Journal of Science Teacher Education

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 465–476 | Cite as

Humanitas Emptor: Reconsidering Recent Trends and Policy in Science Teacher Education

  • Dana L. Zeidler
  • Benjamin C. Herman
  • Michael P. Clough
  • Joanne K. Olson
  • Sami Kahn
  • Mark Newton


We are facing a plethora of educational mandates, trends and policies in science teacher education. Such issues are intricately connected, are arguably synergistic with one another though not necessarily in an educative desirable manner, and appear to be the result of STEM-related initiatives including national reform documents such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). This editorial examines significant deleterious issues that have emerged unchecked, and seemingly embraced unwittingly, by the greater science education community, the public at-large, and even segments of the international science education community. Our claims are grounded in three main cases that are distinct, yet intertwined with one another. Collectively, they serve as a warning shot across the bow of those disregarding the sociocultural roots of education. Left unchecked, the issues we raise may at best deny a progressive understanding of schooling, or at worst, contribute to a kind of dominant subjective educational hegemony.

We have selected three cases that serve as indicators of recent trends and issues in science education in general, and science teacher education in particular that have become, arguably, problematic. In the first case, we claim that the science education community has been largely remiss in its uncritical adoration of engineering and the inclusion of engineering concepts and practices in the science curriculum. Overemphasizing job preparation as the primary purpose for schooling and science education and marginalizing science and nature of science content are among the factors considered here. In our second case, we suggest that while many may view technological literacy as a neutral construct focused primarily on how to use technology, the economic interest of business and policymakers helps to maintain power inequities and wrongly defines technological literacy, including media literacy almost entirely in terms of how technology and media are to be consumed. In our third case, we posit that the current bandwagons containing hedgmonic initiatives that promote analytic skills and logical reasoning do so while unwittingly overlooking the crucial role of compassion, emotive reasoning, reflexive reasoning, perspective taking (expressed in its ideal form as empathy) and conscience. We point to the missed opportunity of NGSS to capture these latter sociocultural progressive elements in how it fails to situates qualities of socioscientific issues (SSI) and nature of science (NOS) that are central in cleaving residual components of the fact-value distinction of vestigial positivistic traditions.

We use these three cases to raise awareness regarding the shortsightedness of many STEM-related and NGSS driven initiatives. The necessity of a sociocultural experience for science education in general, and science teacher education in particular, is advanced here. Uncritical support of STEM and NGSS-related initiatives serve to propel a deficit technocratic framework, while marginalizing more humanistic, democratic, and in our view, noble purposes for science education.

Case 1

Connecting Science and Engineering Practices: A Cautionary Perspective.1

The science education community has, for the most part, been negligent, if not blind, in its uncritical excitement for engineering and the inclusion of the engineering design process in the science curriculum. Significant issues exist regarding K-12 engineering education and its inclusion in the science curriculum. The concerns we raise are not an effort to defend the status quo, nor do we intend to promote a negative view of engineering and technology. Instead, thoughtful and scholarly attention to the issues we raise below regarding engineering education are crucial to ensure students receive the best possible science and engineering education.

Overemphasis on Job Preparation as the Primary Purpose for Schooling and Science Education

Framing the primary purpose of schooling and STEM course work in terms of job preparation, economic growth and national security is problematic. Economic growth and national security are, at best, only very loosely tied to the general state of schooling, and the need for a technical workforce does not provide a compelling impetus for most children to value STEM learning. Job preparation, when puffed up as a primary reason for schooling and STEM coursework, is equally bankrupt. Most students will not choose STEM careers, nor should they. Even for students who may eventually choose a STEM career, a K-12 system focused on job preparation cannot keep up with the ever-shifting job market and would ill-prepare such individuals when such changes inevitably occur. A solid liberal education would effectively prepare students for whatever career they choose, but STEM efforts are increasingly marginalizing the value of the humanities. A STEM education, as opposed to a mere training, would draw from and dignify the humanities in a common effort to prepare individuals for engaged citizenship which includes judiciously assessing the pros and cons of STEM for improving personal and societal welfare.

Marginalizes Science Content

The extent that engineering concepts and practices should be taught in the science curriculum deserves far more discussion and analysis than has yet occurred. Regardless of how engineering is integrated in science courses, much time is required if it is done well and some science content will necessarily be removed. The “mile wide and inch deep” science curriculum—both formal and enacted—persists despite almost three decades of effort to promote depth of understanding of fundamental science ideas (Banilower et al., 2013; Goodlad, 1983; Schmidt et al., 1999). Particularly disconcerting is the marginalizing of important science ideas that may have only superficial connection to engineering concepts and practices. Moreover, adding engineering into the science curriculum is not merely a matter of depth replacing coverage, but adding non-science concepts and practices which may further exacerbate the widely held misconception that science and technology are the same.

Devalues Basic Science

Science, engineering, and technology are so tightly linked together that people often judge the value of science research by how likely and quickly its knowledge may be useful to support technology development. People readily grasp the value of engineering, and often think that all science ought to be in some way targeted toward understanding aspects of the natural world that will likely be useful in technology development. When engineering application is emphasized, applied science research is privileged over basic science research. Thus, emphasizing engineering design in the science curriculum could easily exacerbate the already prevalent problem regarding understanding the value of and supporting basic science research.

Overemphasis on Personally Relevant Engineering Teaching and Learning

Engineering is often promoted as a motivating gateway for learning science. That claim, similar to the gateway argument made in the 1980s by STS proponents, rarely inspires students to deeply understand fundamental science ideas and how they are connected. Moreover, much science that is worth learning is not easily amenable to an engineering gateway approach. A crucial role of education is to engage students in experiences and knowledge that transcends students’ limited personal experiences and interests. Much thought and care must go into deciding what experiences students need to become well-educated people. These experiences are often outside of immediate relevance to students, but broaden their thinking and expand their world. Overemphasizing personally relevant content inappropriately narrows the curriculum and children’s experiences.

Naïve Adoration of Engineering and Technology

The romantic image of engineering as primarily an empathic endeavor focused on addressing human needs ignores that new technology is often developed solely for business profit motives (Bunge, 2003). This is not cynical, but rather an accurate and more balanced view of what initiates an engineering design process in the real world. Sometimes the impetus for designing new technologies is improving human welfare, but just as often, it is not. Engineering education objectives in the science curriculum largely ignore and certainly marginalize individual and collective responsibility to make decisions and behave differently in ways that would go much further in mitigating personal, community and world-wide problems (Olson, 2013). A robust STEM education would effectively promote an accurate understanding of the nature of technology, engineering and science (Clough, Olson, & Niederhauser, 2013).

Science Teacher Education Issues

Science teacher education has struggled to prepare teachers to effectively teach science, and now the complexity of doing so has been increased. Few science teachers possess sufficient understanding of science and engineering content, science and engineering practices, or the nature of science and technology necessary to effectively promote an accurate and meaningful STEM education. Ironically, content coursework requirements for science teaching endorsements have been and continue to be eroded to ridiculously low levels (Olson, Tippett, Milford, Ohana, & Clough, 2015), and emerging STEM teaching endorsement requirements are often a mile wide and inch deep.

Our cautionary perspective questions simplistic rationales and strategies for integrating engineering in the science curriculum, and raises issues that need considerable thought and action for reform efforts to successfully promote a meaningful STEM education.

Case 2

Perspectives Regarding Contemporary Media’s Impact of Science Teaching and Learning.

This case provides a succinct overview of the current state of STEM education standards as they relate to technology and media literacy and the ways electronic media (e.g., television, computers, Internet) impacts thinking, learning and communicating about socioscientific issues (SSI). Each medium imposes upon the media consumer its own biased metaphor of what the world is like because of the characteristics (e.g., context, depth, length) of that medium’s messages. If a particular medium is primarily used by a culture to transfer ideas, then that medium’s impact will be “ecological,” rather than additive, defining through its languages and symbols that culture’s knowledge and views about learning and interacting (Herman, 2013; McLuhan, 1964; Postman, 1985, 2000). We focus here on electronic media because currently it is the primary media consumed—particularly among 8–18 year olds who on average spend over 10 h a day consuming electronic media, with a third of that time multitasking with several media forms (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).

The messages promoted by electronic media are antithetical to much of what research has made clear is necessary for deep and meaningful learning of complex science ideas and the resolution of contentious and ill-structured SSI. For instance, contemporary electronic media provides unfathomable amounts of trivial information, all seemingly of equal importance, validity and sophistication. At the same time, media consumers often confuse the glut of information from electronic media such as the Internet and television with education. Furthermore, contemporary electronic media convey to users that meaningful and empathic intrapersonal and interpersonal communication can be achieved primarily through fragmented and abrupt distant messages such as instant messaging, newsfeeds and texting.

Unfortunately, the general public’s thinking about media literacy mostly entails examples of using media toward perceptible ends (e.g., searching the Internet to become informed about SSI, presenting ideas through PowerPoint, communicating with others through text and Facebook). However, most are not aware of the complex nature of various media and its obscure impacts on thinking and behavior that can adversely affect SSI engagement at personal and societal levels.

STEM related initiatives (e.g., Standards for Technological Literacy (STL; ITEA, 2007), NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013) are partly to blame for this situation due to their relatively vague nature regarding the nature of technology and media. The STL tends to frame technology and media as inert, and their use and consequences in the context of human capabilities and deliberate choice, rather than making evident the inherent messages and biases of media technologies that impact human choice, thought, interaction and action. This perspective is evident in the STL (p. 30), which states:

Technology is intricately woven into the fabric of human activity and is influenced by human capabilities, cultural values, public policies, and environmental constraints… Technology, by itself, is neither good nor bad, but decisions about the use of products and systems can result in desirable or undesirable consequences…Information and communication systems can be used to inform, persuade, entertain, control, manage and educate. The overall usefulness of information is dependent upon factors such as relevance, timeliness, truth, competence and cultural value. (p. 30, 60, 174),

A more appropriate statement would be:

Technology is intricately woven into the fabric of human activity and is influenced by and influences human capabilities, cultural values, public policies, and environmental constraints…Technology, on its own, carries with it implicit values and directives about its use, and how to think, interact and act in unequal positive and negative ways…Information and communication systems will inform, persuade, entertain, control, manage and educate in explicit and tacit ways that shapes human perceptions, communication and behavior in regard to relevance, timeliness, truth, competence and cultural value. (Italics represent our proposed modifications.)

At best, the NGSS merely tangentially addresses the need for addressing technology impacts on culture through sporadic NGSS standards and connections to Science, Technology, Society and the Environment concepts (STSE, see Appendix J of the NGSS). For instance, NGSS HS-ETS1-3 calls for students to “Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts;” and the STSE crosscutting concepts associated with this standard non-descriptively mention that “new technologies can have deep impacts on society and the environment, including some that were not anticipated” and that an “analysis of costs and benefits is a critical aspect of decisions about technology.” Furthermore, connections to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects associated with NGSS HS-ETS1-3 call for students to integrate and evaluate various media sources (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) when addressing questions and solving problems (see NGSS Appendix M for CCSS—Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects). However, several issues listed below preclude teachers from helping students develop technology and media literacy through these connections:
  1. 1.

    The STSE cross cutting concepts and CCSS-literacy connections to select NGSS content topics appears erratic and unsystematic with no underpinning rationale.

  2. 2.

    Little rationale provided to educators about why or how it is important to teach the STSE cross cutting concepts and CCSS-literacy connections under the context of the selected NGSS content topics.

  3. 3.

    While the STSE cross cutting concepts indicate that technological development entails social and cultural considerations, and the CCSS-literacy connections superficially allude to the importance of analyzing media impacts on reporting and interpreting science, no direct links appear between the CCSS-literacy connections and Science, Technology, Society and the Environment (STSE) crosscutting concepts.

  4. 4.

    The CCSS-literacy connections appear to privilege their focus on requiring students to engage the credibility of information presented across media formats, primarily text, in ways akin to thinking and engaging in practices like scientists and engineers. Hence, these literacy connections appear to focus more on learning selected science and engineering content presented in the NGSS through reading and using digital sources rather than analyzing, from a sociocultural perspective, how various forms of media can influence reasoning, interactions and action regarding SSI at personal and societal levels.


The standards described above appear to reflect the hegemonic STEM milieu admonished by Zeidler (2016). Missing from current standard is nuanced explicit detail of how electronic media covertly influences their consumers’ ways of knowing and communicating in a manner that inhibits NOS understanding, sociocultural awareness and SSI engagement. A grave consequence of this situation is that electronic media, because of its cognitive and epistemic biases it enforces, impedes deep structural epistemological growth required for meaningful learning and engagement of and about science. Furthermore, electronic media encourages learners to forgo meaningful personal interactions that would lead to empathetic responses and sociocultural awareness.

Science and technology educators must situate media and technological literacy within the context of cultural studies and emphasize the importance of understanding how various media influences personal and social epistemology and socioscientific engagement. More simply, as Postman (1995, p. 191) writes: “Technology education is not a technical subject. It is a branch of the humanities.” While current science and technology education standards such as STL and NGSS fall short of these important goals, other standards provide guidance about how to promote sophisticated forms of media literacy from a humanistic perspective. For instance, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) Core Principles of Media Literacy Education (MLE) provides a framework that science and technology educators could draw from to create curricula geared toward scientific media literacy. The NAMLE MLE principles and key questions were written to be adapted for cross discipline (e.g., across science and the humanities) and cross-cultural inquiry-based media analysis (Rogow, 2011). For example, consider that the NAMLE MLE principles call for people to actively engage in inquiry-based critical media analysis which includes knowing that media have different characteristics, ways of language construction, embedded values and perspectives and can influence beliefs, behaviors and the democratic process. Furthermore, MLE principles call for people to recognize media as agents of culture and socialization and explore how media represents, misrepresents and fails to represent various sociocultural groups. Thusly, the NAMLE framework suggests flexible avenues to address how contemporary electronic media impacts SSI engagement in ways unnoticeable in the ITEA STL and NGSS.

Implementing science and technology education informed by frameworks such as the NAMLE MLE principles would align with more recent calls for more humanistic “STEAM” curricular approaches as described in Zeidler (2016). More importantly, encouraging more sophisticated forms of technological and media literacy among students would help achieve the democratic goals of science education where citizens critically analyze their sources of information and ways of communicating—which are oftentimes controlled by a powerful elite. However, taking such innovative approaches would require science and technology educators to look beyond the comfortably bounded visions of contemporary standards, which appear to privilege technocratic engineering and scientific practices at the expense of humanistic and sociocultural values (Petrina, 2000; Weiler, 2006). Without humanistic and sociocultural values, students may very well be “thinking like scientists and engineers”, but not like democratic citizens.

Case 3

Virtuous Perspectives in Science Education: Moving Science Teacher Education toward a Sociocultural Framework.

With accelerated advancements in science and technology and the fast-tracked pace of globalization markets, science educators have a responsibility to consider how the values that undergird policy decisions create, encourage or diminish the development of virtue in our youth. For someone new the notion of sociocultural approaches to science education, this topic might seem to be out of sync with what science education as a field, or science educators as teachers, ought to be concerned with, particularly in light of the new wave of fervor that has swept over the field with the advancement and support of STEM-related initiatives, common core curriculum and the uncanny concern some have with the pecking-order of PISA-ranked countries.

Subsequently, we are critical of the STEM-centric focus of science education, advancing the case that values, morals and ethics have historically guided educational practice, and that explicit attention to these features of education is both significant and central to both improved science education practices and prudent policy decisions. We advocate for the development of science curriculum and professional development programs to move from a silo-positioned deficit model to a sociocultural surplus one, recognizing the role values, morality and ethical reasoning play in the mature development of scientific inquiry. It is one thing to say we, as science teacher educators, value diversity in our classrooms. It is quite another to enact a kind of pedagogy and curriculum that actively promotes perspective taking in the humanities, arts, and social sciences in a manner that seeks diverse viewpoints in the human understanding of science and policy (Kahn & Zeidler, 2016).

We need to ask ourselves if we can imagine a world where one can be properly identified as being scientifically literate, yet bear no responsibility to subsequent decisions made about policy, research, community, family and the like. Knowing and reciting scientific information is one thing. Using mature judgment to discern correctness of actions, identifying fruitful lines of inquiry, and acting on human or environmental injustice are another. Executing those types of judgments requires the capacity to tap a class of cardinal intellectual and moral virtues in a manner that no memorization of content, vocabulary or inculcation of values would ever allow. What is required is the exercise of phronesis—a type of prudence masked as wisdom in practical affairs.

When one talks about educating for prudence, character, conscience, responsibility and the like, particularly in front of science teachers or science educators, one will often detect a palpable level of discomfort in the room. We have attempted to address these issues more extensively elsewhere (Zeidler, 2014; Zeidler, Berkowitz, & Bennett, 2014). But here it is important to understand how our science education experiences may produce two distinctly different outcomes. Consider to following passage by Green (2003) who describes the cultivation of a moral agent. He suggests there are those:

… who reason coolly about matters of deep personal and collective interest, but entirely without passion or sentiment or any evidence of engagement in such affairs. They reason well about horrors without expressing any horror and about things that matter as though they matter not at all. Then too, are persons who think well about actions that need to be taken, but remain indolent when action is required. There are those who, on the whole, are decent and harmless, and sometimes so intent on preserving their moral purity that they are rendered inept in the most simple relations with their neighbors. They are moral, in one sense, and fools in another. As against those who are moral, but unskillful, there are still others who are skillful, but only in their own cause; skillful in human affairs, but indifferent to neighbor (pp. 531–532).

What is clearly implied here, is that it is possible to conduct a type of educative experience where emphasis is placed on rational discourse, logical reasoning, calculative and analytic skills while compassion, feelings, reflexive reasoning, perspective-taking (expressed in its ideal form as empathy) and conscience are overlooked or understated. Hence, morality requires more than just thinking morally; it also involves agency, which implies a duty to act virtuously with consideration of others.

Therein also arguably lies a distinction between STEM-driven deficit pedagogical approaches and the sociocultural surplus paradigms…you can consider controversial issues from a purely “intellectual” position under the former framework, or you can consider them using head, heart, and with an emphasis on moral facets of discourse and informed/engaged decision-making toward social responsibility in the latter. Conversations about such features of moral science education tend to be ushered out in the age of PISA, STEM and contemporary science education standards (i.e., NGSS).

Consider, for example, the nature of science (NOS) standards for the National Research Council (NGSS, 2013, p. 6) state that “Science knowledge can describe consequences of actions but is not responsible for society’s decisions” and “Science knowledge indicates what can happen in natural systems—not what should happen. The latter involves ethics values, and human decision about the use of knowledge.” While a number of science educators might, at first blush, simply assent to these claims, we argue that from a sociocultural position of science education, statements like these are problematic to our mission of scientific literacy in that they perpetuate the classic and deleterious fact-value distinction. Here, science seems to be reified as if it has risen to a magical ontological status independent from the worldly affairs of human beings. Unpacking this further, we find the vestigial remnants of positivism that destructively foster the artificial bifurcation of science into non-normative elements (e.g., design and control of variables under study) and normative elements (e.g., the practice of virtue and moral considerations in the exercise of scientific investigations and all forms of research). We therefore contend that science teacher educators must serve as moral agents with an affirmative duty to promote their students’ engagement with both the normative and non-normative elements of science. Only then can we honestly claim that we have readied science teachers and their students to reason thoughtfully and responsibly through the exquisitely messy endeavors that constitute the very human practice of science.

We find it encouraging that there has been some movement in recent years toward conceptualizing what it means to place sociocultural perspectives in general, and moral/ethical issues in particular, at center stage in the science education community (Kincheloe & Tobin, 2009; Tippins, van Eijck, Mueller, & Adams, 2010; Reiss, 2010; Steele, 2016; Zeidler, Herman, Ruzek, Linder, & Lin, 2013). The SSI framework (Zeidler, 2014) that now has found roots in the international science education community is a case in point. Furthermore, we are cautiously optimistic that such movement is indicative of our field’s willingness to embrace humanistic approaches that position science education as a vehicle for equity and inclusivity by providing opportunities for all students to become informed global citizens and decision makers, whether they pursue science as a vocation or not (Kahn, 2015). We are just skimming the surface of what is possible in reconceptualizing the role of science education in the twenty-first century. To that end, we believe a progressive sociocultural framework provides a fruitful way of conceptualizing how we might present contextually rich science curricula such that scientific issues, embedded with moral–ethical characteristics will be approached through well-constructed pedagogy that emphasizes discourse in its variant forms, reflective and reflexive judgment, and the thoughtful self-discovery of virtue.


We have set forth a series of cases that together argue for more reasoned and robust evaluation of recent educational policies and trends that, in our opinions, fail to adequately address the disciplinary and humanistic consequences of their implementation. Given the ever-increasing demands placed upon science teacher educators, and perhaps our inherent belief in the good of humanity, including those who set policies, it is perhaps understandable that we could be seduced and even swept off our intellectual feet by swells of new initiatives related to STEM without ample analysis of their inevitable tradeoffs, an act that necessitates swimming powerfully and cautiously against the tide.

We draw on a progressive philosophy of science education that necessitates heeding a warning for ourselves, and sounding a warning alarm for the field of science teacher education. If you hear this alarm, it likely sounds something like this: Humanitas Emptor! It is incumbent upon science teacher educators to make careful and thoughtful decisions about how we choose to endorse and implement recent policies in our field. Not doing so is tantamount to committing a type of naturalistic fallacy. “Here are the norms (trends and policies) of our field advanced by certain societies of educational practice. Therefore, these policies must be desirable to our practice.” But saying this unreflectively, even unconsciously, fails to ask the open question—but ought we do so? Is it good? Is it ethically desirable? What may be missing? What falls by the wayside? The implications for science teacher education cannot be overstated. Every pedagogical decision we make in how we structure our courses, our programs, and teach our future teachers will literally impact future generations of students.

We ourselves must embody the traits of skepticism, tenacity, and critical inquiry that we purport to imbue in our students. While such vigorous interrogations and challenges to the status quo could be mistaken as gratuitous irreverence, they are, on the contrary, precisely the habits of mind that we expect in our students. And such habits of mind may not be exercised with any degree of moral certitude in a sociocultural vacuum.


  1. 1.

    A version of this material first appeared in Clough and Olson (2016).


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Copyright information

© The Association for Science Teacher Education, USA 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dana L. Zeidler
    • 1
  • Benjamin C. Herman
    • 2
  • Michael P. Clough
    • 3
  • Joanne K. Olson
    • 3
  • Sami Kahn
    • 4
  • Mark Newton
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Teaching and Learning, College of EducationUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, College of EducationUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA
  3. 3.School of EducationIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  4. 4.Department of Teacher Education, College of EducationOhio UniversityAthensUSA

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