20th Century

In the last session, we introduced some voices from the late ‘90s and into the turn of the century that were crying out for a reconciliation between science and the humanities. Some of these voices are still present actually, but they have had some pretty big obstacles. At this time (i.e. the turn of the century), we also see just a shadow of concern over how policy might affect science education. In 2001, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in response to reports that American students were falling behind their international peers. The initial response from science educators was that the policies of NCLB were positive, but there was some caution that the focus on assessments might pose a challenge for inquiry-based teaching methods (Johnson and Hanegan). 


By 2015, that caution we heard regarding assessments resulted in research studies confirming that our present day practice of high pressure teacher accountability does, in fact, have a negative impact on teaching effectiveness (Hayes and Trexler)(Johnson). Science educators continue to struggle with how to implement inquiry effectively. Inquiry provides students with the experience of joy and discovery, as well as opportunities for confusion and frustration, especially while they struggle with perceived inconsistencies. This experience is an important factor in student engagement, but it is also a challenge to allow students to work through these experiences in the environment of standardized assessments focused on canonical understanding (Jaber and Hammer). Even for an experienced teacher, the political and cultural pressure of test scores is a significant barrier to implementation of inquiry (Brandt). The most recent policy changes in education still cite economics and the need to “produce” more STEM professionals as a motivating factor (Hayes and Trexler). Yet the desire to take time to build context and experience is firm. Reformers not only continue to advocate for these reforms in K-12 schools, but have expanded the target population to include undergraduates. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has issued a plan to support a shift toward undergraduate programs that focus less on content and more on depth, utilizing more dynamic methods of teaching (AAAS). From project-based learning (Zovinka and Sunseri) to “practice-oriented curricula” (Mody) to drawing in class (Landin), even college professors are realizing the importance of contextual experiences with their students. A biology professor from the University of Akron comments that such a curriculum “will not just prepare students to pass the usual biology courses… but students in this program will have a greater appreciation for the philosophy of science, the wonder of creation and be able to integrate knowledge far better than the usual student entering college.” (Alveary science curriculum review)

Additionally, there is now a recognition that the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of our society is being negatively affected by “nature-deficit-disorder.” Further, lack of experience and our modern version of detached environmental education may be creating a fear of nature and generating feelings of futility. “If educators are to heal the broken bond between the young and the natural world, they and the rest of us must confront the unintended educational consequences of an overly abstract science education” (Lorsbach and Jinks)(Louv). A “modern” nature study education, they tell us, would help the student realize his relationship with the natural world in his locality, as well as relationships between local species, by bringing him into direct contact with natural habitats (Stebbins). A “modern” science education would also help the student understand social and ethical complexities involved in developing technologies and addressing societal issues. This reform would require that we confront the “constraints of test-based accountability” and the “educational narratives” that oversimplify science by compartmentalizing it. Rather, we must integrate curricula as university and “informal” educators already do (Feinstein and Kirchgasler). A “modern” science education that nurtures budding scientists would help them grasp fundamental concepts and skills through deep, experiential learning, allow them space to pursue their own questions through open-ended projects, and demonstrate that pursuing answers to their questions will positively impact the world (Drew). 

Our contemporary reformers do not know Mason. They do not know that she advocated long ago for students to build a relationship with science by spending much time in nature, by asking and pursuing their own questions, by reading narratives written by and about naturalists and scientists, and by keeping up with the current events and culture of their day. Her students began their science education in the fields of their locality observing everything through an interdisciplinary lens, a practice that continued throughout their schooling. She believed fundamentally that our humanness must never be lost from science or education. It seems reasonable to consider then that Charlotte Mason, a reformer from the early 20th century, may provide an answer for our “modern” educational needs. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we need only to update the foundation and structure that she laid.