Saturday, May 8, 2010

Yet more media praise for hands-on science

An enthusiastic article in last week's Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a visit by Bill Gates to the Science and Leadership academy, a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. During his visit, Gates listened to students present their science projects and then asked them specific questions.

"It's great to see people doing hands-on science," said Bill Gates after the presentations were over. "Science is fun."
"Hopefully, many of you will go into these fields which are so cool, so interesting," Gates said.
According to the article, Gates also discussed philanthropy, how he taught computer programming to his fellow students in high school, about being an overconfident math student at Harvard, and how the SLA students should learn as much as they could about science.

The article reports that, as with SLA's principal:
Frederic Bertley, a Vice President at the Franklin Institute, was also thrilled.

The museum takes the partnership with SLA very seriously, Bertley said. Watching the students - who were not prepped for the session - engage in such high-level dialogue with Gates was a thrill for him.

"I couldn't have asked for a better litmus test for the project," said Bertley. "This is why we do what we do."
An alternative litmus test would be one that measures how much scientific knowledge SLA students have acquired. As I've noted in a recent post, (1) there's reason to believe that scientific knowledge acquisition should be a higher priority in k12 science education than hands-on learning, and (2) on this measure, SLA has not tested well. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer's own Report Card on the Schools, which came out just two weeks ago, 59% of SLA's 11th graders weigh in at "below basic."

This makes Gates' most specific advice (as reported) especially urgent:
Gates implored the students to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge available to them for free. For example, Gates wanted a refresher course on physics, so he followed an MIT course online available for anyone to take advantage at no cost.
If k12 schools won't provide this for free, perhaps our universities will.

And perhaps Gates could give the same advice to the students at his School for the Future.

1 comment:

Sclgoya said...

I am concerned that promising ideas within education are often so poorly implemented. A good example is the polarization that developed over sight reading and whole language. It was never supposed to be an either-or proposition.

Traditionalism and constructivism should be sides of the same coin, but instead we have fragmented and over-simplified both, so that traditionalism becomes nothing but mind-numbing rote and constructivism becomes nothing but play.

When I teach science, the purpose and design of any hands-on activity is to convey and illuminate science knowledge. When I teach math, I use manipulatives and constructivism to make the math come alive for students, to help them see connections, and to invest the algorithms with meaning.

What I do not do is insert an artificial "versus." I am dismayed that our education system does not give students enough credit for their abilities, but I do not think it is the fault of contructivism per se.

When I teach Algebra, I spend a lot of time helping students discover for themselves the mathematical meanings, but I also expect them to have their basic math facts memorized. I deplore the use of the calculator as a substitute for memorization of basic math facts.

I taught a special summer Finance for Kids class last year. The students were multi-age, entering grades 5-9, yet none, not even the ninth graders could handle percents. They could not instantly tell me what 10% of a given number, and reached for their calculators. Nearly every concept in finance depends on understanding percent, so it was a slow go. Furthermore, the students did not want to learn the math skills, because (according to them), that is a school subject and they weren't in school.

As far as a Bill Gates School of the Future goes, it seems to me the real purpose of the school was to showcase Microsoft technology. Student success would then be testimony to the technology. But of course, people do not necessarily require technology to learn well. Anyone younger than me is surprised to learn that I used a slide rule when I studied calculus.