With the election of a new administration in Washington, one of the major areas of “change” will be education. More than $100 billion will be invested in education as part of the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In a speech earlier this week, President Obama has called for sweeping changes in American education calling for the removal of limits on charter schools (laboratories of innovation), improving early childhood education, and linking teacher pay to (student) performance. In fact, the President went on to say that we need to “cultivate a new culture of accountability in America’s schools.”
But there is a serious omission in the current focus on education by the new administration (and past ones, as well), and that is the consideration of a valid and viable student culture. According to research reported in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching by Wood, Lawrenz, and Haroldson:
U.S. students have been largely ignored in discussion and planning for their own, presumed futures.
In their study they clearly show that students’ values are fundamentally different from those of their teachers. On one hand students value schoolwork that is interesting, seems productive, and straightforward. While, teachers, on the other hand believe that students need [science] for the future, that content is important, and that they [teachers] have responsibilities in the classroom. Furthermore, students look at the classroom and their experiences within classrooms in ways that are strikingly different from teachers’ views. For example teachers might say that science is important for the future decision-making capability of students, while students say repeatedly that school science is uninteresting, and seemingly irrelevant to their lives.
As Wood, Lawrenz, and Haroldson point out in their research, common knowledge has it that science education is justified as preparation for later life. The National Science Education Standards defines what this science should be, and provides the rationale upon which we plan the science curriculum informing students that it will be good for their future. We then design examinations that will be used to “measure” student achievement in science, and we are consistently disappointed with the results. On national tests there are disparities by race and class, and on international tests, U.S. students “lag” behind their counterparts in other nations. This picture has remained in freeze-frame for years. The usual claim is that our educational system is failing. Or the teachers are failing. Or, the students are failing.
But, hold on.
The policy- & decision-making apparatus that directs U.S. educational policy tends to ignore student culture, and assumes all students should learn the same body of content, typically to prepare students for the future. Aikenhead has shown that the traditional science curriculum effectively is unconnected with students’ lived-worlds, and more often than not turns students away from school science. As I reported in a weblog post earlier in the week, Svein Sjøberg, director of the Relevance of Science Education Project (ROSE) suggests that the lack of relevance of the science & technology curriculum is seen as one of the greatest barriers for good learning and as the reason for young peoples’ low interest in the school subject and lack of motivation for pursuing the subject in their higher education.
Wood, Lawrenz, and Haroldson refer to Dewey’s argument in his 1916 book Democracy and Education that a future-oriented approach to curriculum results in an oppressive learning environment. They describe Dewey’s four evils of the preparation-for-the-future-focused education:
- It undermines motivation by diverting focus from the present interests of the student to preparing for an unknown and intangible future.
- It breeds ‘‘shilly shallying’’ and procrastinating, because the future for which students are being prepared seems far off.
- It emphasizes the average over the individual, making the future for which the student is being prepared seem even more remote and abstract.
- It requires extrinsic rewards and punishment, because it is divorced from the present interests of the student.
We need to take into consideration the nature of student culture in any reform efforts, be they charter schools, tying teacher pay with student achievement, or infusing the classroom with new methods of teaching. Without knowing how student culture develops and how it impacts classroom practice and learning, we will be left wondering why achievement test scores have either remained the same, or have dropped.
We have to do more than simply tell students to study hard, and do their part. The new “culture of accountability” has to take into consideration the culture of students.Tags: Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, National Science Education Standards, No Child Left Behind, NSES, President Obama, science standards, science teaching