Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education

By Edwards, Chris | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education


Edwards, Chris, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THEORIES FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM SHOULD COME in two parts: first, a call for a personal philosophical shift for teachers to use best practice, and second, institutional change. Effective institutional change facilitates an environment that helps to develop and sustain practitioners of the new philosophy. In 2012, SKEPTIC published my article Three Cheers for Teachers: Educational Reform Should Come from Within the Classroom and Science Can Inform those Reforms. That essay compiled new research findings from neuroscience and education with lessons from the history and philosophy of science to make a call for a theoretical shift among teachers-as-practitioners. Since that time, the ideas presented in that original essay have been implemented through a series of summer institute programs for math and science teachers that I have facilitated. They have also been absorbed into a graduate degree program for secondary biology teachers. These programs help create the personal theoretical shift of secondary classroom teachers. The evidence produced through these programs warrants a further and more comprehensive experiment at a larger institutional level.

The philosophy of educational reform proposed here is analogous to software and hardware. The "software" update involves a concept of teaching and best practice that can be absorbed by teachers and brought into classrooms immediately. The hardware updates involve structural changes that allow teachers to run their new educational software more smoothly. An example of a similar hardware/software upgrade would be the introduction of the software of the scientific method itself as it emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries. Galileo's software proved incompatible with the educational hardware of Western Europe. Then, Francis Bacon proposed an educational hardware update in 1620 when he published Novum Organum, or the New Method, in which he argued that the educational system should embrace the creation of new knowledge over the study of old knowledge.

Educational structures changed slowly, so it took over a century and a half before German universities finally embraced these educational changes and developed the modern research-based Ph.D. French medical schools made a similar shift about the same time, and with these actions the software of the scientific revolution and the hardware of the formal educational systems became compatible.

In his book Higher Education in America, former Harvard president, Derek Bok identifies how this change connects with what he describes as three movements in American higher education. According to Bok, the first movement was to "educate an elite group of young men for the learned professions and positions of leadership in society." (1) This preparation included training for specific fields of work in industry, agriculture, and education.

The second movement imitated the methods used in the revolutionary German research universities. Bok writes that this "movement featured an explicit emphasis on research." Johns Hopkins led the way in 1879 with the founding of a graduate school dedicated to research and training students for careers of scientific inquiry and scholarship (p.29). The third movement focused on developing a scholarly elite of professors in the humanities, who would produce new scholarship while at the same time "cultivating the minds of undergraduates through a well-rounded, liberal education." (2)

These three movements might be defined as hardware updates that American universities made in order to be more compatible with a society and economy that had already made software updates. None of the three updates focused on the sustained education and development of secondary (grades 7-12) teachers. In fact, these movements separated "Education" into an individual sub-unit in the university along with departments based on research and the humanities. The typical university contains an Education department as separate from those in the sciences and humanities. …

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