Science and Mathematics Education: Similarities and Differences
Lynn Arthur Steen, St. Olaf College
Remarks prepared for a 1990 meeting of the Mathematical Sciences Educaton Board (MSEB) on similarities and differences in the "Standards for School Mathematics" published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the "National Science Education Standards" published by the National Research Council (NRC).
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  •  In goals and objectives, both the science and mathematics standards advocate a significant shift away from the elitist "filter" model of science for future scientists to a literacy model of science and mathematics for all. Both expect more students to learn more significant science and mathematics.
  •  In regard to content, both the science and mathematics standards argue that "less is more:" less memorization, less mechanics, less mimicry, but more understanding, more thinking, more depth.
  •  In regard to teaching, both the science and mathematics standards advocate an active, constructivist model: more group work, more student talk, more exploration; less rote learning, less passivity, less deference to teacher (or textbook) authority.
  •  In regard to assessment, both the science and mathematics standards urge greater reliance on performance-based instruments that are aligned with the curriculum and embedded in instruction. Assessment should aid the educational process, not merely judge it.
  •  In regard to technology, both the science and mathematics standards advocate full use of technology both as a means and as a goal of instruction.
  •  In regard to higher education, both the mathematics and science communities have undertaken significant efforts to improve undergraduate education, including better preparation of teachers of science and mathematics.
  •  In regard to implementation, both in K-12 and higher education, science and mathematics reform need the full and active support of administrators and policy makers since many of the changes recommended by the standards require structural change or redistribution of resources.


  •  Mathematics is the language of science. To succeed in science, students must use mathematics. Thus high quality science depends on high quality mathematics.
  •  In the schools, mathematics connects to social studies, art, and reading almost as much as to science. "Mathematics and science" is only one of the logical pairings that make sense to teachers of mathematics.
  •  Philosophically, mathematics is not a part of science. Mathematics studies patterns, science studies nature.
  •  Mathematics is a single discipline with an organized curriculum from grade school through graduate school. Neither "science" nor any one of the sciences (e.g., physics) has this characteristic.
  •  Mathematics occupies well over half of the time and effort devoted to mathematics and science in the schools, K-12.
  •  Well-prepared teachers of mathematics in high school and college are able to teach virtually any mathematics course offered in the curriculum. This versatility (across biology, chemistry, physics) is very rare in science.
  •  The mathematics standards were developed by, are owned by, and are vigorously promoted by the major professional organization representing teachers of mathematics.
  •  Mathematics has several umbrella organizations (JPBM, CBMS) that enable the community to work together and speak with one voice concerning reform of mathematics education.
The gist of this analysis is quite simple: Intellectually, the two communities agree on virtually all comparable aspects of their respective standards. But the nature of the communities, their positions on the trajectory of reform, and their roles in the schools, are very different. Thus even though there is strong consonance in the standards themselves--at both school and college levels--the specific work that must be done to support the standards movement is not necessarily the same in the two communities.

Copyright © 1990. Contact: Lynn A. Steen URL: