“The average person’s body contains about 100 trillion cells, but only maybe one in 10 is human.”
That sentence made the front page of the October 11th Washington Post. And, yes, most of your cells and mine are not the familiar nuclear cells diagramed in textbooks. Rather, they are microbial cells—bacteria and archaea–that pass on their information buddy to buddy, in a process called horizontal gene transfer.
We are just beginning to understand the implications of that process and of the role those 90 trillion microbial cells play in your life drama. “We’re seeing an unprecedented rate of discovery. Everywhere we look, microbes seem to be involved,” says a Colorado University scientist quoted in the Post. Microbiology is today’s revolutionary science; the excitement in the field is palpable. The American Society of Microbiologists now has 38,000 members.
After reading the Post article I decided to see if any of that excitement is conveyed in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 science education, a document intended to lead to another, which will frame a common core science curriculum for states. The assumption is that this well-intentioned blue ribbon committee-effort will update and improve science education in this country and make our children able to compete in today’s global economy.
I read the 300 page NRC document to see if that is likely. Does it describe good science? Good pedagogy? No: The science is not challenging enough. The pedagogy it suggests is not likely to be imaginative.
In the section on biology bacteria and viruses are mentioned briefly, but archaea not at all. That’s out of date science. Archaea are one of the three forms of life, known as domains, broadly accepted as the base of the evolutionary bush. (At the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, even t-shirts for kids now come with the three-branched bush of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota.)
Something else that’s not mentioned in this document: scientists. You won’t find Darwin, or Newton, or Einstein. The story of science, its history, is not suggested or even hinted at here.
Which leads to the pedagogy.
The report lists endpoints and boundaries for each grade in each subject. Those endpoints are not challenging. Good teachers will see the document as dumbed down; ordinary teachers will be constrained by the boundaries. Yes, for low-performing schools, they will provide guidance and goals. But, overall, this is not visionary science, it is not exciting science. It does present a mostly sound overview of basic concepts. If things go according to plan, 41 already-hired teachers will use this lengthy but undistinguished document as the basis for what will essentially be a set of national science standards. This is really worrisome.
Joy Hakim is the author of The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way, Newton at the Center, Einstein Adds A New Dimension, copublished by Smithsonian Books and the National Science Teachers Association. Hakim serves on the board of Common Core.