Science Education: The Paradigm Shift


Globalization and the Internet are pushing the world's economies to become more interdependent. Technopreneurial initiatives are on the ascent and are attracting venture capital funds for new ideas, as well as fostering the creation of new companies and industries. Technological progress is fueling further innovations in industry and, in the process, creating new products, jobs, and services. Because these changes affect the employment of workers, they impinge not only on the competitiveness of nations but also on the primary goal of education, which is to prepare students for the workforce.

Technology-driven economic growth has been an effective model for countries in the 20th century. In the emerging knowledge-based economy of this millennium, it is recognized that cerebral resources will command a higher premium than traditional raw materials such as land, labor, and capital. This stems from the recognition that the knowledge economy, as distinct from the industrial economy of the 20th century, is starting to spawn entirely new industries--"info-industries"--as well as blurring the segmentation between existing scientific disciplines and also establishing new and cross disciplines. These changes are causing many of workers' traditional skills to become irrelevant or even obsolete.

In the context of the challenges posed by the info-economy, traditional educational institutions are starting to become less relevant. With the old worldview of education showing signs of becoming dysfunctional, a paradigm shift is under way in the field of science education. The instructor-centric approach, in which the teacher conveys knowledge to students, is beginning to shift toward a pupil-centric approach, in which the teacher mediates the learning experience of students through a wealth of self-directed endeavors. The maxim "sage on the stage to guide on the side" aptly summarizes this ongoing process of the teacher's transformation from an authoritative role to a facilitative one. However, there probably needs to be a dynamic equilibrium between the teacher-centric approach and the pupil-centric approach, for the simple reason that learning cannot take place without teaching!

An array of technologies is converging on the educational landscape to effect the paradigm shift (see sidebar). The challenge for science education is to see how these technologies can be harnessed effectively for educational reform. Judicious integration of these technologies into traditional teaching, learning, and assessment is more or less inevitable.

Technologies and Their Uses

  • The personal computer, which offers enormous computational power

  • The Internet, which permits interconnection to many electronic portals of knowledge

  • Software tools, which facilitate word processing, slide presentations, e-mailing, interactive video-conferencing on the Web, and a suite of other transactions

  • CD-ROMs

  • Many other technologies

A multimodal learning system is also beginning to emerge: instructor-centered learning, which is the traditional approach, but with technology that helps the teacher mediate the delivery of courseware and instruction; pupil-centered learning, in which the student uses Internet resources to expand learning experiences; and collaborative learning, in which the student and others on the Internet work together on cross-disciplinary projects concerning open-ended problems. The latter strategy, in particular, establishes an environment in which students can acquire a range of desirable attributes (see sidebar). These endeavors are invigorating and enriching, and they cultivate a holistic perspective of learning--unlike rote learning. Also, the attributes fostered are those the knowledge economy increasingly expects of workers. The multimodal approach effectively expands the school beyond its traditional infrastructure to include society and the world at large. Teachers face an onerous task in developing the skills required to square up to these challenges. Resources, tools, training, and support will have to be provided so they can reengineer their usefulness for the new educational milieu; the momentum for preservice and in-service courses for teachers is likely to increase.

Collaborative learning ...

  • exposes pupils to problem-solving skills

  • expands pupils' cognitive spectrum

  • forces pupils to think out of the box

  • encourages pupils to appreciate the realities of group dynamics

  • allows pupils to engage in collaborative inquiry

  • allows pupils to work in a networked community

  • helps pupils develop higher order thinking skills

  • introduces pupils to research skills

  • gives pupils experience in multitasking.

While the forces of information and communication technologies are starting to impinge greatly on science education, new developments in the life sciences are portending another offshoot in the paradigm shift. Scientific, economic, and ethical issues in relation to cloning, stem cells, genomics, human-computer interactions, gene therapy, and genetic engineering will make their impact on society more greatly in due course. The hybridization of the neurosciences and the cognitive sciences is likely to generate new models of learning. How science education addresses these challenges will be interesting!

In Singapore, there is official recognition that educational reform is important for the country to remain relevant in this age of globalization. An ability-driven education system has displaced the erstwhile efficiency-driven model. The new system recognizes the need to maximize the potential of all students. It offers separate development tracks for students of varying abilities and aptitudes. Controversial when first introduced, the wisdom of the move can be gauged from the fact that the model has helped curtail drastically the attrition rate among students at all levels. * Multimodal partnerships with universities, research institutes, science centers, and scientific societies are well entrenched. Information and communication technologies are pervasive in all schools. There is a computer for every five to seven students in schools. All schools have a broadband connection through Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technologies, which offer up to 512 Kbps and 2 Mbps of bandwidth, respectively. Schools also have their own Web sites. Finally, project work in science has been part of the school culture for quite some time.

It is clear that the paradigm shift occurring in the field of science education is multidimensional. Nations need to address these challenges in urgency; otherwise, they will exacerbate their geopolitical dislocation from the global economic mainstream. Indeed, reform in science education at the organic level is not only a strategic imperative but also a mission-critical necessity in this millennium!

* Education Statistics Digest 2001 (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2000), pp. 54-56.

Leo Tan Wee Hin is president of the Singapore National Academy of Science (15 Science Centre Road, Singapore 609081) and director of the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University (1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616). R. Subramaniam is honorary secretary of the academy and an assistant professor at the institute.

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