Scientists in the Classroom1

Ten years ago, people concerned about education in the United States were particularly worried by the quality and tone of math and science instruction. Math was notoriously the dullest and most unpopular subject in the high schools, and the college-bound student was felt to have done his duty if he undertook a rudimentary introduction to algebra and a set of Euclidean book proofs. In physics, most of the time was devoted to the definition of terms, the acquisition of “laws,” and the solution of set problems in static mechanics (where students were typically advised to “use their rulers” to draw parallelograms of forces and then measure the lines to arrive at answers). Chemistry and biology were essentially exercises in classification. Introductory college courses in science usually assumed no prior knowledge—and, indeed, the assumption was hopeful, for typical high-school courses often did the student more harm than good.

Today the college math and science departments are busy revising their lower-level offerings, because rapidly rising numbers of entrants already know what used to be introductory college work, and have gone on to what were once second-or even third-level problems. Mathematical topics like spherical trigonometry, matrix algebra, probability, Cartesian geometry, and calculus are to be found in large numbers of high schools, and some students will have made the acquaintance of Boolean algebra and topology. The high-school physics course is now in many schools more sophisticated than what the colleges used to offer (to sophomores, usually, because so much of the freshman year was taken up with “general education”), and increasing numbers of high schools are moving into programs in biology and chemistry which give students a grasp of the real procedures as well as the descriptive vocabulary of the field.

Ten years ago, though math and science drew a highly intelligent small group of students, most of the best prepared entrants to the more selective colleges and universities expected to specialize in the social sciences or literature; the colleges enforced for graduation a “science requirement” as well as a “language requirement” and a swimming certificate. Today the hierarchy of anticipated studies is reversed, and the most highly qualified freshmen in the best colleges wish to major in math and science.

Many explanations can be given for the increasing reach and grasp of the science programs on both school and university levels. Obviously, outside forces—the rocket to the moon, the bomb big enough to kill us all, the job market, the Russians—have made science courses more attractive to the adolescent community. Yet the last decade has also been a period of rapid increase in jobs for academicians in the social sciences. Industry and the foundations have found lucrative assignments for Ph.D.’s in psychology, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology. We have lived through the age of self-consciousness, of the Beats, of tax law, of advertising and mass culture, of existentialism and foreign travel. If today we had to explain a great rise of adolescent interest in social studies, we could do it easily in terms of “outside forces.” Indeed, “attitude surveys” consistently show that high-school students are more interested in the material subsumed under “social studies” than in any other material—though they find their social studies courses the least interesting stuff at school.



This argument is offered strictly for purposes of illustration. If the market for instruction were wholly free, most children and adolescents would, I think, opt for an education strongly biased toward science. Conscious of rising powers and ambitious for certainty, the adolescent is necessarily drawn toward studies where procedure counts for more than information, where irrelevancy can be squeezed out by logic, where a sometimes deceptive elegance brings startling new order to the disturbing chaos of raw sense experience. Yet the fact is that until quite recently traditional methods of teaching in mathematics and science blocked all but a few students from these rewards, and the math and science courses were unpopular. The dissimilar but nonetheless real rewards that adolescents might find in applying their powers to history or the social sciences are still blocked.

Work in reforming the teaching of the sciences has been going on for seven years. The Physical Sciences Study Committee was launched a year before Sputnik, under the direction of Jerrold Zacharias of MIT, who had goaded James Killian, then president of MIT and later head of President Eisenhower’s Science Advisory Committee, into asking him to do the job. The National Science Foundation supplied the first funds and eventually, over a five-year period, put more than $7 million into the project. Three key practical assumptions were explicit in the program:

  1. That physics in a form wholly recognizable to working physicists could be taught on the high-school level;
  2. That only the most extraordinarily talented of physicists and teachers would have the imagination and ability to create such a course;
  3. That the only way to determine the viability of teaching materials was to teach them, and revise, and teach again, and remake, until finally you knew more or less what you were doing and why it worked when it worked.

From the beginning, the leaders of PSSC saw their job as extensive, complicated, and highly time-consuming. Writing a textbook would be only a fraction of the work, and not the most important fraction. Mr. Zacharias himself probably gave highest priority to the preparation of films which would show real scientists in real laboratories, explaining the real nature of important problems in physics. The films would “set the tone of the course,” and they would have to be far superior to the usual educational (or educational television) material. PSSC set up its own studios and hired first-rank film talent at first-rank prices, and then worked, like the producers of A movies, on a 9-to-l ratio, expecting to use only one of every ten feet of film actually shot.

PSSC began before the National Defense Education Act had made hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money available for high-school laboratories, and the scientists had to face up to the fact that in most schools it was not possible to perform the experiments from which students could learn what they were studying. Filmed experiments, while helpful, would not replace the experience of fiddling with the realia. Mr. Zacharias and his colleagues therefore designed a score of pieces of inexpensive laboratory equipment—micro-balances made from soda straws, cheap stroboscopes and the like, requiring no more than flat surfaces, electric wiring, and running water—which could be sold as a package both to ill-equipped and conventionally-equipped schools.

Though PSSC aimed to break the highly verbal patterns of instruction in physics, and insisted from the beginning that it was not the group that measured highest on IQ tests which would perform best in the new course, its creators were themselves literate men with a strong belief that people can learn from reading too. The ultimate textbook (built from four separate pamphlet-sized “units” written by different people) was to be a guide and a source of interesting problems. To accompany it, the committee chose or commissioned or wrote some seventy-five books of supplementary readings, to be published in paperback form as the Anchor Science Study Series.

Finally, PSSC recognized that no material could be teacher-proof. The physicists ran summer institutes, more of them every year, to train teachers. By the end of 1962, nearly twenty-five-hundred teachers—who come in contact with perhaps a quarter of a million students each year—had spent at least one summer working on the PSSC course.

The personnel to staff this effort were chosen mostly by Mr. Zacharias himself, and were ruthlessly sloughed off by him if their work failed to meet his standards. Using his own prestige, that of his institution, and that of his friends, he dragooned into work for the high schools one hundred of the outstanding physicists in the United States. “Writing groups” at MIT, Harvard, Cornell, Bell Labs, and Illinois (where Max Beberman’s secondary school program in math had paved the way) devoted their summers and appreciable parts of their winters to thinking up ideas and angles for high-school physics.

Neither Mr. Zacharias nor his colleagues believed that they knew enough to construct an “ideal” physics course. What they were after was a very good physics course that could be taught in high schools. Physicists who were not also teachers (Mr. Zacharias himself had always taught a part of the MIT introductory course) could offer little to the PSSC effort, and the committee felt a desperate need for high-school teachers who were also physicists. A nation-wide search uncovered, with difficulty, a handful of teachers who could function in tandem with the handful of top-level university physicists working on PSSC. “Feedback” from actual teaching experience was regarded as essential. And the most nearly indispensable members of the PSSC working group were the men with a gift for seeing why students didn’t learn something and how new traps could be laid—men like Philip Morrison of Cornell, David Page of Illinois, and especially the late Francis Friedman of MIT, who edited the final draft of the textbook and acted as Mr. Zacharias’s scholarly conscience and balance wheel throughout the enterprise. As the summer institutes proceeded and the number of teachers who understood the material increased, PSSC was able to secure increasingly valid information on the quality of its efforts.



At no time did the scientists place any great weight on “scientific measurements” of what they were accomplishing. They did work with the Educational Testing Service designing a test to assure that PSSC students would not be penalized in the bureaucratic world of college admissions and to insure themselves against overconfidence about what they were achieving. But descriptive reports from those who were teaching and learning the material weighed much more heavily than test results when the committee sat down to analyze how it was doing. The committee is in fact still analyzing and revising. The question of quality has always been first in the physicists’ minds; as accomplished men in a technical field, they have never doubted their ability to recognize quality when they see it.

PSSC was lavishly financed, and could pay the people who worked on it more than they would receive from their universities for equivalent time—though still substantially less than they could get from private industry for consulting work. What has kept the program going for more than six years, however, is neither the pay nor the sense of the importance of the job, but the fascination that masters of a discipline feel when they seriously undertake the intellectual exercise of looking at their field afresh, through the eyes of a beginner. Normal intellectual work occurs within a framework of conventions so long accepted and so casually employed that the scholar forgets not only the means of their acquisition but also their ultimate significance. Looking at physics as an intelligent adolescent sees it, the physicists found much that was interesting, and a little that was important, with reference to their own work. Significantly, several of the physicists, led by Francis Friedman, moved down to work in the elementary school once the superstructure was up and the scaffolding removed in the high-school courses.

Nobody in physics would argue that the PSSG course is the only, or even necessarily the best way to teach the subject. Mr. Zacharias himself never wished to prepare a physics course: in his original scheme, he wanted a full-size science program which would break down what he regarded as artificial barriers between physics and chemistry and eventually between both and biology. This procedure proved impractical in early meetings, and was regretfully dropped, but is is now being revived by the National Science Foundation under the cryptic label “Phase 2.” NSF, with the encouragement of Mr. Zacharias, will also support another physics course, aimed at the engineering-minded rather than the science-minded in the adolescent community.

Taking PSSC as a point of reference (sometimes for purposes of disagreement) and taking financial and adminstrative assistance from the National Science Foundation, the mathematicians, chemists, and biologists set to work in committees to reform instruction in their own disciplines on the secondary level. A unified study committe of biologists has produced three separate high-school courses; two committees of chemists have produced a course each; and several groups of mathematicians have developed new approaches to the six years of secondary-school math. At present no fewer than five groups under the leadership of university mathematicians are working on materials for elementary-school math, a subject they have already made far more extensive than mere arithmetic. All these groups have involved themselves in actual teaching to varying degrees—but all have assumed that the essence of the job was finding ways to teach the subject, not merely determining (or justifying) the goals of instruction.



It has been delightful in these dry years to watch the mathematicians and scientists, largely ignorant of the history and theory of education, develop painfully and piece by piece an educational philosophy superficially similar to that of the early progressives at the turn of the century. Education, they argued, had to be active; an ounce of discovery was worth a pound of rote; the physics course was not preparation for physics, it was physics itself. Talk is cheap; the ability to handle definitions does not necessarily imply the ability to perform. What the child learns is not necessarily the thing you think you are teaching. The energy in the classroom is the energy of the assembled students, and the function of teaching is to release this energy in productive channels, not to impart wisdom. The mathematicians and scientists found that they learned from teaching, that aiming the program at the child did not necessarily water down its content but might in fact distill its essence from conventional irrelevancies. Whatever else the math and science reform movements accomplished, they unquestionably gave a number of highly intelligent and powerful men a view of education far more sophisticated than the view held by any other group of similar intelligence and power since the early years of this century.



Yet the work done by the mathematicians and scientists has rested on theoretical foundations in part original with them, and never fully stated, though Jerome Bruner touched interestingly upon the matter in his book, The Process of Education. If the math and science movements are to be taken as models for work in other disciplines, these theoretical foundations must be understood, and their practical implications realized, by the people who are to make the attempts. The theory can be reduced to two assumptions, an argument, and a conclusion:

First Assumption: The real world is really there. Like the scientist-philosophers (Russell, Whitehead, Jeans, etc.) whose writings spread through the general intellectual community during the heyday of progressivism, the new scientist-educators have a cold answer to questions of epistemology. Different people see the same meter readings, and experiments are duplicable. An optical illusion is demonstrably an illusion. If reality is asked a good question, over and over again, it will give the same answer, within a statistically predictable range, over and over again; where the answer varies unpredictably, the question is no good. All real disagreements can be empirically resolved, eventually—though as yet, the scientists insist, we know very little.

Second Assumption: On some basic operational level, all human learning (including perception) involves the same process. Every learning theory is of course founded on this assumption; indeed, behaviorist theories tend to assume that human and animal learning are identical. The scientists, however, are natural Gestalt psychologists, because so much of what is most interesting in the history of a science seems to have occurred by intuitional jump rather than by trial and error. The primary question to them is the organization of raw experience by the learner (or by the discoverer, who is, of course, merely the first learner).

Argument: Now, if all learning follows the same process, and the real world is really there, every wholly naive human intelligence (a theoretical construct impossible in reality) would organize each wholly new experience in the same way. In less elaborate language, there is such a thing as common sense; given no background or identical backgrounds, the commonality of mankind would draw from the same experiences the same beliefs about reality. These isotropic beliefs, however, tend to be mistaken: reality is far more complicated than common sense will say it is. To handle reality, mankind has developed scholastic disciplines, which depart, often radically, from common sense. Education, whenever it is more than initiation into the myths and rituals of the tribe, is the induction of the learner into these disciplines. Bruner is insistent on this point, demanding that all education reflect “the structure of the discipline.”

From this argument there flows the conclusion : The difficulties of learning are inherent in the material to be learned. If the generality of mankind finds difficulty in mastering an experimentally verified explanation of reality—and human learning is essentially the same for all individuals, and the real world is really there—it can only be because raw experience misleads common sense. Teaching, then, is the reorganizing of raw experience in such a way that the human mind will discover the usable patterns of thought called disciplines rather than the hodgepodge of irrelevancies called common sense.

Given the theoretical schema, the scientist can reduce the problem of improving education to two manageable parts:

  1. He can construct pedagogic models (systematic reorganizations of experience, such as ripple tanks for wave motion in physics), from which learners will by normal processes induce the usable discipline. This task, it will be observed, is wholly empirical; as long as the scientist assumes that all human learning occurs the same way, he does not need to know how it occurs. The value of the pedagogic models he develops can be experimentally determined: students either do or do not tend to induce the discipline from the model. Much the same attitude, by the way, lies behind programmed instruction, which accounts for the Angst about programming felt by the mathematicians and scientists, who do not get along very well with Skinnerian psychologists but feel that there simply must be something here which they can use.
  2. The scientist can train teachers specifically to work with these models. Teachers will still, of course, require considerable background in the discipline; otherwise they will not understand the value of the models and they will introduce common-sense material which appears to be, but in fact is not, relevant to the models. The better educated the teacher is, the more easily he will handle the model. But the training of teachers, beyond education, must be based, as it has not been, on the materials they will take with them into the classroom.

Fighting the flood of this argument, educators will often clutch on to Dewey’s division of educational efforts as either “logical” (directed toward the discipline) or “psychological” (directed toward the child). But the strength of the scientists’ approach is that it is both logical and psychological. Though it seeks as an end result the logic of the discipline, it does not attempt (as the Herbartians and, for that matter, the progressives sometimes did) the direct teaching of the logic. Instead, it seeks to match experiences with the psychology of learning in such a way that the logic will emerge. Indeed, the best of the scientists have learned from their teaching that their own view of the clearest and simplest presentation of an idea is often misleading—that if they are to teach successfully, they must somehow find out what the idea means to someone who never ran into it before.



But within the other disciplines, able men, some of whom have actually thought about education, feel queasy at the prospect of adopting the scientists’ model as a pattern for reform movements in history and the social sciences. What seems to be bothering them can be sketched in the framework of the scientists’ theory:

To the scientists’ first assumption, that the real world is really there, the historians and even some of the social scientists nervously reply that in their terms reality is hard to define. When one must deal with words and deeds (let alone music and art) rather than with meter readings and mathematical symbols, reality seems to be what can be found in the mind of the beholder. Asked the same good question, reality will give different answers from culture to culture and from time to time. One man’s fish, as the late Joe Palmer once pointed out, is another man’s poisson.

To the scientists’ second assumption, that all learning involves the same process on some operational level, most historians and social scientists reply, in effect, “Who cares?” They believe that prior learnings (acquired ways of viewing experience, existing “phase assemblies” in the brain, to use D.O. Hebb’s terminology) will be more important than this invisibly distant process in determining what the individual sees when he looks at the world—and prior learnings vary greatly from person to person, even at an early age. Every teacher has had the experience of presenting the same material the same way with two different sets of results. As teachers, of course, the scientists know this problem. Some of them will argue that if the child is caught young enough (in elementary school) the disparity among prior learnings can be controlled; some will contend that the ideal pedagogic model can cut across prior learnings and even across great differences in individual ability and classroom psychology; some will accept the difficulty but insist that teaching must deal with only a finite and probably small number of erroneous prior learnings, and a manageable number of pedagogic models will turn the trick. Social scientists, accustomed to the nasty habits of unknown variables, trapped every so often by elements in their disciplines which turn out to be inferior to common sense, fear that the differences introduced by prior learnings will be too various and too great to be controlled by straightforward analysis of the contact between students and material.

If the real world exists at least in part in the mind of the beholder, and human intelligence reacts to experience largely on the basis of varying prior learnings, then the difficulties of learning are largely inherent in the individual rather than in the material to be learned.

But from this argument there follows, unfortunately, nothing to do. The teacher in the classroom cannot look to the masters of a discipline to help him; he is stuck with his intuition and with the ludicrous guidance given by long, pompous, quasi-religious statements of the “goals of instruction.”



The dichotomy is, of course, oversimplified and overstated. The participants in the dialogue are brought together by the fact that the scientists have accomplished something in the schools, and the other scholars would like to accomplish something, too. The problems the two groups face are enough alike in important aspects so that similar procedures may make sense, despite divergent theories.

Perhaps the most serious difficulty in any academic instruction, scientific or otherwise, is to get down below the verbiage (which most children can memorize, if prodded hard enough) to the processes which the words symbolize. Getting at the reality of the conservation of matter or the development of vertebrates or the periodic tables may not be, as a teaching matter, all that different from getting at the phenomena behind Progressivism or Marginal Analysis or the Protestant Ethic—or, for that matter, the language behind the grammar. To give the word and then the example, which was the customary procedure in science instruction before the scientists came into the classrooms, and is still the customary procedure in the social studies, is known to be a highly ineffective way to teach, and it survives only because of the severe shortage of pedagogic models from which children can induce for themselves the idea behind the word.

If only because reality itself is blurred, and because irrelevancy (not to mention inaccuracy) constantly intrudes from the pervasive common sense of the culture, the construction of pedagogic models in the social studies will be far more difficult than it is in science. But it has, after all, been done—in the Bible, by Plato and Aristotle, by Hobbes and Locke and Hume, by Adam Smith and Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The power of Aristotle’s thought over two millennia derived largely from the excellence of his pedagogic models. Beard’s thesis on the makers of the American Constitution still looms large in the schools, though historians no longer credit it, because it serves so well as a pedagogic model. Books like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture dominate introductory courses, to the distaste of most sociologists and anthropologists, because, to hammer on the ugly phrase, they work so well as pedagogic models.

How far others can follow the mathematicians and scientists in adopting an inductive approach is still an open question. Induction, or “heuristic,” as the mathematicians and scientists practice it, is a process of successive approximation. A child need not be told that his answers are right or wrong, because he can feed them back into the problem himself, see how they work out, and hunt around for the reasons for error. The scientists, moreover, make heavy use of analogy, which is more complicated in its effects when the subject under consideration is less simple.



By approaching their subject through the disciplines, by breaking reality into pieces with defined parameters, social studies teachers can undoubtedly follow a far more inductive approach than they do today. Some are already trying it. Richard McCann of Meadowbrook Junior High in Newton, Mass., defines teaching as “a game of trying to structure the situation so students will feel they are coming out with their own conclusions.” But only people who are truly learned in the disciplines to be taught are likely to come up with those uniquely organized slices of reality that allow the student to feed back his own answers. Most teachers are no better equipped to make such slices for themselves than they are to invent original experiments for students to try out in the labs.

Even in the hands of the most skilled math and science teachers, induction does not work equally well with all children in all classrooms. Less intelligent children, almost by definition, handle induction less well—though the method quickly reveals that children who do poorly in the usual learn-and-apply-the-formula pattern are not necessarily the less intelligent. Most classrooms can be made to buzz with excitement in the hands of, say, a David Page of the University of Illinois or a Robert Davis of Webster College in St. Louis, the two most spectacularly skilled reformers of elementary arithmetic instruction, but they have failures too, for reasons they cannot always locate. It is not impossible that differences in individual ability and prior learnings, and differences in the psychology of the class as a whole, will show up even more strongly in the more value-laden areas of the social studies. Still, you never know till you try.

And the trial will be made, probably on a fairly large scale, with the scientists helping. Mr. Zacharias’s Educational Services, Inc., which owns and operates PSSC, has already secured grants from the Ford Foundation to start a curriculum reform movement in “the social sciences and the humanities.” The philosopher Frederick Burkhardt, head of the American Council of Learned Societies, and the historian Elting Morrison are sharing with Mr. Zacharias the privileges and rigors of planning a program. The U.S. Office of Education will presently launch its own reform movement (under the name Project Social Studies), a fact that would be scarcely worth mentioning except that the direction of this sort of program at the Office has passed into the hands of Fritz Ianni, a capable young anthropologist who admires and understands what the scientists have done. Men of considerable ability from the universities—the anthropologist Douglas Oliver, the sociologist George Homans, the social psychologist Ronald Lippitt, the economist Lawrence Senesh, the political scientist Franklin Patterson—are already involved in serious attempts to improve school instruction in their fields.

Within a few years, we should know whether or not the scientists’ model is applicable to instruction at large or only to their own uncluttered subjects. At worst, the result of trying will be a handful of materials and teaching approaches far more intelligent and sophisticated than anything to be found in the schools today.



1 Copyright © 1963 by Martin Praeger Mayer.

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