School of Education News

Rudolph's new book describes changes in science teaching over time — and why it matters today

June 14, 2019

With the legitimacy of science increasingly under attack, UW–Madison’s John Rudolph has authored a new book that explains how and why we teach science in schools matters.

Rudolph, who started his career as a middle and high school science teacher in Wisconsin, notes that while there is a strong belief in this country that science should be taught, there is less agreement about how to teach it, or why.

How We Teach Science book coverRudolph, a professor and chair of the School of Education’s highly regarded Department of Curriculum and Instruction, is an expert on the history of science education in American schools. Much of his research in this area is now included in his latest book, “How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters,” published by Harvard University Press.

Digging into this topic, Rudolph explains that the most important question to ask is “Why should we teach science?” The answer to that question, he says, will then determine how it is taught.

And this is especially true when it comes to teaching the scientific process.

Rudolph notes that nearly all of the basic knowledge being taught in high school science classes — such as the laws of motion, structure of the atom, cell division, DNA replication, and the universal speed limit of light — is rock solid and scientifically accepted. Similarly, nearly everyone agrees that students and the public should have a better understanding of the methods used to gain this knowledge.

But what, exactly, is the scientific method? For well over a century, scientists and science educators, Rudolph explains, have grappled with this question.

“Looking back to the beginning of science education in the United States, we see significant changes in how the process of science has been portrayed in schools,” says Rudolph, who also is a faculty affiliate of the Department of Educational Policy Studies and the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies. “At times it was taught as a form of inductive logic before the appearance of the five-step ‘scientific method.’ It then shifted to teaching science as a process of inquiry, and now reformers are emphasizing the ‘practices’ of science.”

“Each of these characterizations has had consequences for how the public and science interact,” adds Rudolph.

John Rudolph
Rudolph’s “How We Teach Science” explains that each approach was influenced by a combination of the intellectual, cultural, and political circumstances of the time. During some periods, he notes, learning about experimentation and scientific inquiry was viewed as a means to intellectual and moral improvement. But in other times, it was seen as a way to minimize public interference in government-funded research.

Throughout the book, Rudolph explains why it’s so important to understand this history and its nuances, and how that understanding can guide what we should be doing in science classrooms today.

“How we think about and teach science will ultimately determine how science is perceived and received by the public,” says Rudolph. “Understanding this is crucial to the future welfare of citizens everywhere.”

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