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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science Education"
February 10, 2006

Victor Donnay
Improving Science Education Through the MSPGP

Powerpoint Presentation

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Victor spoke to us from his role as a co-principal investigator with the Math & Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia (MSPGP) . In setting up such partnerships, the NSF was encouraging institutions of higher education to play a role in the process of changing a complex system: the schooling and governmental organizations which make up the institution of education in this country. The idea here is to encourage bi-directional exchange between institutions of higher education, K-12 schools, districts, state and federal departments of education. The assumption is that--if things are going to improve--we need to look at the whole system. (For instance, there seems not to be a shortage of teachers, but rather a problem of retention--46% of new teachers leave within 5 years. What would keep them teaching?) Acknowledging a need for formal analysis of "what works," the initiative also includes a big push for assessment, research and evaluation.

Seventy partnership programs exist nationwide; the Greater Philadelphia Partnership includes 46 school districts in this region, excluding the Philadelphia Public School District. It was designed to include a range of socioeconomic groups, so that poorer districts could use the innovations of the better-heeled ones to leverage change. In such a large partnership, there is of course a daily struggle with the inability to " do everything"--but quite a bit is being done.

The goal of the partnership is "to improve student achievement by increasing quality." But what is achievement? And what is quality? The challenge Victor was given was that the sort of achievement that matters "can not be measured by standards delivered from higher up." He said that the Partnership uses a couple of measures: test scores, of course, and the percentage of students taking challenging courses ("If the student doesn't take algebra in grade 8, it's over"; "If you haven't done everything right, there'll be no one left in the pipeline to take calculus in 12th grade"). Attention has also been paid to the achievement gap in different subgroups, with the realization that some are doing much less well than others.

Victor also explained that new curricula are being designed based on research about the different ways in which people learn. Rather than lectures, there is a lot of student discovery work; rather than short periods, there is a lot of "block scheduling." The aim is to design challenging curriculum for all students, rather than "low-level dead ends." On the national level, "math is about ten years ahead of science" in this area, although the "physics first" initiative is now gaining some ground, and represents the new cutting edge. "China and India are taking over our higher level jobs," so good scores have become "value-added" in American schools; this is is part of the "grand strategy" that used to sell pedagogical innovations to school districts.

Victor was asked--given the current mathematization and scientization of knowledge--if we are "really falling behind"? Aren't our children learning more math, at an earlier age, than we ourselves were taught? Aren't we demanding more of our students now? Hasn't the bar been raised? Math, as it is now taught in elementary school, is not abstract and theoretical, but part of everyday life (many of the the innovations are called "everyday math"). Offered @ the elementary school level, they connect to math to the real world, and involve lots of hands-on manipulatives. Students are now learning probability in elementary school, and acquiring, at a much earlier age, the ability to understand--for example--standard deviation, which was once taught in high school (this makes it hard for us to help our kids with math!).

This new approach was challenged, with the analogy that "whole language didn't work for all kids": some of them "needed phonics." Victor explained that this program does not "write off kids who are no good in math," but--by being so "hands on and active," actually "appeals to a wider range of learning styles." One of the effects of this is that the schools are "not discriminating mathphobes" in the early grades. One way math is taught now, for example, is to link it with writing. Students might make up their own word problems, for instance, then turn them into stories, then illustrate them. Or they might be assigned the task of measuring the temperature every day, and then using those measurements in some of their science classes. Studies show that learners don't remember facts in isolation; they need to be placed in some context. Students are also being asked to explain how they do problems (hard, sometimes, but useful, for a "a bright kid who just gets it"). Amid all this innovation, the math wars continue: those who believe in "back to basics" disagree with those who are interested in giving students a "more conceptual" understanding of how--and why--math is done. The newer curricula actually address questions like "why am I doing this, and what's it useful for?" Elementary school educators, who are interested in the whole child, seem more willing to engage in such innovations. They are not yet "content"-focused, and shifting their pedagogies will eventually "force a bubble-up effect."

Victor was asked how widespread these curricula are, statewide; he said that we are a leader in adapting these new math programs. Victor was also asked whether the new directives question not only HOW but WHY people learn. A story from the Summer Institute for K-12 Philadelphia teachers was used as an illustration: one participant-teacher had challenged the facilitators to come up with experiments on "something my students cared about." Studies show that "experts organize their knowledge around key ideas," and will remember facts by linking them to those ideas. All learners come to a task with preexisting knowledge, and need to link new knowledge to what they already know; this leads both to better learning and better retention of knowledge. Studies have also shown that students will learn something in a classroom, but the moment they are outside the class, will "revert back to naive ideas"; there is a "disconnect between school and reality." "Everyday ideas aren't scientific ideas," and in order to let go of their previous world views, students have to be taught to recognize their misconceptions. One way to continually engage such misperceptions is to "get them to commit themselves by voting," thereby "forcing them to realize that they are wrong."

Victor also reported that experiments show that the "brain behaves differently if you are excited"; this suggests the key importance of "active vs. passive learning": the need to be involved in knowledge-making. An important additional point is that, in order to make such an interactive exploratory strategy work, teachers have to present something that connects with the understandings and interests with which their students walk in the door. If students "don't go through the experience, it won't impact on them"; classroom activity has to somehow connect to the aspirations of the students. As a member of the review committee for a Georgia partnership, Victor learned of a plan to "redesign biology" beginning with "a big question" which will "hopefully appeal" to students. The challenge was set that, as teachers, we need to "strike that tough balance between groundwork and exploration," between "self-directed inquiry" and "floundering." Mention was also made of a "forces concept inventory test" administered at the beginning and end of a physics class, in which student scores didn't change (indicating that their understanding hadn't evolved at all). The questions on that test involved simple manipulation, not probing at a gut level. The students couldn't answer questions that reveal a real understanding; the test showed that they had a shaky grasp of the concepts.

But "what do we mean by 'learn'"? Research will go on forever (thank god); we don't know what learning ultimately is. Are we implying that students have to be able to rely on what they know at an intuitive level? Are we teaching them to incorporate knowledge? Does that depends on the context in which they are asked to use what they know? Should our focus be on how they are tested? How do experts apply what they know? On a conscious or intuitive level? Are they absorbing lots of material, or do they have an intimate familiarity with it?

Why do we care whether students learn anything?

One troubling parallel to this discussion about science teaching was research on racism. Many social science researchers don't believe that empirical accounts show that people aren't racist. Rather, "people have learned what to say," but they are still engaging in acts that create social problems--moving into segregated neighborhoods, etc. "They have been taught, but have they learned? They may score high on "civic tolerance," but they are not "living the right answer. This returned us to the question of what we mean by improving student achievement. Conscious mastery, which may or may not be lived? A transfer to the unconscious, which may actually affect behavior?

Both of those answers presume that the task is to "get a thing into someone's brain." What about an alternative notion: that the task is rather to "make the brain itself a better learner." Trying to place students in an environment in which what is supposed to go into their brains is well-defined (whether via lecture or hands-on exploration) is still putting them in a situation where their task is "mastering what they are given," rather than "becoming better inquirers." There is a "deep and fundamental tension" between understanding education as "helping students become better inquirers--or better mathematicians, or less racist, or any well-defined objective--and measuring learning as "coming out of classes with a very different view of the world than when one entered. I will not allow a content stipulation to be made on what's going on in my classroom; I want my students to "learn to be better able themselves to question what's going on."

The next question, of course, is "what underlies the skill to learn?" Much of the research, Victor reported, focuses on "metacognition": that is, people learn better when they consciously engage in self-reflection. How can we more widely publicize metacognition? How can we think more about it making better inquirers, as opposed to pedagogical theory that maximizes content retention of givens? There is a conflict in aims here. Might there also be a "class bias in all this business about process"? Isn't there something to be said for "plodding"? "We don't need self-generating accountants." "Some work is real"; it doesn't allow a lot of room for inquiry. What a minute: this is not a case in which "liberal elites are telling low-income folks to get with the creativity aesthetic." This is about "not just giving people fish, but teaching them how to fish." The truly conservative position is the one that says that middle-class teachers should give lower-class students skills that will enable them to be be successful in our system. What we should do, instead, is "give them the possibility of thinking for themselves." We need to help them figure out, for themselves, whether "this fish is good to eat"! The challenge rose again that you "have to content to start off with"; you "need basic information and vocabulary" in order "to generate enough information to explore" the topic at hand. "There is a certain amount of curriculum you have to get through." "You have to teach them a certain amount of concrete stuff, if they are going to go forward in life." Is this a debate about teaching "low-level" vs. "high-level" concepts?

Victor reported that Philadelphia area school districts are "going nuts to meet the criteria of 'no child left behind,'" Pennsylvania had state tests in place before this new directive was instituted three years ago. This was not entirely a bad thing; for example, schools offered "word problem cramming sessions"; the test forced students to acquire higher-level skills. But more schools also met their level of proficiency when "adjustments were made so that the test was "23% easier." All 50 states are required to participate in a national assessment of their assessment tests, so that states with high student scores might not perform favorably in a national comparison of their tests.

Victor closed the session by calling attention to the development of new techniques of formative assessment: how can we find out what students' misconceptions are, separate from the tests they take? He described the "affection model," which is "based on bringing people to change by building personal relationships." How best to "infect" others with new ideas? Victor used a map to illustrate the "infection rate" of the workshops sponsored by the partnership; it demonstrated how short-term pedagogy workshops led to year-long teaching seminars, in which high school and college teachers learned about pedagogy from one another. Bringing in a "big name" is also a "good seduction in the infection process"; under that inspiration, teachers will "re-deliver what they learned" to their colleagues. (There were complaints about the metaphor of "infection"; "inseminate" was offered as a substitute, but rejected by some of us who are biologically incapable of insemination. A new term is needed.)

The discussion continues on the on-line forum, and will resume in person on Feb. 17, when Mary Beth Davis will talk about "Teaching Science to the General Public: Perspectives from the Wagner Free Institute of Science."

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