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ASTC Dimensions January/February 1999
  Young visitors at the Exploratorium.
Young visitors enjoy the Boundaries exhibition at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, Calif. It was made possible through a National Science Foundation grant that focused on presenting theme-based exhibitions for school audiences.

Science centers should embrace standards

By Dennis M. Bartels

Dennis Bartels is director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, Calif. He has been involved with the development of statewide science education standards in California and South Carolina.

If museums are to work with schools on science literacy in a serious and sincere way, then they must incorporate the National Science Education Standards (1995). To ignore or dismiss them would, in fact, be a disservice to students, schools, and museums. The Standards are designed to ameliorate a most vexing problem for schools—a lack of focus. For museums to add to the confusion, and fail to see the relevance of the Standards in advancing one of our most sacred purposes—access to science knowledge for all—would be tragic.

The push for educational learning standards in schools is almost ten years old. In that time, the education field has learned a great deal about efforts aimed at improving standards-based education. So, too, have science centers. This is a good time to take stock and declare that the informal science field is a principal ally and significant beneficiary of and player in the standards movement.

In December 1997, the Exploratorium hosted a symposium in San Francisco about the value of the National Science Education Standards to museum work. Several observations about the field emerged at this symposium. First, there seems to be a growing understanding that school reform is very complex and, as a result, our responses to the needs of formal educators are growing more sophisticated. Second, there exists a diversity of uses, and interpretations, of the Standards across the field. Third, we realized that whenever the conversation appeared to be zeroing in on the Standards per se, it quickly veered away to more general topics about education.

It is this last observation that is perhaps most curious and telling. At the risk of misrepresenting my colleagues, let me venture a few possible reasons for our collective avoidance. The first possibility is that Standards may challenge our comfort zones and suggest some degrees of freedom that we might have to give up to be more deeply involved in the science literacy effort. A second possibility is that we are not yet familiar enough with the Standards: they are not in our bones. We have not argued over them and fretted about them and analyzed how we as science centers might have to change if we took them more seriously.

Neither condition is a serious impairment. Nor is either a license to accept a naive view of education standards or the realities of school. Those of us who work closely with formal educators are coming to understand the importance of education standards and how to work smarter with schools. Not surprisingly, however, there are severe growing pains for those centers that dare try—in part because we do not have all the answers. But neither do the people who developed the Standards. Aren’t these the right things to be struggling with and arguing about? If nothing else, the dialogue that has been initiated may be the first significant accomplishment—for museums, as well as schools—of the National Science Education Standards.

The Exploratorium is deeply invested in the Standards movement. Our Executive Director, Goéry Delacôte, served on the governing board that developed the National Science Education Standards. With substantial support from the National Science Foundation and the State of California, we have been given the means to help hundreds of teachers translate the Standards into meaningful learning experiences for their students. In 1994, our Center for Public Exhibition received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to assist with the implementation of the California Science Framework (1991) through thematically designed exhibitions. Although the California Science Framework preceded the national Standards, it was based largely on the recommendation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s report Science for All Americans (1989), a precursor to the National Standards. In my role as director of the Exploratorium’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I have seen the Standards provide our programs with the direction, focus, validation, and leverage that have allowed us to expand beyond "one teacher at a time" and cross over institutional, geographical, political, and hierarchical boundaries.

This is to say that I have experienced the incredible renewal of hundreds of dedicated education professionals through the National Science Education Standards. Here, at the Exploratorium, we now think holistically about the classroom, bringing questions about student learning into our teaching programs. As a result of our work with standards-based projects and programs, our emphasis has changed in decisions about content and learning design. We consciously point out the Standards manifest in our examples of teaching. And our first-hand knowledge of the Standards has enhanced our credibility and made many relationships with outside partners more feasible. It has not always been pretty, but the Standards continue to contribute to our learning.

Why should science centers concern themselves with the Standards? For two very good reasons. First, science centers should be active participants in the work of improving science education. To the extent that they are, the Standards should serve as the basis for that work. Second, the National Science Education Standards advance the same essential messages as science centers, thereby providing a common and compelling agenda for all of us in the science literacy enterprise.

An argument for deliberate work with schools

Scientific knowledge is doubling every few years. As a result of breathtaking changes—the sudden growth of information technologies, medical breakthroughs, and advances in genetic engineering, for example—most major societal institutions are in a state of change. Yet schools remain much the same institutions as our grandparents attended. Faced with this flood of change—in large measure driven by science and technology—we are, as a society, failing miserably to produce an informed and scientifically literate populace.

Undoubtedly, many institutions could assist in reversing this trend. Mass media, for example, might help, and to a degree, science centers as well. But surely schools are still in the best position to make the biggest difference in the shortest run. They remain our key leverage point.

In the 1960s, Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium, stated that genuine scientific understanding was in danger of being concentrated in the hands of a few, in large part because of the way it was being taught in schools. He believed that science is, first and foremost, an essentially human endeavor, and second, a universal birthright. He launched the Exploratorium to help make science accessible to the curious knowledge seeker in all of us. He conceived the exhibits as a collection of apparatuses for teaching that might serve as an antidote, or at least an alternative, to the overformalized style of science instruction that he observed in his time. As a result, the staff of the Exploratorium has always interpreted the institution as being less of a museum and more of a learning design and research center.

Frank Oppenheimer’s observations are relevant today. We are still bound by a public obligation to advance science literacy—yet limited in our resources. Science centers create content, projects, and programs that are useful learning designs, but schools still remain the pivotal point of science learning for the vast majority of us. Therefore, working with schools ought to be a vital part of our missions. While our resources are somewhat limited, our position nevertheless is strong, so we need to be strategic and smart.

From the school’s perspective

One of the American education system’s greatest assets—and perhaps one of its worst liabilities—is that it is a quintessentially democratic institution. Any opinion about education, especially about what is taught and how it is taught, has a place to be heard somewhere in the system. From a teacher’s point of view, this cacophony of commentary may take the form of requirements from principals, mandates from school boards, expectations from parents, guidelines from state boards of education, recommendations from superintendents, and laws, even, from legislative bodies. Then there are the textbook publishers, test makers, and professional development providers who have their own take on what is needed in the classroom.

At best, these messages are mixed; at worst, they are out-and-out contradictions. In the absence of any clear direction provided by the education system, each teacher must decide how best to navigate a course in these treacherous waters. Unfortunately, the "noise-to-signal ratio" is very, very high. To the extent that museum education professionals respect and respond to the same set of learning standards that teachers must address, the less noise and more signal we put back into the lives of teachers trying to make sense of it all.

The National Science Education Standards were designed to provide a beacon for teachers and a focus for schools. On our part, to ignore the Standards is either naive or cavalier. The reality for most teachers is that their students’ performance will be measured against those same Standards. That trend is only growing in strength as more states enact school accountability laws. Teachers are in various stages of angst about how to address these developments. How can science centers, therefore, in good conscience do serious work with teachers and pretend that standards do not exist?

A case for the Standards

To embrace the Standards should not be that difficult for us—at least as represented in the National Science Education Standards. After all, they restate the basic tenets of science centers.

First, the standards stand unequivocally for access to science learning for all. For too long, our society has all-to-easily explained why so many of us fail to learn mathematics and science. Ours is one of few cultures that seems to believe that some people are endowed with special mathematics and science abilities, while others are not. Many other world cultures believe that, with the right effort and the right tools, most people are capable of significant scientific and mathematical understanding. Science centers provide the proof of that world view in our own country. If we have found ways to make science and technology more accessible to most of us, shouldn’t some of this know-how be transferred to other learning institutions?

Science centers should pick up the Standards banner for another compelling reason—commitment to content. Both the National Science Education Standards and science centers are heavily invested in content; it is a clear position in an often-confusing public debate. Moreover, science museums can serve as a "standard" for the Standards in separating the domain of science from the popular culture of pseudo-science. Schools as well as the public at times need places to turn for help in separating the two.

A third obvious overlap is that the National Standards embrace inquiry seriously for the first time—as a standard in its own right. This presents a unique opportunity for science centers to offer their expertise. We have spent years developing programs and processes that celebrate human curiosity and self-directed exploration. Teacher development of inquiry-based practices in science has been one important reason for the National Science Foundation’s long-standing support of the Exploratorium’s education programs.

From the point of view of a sponsor or funder already invested in the goal of science literacy, why not make the case that science centers are an integral part of the science education system? We represent a ready infrastructure of some 300 science and technology centers nationwide in communities of various sizes and demographics. These centers are already part of the science education enterprise in their local communities and many are already working in the schools. They care about making science and technology accessible to many people who have experienced difficulty in fathoming these subjects. They stand apart from the formal education system and therefore have more freedom to experiment and take risks.

This is not to ignore the fact that science centers need help, too. The key, perhaps, to science literacy for all as identified by the Standards is to reduce clutter in the curriculum. As science educators, we have overwhelmed our audience with information, trivia, and disconnected facts at the expense of a few clear and central concepts and ideas. Both schools and science centers have to focus on key ideas and experiences in science in order to allow everyone the opportunity to understand. Science centers are not immune to the lack of focus commonly attributed to school science. Museums can take their cues from the Standards, too. After all, we are part of the same global effort.

Some practical advice

Some in the field caution science centers to keep a safe distance from any standards, either because they find them too restrictive (for a variety of reasons) or fear that they will be when the next round of standard-setting eventually comes around. Therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding of the Standards as a reform tool. Some read the Standards quite literally and assume a direct hierarchical relationship of the Standards to the teacher’s classroom (and the rest of us). Others see the true manifestation of the National Science Education Standards in the diverse behaviors and multiple uses that it stimulates. After all, standards do not change classrooms. People do.

Here at the Exploratorium, we learned that lesson over and over again as we worked on our NSF Framework grant, which focused on presenting theme-based exhibitions for school audiences. Staff-guided experiences with teachers that centered around the museum’s exhibits provided the greatest professional growth for everyone involved—which ironically had been the working premise of our teaching programs from their inception 30 years ago.

The take-home lesson is this: building new exhibitions explicitly tied to the Standards is probably not as efficient, or as effective, as using well-designed learning experiences to reveal the ties that already exist in exhibitions. Rich and multifaceted exhibit sets allow museum educators to do this.

What one cannot take for granted is that standards statements are as much political documents as they are educational documents. They embody assumptions and values about who can learn, how they learn, and what is important to learn. This makes standards, generally speaking, both powerful and controversial.

At the Exploratorium, we have learned that being a science center provides us a privileged position. We are surprisingly immune to many of the reform debates raging in schools. We think this is so because our credibility is protected by our devotion to good science and commitment to authentic science learning experiences that appeal to a broad cross-section of the population. We cannot compromise our commitment to real science, and the National Science Education Standards embody that same principle. Schools and museums will of course differ in structure and design, but address the same global education vision outlined in the Standards. The trick is to look for your own reflection inside them.

For more information

In spring 1999, the Exploratorium will publish a monograph that elaborates on the Standards and other lessons from its recently completed NSF Framework project. In addition, NSF will publish and disseminate a book—Inquiry: Thoughts, views, and strategies for the K-5 classroom—this spring. It is a work product of the Exploratorium’s Institute for Inquiry.

©1999 Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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