Teaching real science

| 6 Comments

Under that headline, Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science magazine, announced the first of 15 winners of the Science Prize for Inquiry-based Instruction. The first winner, An Inquiry-Based Curriculum for Nonmajors, describes “an inquiry-based curriculum designed to increase the scientific literacy of those who are not science majors and to impart a fundamental understanding of the nature of scientific investigation.” The curriculum uses a series of independent modules in which the students design their own experiments. The curriculum described in the paper is Light, Sight, and Rainbows. It Includes a scattering experiment and a solar oven experiment designed by the students, and looked to my (optical) eye like very sound pedagogy.

Alberts says that the goal is to allow teachers to “provide their students with laboratory experiences that mirror the open-ended explorations of scientists, instead of the traditional ‘cookbook’ labs where students follow instructions to a predetermined result.” Indeed, they are announcing a second competition, which will include engineering and advanced high school courses.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Alberts’s editorial the preceding week, Trivializing science education, likened the way we teach science in the schools to a game of Trivial Pursuit - as a sequence of trivial and perhaps uninteresting and overly complex facts.

The week before that, Science ran a guest editorial, It’s the teachers, by James Burris, the president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Burris notes,

The U.S. education system has methods at its disposal to improve science and math education, such as inquiry-based learning, collaborative problem-solving, and exciting and timely curricula. But no approach can be successfully sustained without bright, well-prepared, and well-supported teachers.

And he adds,

… U.S. teachers are on the treadmill of teaching to endless standardized tests, and there is little recognition of the importance of time spent with peers or participating in professional development. Most importantly, society does not give teachers the respect they deserve as professionals.

… The United States can start by raising the bar for acceptance into teacher education.… We must also rigorously train teachers not only in pedagogy but in subject matter. Much of the high turnover rate of U.S. math and science teachers is due to inadequate professional development and limited classroom autonomy, so in addition to improving training, it is critical to change the work environment in schools.

The United States is a large, diverse country, and a federal mandate to implement such changes is impractical and unrealistic. But many states have centralized funding and certification practices. States can close down underperforming teacher training and certification programs, reduce standardized testing, and recognize excellence in teaching, just as they now help to ensure quality textbooks and curricula.

To which I would add only that secondary teachers, at least, should have actual degrees in an academic subject closely related to what they teach. It would be unfortunate if we had to rely on the states to effect such reforms.

I frankly wonder, though, to what degree anti-scientific nonsense like the Ark Park contributes to the poor performance of US students on standardized international tests. I am afraid that it will take a lot more than teacher training to overcome the anti-intellectualism that seems endemic in many quarters In the US.

6 Comments

Its the teachers is right. Guidance counselors steer the lowest ranked freshmen towards the education department, and becoming a science teacher does not require taking a degree in a scientific discipline. Viewed from the opposite perspetcive, why would someone with the intellectual wherewithal to become an engineer choose instead to become a teacher at 1/3 the salary?

I wonder if any creationists submitted any laboratory exercises with inquiry based learning? Now that would be interesting.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

Sometime back a couple of years ago we had a similar discussion about how teachers are treated in this country. As someone who spent most of my career in pure and applied research, both in academic and industrial environments, I had a rather unique opportunity drop into my lap – this was near the end of my career and after I retired from research - to teach in a highly selective program for gifted and talented high school students.

These were really excellent students; a large percentage of them taking things like Advanced Placement Calculus in the ninth grade and then moving on from there. Most took two years of physics, and/or chemistry, and/or biology in addition to all the other Advanced Placement courses they took. And we also taught college level courses for which they received college credit.

The teachers in that program were generally highly qualified compared to many of the teachers I advised as a consultant for a number of local area school districts during that time. But even in that program, the teachers were talked down to and treated like children by administrators.

By far one of the worst aspects of that demeaning treatment was what was called “professional development” activities. These activities were anything but professional development; and they were childish requirements that were dictated by administrators “interpreting” state and local requirements.

Every year, teachers were required to attend “professional development” meetings, fill out paperwork, supposedly monitored by state and local administrators, in which teachers are supposed to demonstrate lesson plans, courses they have taken, books they have read, and by all means, a required number of hours per year spent in those “professional development” meetings.

Such meetings consisted of “poets” coming in for a couple of days getting teachers to “explore meaningful relationships,” commercial “learning style evaluators” selling their “testing” services (which consisted collecting information that looked suspiciously like what an astrologer would collect), sitting for several days in meetings discussing “hostile feelings,” and a whole lot of other touchy-feely crap by every type of self-proclaimed “expert” on education and “educational psychology.”

Amazingly, what did NOT count as professional development were summer research activities at the national labs and universities, attendance and involvement at state and national professional meetings, or even meetings of the national consortium of these math/science centers. Professional consulting didn’t count.

And all of those things that a professional scientist or engineer would do to maintain and upgrade his or her skills and knowledge; none of that kind of activity counted toward “professional development” for those science teachers.

One did have to take a certain number of hours of “college level” or university coursework within a five year period, but those could be just about any Mickey Mouse course one wanted. Many of the more advanced teachers ran out of advanced coursework that they could take.

One year, just to test the system to see if I could get away with it, I took an MSDOS course and a MS Visual Basic course at a local community college (I have a PhD; and I had already had many, many years of advanced programming experience in a number of languages just as a part of my routine work in research). I got “professional development” credit for it.

But the real kicker in all this was the sheer number of hours of administrator supervised meetings of the administrator’s choosing. None of this allowed for the vast differences in experience and training among teachers. And none of it addressed any of the specific needs of teachers in the different disciplines. Much of this crap was repeated year after year as though all teachers needed to be reminded.

Teacher input and suggestions were completely ignored. For some reason, even the experienced teachers were not trusted to know what they needed for their own professional development. But it was also the case that there were teachers who would just do any stupid thing that would get by administrator approval just to get the damned hours and requirements over with. They had little time left over to do what they felt they needed for themselves.

The United States can start by raising the bar for acceptance into teacher education.… We must also rigorously train teachers not only in pedagogy but in subject matter. Much of the high turnover rate of U.S. math and science teachers is due to inadequate professional development and limited classroom autonomy, so in addition to improving training, it is critical to change the work environment in schools.

Economic reality denial interferes with this goal.

This deep south right wing politician recently spoke more bluntly than most. http://times-journal.com/news/artic[…]1e3ce6c.html

Although usually expressed less bluntly, the dominating thesis in mainstream, bipartisan “educational reform” circles is that priority number one is to assure that teachers’ pay and job security be reduced (Alabama state senator McGill’s refreshing bluntness aside, this is usually phrased in terms of eliminating teachers’ unions), and that profit taking but non-contributory middle men be introduced into the public education system (“charter schools”).

Here is a neutral, objective statement - you cannot have both at the same time; all else being equal, you cannot endorse policies that make teachers more poorly paid, pit them against one another in an unpleasant atmosphere of frequent firings, and reduce security and retirement benefits, while simultaneously attracting more qualified people into teaching.

You may support one of these ideas, or you may support the other, but if you are honest, you have to admit that they are at odds with one another.

Incidentally, simply “being willing to accept any conditions for a chance to work with children” is NOT, in isolation, a strong qualification for teaching. Except perhaps, to some degree, at the very lowest grade levels, ability to understand and efficiently and fairly impart and evaluate learning of curriculum material is also necessary.

Unfortunately, irrational ideas about labor seem to me to be very common in the US.

One popular view is that the “you’re all implicitly competing with each other and can be fired at any time” model can be excessively extended. This model does work in high prestige, high reward, situations like professional athletics, acting, and so on. However, it only works where pay is extremely high and where positions are of such prestige that even being associated with them briefly creates subsequent opportunity in other fields. Needless to say, busting teachers’ unions and going back to low pay and poor job security for teachers won’t create this model.

The other flawed model, to which Alabama state senator McGill directly alludes, is the “Mother Theresa” model, in which people who do a certain job are expected to be so motivated by other aspects of the job that they’ll do it for free. This model, which in my experience is a common fantasy, is not realistic.

All else being equal, you can pursue one goal or the other - teachers who are more qualified and effective, or, teachers who are poorly paid, have no job security, and who are implicitly encouraged to undermine one another.

Americans will have to decide, though, because both at the same time is a contradiction.

For full disclosure I have never been a teacher, a public employee, or a member of any kind of union.

harold said:

The United States can start by raising the bar for acceptance into teacher education.… We must also rigorously train teachers not only in pedagogy but in subject matter. Much of the high turnover rate of U.S. math and science teachers is due to inadequate professional development and limited classroom autonomy, so in addition to improving training, it is critical to change the work environment in schools.

Economic reality denial interferes with this goal.

This deep south right wing politician recently spoke more bluntly than most. http://times-journal.com/news/artic[…]1e3ce6c.html

Although usually expressed less bluntly, the dominating thesis in mainstream, bipartisan “educational reform” circles is that priority number one is to assure that teachers’ pay and job security be reduced (Alabama state senator McGill’s refreshing bluntness aside, this is usually phrased in terms of eliminating teachers’ unions), and that profit taking but non-contributory middle men be introduced into the public education system (“charter schools”).

Here is a neutral, objective statement - you cannot have both at the same time; all else being equal, you cannot endorse policies that make teachers more poorly paid, pit them against one another in an unpleasant atmosphere of frequent firings, and reduce security and retirement benefits, while simultaneously attracting more qualified people into teaching.

You may support one of these ideas, or you may support the other, but if you are honest, you have to admit that they are at odds with one another.

Incidentally, simply “being willing to accept any conditions for a chance to work with children” is NOT, in isolation, a strong qualification for teaching. Except perhaps, to some degree, at the very lowest grade levels, ability to understand and efficiently and fairly impart and evaluate learning of curriculum material is also necessary.

Unfortunately, irrational ideas about labor seem to me to be very common in the US.

One popular view is that the “you’re all implicitly competing with each other and can be fired at any time” model can be excessively extended. This model does work in high prestige, high reward, situations like professional athletics, acting, and so on. However, it only works where pay is extremely high and where positions are of such prestige that even being associated with them briefly creates subsequent opportunity in other fields. Needless to say, busting teachers’ unions and going back to low pay and poor job security for teachers won’t create this model.

The other flawed model, to which Alabama state senator McGill directly alludes, is the “Mother Theresa” model, in which people who do a certain job are expected to be so motivated by other aspects of the job that they’ll do it for free. This model, which in my experience is a common fantasy, is not realistic.

All else being equal, you can pursue one goal or the other - teachers who are more qualified and effective, or, teachers who are poorly paid, have no job security, and who are implicitly encouraged to undermine one another.

Americans will have to decide, though, because both at the same time is a contradiction.

For full disclosure I have never been a teacher, a public employee, or a member of any kind of union.

in Illinois - to be certified as a secondary high school teacher (I am one) requires cousework in specific categories (botony, genetics, ecology, evolution etc) after I had my B.S. (in Biology) from The University of Illinois @ Champaign I had to take some additional coursework (in Biology) to qualify for my certificate. In my experiece there are definately taleted people who would be excellent teachers but will not persue a career in teaching becuase of the politics and/or low pay. (I decided to take a job in the private sector as I determined I didn’t want to live on $10/hr and deal with the considerable political BS)

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on February 9, 2012 4:58 PM.

Selective bird predation on the peppered moth: the last experiment of Michael Majerus was the previous entry in this blog.

This [TIME PERIOD] in Intelligent Design - 10/02/12 is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.38

Site Meter