In what is sure to get an "amen" from anyone who crammed long-forgotten definitions of protoplasm and cytoplasm for a biology exam, a major new report being released today says U.S. schools need to abandon much of their traditional, memorization-based instruction in science and math.
Instead, says the new, four-year study from the nation's largest umbrella organization of scientific societies, the emphasis in science instruction should be shifted to helping students think about how things and organisms work and how they relate to one another.
"We have to cut out the dross, the duplication, the emphasis on memorizing mountains of disconnected information," said F. James Rutherford of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, which prepared the report.
Guide in Planning
The association plans to use the report in developing a new science and math curriculum, which the California Department of Education plans to adopt as a guide in planning its own methods of instruction for the 1990s.
The association report, "Science for All Americans," is part of a long-term effort by scientists and educators to reform the nation's science and math curriculum to better equip all students for what will be a more technological and competitive world in the next century.
It is the latest in a series of recent reports that have found U.S. students lagging behind those in other nations in math and science skills. A study on math and science released last month by the Princeton-based Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT test, found U.S. 13-year-olds trailing well behind their counterparts in South Korea, Ireland, England, Canada and Spain.
The 200-page AAAS report on science offers a new blueprint of what the scientifically literate person needs to know. It concludes schools should teach less science and math--not more--but teach it better.
"You have to know something is wrong when teaching something as exciting as science can result in most of us disliking it," said Rutherford, director of the project.
In biology, for example, Rutherford noted that "they are teaching literally thousands of words; the classifications of everything . . . the parts of a bee, the parts of animals and the parts of microscopes. That's because these are easy to test for. But it isn't necessary.
"We need to get down to some solid ideas that hang together."
Rather than dwelling on rote learning of biological classification lists, the report says more time must be devoted to understanding concepts such as the interdependence of living things, the flow of matter and energy, how heredity works and what cells do.
"You don't need to know all the parts of the cell," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who has been assisting AAAS and using its work to rewrite California's science curriculum. "We need to know how evolution works."
The project, which is being funded by the Carnegie Corp., the National Science Foundation and others, now moves to a four-year phase of developing an entire new science and math curriculum.
California will be at the forefront of that effort, with the state Department of Education helping to underwrite related curriculum development projects in the San Diego and San Francisco school districts. At the same time, the state is expected to incorporate much of what the AAAS has recommended as it rewrites its science teaching guidelines, standardized testing on science and guidelines for textbooks that will be used in the 1990s.
"It's science for the many," Honig said. "What we've been doing is concentrating on the few who are going ahead with scientific careers. . . . Look at science textbooks. Now they look like encyclopedia reference books."
Other findings and recommendations of this first phase of the AAAS' Project 2061--which draws its name from the year Halley's comet returns--include:
- Science teachers are being required to teach too much to too many students.
- Many teachers lack a basic education in science and mathematics.
- Schools must do a better job of integrating science and math with history and other disciplines.
- Rather than emphasizing the right answers, teachers must prepare students to be inquisitive and critical thinkers.
William O. Baker, retired chairman of the board of AT&T; Bell Laboratories and co-chairman of Project 2061's council on science and technology education, said, "At stake is not only America's ability to remain in the front ranks of industrial nations, but the ability of our citizens to make informed decisions on public policy."