Educational and Scientific Discoveries at the Turning Point of the Century: A Biographical Introduction

In the last decade of the 20th century, the group of teachers and scientists who would later form the Association for the Cooperative Advancement of Science and Education surveyed the outcomes of our research into scientific inquiry and discovery by high school students. We realized that we had touched a sensitive nerve in the educational organism. What we had discovered in short was that concepts central to success in high school mathematics, science, and technology — concepts that take weeks, months or years to develop in school programs, and which we saw were only poorly developed by the completion of high school — can be attained by students through their own independent investigations into natural phenomena in the space of a few hours or less.

At the point when we made this remarkable discovery (described in our 1990 paper in the Journal of Science Teaching), we already had a burgeoning notion of the importance of educational assessment. Inspired by the developmental studies of Bärbel Inhelder and Jean Piaget, we recognized the power of conversations between teachers and students around strategically presented empirical tasks as a way to reveal the underlying thinking processes of learners.

Our findings and methods were warmly received by science teachers. Many expressed the sentiment that the development of capabilities for scientific inquiry and the experience of scientific discovery in the classroom were what had first brought them to teach science. We worked with these teachers to turn our research tools into practical methods for developing higher-order thinking capabilities in existing mathematics, science, and technology programs. But, as much as teachers wished to turn their attention to scientific inquiry and discovery in the classroom and to the scientific study and improvement of their own teaching, we kept running into what we called the February/March effect: “This has all been great, but now I really have to concentrate the rest of the year on preparing my students for The Test.”

Recurrent experiences of this sort led us to formulate what we call The Law of Educational Program Transformation: The information that one uses to evaluate an educational program shapes the curriculum and instruction of that program.

All who have worked in the field of education immediately recognize this law, its potency and its effects. The law operates in educational programs much as the law of gravity operates in the natural world. It is the force behind the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” — it is the principle that is now being used increasingly by governments to extend control over educational programs and institutions. But we found that within the workings of this iron law there remained a path to redemption — if we can create assessments that truly embody our highest aspirations for our students (and if we use this information strictly for educational purposes), we will have available a resource that can be directed to creating instructional programs of the highest quality, effectiveness, and humanity.

This might have been just another ideal dream of educational theorists were it not that we found the practice exemplified in the Science Research in the High School course developed by Robert Pavlica of Byrum Hills School District in New York. Pavlica achieved extraordinary success in helping high school students learn to conduct scientific research in collaboration with mentor scientists. He then extended his methods to professional development and prepared many teachers to achieve successes like his own with their own students. Pavlica’s use of what we call accomplishment-based grading, served as an organic feature of his award-winning approach to educational reform and renewal.

Our work over the last two decades has been to foster the systematic use of educational assessment findings to support a wide range of purposes at all levels of educational systems. These purposes include planning, evaluation, decision-making, policy development, accountability, professional development, and community building. The approach that has emerged not only supplies pertinent and useful information for all of these purposes, but also offers a remedy to the harmful effects associated with conventional testing and grading. We know now that it is possible to collect information that is useful for educational planning and evaluation — even information to be used for accountability — and to use it in a way that is both humane and more efficient than existing methods. However, to do so we must be prepared to give up long-standing testing and grading practices which serve no useful educational role and which consequently constitute a drain on educational vitality and productivity.

Knowing the Learner is intended for anyone who cares deeply about the future of education. But caring deeply about education implies making the requisite efforts to understand the nature of educational activities and events. It means also, to some extent, putting these understandings and feelings into practice. Knowing the Learner is intended to provide foundations upon which the reader can understand what is happening in educational programs today and to imagine how to move to more productive educational environments and practices. If anything can be said to characterize our approach as a whole, it is that many important questions concerning education are best looked at as empirical questions. Decision-making in the field of education is carried out not only by teachers, but by their supervisors, by administrators, educational specialists, and, increasingly, by government officials. The basis of these decisions is primarily tradition, convention, and expert judgment. The historic point has been reached, however, when we can no longer rely exclusively on this basis for thinking and action. It is no longer sufficient or productive in the long run. Our habits and beliefs about the best ways to do things need to be examined systematically in the light of experience and evidence. We use the term empirical to refer to this systematic testing of our beliefs and practices based on evidence and experience. Increasingly, we find and trust that our readers will begin to see as well that problems, issues, and questions that are arising in the field of education are best treated empirically. Moreover, the time has arrived when teachers themselves must play a more central role in such systematic investigations. The work of answering these questions cannot be left entirely in the hands of academicians, specialists, and decision-makers working at great distances from the scene of teaching and learning.

We will concentrate on U.S. schooling in this presentation, first because we are most familiar with it, but also because, for better or for worse, policies and practices in the U.S. are frequently adopted wholesale by school systems in other countries. Also, we draw most of our examples from science education, the field with which we have had greatest experience. The concepts and principles that we present here are, however, universal and will hold for any educational program or activity.

We have written this book because our educational institutions are failing to make needed progress in building sound educational programs and in the study of education. There are many reasons for this failure, but one is sufficient to undermine all otherwise worthy efforts — our institutions are working with the wrong information and misusing the information that they have.

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