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How to Fix Science Class without Blowing up the Classroom

Today's post focuses on the disservices the educational system does to science and how those disservices can become services within the existing test-driven regime. Yeah, I said "regime."

Thanks to Ann Martin for this idea. She'll soon be writing a guest post for our blog (topic = surprise), which will probably way more entertaining and informative than mine.

This is an Introduction
Not all children grow up to be scientists. Not all children should grow up to be scientists (after all, who would teach science if they did?). However, laboratory career or not, students deserve to leave public school with an idea of what it means to be a scientist, why science is important, and how to apply a scientific mindset to everyday interactions with the world.

Look familiar? Start taking notes.
Currently, science education focuses on the transmission of established facts. The earth is round; water moves through the earth in a cycle; atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Students are expected to memorize this information and then repeat it on command.
While gathering discrete bits of knowledge may eventually lead a student to have a scientific understanding of the world around her, would not helping her understand what “scientific understanding” is be a more efficient and direct route?
Repeating facts does not imply understanding. Nor does it imply an understanding of how those facts fit together, nor does it imply an understanding of how those facts came to be “facts.”
How much of the transmitted information actually sticks after the test is over, after the year is over, or after schooling is over altogether? Most people probably cannot recall one thing that they learned in third-grade science. I, personally, do not even remember having science in third grade. The only scientific information I recall from that period is what I sought out myself, in my parents’ encyclopedias.

The Standards
The teaching of science content in public schools is dictated mostly by standards set forth at the state level, which are specific, concrete, and leave little room for teachers to determine content. An example of such a standard is, “Students know electric currents produce magnetic fields.” Here is how to find out if that standard has been satisfied:

Test Question One: Do electric currents produce magnetic fields?
Correct Answer: Yes.
A much more useful standard would be, “Students can explain how electric currents produce magnetic fields.”
That standard, however, is not easily measured on a standardized test. It does not have an a, b, c, or d answer. The only way a state can enforce the standards they have created is to test whether those standards have been fulfilled and then to have a punishment/reward system based on the quality of student performance. When there are millions of individual students, all of whom were supposed to learn the same thing, a standardized, computer-graded test is the only realistic way to determine whether schools have been doing what the government wishes them to do. A feedback loop is thus created, perpetuating a view of science and science teaching as a set of static knowledge and the transmission of that static knowledge (respectively): the state creates standards; standards are pointless unless enforced; the state creates a test to hold schools accountable; the test must be given at all schools to all children and must be grade-able with limited resources; the test does not test whether students have a deep understanding of concepts; the standards do not require a deep understanding of concepts.
Stress Test
Teaching in public schools thus becomes necessarily teacher-focused, since the teacher is the guardian of information and must pass a finite set on in a finite (often inadequate) amount of time. The problem is that learners then perceive knowledge as static and absolute and, consequently, perceive the source of knowledge (the teacher) as absolute authority, leaving them unwilling to investigate and question for themselves.
Always funny.
Science, however,  even when reduced to things that can be “known” and repeated verbatim, is often omitted from these state accountability tests. State tests--and national tests up to and including those required for entrance into graduate school--focus on English skills (grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension) and math skills, leaving science in the dust.
State tests, as the dam determining the flow of government money, ultimately decide what gets priority in the classroom. If no one is checking to see if students “know electric currents produce magnetic fields,” but a teacher’s salary and classroom budget depend on whether her student can complete the analogy “black:white::dog:______,” on which concept will a teacher focus?
Teachers face pressure from principals, superintendents, and parents to prepare their students, almost exclusively, for these tests. Some academic authority figures even go so far as to tell teachers to leave science out of their elementary curricula altogether in order to spend more time on the subjects that will later be tested. 
If a student is lucky enough to have a teacher who has the time, energy, motivation, and support to teach science, that science is still, most likely, the contextless concepts set forth in a handbook. The question raised is thus “What is left out?”

This is a self-portrait, and also how kids should
feel after science class.
What is left out?
Most notably is the “nature of science,” or a true comprehension of the way science works. How will a student gain a conception of the dynamic, investigative nature of science when all she sees are established statements? 
Absent, too, are recent discoveries, ongoing investigations, and applications--the source of curiosity in and relevance to modern, working science--further widening the gap between science-in-the-classroom and actual science. Non-core disciplines--such as astronomy and archeology--also find little shelter amid the standards, though these two topics in particular are of interest to young children (space and dinosaurs being timeless childhood interests as well as active fields of study).
How can a teacher 1) convey what science really is, 2) convey what scientists really do, and 3) explore important but “unrequired” fields? How can she capitalize on student interest and enthusiasm and allow for academic freedom and self-determination for students?
Students as the Center
The latter idea, it turns out, is key to student motivation. Much research has been done on student-centered teaching, which takes into account the presence of actual students, not just sponges, in the classroom and calls for their interaction with the teacher, with each other, and with the subject matter. 
How, though, is a teacher supposed to include science at all, let alone include science not explicitly laid out by the state, let alone present science in an engaging, inquiry-based way?
The answer: by incorporating science--interesting, alive, investigative science--into reading, writing, and ’rithmetic lessons. Then, no class time is spent exclusively on non-tested subjects, and students come to think more critically, analytically, and creatively about the test-driven material.
If students are missing science, why not have them read about it and then test their reading comprehension (and, thus, their scientific comprehension)? Why not have them write about the science they read (or, if there is time, the science they “do”), correcting their grammar, paragraph structure, and spelling along the way? Why not have students then do calculations related to what they have read and written?

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    How to Fix Science Class without Blowing up the Classroom - Blog - Smaller Questions
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    How to Fix Science Class without Blowing up the Classroom - Blog - Smaller Questions
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    Response: necklaces
    How to Fix Science Class without Blowing up the Classroom - Blog - Smaller Questions
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    Education makes people highly educated. Educated people have an ability to do anything independently. Education makes people independent. Educated people do not have to depend on others.
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    Merry Christmas 2015
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    This is really interesting post. I know you did really well work. I appreciate your work. It is totally useful for me.

Reader Comments (4)

This is a really interesting topic. I wish that my reading comprehension was focused on science, I feel like I would have paid attention more... maybe I wouldn't have... but it would have been cool to read about different types of whales & black holes during the SAT and GRE.

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke N.

Two words @ Sarah: MS. DAHL !

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarla

What if you could be learning science all the time no matter what you were doing? COOL HUH?

And, Mom, definitely!

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Scoles

I specifically remember learning in third grade science that "translucent" is not pronounced "trans-succulent." So that was a pretty embarrassing day.

Brooke, I TOTALLY got a section about whales when I took the SAT. It was awesome and, I think, a big part of what made my brain say, 10 years later, "HEY HEY THEY COULD READ ABOUT SCIENCE OMG EDUCATION REVOLUTION."

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

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