The change in the intended Senior High School Chemistry Curriculum in China: focus on intellectual demands

Bing Wei
Faculty of Education, University of Macau, Macau, China. E-mail:

Received 7th May 2019 , Accepted 6th June 2019

First published on 26th June 2019

Using Revised Bloom's Taxonomy (RBT), this study has examined the intellectual demands of the Senior High School Chemistry Curriculum (SHSCC) in China from a socio-historical perspective. Document analysis was adopted as a research method to analyze knowledge types and cognitive processes, the two dimensions of the cognitive learning objectives in the three curriculum documents of the SHSCC officially released in 1996, 2003, and 2018 respectively. The changing tendencies of the two dimensions have been found over the past two decades. As for knowledge types, Factual knowledge has increased, whilst Conceptual knowledge has decreased and Procedural knowledge has dramatically increased, and Meta-cognitive knowledge has appeared recently although in a low ratio. With regard to cognitive processes, the lower levels have been decreased, while the higher levels have been increased. Moreover, explanations have been provided for the association between the orientations of the chemistry curriculum and the extents of intellectual demands embodied in the cognitive learning objectives in these versions of the SHSCC. From these findings, it is concluded that the SHSCC in China has become increasingly demanding during the period under study and the newly emergent SHSCC is more challenging than its predecessors. The implications of this study for curriculum researchers, curriculum developers and chemistry teachers are discussed in the last part of this paper.


In general, official curriculum documents (including frameworks, standards, and syllabi), often define educational standards, stipulate the goals, objectives, content, and assessment strategies of a certain discipline, reflecting the basic norms and requirements of a country or region. The goals and objectives for science teaching and learning in those official curriculum documents have undergone a variety of changes throughout the past decades. While reviewing the various ‘science teaching orientations’ identified by Magnusson et al. (1999), Friedrichsen et al. (2011) argued that seven of those orientations were based on the curriculum efforts in history. According to them, Process, Activity-driven, and Discovery are orientations as the legacy of the science curriculum in the late 1950s, while Conceptual change, Project-based science, Inquiry, and Guided inquiry are curriculum orientations that represent contemporary reform efforts and curriculum projects. Many scholars have attempted to reveal the different goals and objectives of various science curricula. For instance, Roberts (1982) identified seven ‘curriculum emphases’ of school science curriculum in the history of North America. According to Roberts (2011), some of them (‘structure of science’, ‘scientific skill development’, ‘correct explanations’, and ‘solid foundation’) should be incorporated into Vision I of scientific literacy, while others (‘everyday coping’, ‘science, technology, and decisions’, and ‘self as explainer’) mainly belong to Vision II of scientific literacy, with Visions I and II of scientific literacy representing the different purposes of science education. Recently, partly motivated by international comparisons of students’ performance on science assessments (e.g., The Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA), there has been a tendency towards standards-based science education (DeBoer, 2011). The fundamental principle underpinning science education standards is ‘to describe clear, consistent, and comprehensive science content and abilities’ (Bybee, 2014, p. 212). The most influential science standards in the international science education community are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013). However, little knowledge in the literature is available about which orientations of science curricula and standards-based science programs are actually more demanding than others. Without this kind of knowledge, as Lee et al. (2017) reminded, ‘alignment between the intended, taught, and assessed curriculum would be compromised and have negative consequences for general student achievement’ (p. 2).

Compared with other school subjects, school science has long been advocated to cultivate students’ intelligence (DeBoer, 1991), and recently to improve students’ higher order thinking skills (Zohar, 2004; Corliss and Linn, 2011; Fensham and Bellocchi, 2013). To examine the extent of intellectual demands that is manifested in the intended science curricula, some scholars have recently focused on the cognitive levels of official science curriculum documents. For instance, Lee et al. (2015) analyzed the primary science curriculum standards in South Korea and Singapore on the basis of Revised Bloom's Taxonomy (RBT) to describe the general features of and unpack the complexities of their primary school science curricula. Based on their findings, these researchers provided insights into the complexities of the science curriculum among two similar but different educational systems where students have performed well in international science assessments, such as PISA and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). On a similar line of research, Wei and Ou (2018) analyzed and explored the similarities and differences among mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, with regard to cognitive learning objectives prescribed in science curricula at the stage of junior high school (13–15 ages). While these studies took a horizontal perspective to compare the cognitive levels of teaching objectives or expected outcomes in science curricula from different countries/regions, a historical perspective is needed to examine the changing tendencies of the cognitive levels of learning objectives or expected outcomes prescribed in a given science curriculum over a period of time, helping to discover the relationship between different orientations and intellectual demands embodied in this curriculum. Based on RBT, this study took the official Senior High School Chemistry Curricula (SHSCC, for those in the 16–18 age group) as a case to explore two related issues: how have the intellectual demands of a given chemistry curriculum changed over time, and what is the association between the different orientations of the chemistry curriculum and the extent of intellectual demands embodied in the expected outcomes?

Rationale: Revised Bloom's Taxonomy

The notion of intellectual demands was defined by Lee and colleagues (2015) as the ‘cognitive and knowledge demands that it [any curriculum] makes on learners’ (Lee et al., 2015, p. 2194). As far as science curriculum is concerned, the expected learning outcomes or science learning objectives prescribed in science curriculum frameworks and standards have automatically become the focus of investigation with reference to the taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom et al., 1956). In their prestigious book, entitled Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain, Bloom and colleagues (1956) defined the educational objectives in the cognitive domain as being composed of six categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation, ordered from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract, emphasizing that the lower levels are prerequisites for the higher levels (Bloom et al., 1956; Anderson et al., 2001; Krathwohl, 2002). Since its publication, this taxonomy has been widely adopted by educational researchers around the world and has been translated into 22 languages (Krathwohl, 2002). To address these limitations and to adapt the taxonomy to the development of education in the 21st century, Anderson and colleagues (2001) revised Bloom's original taxonomy.

The revised version mainly involves two matters. The first is terminology. In the revised version, the new Knowledge dimension includes four instead of three main categories. Three of them are actually the substance of the subcategories of Knowledge in the original framework; they are: Factual knowledge, Conceptual knowledge, and Procedural knowledge. The fourth is a new category, Meta-cognitive knowledge, which involves knowledge about cognition in general as well as the awareness of and knowledge about one's own cognition (Krathwohl, 2002). The revision changed nouns into verbs. Knowledge was renamed Remember, Comprehension was renamed Understand, and Synthesis was re-titled Create. Application, Analysis, and Evaluation were retained, but in their verb forms as Apply, Analyze, and Evaluate. Additionally, the revision modified the definition of the six terms. For instance, ‘Remember’ is defined as ‘retrieve relevant knowledge from long-term memory’ (Anderson et al., 2001, pp. 66–67; Anderson, 2006). The second is about the structure. The revision transformed the model from being one-dimensional to being two-dimensional, making it easier to apply and operationalize. Accordingly, one of the dimensions is the knowledge dimension, which consists of four types of knowledge: Factual knowledge, Conceptual knowledge, Procedural knowledge, and Meta-cognitive knowledge. The other dimension is cognitive processing, which is composed of six levels in order of increasing complexity; they are: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. Anderson et al. (2001) further pointed out that any cognitive goal/objective can be classified into one or more of the cells in the taxonomic table (p. 28) based on its verbs/verb phrases and nouns/noun phrases. The knowledge type dimension and the cognitive processing dimension are listed in Tables 1 and 2 respectively.

Table 1 The major types and subtypes of the knowledge dimension of RBT (Anderson et al., 2001, p. 29)
Major type Subtype Example(s)
A. Factual knowledge—the basic elements students must know to be acquainted with a discipline or solve problems in it AA. Knowledge of terminology Unit of rate, unit of force
AB. Knowledge of specific details and elements Some common danger warning symbols
B. Conceptual knowledge—the interrelationships among the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together BA. Knowledge of classifications and categories The nature of force
BB. Knowledge of principles and generalizations Energy conservation law
BC. Knowledge of theories, models, and structures Structure of atom, theory of evolution
C. Procedural knowledge—how to do something, methods of inquiry, and criteria for using skills, algorithms, techniques, and methods CA. Knowledge of subject-specific skills and algorithms Friction calculation
CB. Knowledge of subject-specific techniques and methods Scientific methods
CC. Knowledge of criteria for determining when to use appropriate procedures The criteria used to determine when to apply Newton's second law
D. Meta-cognitive knowledge—knowledge of cognition in general as well as awareness and knowledge of one's own cognition DA. Strategic knowledge Knowledge of outlining as a means of capturing the structure of a unit of subject matter in a textbook
DB. Knowledge about cognitive tasks, including appropriate contextual and conditional knowledge Knowledge of the cognitive demands of different tasks
DC. Self-knowledge Awareness of one's own knowledge level

Table 2 The cognitive process dimension of RBT (Anderson, 2006)
Dimension Definition Examples of cognitive processes involved
Remember The student can recall or remember the information. Define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce state
Understand The student can explain ideas or concepts. Classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase
Apply The student can use the information in a new way. Choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write
Analyze The student can distinguish between the different parts. Appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test
Evaluate The student can justify a stand or decision. Appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate
Create The student can create a new product or point of view. Assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write

Up to now, RBT has been widely used as a tool for instructional design, curriculum development, and teaching assessment in various areas (e.g., Noble, 2004; Su and Osisek, 2011; Jideani and Jideani, 2012), and promoting higher order thinking in science as well (FitzPatrick and Schulz, 2015). That RBT was adopted for this study was grounded on the following considerations. First, this taxonomy has provided a useful approach to classifying educational goals and analyzing curriculum outcomes (Moseley et al., 2005; Forehand, 2010; FitzPatrick and Schulz, 2015). Second, the cognitive process dimension, including Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create, is pertinent to deciding the intellectual demands by intended curriculum outcomes. More importantly, as suggested by FitzPatrick and Schulz (2015), the first two categories of the taxonomy generally represent lower order thinking and the remaining four categories represent higher order thinking. This classification is helpful to distinguish between the lower and higher levels of the cognitive learning objectives in the three curriculum documents of the SHSCC. Third, the two dimensional model specifies cognitive processes and domains of knowledge, which enables educators not only to recognize the depth of the cognitive objectives, but also to understand the relationships between these depths and different types of knowledge. This is helpful to discern the relationship between the intellectual demands and curriculum orientations of the SHSCC, a major concern of this study.

The SHSCC in China

General background

In China, the Ministry of Education (MoE, or State Educational Commission, SEdC, from 1985 to 1998) has the highest authority in planning and designing the school curriculum, directly responsible for making the overall teaching program, which specifies the curriculum organization and the general arrangement for various school subjects. Once the teaching program is finalized, the ‘curriculum standards’ (‘teaching syllabi’ prior to 2001) for each subject are detailed, and then textbooks are compiled (Wei, 2012). The national curriculum standards function as the ‘basis of compiling textbooks, practical teaching, teaching evaluation and examinations’ (MoE, 2001, p. 4). Since the late 1970s, the educational and curriculum policies have been constantly adjusted to the social needs and several rounds of curriculum reforms have been initiated. Almost within each reform, the chemistry curriculum was revised under the unified deployment of the MoE. Over the past 40 years, there have been in total 13 chemistry teaching syllabi and curriculum standards promulgated by the MoE or SEdC, of which 5 are related to the SHSCC. Among the five, some are the minor adjustments to their predecessors, while some are reform initiatives. After carefully checking various versions of curriculum documents, this study was focused on the three released by the SEdC (1996) and MoE (2003, 2018), called the 1996 SHSCC, the 2003 SHSCC, and the 2018 SHHCC, respectively, for brevity. In what follows, a brief introduction is given to each of the three SHSCCs respectively.

The 1996 SHSCC

The end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) began a new era in China. With Deng Xiaoping returning to national prominence, the manpower function of education was asserted and highlighted to promote the ‘Four Modernization’ program (Industry, Agriculture, National Defense, and Science and Technology), which aimed to recover the national economy and develop social productivity. In such a situation, ‘The chemistry syllabus of secondary schools of full-time and ten-year system (trial version)’ was officially issued in 1978 (MoE, 1978), which is usually seen as the starting point of the chemistry curriculum in the Post-Mao era of China. In the 1978 chemistry curriculum, the traditional notion of ‘double bases’, referring to the basic knowledge and basic skills of the subject, came to effect as was often throughout the history of education in China (Liu, 1996). In addition, in order to ‘modernize’ curriculum materials and learn the ‘advanced’ scientific knowledge from the west, the curriculum content was updated with more abstract concepts and theories involved in the 1978 chemistry curriculum (Wei and Thomas, 2005). In the 1978 chemistry curriculum, while highlighting the ‘double basses’ of the subject, it was contended that students’ abilities should be developed to adapt to the coming era of the ‘explosion of knowledge’ (Wei and Thomas, 2005). Literally, the abilities here mainly referred to students’ intelligence. The 1978 chemistry curriculum has experienced a couple of changes since its publication but the above features had remained unchanged until the new millennium. With the implementation of nine-year compulsory education in the early 1990s, the junior high school chemistry curriculum (JHSCC) was issued separately (SEdC, 1992), and then the first SHSCC was promulgated later (SEdC, 1996). The 1996 SHSCC was actually a heritage of the 1978 chemistry curriculum and possessed most of those features.

The 2003 SHSCC

Throughout the 1990s, the enterprise of primary and secondary education was thought to be inadaptable to the social and economic development in this country. Under this background, the last round of curriculum reform was initiated in 1999 after a long period of ferment. The ambition of this reform was to improve the quality of education in order for students to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In particular, cultivating students’ minds of creativity and practical abilities has become the central goal of that round of curriculum reform (Wei, 2005). The objectives and strategies of the curriculum reform were provided in ‘The outline of curriculum reform of basic education’ (MoE, 2001), which served as the guideline for the reform and stipulated that ‘teaching syllabi’ would be replaced by ‘curriculum standards’ for school subjects. Influenced by the then prominent science curriculum documents, such as Project 2061 (AAAS, 1989) and National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), scientific literacy was taken as the central theme and much emphasis was given to scientific inquiry in the 2003 SHSCC (Wei, 2005). For instance, the curriculum goals of the 2003 SHSCC were defined by three dimensions in the view of scientific literacy: (1) knowledge and skills; (2) processes and methods; and (3) emotions, attitudes, and values. Specifically, the components and elements of scientific inquiry were included in the second dimension, such as ‘being conscious of scientific problems’, ‘independent thinking and cooperation with others’, and ‘obtaining and treating data and information’ (MoE, 2003).

The 2018 SHSCC

Since the turn of the new millennium, the rapidly growing economy in China has triggered social change and development in every aspect, and prompted the government to take strategies to maintain the sustainable development of the country. Specifically, to catch up with the international tendency of educational development across the world, especially influenced by the standards-based curriculum reform (DeBoer, 2011), the central government of China has initiated the latest round of curriculum reform with the notion of core competencies as a key theme (Yao and Guo, 2018). The ambition of this reform is to improve the quality of education in order for students to meet the challenges of new times and propel school curriculum into a high-quality development stage (MoE, 2018). Thus, the notion of core competencies has been used as an impetus to design the 2018 SHSCC (MoE, 2018). In the 2018 SHSCC, the chemistry core competencies comprise five dimensions: (1) macroscopic identification and microscopic analysis; (2) changes and equilibrium; (3) evidence-based reasoning and modeling; (4) scientific inquiry and innovation; and (5) scientific attitudes and social responsibility. It is claimed that the goals and contents of the 2018 SHSCC are reconstructed on the framework of the chemistry core competencies (MoE, 2018), and thus much more emphasis is given to ‘rational thinking’, ‘critical questioning’, and ‘scientific inquiry’ as well (MoE, 2018).

As stated above, the SHSCC in China has experienced significant changes over the past two decades. Taking the 1978 secondary school chemistry curriculum as the starting point, it can be seen that the SHSCC has transformed from being ‘double base’ to ‘scientific literacy’ and then to ‘core competency’ oriented. Overall, cultivating students’ intelligence has always been emphasized across all the SHSCCs over the past several decades in different terms or notions. Responding to the two issues identified earlier, the present study aims to provide empirical data to the following research questions:

(1) What are the changing tendencies of the knowledge types of the learning objectives in the SHSCC over the past two decades?

(2) What are the changing tendencies of the cognitive processes of the learning objectives in the SHSCC over the past two decades?

(3) What are the relationships between the orientations of the SHSCC and the knowledge types and cognitive processes of learning objectives over the past two decades?


Curriculum change may be informed and determined by a range of influences and events, which usually operate at both micro and macro levels in society (Goodson, 1993). Thus, it is a necessity to take a socio-historical perspective to reveal and clarify the ‘internal affairs’ of change against the ‘external relations’ of change (Goodson, 2006, p. 213). In this study, the intellectual demands embedded in the SHSCCs are examined by RBT and their associations with different curriculum orientations promoted in the past two decades in China are further interrogated.

Data sources

The three curriculum documents related to the SHSCC, which were officially released by the SEdC in 1996, and the MoE in 2003 and 2018, constituted the data sources of this study. In spite of the various titles and layouts of these three curriculum documents, all of them contain curriculum goals, learning objectives, curriculum content, suggestions for teaching activities, and teaching assessments. To provide answers to the three aforementioned research questions, comparisons and analyses were only conducted with the learning objectives in the cognitive domain, excluding those in the affective domain, such as ‘being aware of economic effectiveness of the sulfuric acid industry’ (SEdC, 1996, p. 21), and those in the psychomotor domain, such as ‘preliminarily mastering the uses of balances, acidometers’ (MoE, 2003, p. 29). Since all of these curriculum documents are written in Chinese, an important task in the preparatory stage was translating the cognitive learning objectives into English. When conducting the translation, sufficient attention was paid to the verbs used in those learning objectives. Moreover, an English expert was invited to check the correctness of the translation. Actually, a problem was encountered when translating those in the 1996 SHSCC, where the verb ‘know’ is used in some cognitive learning objectives. To precisely transfer the connotation of the word ‘know’, a reference was made to a note in the original document, which indicates that ‘knowing refers to the ability of identifying something based on acquired knowledge’ (SEdC, 1996, p. 3). Thus, the verb ‘know’ was translated into ‘identify’, which belongs to the level of Understanding (see Table 2). The details of the three curriculum documents of the SHSCC are listed in Table 3.
Table 3 The three curriculum documents of the SHSCC and targeted parts in them
Title Targeted parts Released year
The Chemistry Syllabus of Senior High Schools (for trial use) Part 3 Teaching Content and Requirements 1996
1. The required (chemistry I)
2. The required and the selective (chemistry II)
The Chemistry Curriculum Standards of Senior High School (experimental version) Part 3 Content Standards 2003
1. The required (chemistry 1; chemistry 2)
2. The selective
The Chemistry Curriculum Standards of Senior High School (the 2017 version) Part 3 Content Standards 2018
1. The required
2. The optional required
3. The selective

Analytical procedures

Content analysis, which was adopted as the analytical method in this study, aims to discover and describe the phenomena under consideration by compressing large volumes of words into fewer content categories on the basis of explicit coding rules (Stemler, 2001). In this study, content analysis was based on the definitions of the four knowledge types and respective subtypes (Table 1) and six levels of cognitive processes (Table 2). Moreover, two criteria were adopted for coding the cognitive learning objectives in the three curriculum documents of the SHSCC. The first criterion was about the unit of analysis, which corresponded to a knowledge type. That is, if a learning objective consists of two or more knowledge types, this objective was divided into two or more units of analysis. A learning objective in the 2003 SHSCC was taken as an example: ‘to list compositions, structural features, and major chemical properties of amino acid, and to understand the relation between amino acid, protein, and human health’ (MoE, 2003, p. 28). In this learning objective, there were two knowledge types, ‘compositions, structural features, and major chemical properties of amino acid’ (Factual knowledge) and ‘the relation between amino acid, protein, and human health’ (Conceptual knowledge). Thus, it was taken as two units of analysis: (1) ‘to list compositions, structural features, and major chemical properties of amino acid’ and (2) ‘to understand the relation between amino acid, protein, and human health’. The other criterion was established as follows: whenever a unit of analysis involved two or more verbs, the more demanding cognitive process was coded. For example, the unit of analysis ‘to describe the major chemical properties of ethylene, ethyl alcohol, and acetic acid, and to write relevant chemical equations’ involves one knowledge type (Factual knowledge) and two types of verbs, ‘describe’ (Understand) and ‘write’ (Apply). According to this criterion, it was coded as Factual knowledge at the Apply level.

In general, content analysis consists of six procedures: (1) unitizing; (2) sampling; (3) recording/coding; (4) reducing data to manageable representations; (5) abductively inferring contextual phenomena; and (6) narrating the answers to the research question (Krippendorff, 2004). In practice, Krippendorff (2004) cautioned that the relationship among them is not linear but includes iterative loops. Referring to these six procedures and their relationships, this study was conducted in the following steps. First, each cognitive learning objective in the Part ‘Teaching Content and Requirements’ (SEdC, 1996) or ‘Content Standards’ (MoE, 2003, 2018) in the three curriculum documents of the SHSCC was managed as one or more units of analysis according to the first criterion. The number of units of analysis from each SHSCC is: 207 (1996), 211 (2003), and 214 (2018). Second, each unit of analysis was coded according to the second criterion. In the process of coding, independent coding and reviewing were conducted by the author and two research assistants with the purpose of reducing the subjectivity and ensuring reliability. For those units of analysis with different and controversial opinions, discussion was held to reach a consensus. Third, for each curriculum document, the percentages of four knowledge types and six cognitive processes counted with the two dimensions of knowledge types and cognitive processes respectively. Last, based on the statistical data, comparisons of the three curriculum documents were made to reveal the changing tendencies of the knowledge types and cognitive processes in them from 1996 to 2018.


In this section, the results of data analysis are presented in the two sub-sections, respectively, to answer the first two research questions. For the third research question, evidence is sought through relevant social backgrounds and curriculum documents to provide explanations for the relationship between the orientations of the SHSCC and intellectual demands embodied in its cognitive learning objectives.

The changing tendencies of the knowledge types in the SHSCC

The changing tendencies of the knowledge types in the three documents of the SHSCC in China are presented in Fig. 1.
image file: c9rp00115h-f1.tif
Fig. 1 The changing tendencies of the knowledge types in the SHSCC.

As shown in Fig. 1, in the 1996 SHSCC, the largest proportion was Conceptual knowledge, accounting for 82.12%, but the proportions of Factual knowledge and Procedural knowledge were less than 10% and no proportion of Meta-cognitive knowledge existed. The proportions of Factual knowledge and Procedural knowledge in the 2003 SHSCC increased two times more than those of the 1996 SHSCC. Simultaneously, the percentage of Conceptual knowledge decreased by over 20%, while there was still no Meta-cognitive knowledge involved. From 2003 to 2018, the proportion of Factual knowledge slightly decreased, while that of Conceptual knowledge slightly increased with almost no change occurring in the proportion of Procedural knowledge. More significantly, Meta-cognitive knowledge first appeared in the 2018 SHSCC, with its proportion being nearly 1%. Overall, from 1996 to 2018, the changing tendencies of the knowledge types in the SHSCC can be summarized as follows. Firstly, the proportion of Factual knowledge largely increased from 1996 to 2003 but slightly decreased from 2003 to 2018. Secondly, the proportion of Conceptual knowledge markedly decreased from 1996 to 2003 and slightly increased from 2003 to 2018. Thirdly, Procedural knowledge has steadily increased over the past decades. Fourthly, the proportion of Meta-cognitive knowledge increased from zero in 1996 and 2003 to nearly 1% in 2018.

These tendencies can be explained by the different orientations of the three SHSCCs. Firstly, as introduced earlier, the 1996 SHSCC was the legacy of the 1978 secondary school chemistry curriculum, in which the notions of ‘double bases’ and ‘modernization of teaching materials’ were advocated with the emphasis on the advanced theoretical knowledge of chemistry (MoE, 1978). It was the reason that the overwhelming proportion was given to Conceptual knowledge. Secondly, in the 2003 SHSCC, scientific literacy was the central theme and used to define curriculum and objectives. Based on the three dimensional framework, attention was given to the connection between descriptive chemistry (such as chemical elements and compounds) and daily lives, thus increasing the proportion of Factual knowledge. More importantly, a considerable increase occurred in the proportion of Procedural knowledge due to the notion of scientific inquiry being advocated as both curriculum content and teaching methods (MoE, 2003). According to curriculum designers, complicated concepts of chemistry had become a difficulty for students’ learning (Wang and Wang, 2004), the proportion of Conceptual knowledge was relatively decreased so as to lower the difficulty of the curriculum and meet the needs of all students (MoE, 2003). Thirdly, in the 2018 SHSCC, the notion of core competencies is used to define the curriculum objectives, and thus students are required not only to engage in scientific inquiry but also to learn thinking skills and the nature of chemistry (MoE, 2018). This can be used to explain that the 2018 SHSCC features the emergence of Meta-cognitive knowledge, which presents higher cognitive demands for students.

The changing tendencies of the cognitive processes in the SHSCC

The changing tendencies of the cognitive processes in the three curriculum documents of the SHSCC in China are presented in Fig. 2.
image file: c9rp00115h-f2.tif
Fig. 2 The changing tendencies of the cognitive processes in the SHSCC.

As shown in Fig. 2, in the 1996 SHSCC, the major proportion was Remember, accounting for 72.47%, followed by Understanding (26.57%), but the proportions of Apply and Analyze were limited (0.48%), without requirements for Evaluate and Create. The lower level cognitive processes (Remember and Understand) exceed 99% of the total units of analysis. That is to say, in the 1996 SHHCC, very low cognitive demands were set for students, mainly emphasizing the memory and understanding of knowledge. There had been three obvious changes in cognitive processes from 1996 to 2003. First, the Remember level was reduced by nearly two-thirds during this period, whilst the Understand level was slightly more than doubled, indicating that the emphasis was moved from the Remember to Understand level although the lower levels were still dominating the cognitive processes in the 2003 SHSCC (over 80% of the total units of analysis). Second, the distributions of Apply and Analyze, two cognitive processes that reach higher levels, increased sharply: for Apply, from 0.48% to 13.27%; and for Analyze, from 0.48% to 3.79%. Third, the Evaluate and Create levels appeared in the 2003 SHSCC for the first time though their proportions were rather low (less than 1%). From 2003 to 2018, both the Remember and Understand levels decreased; their total proportion was approximately 50%. By contrast, those four higher level cognitive processes (Apply, Analyze, Evaluate and Create) multiplied in various proportions individually. Among them, Analyze had the largest increase rate, nearly 6 times greater than the previous one (3.79% in 2003 but 21.96% in 2018), followed by Create and Evaluate.

Once more, these tendencies of the cognitive processes in the SHSCC from 1996 to 2018 can be explained by the orientations of the three SHSCCs. As introduced earlier, the 1996 SHSCC was ‘double base’ based; its main concern was to encourage students to ‘master’ the basic knowledge and skills of the subject (SEdC, 1996), thus explaining the result that the Remember and Understand levels accounted for the vast majority of the total cognitive processes in the cognitive teaching objectives. In the 2003 SHSCC, cultivating students’ practical abilities was the main concern and scientific inquiry was taken as a breakthrough to transform traditional chemistry teaching and learning (MoE, 2003). This made a feasible explanation about why the lower level cognitive processes (Remember and Understand) greatly decreased, while the higher level cognitive processes (Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create) increased in 2003. The 2018 SHSCC was established on the framework of the chemistry core competencies, which puts emphasis on rational thinking, critical questioning, modeling, and scientific inquiry as well (MoE, 2018). Therefore, there is no wonder that the new SHSCC has set higher demands for students, aiming to cultivate their higher level cognitive processes, and correspondingly the proportion of the lower level cognitive processes has been decreased.

Discussion and implications

This study has analyzed and compared the cognitive learning objectives in the three SHSCCs from 1996 to 2018 on the basis of Revised Bloom's Taxonomy (RBT). Specifically, it has not only examined the changes in the knowledge types and cognitive processes of the cognitive learning objectives but also afforded explanations for the changes over the period under study. As for knowledge types, it was found that Factual knowledge has increased, while Conceptual knowledge has decreased and Procedural knowledge has dramatically increased. Meta-cognitive knowledge has appeared recently although in a low ratio. With regard to cognitive processes, the lower levels have been decreased, while the higher levels have been increased. Moreover, a close link has been established between the orientations of the chemistry curriculum and the extent of the intellectual demands reflected in the cognitive learning objectives. The orientations of the three SHSCCs and their associations with the knowledge types and cognitive processes of the cognitive learning objectives are summarized as follows:

• The ‘double base’ orientation of the 1996 SHSCC: overly emphasizing Conceptual knowledge but ignoring the other knowledge types; and highly emphasizing the lower level but overlooking higher level cognitive processes.

• The scientific literacy orientation of the 2003 SHSCC: highlighting Procedural knowledge but ignoring Meta-cognitive knowledge; and retaining certain proportions of the lower level cognitive processes while setting about the Apply and Analyze levels.

• The core competency orientation of the 2018 SHSCC: relatively emphasizing the balance of various knowledge types and paying attention to the higher level cognitive processes.

From these findings, two important conclusions can be drawn: first, the SHSCC in China has become more and more demanding over the past 20 years; and second, the ‘double base’ oriented SHSCC is less demanding than the ‘scientific literacy’ oriented SHSCC and much less than the recently emergent ‘core competency’ oriented SHSCC. The conclusions drawn from this study are meaningful and significant for various stakeholders in the field of chemistry/science education. For chemistry/science curriculum researchers, it has provided evidence indicating changing tendencies of intellectual demands of chemistry/science curricula developed in recent decades. Science/chemistry curriculum developers can learn the ways from this study in handling the issue of learning and teaching objectives in the process of developing chemistry/science curricula. In addition, based on this study, school chemistry teachers will be aware of the subject-matter changes occurring in the recently developed chemistry curricula. These points will be elaborated in what follows.

Over the past decades, the goals and objectives for science teaching and learning have undergone changes many times, often leading to reforms in the way the science curriculum was developed, taught, and learned. Many efforts have been made towards sketching the history of science curricula (e.g., Fensham, 1992, 2015; Bybee and DeBoer, 1994; Akker, 1998). These authors have, in common, suggested that there was a shift in emphasis in science curricula from the late 1950s to the 1980s onwards in their purposes and content: the science curricula developed in the 1950s might be summarized as the ‘elite’ orientation, which aims to train future scientific professionals, while the science curricula developed in the 1980/1990s and onwards might be called the ‘future citizenry’ orientation, which focuses increasingly on preparing students as qualified citizens in society (Wallace and Louden, 1998). Against this background, a lot of empirical studies have been conducted to analyze the science curriculum documents and materials developed in the eras of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), and scientific literacy (e.g., Chiappetta et al., 1991; Wilkinson, 1999; Boufaoude, 2002; Kaya and Erduran, 2016). One major finding of these studies is that curriculum contents and goals/objectives have accommodated more and more social and cultural aspects of science. This feature is reasonable because science curricula should become less challenging than before to cater for various needs of all students in the era of ‘Science for All’ (Fensham, 1985) or scientific literacy (Bybee, 1997). However, as indicated in this study, the newly emergent chemistry curriculum standards are more demanding than the previous ones at the cognitive levels. That is to say, with higher order thinking skills, such as scientific investigation, scientific thinking and reasoning, creative thinking, and modeling thinking, incorporated into school science, the newly emergent chemistry curricula have become more challenging for teaching and learning.

As argued by DeBoer (2011), to study and compare science curriculum documents from different countries and regions can, to a certain extent, provide insight into their educational characteristics and current problems, and thus has significance in curriculum studies and comparative education research across various countries and regions. In their empirical study on the globalization of science curricula, Stacey and colleagues (2018) found that all countries participating in the TIMSS had made changes to their intended curricula over the past twenty years and there was a tendency for science curricula to become increasingly similar across countries. Recently, as a response to the TIMSS and PISA results, many countries in the world have attempted to develop specified student outcome statements as a way to improve science teaching and learning (DeBoer, 2011). However, ‘stating educational standards in terms of student outcomes is a relatively new experience for many countries’ (DeBoer, 2011, p. 571). In this sense, this study has shared a kind of experience in China over the past two decades, which will be beneficial for setting appropriate cognitive learning outcomes and expected student performances in science and chemistry curriculum. Based on the findings of this study, the relevant implications for curriculum developers are given as follows.

The first is about the issue of appropriate proportions among the various knowledge types. As found in this study, Conceptual knowledge has always been emphasized in the three SHSCCs and its proportion has never been less than 50% among the four knowledge types. This is reasonable because conceptual understanding is a major concern in science curriculum (Bybee and van Scotter, 2007). As for the meta-cognitive knowledge in particular, it has made its first appearance in the 2018 SHSCC but in a quite minor distribution (less than 1%). Since meta-cognitive knowledge has a significant effect on students’ science learning (Magno, 2010), it is suggested that this kind of knowledge should be given sufficient attention in chemistry curriculum in the future. The second is about the issue of appropriate proportions among the various cognitive processes. As evidenced in this study, from 1996 to 2018, the general tendency is that the proportions of the lower level cognitive processes have been decreased and those of the higher level cognitive processes have been increased. But it is apparent that the proportion of the latter is still much lower than that of the former. Obviously, this is not aligned with the current social expectations of science education to produce individuals with higher order thinking skills (Zohar, 2004). Although there is no need to give equal proportions to these various cognitive processes, we strongly suggest the proportions of the higher level cognitive processes should be added in the chemistry curriculum.

Although this study has focused on the intended documents of the SHSCC, its results are also significant for chemistry teaching and learning in practice. When reviewing Project 2061's science programs in the United States, for example, Kesidou and Roseman (2002) stated that many teachers depend on curriculum documents for content and pedagogical content knowledge and that these documents ‘have a major role in teaching and learning’ (p. 522). Specifically, curriculum documents can not only be used as teachers’ learning resources, but also directly affect the teachers’ choice of teaching methods, the design of teaching procedures, and the assessment of students, and thus have an important influence on the curriculum implementation (Davis and Krajcik, 2005). Of course, the results of this study are limited in several aspects. First, this study has focused on the case of the SHSCC in China, and the results have been interpreted from a socio-historical perspective (Goodson, 2006). Thus, its findings cannot be generalized to chemistry curricula developed in other countries and the relationship between the orientations of the SHSCC and intellectual demands is open to be confirmed in future studies. Second, this study has only focused on the cognitive learning objectives but not addressed the affective and behavior domains of the learning objectives. Third, this study has only taken the recent two decades as its focus. Even in China, thus, its conclusion cannot be extended to the whole history of the SHSCC development.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts to declare.


This research was sponsored by a project of the National Social Science Foundation of China, which is entitled the Construction of the Model of Scientific Literacy for Primary and Secondary School Students within Confucian Culture and Its Empirical Study (BHA180145).


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