Back to the Future? Reconsidering the Role of 19th-Century Nature-Study in 21st-Century Science Teaching

By McComas, William F. | The Science Teacher, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Back to the Future? Reconsidering the Role of 19th-Century Nature-Study in 21st-Century Science Teaching


McComas, William F., The Science Teacher


Last summer, my family and I traveled to the northernmost point of Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado, where the Green River enters the park by cutting through the majestic rock-forming towers called the Gates of Lodore. We and a dozen other intrepid adventurers were there to float the river and enjoy some time in the outdoors. I did not realize as we entered the large inflatable rafts that I would come away with a new understanding about the state of science teaching in America and a possible avenue for how it might be improved.

In addition to the incredible scenery, what was remarkable about the experience was the conversation. After quickly finishing the inevitable comparison of jobs, towns, and families, talk turned to nature: the rocks, their age, the fossils they may contain; the weather and whose predictions would serve to be most accurate and why. We encountered animals--deer, sheep, and a multitude of birds--and observed plants, such as the scouring rushes used by pioneers to clean their pots and pans. At night, the discussions turned to the setting Sun, the rising Moon, and the shifting patterns of the stars.

What was most astonishing about all this talk of the natural world was that it was almost exclusively the domain of the adults. The children on the trip were interested in the rapids, swimming, and food--they did not seem captivated by the complex and even beguiling lessons revealed by nature when one considers it closely. Although school had taught these children many of the basic scientific principles that govern the natural world, they did not seem to have the curiosity and knowledge of the connections possessed by the adults. Even so, these children were more fortunate than most because they were having a firsthand experience with the outdoors.

Richard Louv would not be at all surprised by my observations made in the wilds of Colorado and Utah. His recent book Last Child in the Woods (2005) tells us that today's adults may be among the last generation with extensive firsthand knowledge of the world of nature. Louv goes so far as to suggest that many of our children are so removed from the real world that they may suffer from what he calls "nature-deficit disorder." He demonstrates convincingly that our children are the least likely in history to have extensive personal experiences with nature for reasons including heightened but illogical parental fear of the outdoors, a perceived lack of opportunities to interact with nature, and the demands of our increasingly overscheduled lives. Children now may play more soccer than their parents ever did, but they spend much less time actually looking at the blades of grass on which they compete each Saturday.

The lack of sustained, authentic, and detailed contact with nature may be the defining phenomenon of this generation. However, the solution to the problem may be found in the past by examining how a renewed version of nature-study might become an important element in our nation's science education programs.

What is nature-study?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nature-study was the most widespread orientation to science instruction in the nation's schools. During the four or so decades of its existence, nature-study evolved to become both a common body of knowledge and a philosophical orientation to instruction. As such, nature-study can be considered the first science framework since it defined what science should be the focus of instruction and how it might be taught.

The content of nature-study

The content of nature-study was virtually everything found in the natural world. For instance, the goal was for students to understand the structure and function of individual plants and animals and their interrelationships; the world of rocks, minerals, and fossils; the night sky; weather and climate; and a host of other similar topics investigated in a way that even current science instruction rarely accomplishes. …

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