“Knowledge” — how to use the term to illustrate the “doing” of science 

“Knowledge” has several meanings for its use with student learning! A definition of “Knowledge” is traditionally considered information to help reform science education.  It refers to information that can be used to indicate what others have learned.   

A search of five dictionaries has yielded several examples of the meaning for the term “Knowledge.” Some include recognizing facts and truths from study or investigations.  Another indicated “familiarity” one has with a subject, for example, language or branch for learning. Another dictionary indicates it is the perception of fact or truth.  Another states it is practical understandings of an art or a skill. Still another states it is the sum of what is known, including facts accumulated by mankind over the course of time. Yet, these definitions do not include specific reform efforts resulting in teaching science in K-12 classrooms. 

Knowledge is also referred to as cognitive or intellective mental components acquired and retained by study and experience. But, none of these definitions reveal the changes needed in teaching that are central to 2016 discussions including those recently offered by the New York Times (November 22, 2015).  There it was asserted the biggest problem in education is having 50 states, 50 standards, and 50 ideas for testing related to learning.  How do we really know what students are learning?  How well have they learned?  What do students really “know” about the information comprising the meaning of science content or from the explorations of nature encountered in their lives? Assessing students’ knowledge requires students to communicate what they have learned to provide evidence of their understanding.   This occurs when students construct explanations for observed phenomena, judge the merits of a science based argument, or use mathematics and computational thinking to describe and represent relationships and use these relationships to make predictions based upon evidence.

Science learning for some students is difficult to achieve. Most educators derive great satisfaction in thinking they are helping students learn the what and that of science. However, this approach neglects the real challenges. Perhaps the focus should instead be on the how and why of science. Few recognize the measurements for learning if students are only asked to repeat and recite what is included in science classes and textbooks. Standardized tests may not measure learning in ways needed to change teaching.  Some educators insist learning can be demonstrated by test scores which merely identify information students must remember and recite!

Science needs to be a “real” and “personal” learning experience.  If we want students to learn and be successful, we must not treat all students alike; we should not just present information from lectures and textbooks nor just ask students to recite information from memory. We should not have students simply compete to be “number one.” Changes need to be made if we expect teaching to be successful. As science educators, we need to teach students to think like scientists, not memorize facts.

There are few who recognize the needed changes that result in correcting wrong explanations 50 years later. Few even consider most textbooks are out-of-date. One research study conducted by the University of Iowa Chemistry Department head identified over 100 content errors found in textbooks being used.

Perhaps we need to avoid encouraging students to “know” definitions and terms included in the curriculum provided for students from states and districts which often assess without attention to how student knowledge is connected and organized around core science concepts.  We need to identify “knowledge” and how it can be used to indicate successful learning as well as illustrating the power of questioning, use of questions, evidence for changes, and the need for continued questioning. 

Learning remains central to science and other courses in K-16 education. It is not something needed to help some students become “number one” in reciting what they read or what teachers say. It is not merely recalling information found in textbooks and teacher directives. As Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon stated, “the meaning of “knowing” has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and apply it. Students need more active learning that provide indications of useful knowledge appropriate for learners of ALL ages. Students need to construct their own explanations and designs for solutions of problems which they have identified themselves.

There is little concern for accomplishing changes needed that indicate what humans really “know.”  What information is central to what is taught about concepts to be learned? Knowledge is often used as a “term” to illustrate what students are expected to learn. But, what is accomplished as a result of using the term? What is it? How is “knowledge” used to get all students to “do” science and for using it in their lives? Science must be seen as a way of learning and knowing and not a body of largely unrelated facts.


Robert E. Yager

Professor of Science Education

University of Iowa


Kenneth L. Huff

Science and Math Teacher

Williamsville Central School District


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