Students Lag in Science So Says the National Center for Education Statistics

There was story on cnn.com today that caught my attention entitled U.S. students behind in math, science, analysis says.  The analysis was written by the National Center of Educational Statistics and was a summary analysis of several international assessments including the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA, 2006 results).

The story was a report of a brief talk given by the U.S. Secretary of Education (Mr. Arne Duncan) in which he used the results on the “Condition of Education” issued by the National Center of Educational Statistics.  You can see the full report by clicking on the previous link.  The basic question in the report was: How do U.S. students compare with their peers in other countries?  For all the details that you can examine, the analysis comes down to this:

The performance of U.S. students neither leads nor trails the world in reading, mathematics, or science at any grade or age (quote from report’s summary).

The Secretary of Education uses the results of the analysis to say that “we are lagging the rest of the world, and we are lagging it in pretty substantial ways.  I think we have become complacent. We’ve sort of lost our way.”  Unfortunately politicians believe that the data represents an accurate picture of student learning, and use it to drum up support for their policies. Yet, U.S. scores have not changed since 2000.

If you look at the PISA results, which are for the year 2006, U.S. 15 year-old students scored higher than some peers, and scored lower than some peers on the major areas of testing as reported by PISA: overall scientific literacy, identifying scientific issues, explaining phenomena, and using scientific evidence.  Rank ordering the countries by score (similar to way we rank order competitive sports),  in overall scientific literacy, Finland leads the way with a score of 563 (500 is average), the U.S. scores 489 (21st), and Mexico scores 410 (30th).

Is the sky falling?  Have we lost our way?  Should we pay math and science teachers more?  Can we educate our way to a better economy?

I’ve written before that the results of international comparisons and other large-scale assessments need to be carefully scrutinized before making sweeping generalizations about the fitness of a country’s or state’s educational system.  For example, the U.S. has more than 15,000 independent school systems;  to use an average score that is representative of the students in these schools based on a sit-down test of 48 to 60 items doesn’t describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in any country’s schools.

Results as reported by PISA and TIMSS help shape the public image of science education (or mathematics education), and it is unfortunate that educators allow this to happen.  Dr. Svein Sjøberg of the University of Oslo in a publication entitled Pisa and Real Life Challenges: Mission Impossible, questions the use of tests such as PISA and TIMSS.  He informs us that:

The PISA project sets the educational agenda internationally as well as within the participating countries. PISA results and advice are often considered as objective and value- free scientific truths, while they are, in fact embedded in the overall political and economic aims and priorities of the OECD. Through media coverage PISA results create the public perception of the quality of a country’s overall school system. The lack of critical voices from academics as well as from media gives authority to the images that are presented.

PISA measures only three areas of the curriculum (math, science, reading), according to Dr. Sjøberg , and the implication is that these are the most important areas, and areas such as history, geography, social science, ethics, foreign language, practical skills, arts and aesthetics are not as important to the goals of PISA.  TIMSS, according to his analysis (and I would agree) is based on a science curriculum that many science educators want to replace, yet uses test items that could have been used 50 years ago.   In general the public is convinced that these international tests are valid ways of measuring learning, and that the results can be used to draw significant conclusions about the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

If you live in the world of psychometrics and modeling, the results that are gathered by these international testing bodies is a dream come true. Sjøberg puts it this way:

PISA (and even more so TIMSS) is dominated and driven by psychometric concerns, and much less by educational. The data that emerge from these studies provides a fantastic pool of social and educational data, collected under strictly controlled conditions – a playground for psychometricians and their models. In fact, the rather complicated statistical design of the studies decreases the intelligibility of the studies. It is, even for experts, rather difficult to understand the statistical and sampling procedures, the rationale and the models that underlie the emergence of even test scores. In practice, one has to take the results at face value and on trust, given that some of our best statisticians are involved. But the advanced statistics certainly reduce the transparency of the study and hinder publicly informed debate.

Creation: A New Film About Charles Darwin

Earlier this week, I had a pingback  from Michael Barton’s very interesting website entitled The Dispersal of Darwin.  On his site I read about Michael’s recent trip to Cambridge, England, and on one of his posts from England he mentioned a new film that is coming out in September about Charles Darwin.

The new film is entitled Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin.  The movie is based upon Randal Keyne’s (great-great grandson of Darwin) book, Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution.  The book, and the film focus on Darwin the person, and his relationships with wife (Emma), and their ten children, and the intertwining of his ideas on the origin of the species.  In particular the film shows Darwin “as not only a world-renowned scientists, but a dedicated family man struggling to accept his daughter’s death.  Darwin is torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.  He finds himself caught in a battle between faith and reason, love and truth.”

The film will be first shown at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th, and the film will be released on September 25 in the UK.  I am not sure when it will be released in the USA or other parts of the world.  If you do know, please leave a note in the comments.

If you are a science teacher, you will enjoy the website, and I think the film will be a great resource for teaching about evolution, and exploring the creation-evolution-intelligent design arguments.  Here are two resources for you; first an image and link to the interactive website for the film; and second, a video anticipating the arrival of the film.

Website: Creation---the true story of Charles Darwin
Website: Creation---the true story of Charles Darwin

Thinking Big: Stephen Hawking’s Universe and Science Teaching

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Some Ways to Interest Students in Science, and one method I suggested was to help students “think big.”   Helping our students ask “big” questions, as Carl Sagan did, was the principle described here: Where did our universe come from?  How big is the Universe? and so on.  Asking questions such as these is a powerful way to interest students in science.

On Sunday, National Geographic Channel as part of its Naked Science programming presents Hawking’s Universe.  As stated in the program’s literature, Stephen Hawking is one of the world’s most famous scientists. But ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, has left him almost totally paralyzed and it is progressing. Unable to walk, talk, or write, his only way of communicating is through a computer program that turns a small movement of a finger or the blink of an eye, into words from a vocal synthesizer.

Accordingly, Hawking remains determined to discover the theory of everything, a complete set of rules for the Universe. Asked in the program are these “big” questions: Where did the Universe come from and where is it going? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end?

Here are two preview videos to give you an idea of the program’s content, and how this would be a good example of bringing the idea of “thinking big” to our students as a way to interest them in science, and a very important and famous scientist.

In this first video, the program explores the idea that no one’s found the Theory of Everything, but when Hawkins discovers that Black Holes emit radiation, he gets very close.

This NGC program will explore Hawking’s major contributions to the understanding of our Universe – from his revolutionary proof that our Universe originated in a Big Bang; to his ground breaking discovery that Black Holes are not completely black, but rather emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear, to his insights on string theory. Will he unlock the secret of creation before his time runs out?

In this video, the program explains the new speech software technology that was developed to help Steven Hawking “speak” after he lost his voice in an emergency tracheotomy.

The program, Hawking’s Universe, broadcasts Sunday, August 23 at 10PM ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

Bibliotheca Priestley

In the last two posts, I’ve explored several aspects of Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley: The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and The Birth of Americaair_priestleyIn the spirit of the original Bibliotheca Alexandria, I identify here some of the key publications of Joseph Priestley, establishing here Bibliotheca Priestley.

I am going to use the subtitle of Johnson’s book as way to inventory some of Priestley’s publications.  In most cases, I’ve been able to find links that will bring to a copy of the original document published by Priestley.

It should be noted that Priestley emphasized in many of his books the importance of history.  For Priestley this was a way to understand the progress of ideas, and he wrote books of history in fields as diverse as politics, science and religion.  For those of us in science education, his book on the History and Present State of Electricity is a valuable source how this man approached the history and philosophy of science.  His book was used a standard text for more than a hundred years.

Science and Education Although education is not a subtitle in Johnson’s book, I thought it would be valuable to you connect science and education, and show that Priestley made important contributions here.  Priestley was as much an educator as he was a natural philosopher or scientist.  I inventory four books here, two of them in science.

Faith. Priestley was born into what was known as a dissenting religious family, meaning they did not conform to the Church of England.  Indeed Priestley matriculated from a dissenting religious academy having majored in theological studies.  He became minister of a church in Nantwich and established a school there, and the curriculum he devised included natural philosophy and involved his students in hands on learning.  It was this teaching experience that led to his writing of Rudiments.  Priestley’s ideas on religion were those of a rationalist, and he believed that that experiences in the natural world (natural philosophy) would lead to revealed religious truths.  His views were did match the religious orthodoxy, but did find acceptable among America’s founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson.

Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion (1772 – 1774).  A summary of half a century of liberal theologians’ views.

Revolution Dissenters in any country are often viewed by their government in ways that lead to the development of strict laws to control their behavior.  In the 1700s in England there were a number of laws passed that especially were designed to punish religious dissenters.  Priestley’s 1768 book was one of the first publications that charted a course for liberal political theory.  It is interesting to explore Priestley’s ideas in light of Thomas Jefferson’s idea that church and state should be separated.  In Priestley’s England, it was a crime to dissent from the Church of England, and in the American colonies, dissent was not tolerated until Virginia passed the first law protecting individuals from other’s religious views.  The state could not establish a religion.  This became the forerunner to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Priestley was a leader in this kind of thinking.

Resources on Joseph Priestley

The Coffee House Syndrome: Humanizing the Classroom

No, this is not about Starbucks, Caribou, or McCafe coffee houses. coffeeBut it is about coffee houses, and how coffee might have contributed to the field of science and science education, and indeed the Age of Enlightenment.

In his book The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson introduces us to The London Coffee House, and a group of “free thinkers” who met there, and were known as the Club of Honest Wigs. 41evddedbjl_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_Walter Issacson, in his book Benjamin Franklin, describes the Honest Whigs as a discussion club of pro-American liberal intellectuals, although Johnson describes the group as holding libertarian views, and comprised of individuals from a variety of fields who met to discuss political, religious, and scientific ideas.

The coffee house became the nucleus for the networking of ideas in 17th & 18th Century England. Coffee had just recently been introduced into England after first being cultivated in Ethiopia, and was becoming an important beverage. Prior to this, alcohol–beer and wine (because water was simply not safe to drink) was the drink of necessity. Johnson points out that coffee in the context of the coffee house might have indeed contributed to the Age of Enlightenment, and in the case of Joseph Priestly, led to the writing and publication of his first and famous book on the History and Present State of Electricity (1767). Here is what Johnson had to say about coffee, the Age of Enlightenment, and Priestley:

The coffee house was crucial to Priestley in the writing, editing, and reading of his manuscript by the “electricians” who met at the London Coffee House. Since he was writing a book about these men, meeting with them, and have them read his manuscript was essential for the development of his ideas. Of course today, we have email and the web, but in the days of Priestley and Franklin, it was the post, or meeting in London that provided the vehicle for the discussion and progression of ideas.

Olympia Academy. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein founded a group, much like the London Coffee House, known as the Olympia Academy, which met regularly to discuss books, mathematics and physics. Although a small group, it provided the same kind of experience as the London Coffee House did for the 18th natural philosophers.

The Common Cup & Experiences in Atlanta. Years ago, I formed a discussion group that met every Thursday at a coffee house in Atlanta called the Common Cup. Although no longer in business, the Common Cup became the meeting house of a group of teachers, professors, and researchers interested in humanistic education and science. The group met over coffee for many years, and explored new ideas, and how these could be applied to the classroom. At about the same time as the Common Cup coffee house experience, I met Professor David Finkelstein, professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. I had interviewed him for a book I was working on about science education, and attended some of his community forums on physics at Georgia Tech. He invited me on several occasions to join a group he had formed that now reminds me of the London Coffee House group. Professor Finkelstein had organized a group of people from different disciples (science, art, music, philosophy, psychology, education) that met over coffee and food to discuss ideas relevant to the group. The few times that I attended were thrilling, and provocative.

Application to Science Teaching. Discussion of ideas is one of the most important pedagogical strategies that we as science teachers can use to enliven our classrooms, and help students understand and apply science to their own lives. Many of you that read this blog know this, and incorporate small group learning as a pedagogical staple.

Cooperative learning was the core of my own approach to teaching, and for more than fifteen years I presented seminars around the country that focused on ways of helping teachers implement cooperative learning strategies in their classrooms. Conducted through the Bureau of Education & Research (BER), sshThe seminars created a “coffee house” atmosphere by arranging the classroom into small hubs of learners, and engaging them in cooperative learning pedagogies that had a very practical flair. And of course, there was plenty of coffee (and a great lunch served at noon!).

How do you get students to “network” and explore their ideas? Does the London Coffee House have any relevance to the way we teach today? How is the technology that we have today and extension of the “coffee house syndrome?”