This will become a location for science education failure case studies. Each case, whether defined by me or by participants, will describe an undertaking that the author believes failed, on what evidence, and for what reasons. Commentary will then be sought. As the cases and commentary accrue, the we may be able to develop a better sense of what constitutes success and failure in reform undertakings, and of how to increase the probability of achieving the former. It can also lead to realization of the value of failure.

Purgatory? Sounds terribly severe, but you’ll have to admit that in Dante’s lingo, which is to say as Purgatorio, it has a ring to it. Perhaps Don Quixote would provide a more pertinent metaphor than the Divine Comedy, but no matter, I’m sticking with Dante.


  • In the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio is situated between the Inferno and Paradiso; here in our world, science education is situated between abject failure and dreamy perfection.
  • The souls in purgatory are confronted by our moral failures (the seven deadly sins); we science educators by our many professional failures.
  • Salvation is possible for the souls in Purgatorio, but only if they recognize their sins and work long and hard to remove them; success is possible for science education reformers, but only if they identify their failures and work long and hard to reverse them.

I characterize reforming school science as “Purgatorial” in the belief that achieving significant educational reform is bound to be more painful and lengthy and difficult than we would like, for history tells us that there is no simple, painless, quick fix available. Still, science education reform is not doomed to the everlasting hopelessness of the Inferno: we can hope for reform, if we are willing to make the necessary changes, however long it may take, however painful, to root out our “evil tendencies,” but we cannot hope for Paradise, which is to say for a perfect system of education.

Well, comparing science education to Dante’s Purgatario, may be a stretch, so instead consider engineering. The notion that we stand to learn more from our failures than from our successes is routine in engineering (and for that matter not at all rare in science). It is nearly absent in science education. I propose that we look back at our reform undertakings—whether at the classroom, school, school district, state, or national level—to identify those that failed and to look for reasons for their failures.

But what constitutes failure? I think that a suitable answer will emerge inductively as together we analyze “failure case studies.”

The idea is this: Those of us who have alone or with others designed and carried out reform undertakings will briefly describe the project and its goals, note in what sense is was wholly or partially unsuccessful, and list what was learned that can be passed on to the rest of us.

I’ll start with one or two of my own failure cases to get the thing going.