RECENTLY I recalled an incident from some 20 years ago when a fellow middle school science teacher nearly put my eye out. This wasn't an angry encounter. Rather, a group of us had come together in a classroom after school to discuss an article in a professional journal that advocated cooperative learning for students. We had barely begun the conversation when someone made the mistake of mentioning "kids constructing their own knowledge." Immediately I heard a shuffling sound and turned my head just in time to avoid being hit by an enflamed colleague swinging a meterstick back and forth with both hands, like a fireman at a three-story blaze, shouting, "And then--look out! We'll just have to hose off all their crazy ideas and teach them real science!"
This bit of excitement turned out to be just a taste of the controversies to come as our science department engaged in passionate discussions during the school year over reform issues like student-centered teaching and inquiry learning--discussions that were typically disappointing and often divisive. I wondered, "Whenever we consider changing the status quo in classrooms, what is it about the way we talk to one another that makes discourse so unproductive?"
In the years since, I have listened intently during dozens of school board sessions, textbook-adoption meetings, and science department retreats where participants have used closely held beliefs, values, and images to stake out positions on issues of instruction and curriculum. What I have found in these conversations is that, despite a number of shared goals for student learning that participants bring to the table and despite the shared understanding that there are as many ways to teach as there are teachers, the dialogue about science education quickly and inevitably reaches a stalemate in a contest between two irreconcilable scripts. For lack of more colorful terms I will refer to them as "traditional talk" and "reform talk." It is this rhetorical bottleneck that I want to explore here, using a recent experience with such a conversation as an illustration. First, however, some background is necessary.
Roughly speaking, traditional talk focuses on student acquisition of scientific facts, concepts, principles, and skills. It argues that the classroom works most efficiently when teachers give clear explanations of scientific ideas and guide students through carefully controlled laboratory experiences. Reform talk, on the other hand, emphasizes that teachers must challenge and build upon students' existing ideas, as well as offer authoritative explanations of scientific phenomena. Reform talk further argues that students are often capable of making sense of scientific ideas on their own or in concert with other students and that learners can best understand the processes of science by conducting their own investigations.
At this point, I have probably insulted readers who consider themselves reformers or traditionalists and left the rest wondering where I get off inventing simple-minded caricatures of such complex positions. Please bear in mind, however, that I am not referring to actual teaching practices. I am referring instead to two streams of talk that get activated when people with different beliefs, values, and backgrounds come together to discuss the possibility of departing from business as usual in their school's science classrooms.
Of course, when people discuss such issues (e.g., how standards will be implemented in their school or whether to use curriculum kits), they feel as compelled to belittle the views of those different from themselves as they do to explain why their visions of teaching should dictate new directions (or preserve the old). Traditional talk, then, often casts reform classrooms as experimental, child-indulgent free-for-alls, while reform voices criticize traditionalist approaches as rigid, authoritarian, and outmoded. What is remarkable about these conversations, apart from the predictability with which participants play out such scripts, is the historical regularity of similar arguments. …