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Faith In Our Power To Bring About Change

Written by George Hein

Along with the willingness to try something new was a faith that our actions could lead to significant change. One of my most powerful memories from our work at ESS is that we were convinced that our approach to elementary science education would be a major component of a revolution in U.S. public education.

I was confident that our inquiry-based, materials-rich units—we eschewed the idea of a curriculum and insisted on the opportunity and responsibility for teachers to combine our "units" into individually organized curricula—would lead to significant changes in classroom organization, teaching and assessment. At a minimum, we felt they would provide substantial support to the "open classroom" approach and that it would transform schools. Our model at EDC was the major change in British schools initiated after the Second World War. The rigid class system that exemplified their society was shaken by the wartime experiences. Post-war Labor governments were determined to create a new, more equitable, educational system. The system of examinations and separate tracks for a meager 15 percent of the population that went on to higher education were modified and, especially in the early school years, rich materials and developmentally appropriate activities were introduced into classrooms. What had been started out of necessity during the war, as children and teachers were evacuated from cities into the countryside where teachers had to improvise and ad hoc curricula flourished, was transformed into policy in the '50s and '60s. Both art and inquiry science were emphasized as Piagetian approaches to education were introduced in what was called "The Integrated Day." In addition, teachers were given significant individual authority to create curriculum and assess children, although all this was within the framework of a still relatively structured society (compared to the U.S.) and a centrally controlled school system. Jay Featherstone's articles in The New Republic in 1967, describing and praising the new educational approaches taking hold in Britain, later published in book form with additional descriptions of similar efforts in the United States, were read widely and were influential in shaping our work. We envisioned similar national impact for our work; the political and social movements associated with the '60s were not about bringing incremental change to society, but about transformation and revolution.

Our challenges to current society at ESS were, of course, modest but it felt as if they were tremendous and that gave us both courage and energy. The scale of any novel practice in disrupting traditional patterns is sometimes hard to judge. For example, in our desire to make classrooms more materials rich, to resemble a workshop more than a space for the use of packaged "kits" (or no materials at all), we thought of suggesting that schools provide individual teachers with a modest credit at local hardware stores so they might purchase small items—plastic cups, straws, containers, etc.—to use with their students. This turned out to be a revolutionary idea, and was seldom adopted, due to the bureaucratic, authoritarian structure of almost all school systems.

Our work at ESS was also part of a larger social agenda that involved scientists (and others) who had been engaged in large-scale military projects during World War II. Our parent institution, EDC, owes its existence to the drive and commitment of Jerrold Zacharias, a major figure in the World War II scientific effort to develop weapons and defenses. Like other scientists of his time, Zacharias felt that the power of organizing vast numbers of scientists that had resulted in producing the atomic bomb and operational radar could and should also be harnessed for positive social ends. He chose science education as his area and used his extraordinary skills and contacts to create institutions to bring about educational change. Philip Morrison and Frank Oppenheimer, who were associated with both EDC and with the modern science center movement, were part of this community of socially conscious scientists. The overarching conception of a national sense of purpose for a specific goal, a powerful driving force during the war, was still present in the 1960s since most adults, especially influential professionals now in their 40s and 50s had personal experience of the successful war time efforts. There was a palpable sense that publicly funded activities could achieve material and social change in the society.

A larger social vision was never far removed from the practical work of reforming schools. During the war, society had been united in the goal of winning the war. But, it was also generally acknowledged that the task was in pursuit of a greater good, as the slogan had it, "saving the world for Democracy." A similar, overarching vision motivated the people engaged in specific reforms in the 1960s. Reflecting on his work later, Zacharias said,

The reason I was willing to do it [develop a new high school physics course, his first effort in K-12 science education] was not because I wanted more physics or more physicists or more science; it was because I believed then, and I believe now, that in order to get people to be decent in this world, they have to have some kind of intellectual training that involves knowing Observation, Evidence, the Basis for Belief.

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