Critical Issue:
Providing Hands-On, Minds-On, and Authentic Learning Experiences in Science

ISSUE: A new vision of science learning is emerging - one that calls for instructional strategies far different from most traditional conceptualizations. The new paradigm for science learning emphasizes engagement and meaning in ways that are not consistent with past practices. The anticipated outcome Of this new approach to teaching is a higher level of student achievement in the sciences. This constructivist teaching and learning models calls for learning that is:

This approach to teaching and learning enables students to participate fully in a learning community where the teacher is not the only source of knowledge and information. It encourages full involvement in a community of learners that includes other students, parents, teachers, and outside experts. Technology becomes a tool, supporting the learning process as students seek new knowledge and understanding. The challenge is to define the new approach to teaching and learning with sufficient clarity that it becomes a useful vision for educators as they make decisions about instructional materials, activities, and strategies for teaching.

OVERVIEW: Traditional patterns of science education have remained largely unchanged for most of the last century. In fact, the organization of the curricula for high schools has remained essentially constant since the "Committee of Ten" met in 1892 and established the sequence of instruction for the disciplines within science. Very often, science instruction in the lower grades has lacked a clear focus and has been provided by teachers ill-prepared to deal with science content. The natural curiosity of children, eager to understand their surroundings, is often diminished by instruction that discourages inquiry and discovery. In the upper grades, science instruction becomes increasingly textbook-centered. Even though laboratory experiences (or demonstrations) usually are included, students are rarely encouraged to use scientific methods to solve problems relevant to their perception of the world.

The typical pedagogical pattern reflects an authoritarian, didactic approach to classroom management. The reason may be that many teachers have never encountered a learning experience in which they constructed meaning from the experience. Similarly, the professional preparation of most administrators has not provided experience with this type of learning. It is little wonder, therefore, that many classrooms present an environment in which students learn by rote and repetition from teachers who exercise authoritarian control over the learning process. Many educators who would like to change this approach lack the support of colleagues, administrators, and parents, who only remember a more traditional approach.

The comparative performance of America's children on science achievement tests clearly demonstrates the failures of the current delivery system. Without significant transformation of the curricula, strategies, and methods used in our classrooms, science learning will not improve. Moreover, the reform of science education must address the needs of all children, but it will do so only with the support of teachers, administrators, policymakers, business and community leaders, and the general public.

Many of those working to improve science education have collaborated to create a challenging vision for instructional design. Their vision builds on these beliefs:

Collectively, these characteristics are the basis for a redefinition of traditional science programs. With these elements in place, instruction will become hands-on, minds-on, and authentic. Programs will do more to attract students, hold their interest, and challenge them to attain the higher expectations demanded by the eight national education goals outlined in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994).

GOALS: The reforms in science education are necessary to improve and enhance the science learning for all students. Once these reforms are in place and implemented, the following goals should be realized:

ACTION OPTIONS: Achieving long-term, systemic science education reform contains challenges for students, parents and community members, teachers, school administrators, and policymakers.


Parents and Community Members:


Image of Barbara Neureither Barbara Neureither, science teacher at Holt High School in Holt, Michigan, states three important points in science education (Audio comment, 262K). Excerpted from NCREL's videoseries, Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference 3, Children as Explorers (NCREL, 1991). A text transcript is available.

School Administrators:


IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Under the new vision of science teaching and learning, teachers must alter significantly the types of instruction that they have used in the past. First, they must understand that simply "studying the content of science" is not the same as learning science. While knowledge of facts is important, facts must be learned within the context of authentic experience. Science teachers must rethink their traditional role as "knowledge deliverer" and accept a new responsibility as facilitator, coach, and coordinator of experiences. Science teachers will need more planning time and more instructional time than is usually allocated to make these changes.

One of the benefits of this new type of science learning will be the opportunity to learn principles and processes without being limited by traditional subject matter boundaries. Those who make policy regarding the accreditation of learning for promotion and admission to higher levels will have to adjust their thinking away from traditional subject/credit practices. New criteria will be needed. Such a change will help establish the new model, and without it, traditional patterns will prevail.

Text material will always be needed to support science instruction. However, teaching based on this new view will require instructional materials that are far different from most of those currently available. These materials will not all be delivered through print media. Publishers must encourage the preparation of materials that foster inquiry, describe authentic problems, and incorporate technology. Until such resources are readily available, practitioners will have to seek out nontraditional materials.

Administrators, parents, and community members must accept this reform as a better way of learning science. Without informed support, the needed policy changes, organizational restructuring, and greater emphasis on science learning will not be realized. The transformation of science education will require major commitments from all sectors of the greater school community.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: One premise of traditional instructional design strategies calls for linking curriculum and teaching methods so as to provide the most efficient means for the greatest number of students to acquire the greatest amount of knowledge. Much of schooling has been built upon this belief - a theory of control that requires teacher-centered classrooms. It assumes that properly managed instruction enables most students to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to continue to learn. Practice and repetition, with frequent tests of recall and recitation, characterize this approach. This approach is the only one that many parents (and educators) have ever known, and their level of comfort with this model will make it very difficult to supplant.

The science curriculum revolution of the early 1960s added content and new fields of study to science programs. America needed to increase the level of knowledge to reach its new goal of putting a man on the moon. While most of the curriculum reformers of that period would argue that process was always included, actual practice generally reduced hands-on activities in favor of more and more complex and abstract concepts. Many of today's educators entered the field during this period and still believe in focusing on content.

Many educators argue that future success for students is contingent on their ability to read, write, and compute, and therefore these skills deserve the greatest emphasis. The curriculum and instruction strategies generated by this belief may place science outside of the "basics" - except for certain facts and processes. In such a scheme, the time allocated for science instruction may not hold the same priority as reading, writing, and mathematics. Science should be taught from a textbook rather than being hands-on, minds-on, and authentic.


Roosevelt Middle School: A Sense of Place--The Red Tail Ridge Wetlands Project

Activities Integrating Science and Mathematics (AIMS)

Developmental Approaches to Science and Health (DASH)

Foundational Approaches to Science Teaching (FAST)

Physics Resources and Instructional Strategies for Motivating Students (PRISMS)


Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
1120 Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486
(630) 649-6500, fax (630) 649-7600
> Internet e-mail:

Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for
Mathematics and Science Education

The Ohio State University
1929 Kenny Road
Columbus, OH 43210-1079
614-292-7784, Fax 614-292-2066
Internet e-mail:
Internet web site:
For materials and resources for the science classroom, use the ENC Resource Finder.

National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22230

American Association for the Advancement of Science
1333 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005

National Research Council
National Science Education Standards Project
2101 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20418

References buttonReferences

This Critical Issue summary was researched and written by Marvin Christensen, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1995
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