Monday, April 12, 2010

More media praise for hands-on science

A front-page article in this weekend's Philadelphia Inquirer Report Card on the Schools contains yet another rhapsody about the virtues of the hands-on science classroom:

In the new science classroom, teachers still offer instruction, but in smaller doses. Lab work and treks outdoors are now integral to elementary and middle school instruction.

"We're engaging kids more in the process of science, not just the content," said Paul Joyce, science supervisor in the West Chester district.

This is learning science by doing science, a change in instruction that is costing schools time and money, yet is fast gaining traction as educators heed warnings that the economic health of the region - and the nation - demands a science- and tech-savvy workforce.
Too bad no one is listening to Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist specializing in education who argues that there's an important difference between the brains of experts (e.g., scientists) and novices (e.g., k12 students) and that k12 science education should focus not on creating and testing theories of natural phenomena, but on the comprehension of scientific knowledge.

In Willingham's words:
Does this mean we shouldn’t ask students to... conduct a scientific experiment? Of course not. But we should understand the difference between the thought processes of experts and novices.
Instead of heeding Willingham's advice--advice that is backed by scientific experiments constructed by experts--more and more schools are sacrificing the comprehension of knowledge imparted by experts for science experiments constructed by novices.

The Inquirer article goes on to state that schools are giving high priority to math education:
At the high school level, nearly a third of the 160 public high schools in South Jersey and suburban Philadelphia now require four years of college-prep science or math - or both - for graduation. That's one year more than the states mandate.

And large percentages of students in many schools are entering ninth grade already having taken Algebra I.
Unfortunately, the predominance of Cookbook Math (with all its guessing and checking and plugging in numbers rather than understanding concepts, manipulating symbols, and proving theorems) and Reform Math (with its watered-down, feel-good curriculum) means that math in general, and Algebra I in particular, are no longer what they once were. Regardless of the names we assign to the courses students take, our average high school graduate has learned far less actual math than her counterpart a generation ago.

Indeed, lurking in the Inquirer's fine print is a less rosy picture:
While there is progress, there is far to go: Results of the 2009 science assessments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey show high achievement in fourth grade but numerous low scorers in eighth and 11th grades, even in some of the region's top-performing schools.
What do the 4th grade results matter if the gains are lost by 11th grade?

One could argue that this latest generation of budding, hands-on "scientists" hasn't yet reached the 8th or 11th grades, when they will surely outperform today's middle and high school students.  But consider Philadelphia's flagship high school for hands-on science.  The Science and Leadership Academy is a project-oriented school affiliated with the Franklin Institute (erstwhile The Franklin Institute Science Museum) that gives every student a laptop computer and attracts some of the brightest students in the district. Last year there were about 10 applicants for every slot.  

And according to the Report Card on the Schools, the Science and Leadership Academy's 11th grade science scores place it in the 3rd quintile of Philadelphia public high schools, with only 15% scoring "advanced,"  and 59% "below basic."


1crosbycat said...
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LexAequitas said...

"the Science and Leadership Academy's 11th grade science scores place it in the 3rd quintile of Philadelphia public high schools, with only 15% scoring "advanced," and 59% "below basic.""

And those scores are the third quintile?!

I'm terrified to think of what the fifth quintile must look like.