spirit, Benchmarks was faced with a more difficult language problem in trying to convey accurately what children in the lower grades should learn. It wouldn't do just to match the children's language exactly—Benchmarks is for educators, not students—yet to use the adult technical language of SFAA could encourage its premature teaching. The solution was to try to say in plain English what the quality of the learning should be and use technical terms only when it was time to make them part of a student's permanent vocabulary. For example, with regard to Section 4B: The Earth, a K–2 benchmark is given as "Water left in an open container disappears, but water in a closed container does not disappear," rather than as "Water in an open container evaporates".

On the education side, the issue is somewhat different. As noted elsewhere, Benchmarks uses "know" and "know how" to lead into each set of benchmarks. The alternative would have been to use a finely graded series of verbs, including "recognize, be familiar with, appreciate, grasp, know, comprehend, understand," and others, each implying a somewhat greater degree of sophistication and completeness than the one before. The problem with the graded series is that different readers have different opinions of what the proper order is. We decided, after trying many possibilities, that the best approach is to use one verb universally—"know"—and then specify more accurately just what the student "knows." The figure to the right illustrates the proposition.

Another alternative would have been to use a potentially large set of action verbs that describe different observable behaviors—for example: "The student should be able to describe (or explain, give examples of)." An advantage of using action verbs is that they persistently imply that mere recitation of memorized facts will not be acceptable. Because of the strong tendency for any set of goals to regress into catechism, this advantage was seen as highly important by team members. They wanted to constrain the methods of instruction and assessment used by teachers to reach the benchmarks. Indeed, action-verb statements may be tantamount to assessment items. If the major use of benchmarks had been to construct tests, action verbs would have provided the best chance of making the test fit the goal. But that was not the intent.

A disadvantage of using action verbs is that the choice among them is arbitrary. Although sometimes there is a clear difference in intent between, say, "give examples of" and "explain," often they would be equally reasonable ways to exhibit the same understanding.



Using any particular action verb would be limiting and might imply a unique performance that was not intended. Moreover, unless the specific action is exactly the outcome desired, use of the verb results in ambiguity about just what underlying knowledge was intended. We avoided action verbs for this reason.

For example, consider a benchmark: "The students should know that scientific problems have sometimes led to development of new mathematics." For those who prefer behavioral language, a reasonable substitute would be "The students should be able to give examples of cases in which a scientific problem led to new mathematics." But is that performance the real goal? A "reflective literacy" form of the goal would be more like, "When reading in the paper about a new scientific breakthrough, the student should wonder whether new mathematics had to be developed to solve the problem," although it is of course difficult to ascertain what is in a student's mind.

Perhaps somewhere along the line students would have to have been able to give examples to show that they had acquired understanding of and belief in the generalization. Once learned, however, the generalization might come to mind even if all the examples had been forgotten. The active availability of the generalization might better be assessed by an essay question, such as "What can lead to the development of new mathematics?" for which a satisfactory answer would have to include mention of new scientific developments. Unfortunately, such an answer could be learned by rote—but then, just as undesirable, so could a couple of relevant examples.

How big should a benchmark be? At one extreme, it might be a simple declarative sentence. At the other, it might be a paragraph of description and explanation. SFAA was mostly written in the latter form, but the general sentiment for Benchmarks went the other way, especially for the lower grades. Simplicity favors precision; complexity allows coherence.

For a while, two principles were used in making case-by-case decisions on benchmark grain size. One principle was that putting small ideas back together into bigger ideas is easier for most users than trying to grasp all the complexity of a bigger idea. The second principle was that an idea should be separated into parts if it is likely to be learned in parts. The parts would not be learned in isolation, of course, but in rich and meaningful contexts.

For example, "Atoms are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons" might be divisible into two parts: "An atom has a center, or nucleus, surrounded by electrons" and "An atomic nucleus consists of protons and neutrons." These two aspects of atomic structure are learnable separately in that sequence, as history shows. If a teacher wishes to bypass the historical sequence and teach or assess the structure of the atom as a unity, then adding the separate statements together is no problem. It does not make sense, however, to divide the second statement again, into "An atomic nucleus contains protons" and "An atomic nucleus may contain neutrons." These are more easily learned together.

The example also shows how a small grain size makes intent more specific. A benchmark stating summarily that the student should "know the structure of atoms" gives no clue about how elaborate that knowledge should be. If the statement is divided into components as above, the reader better understands the writer's intended level of sophistication.

Authors of the early Benchmarks drafts attempted maximum separation, only to find that listing all components separately does little to advance the coherence of the ideas. SFAA and Benchmarks both claim to describe a coherent fabric of understanding, not a collage of bits and pieces. So there was also some justification for emphasizing the coherence of Benchmarks by grouping them into related sets. This was done. Unfortunately, grouping Benchmarks to increase cogency can also result in distorted, diluted, or lost meanings, and where this appeared to be a danger, we went back to greater division of the ideas.

For example, consider the K–2 statement:

People can often learn about things around them by just observing them carefully, but sometimes they can learn more by doing something to them and noting what happens.

This was meant mostly to encourage exploration and to distinguish between passive observation and experimental intervention. Some team members wanted to increase the statement's cogency by connecting it to other ideas to make a larger grain size, so that the statement would become:

People can often learn about things around them by just observing them carefully, but sometimes they can learn more by doing something to them and noting what happens. People try to explain things as well as tell what they see. "Seeing what happens" can provide evidence for their explanation.

There is clearly a shift from exploration to explanation and hypothesis testing. But will the exploration get lost? Will poking at things be seen as legitimate only when it serves to test an explanation? And doesn't the addition make the benchmark more sophisticated and no longer appropriate for the K–2 span? In this instance, the decision went against the larger aggregation, but in others the decision went in the other direction. In general, this first edition of Benchmarks employs a moderate amount of grouping of fine grains, hopefully giving an optimal balance of grouping and separation.

When Project 2061 began formulating benchmarks, the question of which benchmark fits which grade level naturally arose. One school of thought argued that there should be no grade or age specifications at all, but rather attainment levels. Different students progress at different rates and so to set up any checkpoints would do a disservice to very slow and very fast students. This position was especially attractive to the teams exploring the possibility of ungraded curricula. Another school of thought opted for benchmarks at grades 4, 8, and 12 on the grounds that that was the way the nation was headed, and Project 2061 would risk being ignored if it did not get in step. Variations included starting with preschool, instead of kindergarten, or ending at grade 10 or 14, instead of grade 12.

As work progressed on curriculum models, the need to sort the benchmarks into some few bands related to cognitive and psychological child development became clear to all six of the Project teams. Independently, the teams concluded that grades K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12 were acceptable proxies for early childhood, childhood, early adolescence, and adolescence and young adulthood—as long as the boundaries were not rigid. This agreement allowed work to go forward apace, but the comments of some reviewers later suggested that there is no consensus among educators on the issue.

A central Project 2061 premise is that the useful knowledge people possess is richly interconnected. SFAA speaks of the physical setting and the living environment, not chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, or biology, and it asks for students to become aware of the similarities between the natural and social sciences and to learn about some of the interdependencies of science, mathematics, and technology. The curriculum need not be totally integrated to achieve those ends, but we are aware of the division of opinion on how strongly the Project should press for integrated or interdisciplinary studies, if at all. This issue will be explored in detail in Designs for Science Literacy.

There is another sense in which the project is concerned with connections—namely those from one grade span to the next. On any given topic, the benchmarks in grades 3–5 usually build on benchmarks already stated for K–2 and will contribute to the benchmarks stated later for grades 6–8. Such connections have been called "strands" or "story lines" in the curriculum. A concept may increase in sophistication as it proceeds linearly from one grade span to the next; two or more concepts at one level may converge at the next level to form a more complex idea; or a concept may, at the next level, connect to two or more others. For example:

When benchmarks were represented as progression-of-understanding maps, the connections were explicit and obvious. In one early version of Benchmarks, small codes were used to identify the story-line relevance of each listed statement, but some users found the coding device to be more distracting than helpful. The codes were dropped because readers found them to be confusing and because they did not identify cross-chapter connections, but the problem of how best to highlight the vertical connections among the benchmarks remains. At issue is priorities: Some team members and consultants believe that in principle (at least for Project 2061) emphasizing connections is so important that a high priority should be given to finding a satisfactory solution, whereas others regard it as of less importance, believing that the curriculum developers themselves should undertake the task of creating strands of connected benchmarks. The solution adapted—at least for this first edition of Benchmarks—was to avoid complicated coding and to indicate some of the main interconnections by cross-references in the margins. Feedback from actual use will be considered in deciding how subsequent editions will deal with the connection issue.

Education lacks a true technical vocabulary. There are few terms that all practitioners in the field agree upon, and hence precision is difficult to achieve in education writing. Jargon, on the sunny side called "technical language," exists in education, as in most fields, and borrowing terms from others or coining new ones is an honorable, if often abused, practice not restricted to education.

The intent of this Project 2061 report is to say something important about education and say it clearly, not to expand literary horizons. Since education is everybody's business, it is important that Benchmarks for Science Literacy be understandable by the general public as well as by teachers and other educators—an admirable aim not easily attained. The difficulty, of course, is that many education-related words in everyday use convey different meanings to different people, that different educators assign different meanings to the same term (even in their journals), and that many education words have different meanings for educators and the public. Consider some typical examples of very popular terms for which there is little agreement on precise meaning in or out of the education community: "choice," "know," "basics," "literacy," "standards," "reform."

The difficulty goes beyond the imprecision of the education vocabulary. Part of the trouble stems from the widespread use of catch phrases in education discourse. The popularity of such phrases is not surprising, for like slogans, they often condense a whole argument or point of view and have political wattage. "World-Class Standards," "Less Is More," "Hands-on Science," "Authentic Testing," "Outcomes-Based Education, " and "Systemic Reform" are current examples; "The Whole Child" and "Schools Without Walls" not very distant ones. They do have meanings and can sometimes be used, but unless carefully defined, their meaning is vague and tends to stifle critical discussion. Besides, they go out of favor about as fast as they come in.

Project 2061 responds to the language problem in two ways. We have tried to convey each idea with as few terms as possible and then use the terms consistently. For instance, Benchmarks uses "know" throughout and does not try to select a term having just the right shade of meaning from among "recognize," "be aware of," "be familiar with," "grasp," "understand," and other possible synonyms. Also, we have tried to make clear what we mean by the terms we do use—especially those we believe might otherwise be misconstrued or that are particularly important to our story.

The terms and phrases discussed below are mostly those that have a prominent place in the titles and content of our publications or in our descriptions of Project 2061. We have included a few catch phrases that we use from time to time, and a few that we do not use, sometimes to the dismay of their advocates.


The "All" in SFAA is intended to emphasize inclusiveness as strongly as possible. No individuals or groups are to be excluded from an opportunity to become science literate, nor are any to be presumed unable to become science literate. We believe that the science, mathematics, and technology understandings and skills spelled out in SFAA and Benchmarks are within the reach of all but the most severely mentally and emotionally handicapped individuals. To realize that goal, however, it will be necessary to redesign the basic curriculum, change teaching practices, and reform many other parts of the school system.

Still, in the real and imperfect world, "all" cannot possibly be absolute. When pressed for an operational definition, we have settled for "at least 90% of all future adults will have acquired at least 90% of the knowledge and skills recommended in SFAA." However, the main reason for adopting an optimistic goal—all—is to ensure that no students are preemptively deprived of the chance to receive a basic education in science, mathematics, and technology.

Back to Basics

Insofar as it means that the focus of schooling should be on those ideas and skills that most enable students to live interesting and productive lives, "back to basics" is an excellent slogan. Agreement, however, on what those basics are has not been easy to come by. Clearly, what was good enough for most of this century is no longer good enough and will surely be less so in the next century. Science and technology have changed what can be taken to be basic. If "basic" can include scientific reasoning, elements of the picture that scientists paint of how the world works, notions of what mathematicians do, and how the technological world relates to science and to society, then let us go "Forward to Basics."


According to Webster's New World Dictionary (1984): "bench mark 1. a surveyor's mark made on a permanent landmark of known position and altitude; it is used as a reference point in determining other attitudes 2. a standard or point of reference in measuring or judging quality, value, etc.…" Given the second meaning, the bench mark metaphor seems apt enough to justify its use as a name for the goal statements set out in this report. The Project 2061 benchmarks (many dictionaries now use the single-word form) are offered as reference points for analyzing existing or proposed curricula in the light of science-literacy goals.


For any good-sized building these days, there is a virtual library of elaborately detailed blueprints for the foundation, the structural supports, the electrical system, ventilation, and so on. The blueprints we have in mind, however, are more like architects' sketches (the ones with the little trees and people) of what new buildings would look like all together and how the various parts relate to each other. For each component of the education system, Blueprints for Reform will sketch out what the major issues are, identify what needs to be done to support the proposed Project 2061 curriculum reforms, and suggest some strategies for effecting those changes.

Core Curriculum

The idea of a core of essential studies for all students is an ancient one, the fragmentation of the curriculum and the appearance of different expectations for different classes of students being rather recent developments historically. In part, that change was a response to the need in increasingly technological and increasingly democratic societies for more people to become educated. As education expanded, it could no longer be assumed that what was best for an elite class, ruling or otherwise, was also best for everyone else. In today's world, nations struggle to create school systems that balance the needs of society with those of the individual, academic considerations with vocational ones, and basic education with education focused on special needs and talents.

Project 2061 believes that a decent balance of those interests can in fact be achieved. It has set out, however, to focus primarily on that part of the curriculum that concerns itself with the science, mathematics, and technology learning expected of all students—the science-literacy core. In Designs for Science Literacy, Project 2061 will discuss the relationship between the science literacy core and the arts and humanities core and the part of the curriculum that goes beyond the core.


"Curriculum" is an everyday word that is not easy to tie down. For some educators, it refers to a general sketch of what should happen in schools. For others, it refers to the day-by-day experiences that students actually have. Papers in the journals speak of a "planned" curriculum, which is different from the "taught" curriculum (the instruction actually delivered to students), which is different from the "learned" curriculum (what students actually learn). Project 2061 makes no such distinctions, using the term in all of these senses—curriculum as planned by teachers and administrators, as delivered by teachers, and as experienced by students; curriculum as an overview of the scope and sequence of student experiences; curriculum as a detailed delineation of learning experiences. Context makes it clear enough which specific meaning is intended.

No matter how curriculum may be defined, curriculum reform is a key element in the overall Project 2061 reform strategy. Is Project 2061 therefore a curriculum project? Not in the usual sense of designing a single curriculum (K–12, in our case), or producing materials to support the curriculum, or setting up implementation sites. But Project 2061 is formulating a variety of tenable K–12 curriculum plans (called models in the architectural and scientific sense of the word) that local school districts can use, along with other Project 2061 tools, in designing a curriculum that takes into account local circumstances and state requirements and meets the science literacy goals set out in SFAA.

The argument is frequently heard that reforming the curriculum will not result in significant and lasting K–12 reform. That is true, just as it is true for any other single change. That is why Project 2061, through its Blueprints for Reform, is looking at the other aspects of the education system in conjunction with its efforts to promote curriculum reform. These are described in Chapter 16: Beyond Benchmarks.

Curriculum Blocks

Today's curriculum, as planned and delivered, is composed of building blocks that are nearly standard in duration. Subjects in the lower grades and courses usually involve daily classes and run for a semester or year. Traditional "units" are typically about an hour a day for two to four weeks, and one after another in a fixed sequence. Project 2061 believes that greater time flexibility is desirable and so will design an illustrative variety of units that would range from a few minutes a day for several years (such as recording weather data) to all day for several weeks. We use the term "curriculum block" for this variable chunk of curriculum time.

Furthermore, traditional curriculum blocks are all much alike in form, essentially didactic. But many things can be learned better through projects (inquiry and design), seminars, and independent study. Project 2061 curriculum blocks will therefore vary in form as well as in duration and allow some variations in sequence. We intend each block to provide students with some coherence of purpose beyond the usual "topics," "units," and courses. For more on their nature and use, see Chapter 16: Beyond Benchmarks.

Curriculum Models

There are many plausible ways to schedule learning over 13 years of school that result in all students reaching the science-literacy goals recommended in SFAA and Benchmarks. To illustrate the variety of possibilities, Project 2061 is working out a few alternative models of curricula. Each will be a sketch of a K–12 curriculum with a rationale for how the various curriculum blocks were selected and organized. Project 2061 will describe several models in Designs for Science Literacy to illustrate what the possibilities are. In education circles, a "model curriculum" is exemplary practice that can be visited and observed. A Project 2061 curriculum model is more an architectural rendition or a scientific model than a reality to be copied.

Habits of Mind

The education literature speaks of "scientific attitude," "thinking skills," "higher-order thinking skills," "quantitative reasoning," "number sense," "estimation skills," "calculator and computer skills," "problem-solving skills," and "decision-making skills." These all have to do with bringing the intellect to bear on practical matters in one way or another. Although each has its own nuances, Project 2061 has elected to use the term "habits of mind" to cover that whole territory and a little more in addition. The additions include manipulation skills, communications skills, and critical-response skills.

Project 2061 takes the position that skills have limited problem-solving value in the absence of the ability to use them knowledgeably, just as knowledge has limited problem-solving value in the absence of the ability to apply it skillfully. Knowledge and skills are both essential and can be learned together. In fact, they should be learned together most of the time. In SFAA and Benchmarks they are in separate chapters, but Designs for Science Literacy will describe how to merge them, and almost all the individual Project 2061 curriculum blocks will engage students in gaining knowledge and skills simultaneously.


In their understandable eagerness to move away from the dull bookishness of so much science and mathematics teaching, educators and others have pressed for more "hands-on" learning, sometimes implying, however, that students will learn well only by manipulating physical objects. Hands-on experience is important but does not guarantee meaningfulness. It is possible to have rooms full of students doing interesting and enjoyable hands-on work that leads nowhere conceptually. Learning also requires reflection that helps students to make sense of their activities. Hands-on activities contribute most to learning when they are part of a well-thought-out plan for how students will learn over time.


With relation to curriculum, this term is used to refer to many different possibilities, from mere "coordination" among separate disciplines, to courses made up of still-identifiable chunks of two or more disciplines (as in many general science courses), to courses that are integrated around topics and issues that cut across many disciplines. For many educators, the relationship is usually confined to disciplines within a domain (chemistry and biology, for example); for some it is more adventurous (say, physics and geometry, or geology and economics); and for still others it is even more sweeping, reaching into the arts and humanities. As far as Project 2061 is concerned, students' actual learning experiences can occur in totally integrated contexts, or in segregated subjects, or (more likely) in a great variety of possible mixes of both—as long as they result in the achievement by all students of the science-literacy goals of SFAA and Benchmarks.

But with regard to curriculum, there are three senses in which Project 2061 is solidly behind integration. First, integrated planning—the curriculum in science, mathematics, and technology (and perhaps more) should be the result of the collaboration of teachers from all the relevant subjects and all grade levels, not a parceling out to grade and subject specialists. Second, interconnected knowledge—the students' experiences should be designed to help them see the relationships among science, mathematics, and technology and between them and other human endeavors. Third, coherence—the students' experiences need to add up to more than a collection of miscellaneous topics, whether under themes (everything about, say, salmon), disciplinary subject headings (Principles of Chemistry), or activities ("neat things for kids to do").


As noted earlier in this chapter, Benchmarks uses "know" throughout where others might use "learn," "recognize," "be aware of," "be familiar with," "grasp," and "understand" to indicate the particular state of knowing they have in mind for each recommendation. We urge readers to substitute at will. The rationale for this can be found in the Characterizing Knowledge section of this chapter.

Such a cavalier approach does not, unfortunately, quite get Project 2061 out of the woods. Does Project 2061 have something special in mind, it is fair to ask, by "know" (and its cognate, "know how," when referring to skill acquisition), since that is its term of choice? The answer is mostly, no. The standard dictionary definitions will do: To know is to apprehend something with clarity, or to possess specified knowledge; to know how is to be capable of doing something, to possess certain skills. Project 2061 adds one condition, namely that what counts is lasting knowledge and skills, not just what one would know or be able to do at the moment of completing school or reaching any particular grade level. Such lasting outcomes may be difficult to test for but that is not sufficient reason to be satisfied with transient learning.

Less Is More

This slogan asserts that there is more profit in learning fewer things better than in learning more things poorly. The hundreds of Project 2061 benchmarks led some reviewers of the draft manuscript to ask how that could be "less." Benchmarks demands more of students than is now customary—more depth, more connectedness, more relevance. But it demands of them far less memorization of isolated facts and concepts than the great compendium of miscellaneous topics confronting them today in the required science and mathematics curriculum. Learning important ideas in any useful way simply takes more time than has usually been assumed, at least in part because many ideas in science and mathematics are abstract and not in accord with everyday experience.

Long Term

Project 2061 bills itself as long term, by which it means to signal that it recognizes that significant reform takes time and defies quick fixes, and that the Project itself will participate in the reform movement as long as it is needed. One positive consequence of this approach is to enable the work of the Project to be approached thoughtfully and systematically with the continuous involvement of educators, scientists, and interested citizens; a less-positive one is that its contributions stretch out over a considerable length of time, even though the need for them is right now. But long term does not mean that the project's work will not be finished until 2061. See 2061.


Mathematics is the oldest branch of science, yet it is just as modern and lively as any other field of science. It is an enterprise in its own right and contributes to advances in nearly every domain from the arts and humanities to business, engineering, and the other sciences. But it is first a science—the science of patterns is how the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Academy of Sciences has put it—and it has undeniably intimate connections with the rest of science. Whatever else it is, mathematics is part of the scientific enterprise and hence part of what constitutes science literacy.

Reform of mathematics education is generally being led by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), which published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics shortly after SFAA was published. The two studies were conducted independently, so it is encouraging that they largely agree. Project 2061 has endorsed the NCTM report.


Project 2061 uses the term "precursor" in its ordinary dictionary meaning, that is, as something that precedes and is the source of something else. In Benchmarks, a precursor is a statement of an idea that leads directly or indirectly to one of the adult-level understandings in SFAA. Precursors for the earlier grades use simple, nontechnical language to indicate how young children might express their understanding; later precursors use technical terms when it is believed that students can use them with understanding.

Some precursors are simply less-sophisticated versions of later goal statements. For example, understanding that in a chemical reaction the total amount of material stays the same by weight comes before knowing that in such reactions the total amount of matter remains the same by atom count. Some precursors contribute to one or more adult goals but may be more or less distinct from them. For example, knowing what fossils are and how they are formed precedes understanding that fossils provide evidence for descent from common ancestors.


Revolution, reform, reorganization, restructuring, revision, revitalization…. There seem to be many words for reform, but in one way or another they all suggest radical change—well, more or less radical. The Project 2061 view was expressed in the introduction to SFAA: Sweeping changes in the entire educational system from kindergarten through 12th grade will have to be made if the United States is to become a nation of science-literate citizens.


By "science," Project 2061 means basic and applied natural and social science, basic and applied mathematics, and engineering and technology, and their interconnections—which is to say the scientific enterprise as a whole. The basic point is that the ideas and practice of science, mathematics, and technology are so closely intertwined that we do not see how education in any one of them can be undertaken well in isolation from the others. The title Science for All Americans was selected for reasons of economy: the alternative, "Social and Natural Science, Mathematics, and Technology for All Americans," not to mention plugging in "basic and applied" frequently, seemed altogether too clumsy and, if used in the text, needlessly tedious for readers.

Science Literacy

A literate person is an educated person, one having certain knowledge or competencies. But of course the rules keep changing with regard to precisely which knowledge and competencies define literacy—the ability to write one's name and read a simple prose passage long since having been replaced by more demanding requirements. In today's world, adult literacy has come to include knowledge and competencies associated with science, mathematics, and technology. Project 2061 has undertaken, in SFAA, to identify the knowledge and habits of mind that people need if they are to live interesting, responsible, and productive lives in a culture in which science, mathematics, and technology are central—that is, to describe what constitutes the substance of science literacy.

People who are literate in science are not necessarily able to do science, mathematics, or engineering in a professional sense, any more than a music-literate person needs be able to compose music or play an instrument. Such people are able, however, to use the habits of mind and knowledge of science, mathematics, and technology they have acquired to think about and make sense of many of the ideas, claims, and events that they encounter in everyday life. Accordingly, science literacy enhances the ability of a person to observe events perceptively, reflect on them thoughtfully, and comprehend explanations offered for them. In addition, those internal perceptions and reflections can provide the person with a basis for making decisions and taking action.


There are six school-district sites in the United States that collaborate with Project 2061 in fostering educational reform that will eventually lead to nationwide science literacy. They function as centers where Project 2061 team members explore new curriculum design possibilities, create tools for curriculum redesign, identify high-quality learning and teaching materials related to science literacy, generate ideas for curriculum blocks, test innovative techniques and technologies, and develop and implement strategies for system reform. But just as Project 2061 is not a curriculum project in the traditional sense, neither are the sites demonstration sites where visitors can go to see a Project 2061 curriculum in action, since no such thing exists. See Chapter 13: The Origin of Benchmarks for information on the location of the Project 2061 sites.


A standard, in its broadest sense, is something against which other things can be compared for the purpose of determining accuracy, estimating quantity, or judging quality. In practice, standards may take the form of requirements established by authority, indicators such as test scores, or operating norms approved of and fostered by a profession.

But that bypasses more interesting and important issues: For what aspects of science education do fully spelled-out national standards make sense? Are there some aspects for which setting national standards is unnecessary or undesirable? What do we have now in the way of standards that educators, scientists, and the public should support? What is already in the works? How can standards best be expressed? Who will monitor national standards? How, and for what purposes?

Extracting a consensus is precisely what is not needed, because it would reflect where we are rather than where we should be headed. Moreover, to be of much use, standards must be limited in number and lasting in significance. In that way, standards will free educators to concentrate on the quality of student learning rather than on its sheer quantity.

Systemic Reform

Presumably this term, now widely used in education, is intended to refer to reform initiatives that pertain to whole systems in contrast to parts of systems. That much is easy. The hard part comes in trying to define the boundaries and the parts of the particular systems that are to be reformed. More than merely an arbitrary collection of elements, a system is a set of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that can be regarded as a collective entity. Furthermore, the individual parts may be objects, processes, ideas, rules, or yet other systems. A local school district is a system, but is the state it is in a part of its system (or vice versa)? And are the universities from around the country that supply its teachers part of the system even though the school district has no control over them? Is a project engaged in systemic reform simply by virtue of its trying to change one or a few parts of the system?

Because systems tend to restore themselves when only one or a few of its parts are disturbed, the Project 2061 position is that for nationwide reform to occur in science, mathematics, and technology education, the curriculum must undergo major changes in content and organization, and everything that interacts with the curriculum must be changed to accommodate the curriculum changes. This includes policy (local, state, and federal), teacher education (wherever it takes place), the design of learning materials, assessment practices, and much more. It was in response to that belief that Project 2061 has initiated twelve studies that will lead to Blueprints for Reform.


Technology is even older than mathematics and science. Indeed, the latter may both have developed at first in response to the need to build things and solve practical problems, although discoveries in science and mathematics today often precede practical uses. In any case, although technology still has a life of its own, it is becoming much more closely tied to mathematics and science and hence is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. Understanding technology and its connections to science and mathematics is therefore necessary for science literacy. Unfortunately, technology does not have a place in the general curriculum, so academic students fail to learn about technology or develop engineering problem-solving skills. Furthermore, the technology taught in technology-education classes (formerly industrial arts, and before that, "shop") is often so singlemindedly vocational that teachers fail to teach about technology in social or scientific contexts. Project 2061 is trying to help adjust both sides of that equation.


As used in both SFAA and Benchmarks, themes identify some ways of thinking that cut across many fields of science, mathematics, and technology. The curriculum should be designed to help students gradually understand and be able to use these themes.

It is not unusual for teachers, curriculum writers, and developers of instructional materials to use themes as conceptual organizers. Some educators have used the topics in Chapter 11 of SFAA for that purpose, some going so far as to try to organize all other topics around them. Although we have no objection to such efforts, that was not the purpose we had in mind. In any case, themes in Project 2061 are not meant to be more important than other ideas, but are expected to arise naturally out of the content, rather than be imposed as a contrivance.


Benchmarks defines a series of attainment thresholds for students as they progress through school. "Threshold" implies more than a partial understanding. It requires that students' understanding be sufficient for them to make sense of what they have already learned and sufficient for them to be able to learn more. Less than the attainment threshold may still be partial understanding, but it is really too little to build on reliably. Project 2061 proposes that all students reach or surpass the thresholds in Benchmarks. As a practical matter, the education in science, mathematics, and technology that most students receive today is far below the science-literacy expectations of Project 2061. Until major changes occur in the curriculum and in the way students are taught, any worry that the floor will become the ceiling is premature.

In deciding to express science-literacy outcomes in terms of thresholds, Project 2061 takes a calculated risk. We are as concerned about students who are below average (in any particular ability relevant to science) as we are about average and above-average students. We have set goals that they can all reach. This implies that we expect most students to learn considerably more than the floor recommended in Project 2061. Knowledgeable educators have estimated that no more than a third of students ever exceed any goals that are set for everyone. If so, we might expect two-thirds to fall short of the Project 2061 minimums. One popular strategy is to ask for more than you think you can get and then settle for less. But our strategy is to play it straight: Benchmarks specifies what we intend at least 90% of all students (see All, above) to achieve, average students to surpass, and outstanding students to leave far behind.


In referring to Project 2061 products, the tool metaphor is used to emphasize their instrumental nature. If it is true that prepackaged curricula cannot usually be imported successfully into local school districts and that consequently curricula must be formulated by their users, it is no less true that they need sophisticated resources to do so. Project 2061 is trying to serve their need.


We use the term "topic" sparingly in Project 2061 because it is open-ended. It allows a wide variety of content to be included under it. We have deliberately made the benchmarks as specific as they are in order to limit the choice of core topics to those ideas that are centrally important. A long listing of topics might encourage retention of material from the present, overstuffed curriculum. For example, if "atomic structure" were listed as a topic for the middle school, some readers might feel justified in including everything that might come under that heading—such as electron shells and electro-negativities—long before they would likely make sense to most students.


Why 2061? The answer involves a couple of coincidences, some imagery, the purposes of the project, and a bit of romance. Coincidence one: The project happened to get under way in 1985, a year in which Comet Halley was in the earth's neighborhood. Coincidence two: The period of the comet, about 76 years, closely approximates the average human lifespan in developed nations. Thus, we can expect about half of the people born in 1985 to live to see the next appearance of Comet Halley—a dramatic reminder that education is for a lifetime. We wanted to keep our purpose clearly before us—namely to help transform the schools of America to enable them to prepare all their graduates to live full, interesting, and responsible lives.

Now imagine that you could have traveled with Comet Halley, visiting earth at lifespan intervals, starting with the year Edmund Halley first observed it: 1682, 1758/59, 1835, 1910, 1985/86. You would, of course, have seen incredible changes each time: changes on the face of the planet; changes in the life on it; above all, changes in the human population, its size and distribution, its behavior. From Newton to Einstein and beyond in a few lifespans.

At least since Newton's time, most of the dramatic changes in the human situation have occurred primarily because of advances in science, mathematics, and technology. Moreover, most of those changes were unforeseen at the time (and, to be fair, were probably unforeseeable). We have assumed that the same will be true between now and 2061: Science and technology will shape the future, but we cannot predict what the results will be. The comet will return in 2061, no doubt about it—but what will human existence be like?

Project 2061 is predicated on the belief that the quality of life in 2061 will depend above all on the education received by this generation of children and the next. Those young people need to leave school with a solid education in science, mathematics, and technology—one that will enable them to participate intellectually and emotionally in science, the great adventure of our times, and to become responsible and productive members of society. Education must prepare them for an uncertain future and it must include understandings and habits of mind that can serve as tools for thinking throughout life. That is why our full name is "Project 2061: Science Literacy for a Changing Future."

Copyright © 1993,2009 by American Association for the Advancement of Science