Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Students will Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object"

There's something deeply boring about the way the Common Core Standards are written--so much so that nearly every time I read them I start to space out. For skills-intensive fields like math and language arts, perhaps this is inevitable: it's hard to make generalized skills sound interesting. But the same vague tedium pervades the newly unveiled science standards. Here, excerpted from a recent Edweek, are some examples:

Energy: (Kindergarten)
• Make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface.
• Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area.
Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity: (Grade 3)
• Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and environments in which they lived long ago.
• Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions (Middle School)
• Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.
• Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.
Engineering Design (Middle School)
• Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
• Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modifications of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.
Earth and Human Activity (High School)
• Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.
• Use a computational model to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated impacts on other Earth systems.
Science is one of those fields that should be inherently interesting to nearly everyone. But what is it that makes someone want to study, say, biology or earth science? Is it so they can learn how to construct arguments about habitats, or is it so they can learn about the organisms that make up a habitat?  Is so they can learn how to evaluate competing design solutions for developing mineral resources, or is it so they can learn about minerals and how people use them?

There are other problems with these content-poor standards. Make goals vague enough, as I've argued earlier, and nearly any strategy can justified as serving them. Which strategies then prevail isn't determined by the goals themselves, but by who's in power. In the highly problematic world of education, this dynamic makes the Common Core part of the problem rather than the solution.

The other downside of vague standards is that it's hard to know how to implement them. Ideally they give schools and teachers flexibility, but in an arena so pervaded by one particular ideology, educators must constantly second-guess what is the "right" way to, say, teach kids how to "construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all."

Americans tend to be highly critical of the centralized curricula of countries like France, in which all schools go through the same textbooks on more or less the same schedules. But there's something to be said for specific, content-based guidelines. I'm guessing that many teachers would prefer being told exactly what content to cover, and being given the flexibility about how to go about teaching it, to being handed some vague, uninspiring goals and an ideological environment in which only certain strategies are acceptable--strategies that must be justified every day with Common Core-flavored subgoals submitted with every lesson plan and posted on every whiteboard--and that, furthermore, provide no guarantee that students will actually learn and retain anything of actual substance.

3 comments:

Paul Bruno said...

Exactly right. In science it's mostly the facts that are interesting. And the NGSS are much too vague when it comes to facts. More of my thoughts here:

http://www.edsource.org/today/2013/california-should-not-adopt-next-generation-science-standards/30954

Hainish said...

Katharine, I agree completely. The standards are horribly written...you don't get to the meat of the science until halfway through each standard.

And, the limp prosthetic that constitutes the first half is only going to lead to poor assessments. After all, how will you test whether students can make arguments that... or, use evidence to support an explanation that ... or, develop models to describe that... ? The result will be poor assessment questions that depend much more on reading comprehension and written expression than on demonstrating actual content knowledge. Much worse than CCSS, I think.

David Foster said...

"Use a computational model to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated impacts on other Earth systems."

Wow. They're going to have to know calculus...maybe even partial differential equations--as well as physics, chemistry, and meteorology and computer programming. Must be more going on in the schools than we thought!