Kids, Tools, and Ray Bradbury's Basement

By Van Horn, Royal | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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Kids, Tools, and Ray Bradbury's Basement


Van Horn, Royal, Phi Delta Kappan


Fair warning! The first 90% of this column will consist of seemingly disjointed vignettes. I will make sense of the bits and pieces later. Thanks in advance for beating with me.

Some years ago - when creativity was all the rage - I heard an interesting story about Ray Bradbury's basement. In one corner of his basement the noted science fiction writer reportedly had a drafting table, paints, sketch pads, an easel, and other art supplies. In another corner of his basement there was a complete workshop for wood, metal, and electricity. In a third corner, there was an exhaustive library of reference works, the Great Books, novels, biographies, poetry, a library table, and a comfortable chair with a perfectly positioned reading lamp. In the fourth corner there was a writing center with all kinds of paper, pencils, pens, a typewriter, and so on. Whatever tools Bradbury needed were near him at all times.

Shortly after the Russians beat us to the punch by launching Sputnik - the first earth-orbiting satellite - America was in a panic. In the 10 or so years that followed Sputnik, American educators, with lavish funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), undertook the most massive and expensive curriculum revision ever attempted. This grand effort was aimed mostly at the nation's K-12 science curriculum. (After all, the Russians were clearly ahead of us.) The results were an "alphabet soup" of curriculum materials: SAPA (Science - A Process Approach, elementary science), ISCS (Integrated Science Curriculum Study, junior high), ESCP (Earth Science Curriculum Program, junior high), BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, high school), and so on. If you were in school in the late Sixties or the Seventies, chances are that you studied from one of these programs. The curriculum-writing teams for these projects often consisted of 20 to 30 people, including educators, Nobel laureates in science, media experts, lab technicians, child psychologists, curriculum experts, and more. Never before had a more illustrious think tank of experts been assembled for such a mission.

Ironically, almost all of the NSF curriculum-writing teams defined science as "both a body of knowledge [content] and a process for acquiring and refining knowledge." The process involved such steps as "observation, inference, measurement, data collection, and design of experiments." The curriculum materials the teams produced consisted of content (often textbooks) and a sequence of tightly integrated laboratory experiments. Students were expected to spend two to three days a week "doing science." A major goal of these projects was to get students to "do the work of scientists and to think like scientists."

Environmental psychology, a little-known discipline, deals with the relationship between humans and their environment. (See my article on this subject in the June 1980 Kappan.) This relationship is usually viewed as dynamic, but the influence of the physical environment on human behavior is also a concern. Do the attributes of a room influence how we act in it? I am reminded of the answer to this question every time I walk into a university lecture hall and see a hundred students with notebooks on their tablet-arm chairs just waiting to receive the pearls of wisdom the room has told them I will deliver. (Why do I have so much trouble getting a discussion going in these lecture halls?) I often wonder what our K-12 classrooms tell students.

The Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study (BTES) was one of the largest single educational research studies ever conducted. BTES ethnographers spent months in California classrooms carefully documenting what students did during every minute of the classroom day. When the reports came out between 1973 and 1976, most of us were appalled to read that the average student spent 51% of his or her time doing "seatwork." I disbelieved the study so strongly that I replicated it in Florida classrooms and, sure enough, came up with a figure of 53%.

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