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Past efforts to reshape American science education offer lessons for future reformers

How We Teach Science: What's Changed and Why It Matters

John L. Rudolph
Harvard University Press
316 pp.
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Compared with reading, writing, and arithmetic, science is a relative newcomer to the primary and secondary school curriculum, emerging only in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, proponents of the subject have established it as central to what an educated person needs to know, not least because of the promise of good jobs in scientific fields.

Even if nearly every school district in the United States now treats it as a required subject, there has been almost no consensus on what science classes should entail. Some have claimed that the subject should be taught as a single methodology, presenting the scientific method as a fixed number of discrete steps. Others emphasize it as a disparate collection of techniques—some inductive, others deductive, and divided up into specific disciplinary approaches. Teachers have disagreed on whether it is best taught through textbooks or laboratory experiments, as a set of conclusions and facts, or as a mode of inquiry. Most contemporary scientists would agree that there is no single method for doing science, but beyond that, there has not been much to agree on.

John Rudolph’s How We Teach Science traces the different strands and debates in American science education over the past 130 years. He focuses the book on influential thinkers and reformers, from Edwin Hall, John Dewey, and G. Stanley Hall in the early years to James Bryant Conant, Joseph J. Schwab, and F. James Rutherford in the latter.

Whatever the differences among its protagonists, How We Teach Science reveals a set of interlocutors conducting what was essentially a single conversation about science education for well over a century. When Rutherford set out to reform science education in the 1980s, for example, he did so having already worked on Harvard’s Project Physics textbooks in the 1960s and citing the Conant-era General Education in a Free Society from 1945 as a primary influence. In turn, Conant wrote extensively about how to “correct” Dewey and Hall’s earlier ideas of the nature of science.

There is also continuity in another sense. Rudolph comes down harshly on the fate of science education reform, arguing that every reform effort has essentially failed. In doing so, he echoes the National Science Foundation’s inquiry in the 1970s, which concluded that teachers were expensive to retrain and consistently resistant to new pedagogical methods; that pupils continued to use textbooks slavishly, despite reformers’ efforts; that “methods” were seen as fixed steps rather than as guides to arriving at reliable conclusions, however they were presented; and that disciplines were repeatedly reduced to sets of facts and truths rather than modes of systematic inquiry (1).

Rudolph’s book centers on a key shift that took place in the years after World War II, when the teaching of science was transformed from a practice that was thought of as being good for students to one that was thought of as being good for science itself. Science class was no longer a space for transforming hearts and minds but one for mass-producing researchers, laboratory workers, and theorists.

This is historically accurate, although it is dependent on an American, post–Civil War framing. (Rudolph dodges the claim made by Michael S. Teitelbaum and others that warnings of ongoing scientific shortages were used as rhetorical cover for overproducing scientists in order to lower labor costs.) Expanding the picture would reveal much older tensions as well as different contexts in which science might have been taught as either transformative of the self, useful in its applications, or relevant for public engagement. Given the book’s emphasis on American schools, Rudolph’s choice is reasonable, but it fails to give the reader a broader sense of why learning science has mattered across different countries and eras.

Rudolph also avoids the intersection of pedagogy and participation. Women, for example, have long been explicit targets for science education, whether botany in the 19th century or computing in the 20th, even though that has never translated into equality among the ranks of professional scientists.

Consistent with his title, Rudolph is instead laser focused on the “how” of the science classroom—how its practice varies across time, how its meaning is debated by reformers, and how its role in education shifts as schools themselves change. And for that discussion there is no better guide. Rudolph, a professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as a former science teacher and editor of Science Education, has previously written definitive accounts of both Sputnik-era and Progressive-era science reforms.

How We Teach Science may end on a pessimistic note, given the litany of past failures to reform science education, but it isn’t a fatalistic book. After all, the task at hand—to develop a scientifically informed public—is as urgent and important in our age of autonomous vehicles and CRISPR as it was in the industrial and atomic ages.


  1. 1. S. L. Helgeson et al., The Status of Pre-College Science, Mathematics, and Social Science Education: 1955-1975 vol. I, science education (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA.