Learning, Science, Standards, and Education Reform

Education reform: who, what, why?

Education reform, particularly within the STEM disciplines, has been a national headline for several years.  Recently it seems that the newly developed Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards have become both a result of and an impetus for nationwide calls for rethinking the way we approach the education of our children. The nation is increasingly becoming divided, however, as to who should control the content of reform efforts and why.

The Constitution does not explicitly mention education. However, the Tenth Amendment does state that, “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Education, then, becomes one of the responsibilities reserved to the states. This means that the states have exclusive power over determining what is taught in public schools.


The “what” of teaching and learning is most often presented in the form of academic standards, the benchmarks for student achievement in subject disciplines. Academic standards are the performance expectations that outline what students should know and be able to do in each subject and serve as the foundation for curriculum and instruction. I have argued that, when developing academic standards, it is crucial to consider the influence that standards have over the disciplinary epistemologies (beliefs about knowledge and knowing) that the standards reflect as well as the pedagogies (practice of teaching) that they inspire. I primarily focus on science as an example, however it is important for standards in all content areas to be written such that they allow students to engage with knowledge in ways that are authentic to the nature of the disciplines as well as in ways that are consistent with theories and research on the developmental needs of students.

Unfortunately, one of the more significant challenges that states face when creating academic standards (whether the challenge is acknowledged or not) is a relative lack of access to the research and resources that contribute to productive learning in subject disciplines.

In this post I will explore a few of the learning theories (conceptual frameworks that work to explain how people acquire, modify, and reinforce information and ideas) that are embedded within the language of academic standards. I examine state-level standards using Nebraska as an example and compare them to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a framework developed on a national level.  I provide evidence that discrepancies between the two frameworks may be a result of disparate access to resources and argue that rather than threaten state sovereignty over matters of education, the NGSS can be a powerful tool to level the national academic playing field while raising the bar for achievement in science.

What do we know about how we learn?

MP900309173The most seminal and current understanding of how people learn indicates that even the youngest children are capable of complex cognitive processes.  Our current understanding of learning has evolved as a result of many decades of research and theory in the behavioral, psychological, and social sciences. In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget argued that cognition develops through phases as individuals actively engage with environmental stimuli. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky expanded on Piaget’s work and developed a theory of learning as a socio-cultural activity. Vygotsky was responsible for introducing the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) into the study of learning. This concept is used to describe the “distance” between what an individual can already do on her own and what she will eventually be able to do with support from one or more experts. In other words, children are not blank slates who simply absorb the information impressed upon them. They learn by incorporating new information and ideas into existing schema through interaction with others and with the environment*.

Progressivism, the student-centered movement for elementary and secondary education embraced the work of Piaget and Vygotsky. The movement, built on the work of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and most closely associated with John Dewey, embodied a vision for elementary and secondary education that focused on the belief that learning occurred primarily through experiences that allow students to access prior knowledge and apply it to the meaningful construction of new knowledge. The belief was that the classroom environment should reflect everyday life, and that the subjects explored by students should be presented in a way that integrated knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines, and that encouraged critical thinking and reasoning. Research and theory into how children learn have led experts to advocate for pedagogical strategies that allow students to be actively engaged in the construction and refinement of ideas. Teachers can be most effective if their instruction is responsive to the ideas and ways of thinking that students bring to the classroom and facilitate rather than dominate learning.

Unfortunately, the academic standards put forth by many state school boards do not reflect these theories of how children develop knowledge but rather are influenced more substantially by the behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories of the mid twentieth century. Behaviorist perspectives on learning explicitly limit considerations of learning to behavior that can be observed. The child is regarded as a passive vehicle that enters the classroom as a blank slate that may be shaped through conditioning responses to environmental stimuli. In the 1960’s cognitivist learning theories emerged in critical response to behaviorism. Cognitivists argue that in order to understand how humans process and retain information, internal mental processes must be considered in addition to overt behavior. Children learn by acquiring concepts and procedures. Essentially, according to both behaviorists and cognitivists, learning is something done to the student rather than by the student.

Both theories have proven quite appealing to educators because they allow for teaching to be systematically organized around measurable objectives that focus on behavioral skills and processes. These pedagogies privilege assessment focused on  what psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and Vygotsky classified as elementary mental functions which include basic memory, perception, and attention as opposed to higher mental functions like voluntary memory, logical reasoning, and complex problem solving. In science education this has led to many state curriculum standards being written such that they limit performance expectations to quantifiable objectives that emphasize the acquisition of vocabulary, the ‘scientific method,’ and the recitation of canonical facts in over conceptual and collaborative meaning making.  These theories imply that teacher behaviors can be related to student outcomes on standardized assessment tools in a ‘process equals product’ -type model.  Consequently, learning experiences in science class tend to be structured such that the teacher has tight rein over both the thematic and the participation structures of classroom interactions.  Student participation is limited to providing responses to prompts that are initiated, directed, and evaluated by the teacher. This organizational pattern reflects what Courtney B. Cazden (1988) in her seminal book, Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning,  referred to as the “default pattern” of student-teacher interaction that often results in an grossly asymmetrical structure in which the teacher contributes to two-thirds of talk time. When students are allowed to participate more actively in ‘hands-on’ activities, it usually means following a prescribed series of steps such that an experiment may illustrate a fact or phenomenon that the teacher/textbook/curriculum has established as a goal for learning. We can be satisfied that the students have ‘learned’ when they are able to represent mental functions via standardized, observable, and measurable behaviors. MP900398817


One thought on “Learning, Science, Standards, and Education Reform

  1. Amy, This post was so insightful and thought-provoking, thanks. I have a few responses:

    1. Your addressing the disparity between state and national resources for creating standards was eye-opening for me. It’s such an important point in light of what the Constitution says about states’ responsibility for public education. It reinforces a macrocosmic point about how tied up knowledge is with resources. It seems like the inequality of some states’ resources compared to others’ may have been an unforeseen consequence of the states’ rights political philosophy. As you learn more about standards, I’d be interested to hear you speak more about the policy side of this issue.

    2. You did a nice rhetorical analysis of the Nebraska and NGSS standards. You should definitely consider submitting your work not just to science ed. journals, but also publications on rhetorical studies. Not to mention ed. policy journals!

    3. I really wish we had a class during the first year of our program on the trajectory of modern learning theory, moving us through Skinner, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, etc. Neither 780 nor 790 really did that, and I feel like I had to teach a lot of it to myself. Your explanation at the start of your post is a helpful overview (that you probably had to teach yourself too, huh).

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