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Where We Learn Science May Be Different Than You Think

For the past 100 years we’ve come to believe that the words “learning,” “education,” and “school” were synonymous–that education only happens at school. But perhaps surprisingly, today’s learners learn only a small fraction of what they know about science in a classroom.

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For the past 100 years we’ve come to believe that the words “ learning , education , and “ school” were synonymous–that education only happens at school. But perhaps surprisingly, today’s learners learn only a small fraction of what they know about science in a classroom. In the 21st century, the sources of public education are increasingly a mix of schools, digital media providers, businesses, and the nation’s vast network of informal educational institutions and resources. These include libraries, public health and environmental organizations, museums, national parks, and youth serving and adult organizations.

These organizations and tools enable a growing number of individuals to customize and take charge of their own learning. This is particularly the case for adults, but also an increasing number of children and youth. In the 21 st century, research suggests more and more learning is driven by the goals of the learner.   Learners are selecting institutions to learn within that support their goals, not the other way around. This change has not been fully understood or embraced by the educational establishment.


Science education does not just happen in school. Rather, it happens throughout a lifetime, and often in unexpected places.

School-First Paradigm

The U.S. scientific research and education communities have long pursued the goal of advancing the American publics’ understanding of science. For over a generation, the vast majority of the rhetoric, resources, and research on this issue have revolved around the perceived failure of U.S. school-aged children to excel at mathematics and science, particularly compared with children in other countries. Most policy solutions for this problem involve improving the practices of schoolteachers, particularly during the pre-college years, although there is increasing discussion about the importance of science education in both early childhood and post-secondary years. This “school-first paradigm” is so pervasive that few scientists, educators or policymakers question it, even in the absence of significant evidence to support it. In fact, at least in the U.S., there is a growing body of research suggesting that schooling is not the primary mechanism by which the public learns science.

Take, for example, the performance by U.S. school-aged children on international tests like the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and the biennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). For more than two decades, U.S. primary grade children have performed as well as or better than most children in the world, whereas the performance of older U.S. children has been mediocre to poor. On the most recent TIMMS science exam, U.S. 4 th graders were out-performed by only one country in the world— South Korea. U.S. 8 th graders were right in the middle of the pack of the 43 participating countries. But by the time they got to 12 th grade, U.S. students ranked among the worst in the world out-performing students from only two countries—Cyprus and South Africa. On the PISA test, similar to TIMMS, U.S. 8 th graders performance was slightly below average by world standards, ranking 20 th out of the 34 participating countries. These results create problems for the “school-first paradigm” for two reasons.

First, why is it that the U.S. performs so well in the early grades but then declines so precipitously in later grades—especially since most in the U.S. science learning community acknowledge that the quality of school-based science education in America is worse at the preschool and elementary levels than at the secondary level. That’s likely because only 4% of kindergarten through second grade U.S. school teachers have undergraduate majors in science or science education and most have taken no college-level science courses at all.  It is common among U.S. primary grade teachers for their last science course to have been 10 th grade general biology. That said, the science competence of primary school teachers’ is almost a moot point since science instruction in the primary grades so rarely occurs. Indicative of the situation nationwide, a study of California elementary schools found that 80% of K–5th grade multiple-subject teachers who are responsible for teaching science in their classrooms reported spending, on average, 12 minutes or less per day on science. Nearly a fifth of teachers reported spending no time at all on science. The reality is that consistent science instruction in U.S. schools only begins at the middle school level when every student takes at least one or two science courses, usually taught by individuals with some science background. Thus, it is notable—if counterintuitive—that the only time when U.S. children do well on international comparisons of science ability is during the time period when effectively little to no science instruction occurs in school. Once formal school science instruction begins, American students begin to fare poorly.

Of course one could conclude from these international results, as do most who believe in the school-first paradigm, that because U.S. secondary school students perform poorly it must mean that everyone in the U.S. performs poorly. If by graduation from high school America’s students are among the worst in the world on school-based assessments of science, then it would stand to reason that these same individuals must also be among the worst in the world as adults. But once again, the data does not support the assumption that learning ends after high school.

In fact, over the same 20-year period as TIMMS and PISA have been finding U.S. secondary school students lacking, U.S. adults have consistently outperformed their international counterparts on science literacy measures, including adults from South Korea and Japan, as well as virtually all Western European nations, including Germany, Finland, and the U.K. In the most recent round of international comparisons of public understanding of science, U.S. adults were out-performed by only one country, Sweden. And, over the past 25 years, U.S. adult levels of science understanding have been slowly but steadily increasing. Although there is still considerable room for improvement in American’s understanding of science, it is worth taking note of the consistent success of the U.S. on international measures of adult science literacy. But if formal schooling is the primary factor affecting how well the public understands science, it is difficult to explain the sudden reversal in fortunes after students leave high school. Interestingly, until very recently, the trend was always that the youngest adults scored best on these public science literacy measures, and usually the assertion was that this was because younger individuals had received more and better formal education than older adults. But this failed to explain how American youth could, overnight, go from worst in the world to first in the world.

The truth is, these counter-intuitive results cannot be adequately explained if we assume that schooling alone is responsible for Americans’ science learning. Why do young children do well compared to those in other countries, and why does the science literacy of the U.S. general public suddenly rebound after high school? It’s true that all of these tests are flawed, but for better or worse these are the tests on which international comparisons are made and they do provide a consistent frame of reference. And although some have argued that taking college-level courses in science is the explanation for adults’ success, this is unlikely the full explanation since only 30 percent of U.S. adults ever even take one college level science course, and no children under the age of eight do.

Given these facts, it makes sense to at least consider other possible explanations for how and where Americans learn science. After all, the U.S. has the most extensive and heavily used informal science education infrastructure in the world. Rather than viewing the public science education system as merely consisting of schools, as a country we would be much better off acknowledging that science education is comprised of the entire ecosystem of available resources—formal, workplace, family, and particularly informal.

Free-Choice Science Learning

A growing body of evidence supports a contention that many would find surprising, and that is that most science learning is free-choice , driven by an individual’s needs, interests and access to learning opportunities. Two recent reports by the National Research Council ( 2009 and 2015 ) describe a range of evidence demonstrating that even everyday experiences such as a walk in the park contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science, as do visits to settings such as national parks, science centers, and botanical gardens. The science people learn while engaged in efforts to satisfy their own personal need to know contributes even more to learning. Sometimes the need is very situational and designed to satisfy a fleeting curiosity. Other times the needs are deep and extended, such as when people learn science to support pursuits such as gardening, cooking, auto repair, bird watching, or stargazing. Free-choice learning describes the non-linear, self-directed learning that happens when people have significant choice and control over what, when, where, how, why, and with whom they are learning. Although the term free-choice learning does not define where learning happens, currently most of it takes place outside the formal education system. However, important aspects of school-based learning also incorporate a measure of free-choice.

Evidence for the importance of free-choice science learning comes from many sources, but some of the best comes from a recent research study that my colleague Mark Needham and I conducted in Los Angeles among a sample of over 1,000 adults. We found that multiple sources of science learning collectively contributed to adult public understanding of science. Work experiences (as well as gender, income and race/ethnicity) and schooling all contributed to adult science knowledge, but their contributions were significantly lower than those of free-choice learning experiences.

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Free-Choice and Equity

Equity and access are common concerns raised by those starting from a school-first perspective. School has long been viewed as the great leveler, and it certainly has afforded significant opportunity for many. However, a number of recent research studies suggest that schooling may not be as great a leveler as once assumed. When longitudinal comparisons of educational performance were measured comparing children attending schools in low income neighborhoods with those in high income neighborhoods, the gains made during the school year were statistically insignificant, but huge disparities emerged over the summer, which were compounded year after year. Further studies have shown that by the time children reach sixth grade, middle-class children have typically had 6,000 more hours of learning experiences than did children born into poverty; highlighting the importance of what happens outside of school. In other words, merely improving schools will not resolve the present imbalances in educational opportunity.

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Stargazing is one example of free-choice science learning that can be supported by after-school or summer programming for students.

Currently, public support for out-of-school/free-choice learning is but a fraction of the support given to schooling with significant consequences for those who currently can or cannot access these resources. Some communities, for example Providence, RI, have begun to actively address this issue, attempting to ensure that all children and youth have equal educational opportunities, not just during school hours but outside of school hours as well. The research is clear; ensuring equity for all increasingly requires equity both in and outside of school.

In conclusion, it seems that as a nation, we need to rethink and reimagine where and how the public learns science. It suggests the importance of taking a comprehensive, ecosystem-wide approach that places equal value on non-school resources. America should be striving to connect science learning experiences across the day and over a lifetime. We need to invest in creating a network of public science education experiences that seamlessly incorporate learning opportunities in and out of school, framed increasingly around science lessons that support each individual learner’s desire to answer the questions that are important to their lives. In the future, we must work towards creating a new “public science education,” one that fully accommodates all available times, spaces, and ways to learn.

Author’s Suggested Further Reading

Alexander, K.L. & Entwisle, D.R. (1996). Early schooling and educational inequality: Socioeconomic disparities in children’s learning. pp. 63-79. In James S. Coleman (Ed.), Falmer Sociology Series . London: Falmer Press Ltd.

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L.D. (2002). Lessons without limit: How free-choice learning is transforming education. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. (2010). The 95% Solution: School is not where most Americans learn most of their science. American Scientist , 98, 486-493.

Fulp, S. L. (2002). The status of elementary science teaching. Technical Report. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H.A., Lange, P.G., Mahendran, D., Martinez, K.Z., Pascoe, C., Perkel, D., Robinson, L., Sims, C. & Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McCreedy, D., & Dierking, L. D. (2013). Cascading influences: Long-term impacts of informal STEM experiences for girls . Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute.

National Science Board, (2015). Science and Engineering Indicators : 2014. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2012). PISA in Focus 18: Are students more engaged when schools offer extracurricular activities? Paris: OECD.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). (2010), .

TASC. (2014). After school and beyond. New York: The After School Corporation.

Traphagen, K. & Traill, S. (2014). How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning . Palo Alto, CA: The Noyce Foundation.

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) , (2009). .

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