Science educators, especially during the past 50 years, have been instrumental in developing curriculum and teaching methods that are intelligent, prudent, reflective, and thoughtful. Underlying science education has been the well-advised and deliberate attempt to encourage inquiry- and problem-based teaching. Not only has this been on solid ground in the U.S., but in most nations of the world.
Working Out How Students Learn
During this time, researchers in science education, and in the newly established field of the learning sciences began to work out some of the principles that help us understand how people learn. Much of this work is described in several publications, including How People Learn (National Academy Press, 2000) by Bransford, Brown and Cocking.
The term that has recently emerged to help us understand how people is the learning sciences, which is an interdisciplinary field including cognitive science, educational psychology, computer science, anthropology, sociology, information sciences, neurosciences, education, design studies, instructional design and other fields.
The research in the learning sciences has led to several findings about how people learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).
1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
If you have 30 students in your biology class, you know that not all of the students come into your course with the same preconceptions. Do we think that it is possible for all of them to leave the class with the same level of “knowing?”
2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
This principle, which comes from research comparing experts and novices in a field of study, does not mean that students should be fed a diet of factual information. The principle worked out here means that students must be engaged in active learning and given many opportunities to learn with understanding, to use inquiry to explore ideas, and be engaged with other students in solving problems.
By the way, the test questions that constitute the high-stakes tests are random questions that require memory and guesswork. Instead of helping students develop conceptual frameworks within science (or any other subject), the high-stakes testing syndrome reinforces the notion that we are testing nothing more than factual knowledge, completely out of context. How can this process possibly measure the kind of deep understanding that ought to characterize schooling in a democracy.
3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.
Many science teachers know that metacognitive tools really help their students understand science. However, because we are shooting for an end of the year test that requires bubbling an answer form, helping students be reflective and try and take responsibility for their learning goes by the wayside. Metacognition requires “internal conversation” and teachers who encourage this in their students are pushing hard to overcome the day-to-day pressure to teach to the test. Helping students be reflective thinker takes time. Reflective activities such as journal keeping, reflective postings on the Internet, and small group discussions might not fit into a teacher’s schedule if the real premium is on well the students do on “the test.”
The model of teaching that seems to capture these three principles is constructivism.
Constructivism explains learning as a meaning-making process dependent on prior knowledge and individual interpretation. Thus, constructivism is the theoretical framework that supports the enduring push for teaching science by inquiry methods. If teaching were merely the process of communicating a message, then we could simply tell students key ideas (such as the definition of scientific theory) and achieve the instructional objective.
Is What We Are Doing Frivolous, Capricious, and Unreasonable?
So, why is it that science education in K-12 schools has accepted and acceded to standards-based and high-stakes testing that characterizes teaching and learning in today’s schools?
Why has education accepted the notion that one set of learning standards can be used with all students, regardless of where they live? Why do we continue to administer high-stakes achievement tests to determine whether or not a student has learned? Why do we assume that these tests measure student learning and that the one responsible for student progress is the teacher when we know that about 70% of the effect on learning is from outside the classroom? Why?
The Next Generation Science Standards, which the developers claim is state led, are far from the realities of classrooms and teachers, and represent a collection of performance objectives that are expected to be learned by all students, regardless of where they live. The evidence is that where you live has a profound effect on learning, more so than the effectiveness of teachers. Creating one set of science standards for nation of 15,000 school districts simply does not make sense.
If we want professional societies to develop science standards, all well and good. But, the selection and implementation of standards should be a local decision made by teachers who have the knowledge and understanding of their students.
Research in the learning sciences would argue against using high-stakes tests. These high-stakes tests are frivolous, capricious and unreasonable. The tests are not a measure of what students learn. They are a collection of discrete test items, written by strangers, that are used in disparate classrooms around the country. State department officials have convinced themselves that their tests are measuring not only student learning, but can be used to compare student scores from one year to the next, and make assertions about learning progress. I don’t think so.
Community Based Education
The learning sciences can be used as the rationale for more local control over teaching and curriculum development. Teachers are the ones who know how to implement the findings of the learning sciences to make science learning active and inquiry-based focused on helping students understand science and know how to use science to solve problems. We need to get out the way and let professional teachers do their work.
The preposterous continuation of holding students and teachers hostage by making them follow someone else’s standards, and someone else’s high-stakes tests makes no sense, except to the officials at state and federal departments of education, and the core group of corporate meddlers.
What do think about standards-based science education? Do you think high-stakes, end of the year tests should be used? Do they measure student achievement in your courses?
Standards-Based and High-Stakes Science Education: Frivolous, Capricious & Unreasonable? Tell us what you think.