The History of Nature: Why Don’t We Teach It?

Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., professor of biology

There is a good story behind science, but no one is telling it in American classrooms.

According to Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, science continues to be taught from K-12 to the college and university levels, in fragmented, incoherent bits and pieces rather than a coherent narrative, a history of nature.

Ursula Goodenough
Ursula Goodenough

“What’s totally lacking in the teaching of science is what I call a history of nature, what happened from the Big Bang on,” said Goodenough. “In the past few decades, the history of nature has really come together as an integrative story, with theories of the Big Bang, plate tectonics and advances in understanding biological evolution all tying the story together. Studies have shown that humans learn best when information is packaged in the form of a story. But the Historical Sciences — cosmology, evolutionary biology and earth science — exist independently in their own domains. There is no linkage.”

Over the past year, Goodenough joined five other distinguished scientists in a review of the 50 State Science Standards for a project funded by the Fordham Foundation. She said roughly half of the states failed and another twenty percent graded out as “C.”

“What we found was troubling, both as parents and as scientists,” she said. “Only 19 states have produced Standards that we would regard as meritorious — as parents, we would be satisfied to have our children educated in such contexts — while 16 were highly flawed and 15 were flat-out unacceptable. In some cases a lackluster presentation of evolution contributed to a poor outcome, but the dominant and unsurprising pattern was that states with weak Standards overall were also weak in evolution. Moreover, we understand that teachers often tend to ‘skip over the evolution sections’ so as to avoid conflict — in some cases, conflict with their own views. ”

Goodenough presented her Plenary Lecture, “The History of Nature: Why Don’t We Teach It?” from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Feb. 18, 2006, in the Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis for the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Goodenough said that a primary concern is that students come to understand and appreciate both how science is done and some of what scientific inquiry has discovered. But another basic concern is that science education, both as articulated in the Standards and as practiced in American schools, basically fails to convey to students what Goodenough refers to as the scientific worldview: a narrative account, with supporting empirical evidence, of current understandings of the origins and evolution of the universe, the planet, and life (including humans), as brought to us from what are often called the historical sciences.

The current version of the No Child Left Behind Act requires that states must test student knowledge of science starting in 2007-2008, and Goodenough fears that there will be more emphasis on “teaching the test” and less on overall understanding of the scientific perspective.

“One can find material on the Big Bang and stars in physics sections, and material on plate tectonics in geology sections, and usually some units on fossils and evolutionary theory in biology sections, ” she said. “But no attempt is made to bring the historical sciences together into a comprehensive framework in the way that a student taking American History would come away with an overview of what happened during our country’s 400 years’ existence.”

The “epidemic” of scientific illiteracy would diminish, Goodenough believes, if such a framework were a mainstay of scientific curricula.

“As things now stand, K-12 students go into science classes and hear about cells one day and atoms another day but lack any opportunity or guidance for integrating these understandings into larger contexts,” she said. “While this is not a problem for the ‘science types’ who soak up cells and atoms no matter what, most students find science classes tedious and boring and drop out as soon as they’ve met the requirements.”

Goodenough co-teaches at Washington University a course called the Epic of Evolution: Life, Earth, and the Cosmos, that presents the scientific worldview to science — disaffected students who take it as a required elective. She and her colleagues have taught it for five years.

“The students report that their interest in, and mastery of, scientific concepts is greatly enhanced when such larger contexts are provided,” she said. “We’ve become convinced that a robust and mindful grasp of the scientific worldview generates a more abiding commitment to scientific inquiry, to environmental sustainability, and to societal responsibility.”

Goodenough said that many students report an appreciation for the scientific enterprise that failed to take hold when research was presented solely as the “engine” for technological advancement. They also report that an understanding of their own lives in the vast evolutionary context that made those lives possible instills a new and valuable framework for existential orientation and informed environmental awareness.

“Even our graduate-student teaching assistants invariably express appreciation for having been exposed to the ‘big picture’ in a rigorous and memorable way for the first time,” she said.

She urged educators to think of “Big Picture” science instruction and hopes that high schools might consider a similarly team-taught course as a capstone experience.