This and That

I am in England, and in Hay, a town with more book stores than any other business, their annaul celebration of literacy is to be held. One of the books and film, An Inconvient Truth, is to be featured. Apparently, the organizers of the Hay conference are very impressed with Gore’s ideas about Global Warming, and he will be one of the many speakers. More on this later.

Cultures of Learning

In the last post, I made reference to the concept of “culture of learning,” in my discussion of the drop-out problem in America’s high schools. (note: America is not the only nation that has a poor track record of graduating students from secondary schools—its exists in many parts of the world.) Culture of learning has to do with the way and degree that teachers and students interact (or not interact) in a learning environment (in a classroom, a field trip to a rock outcrop, a visit to a science museum).

In many schools, the culture of learning that exists does not promote learning among a very large portion of the U.S. secondary school population. More than a third of students drop out. There are many reasons for this, and I do not want to support the idea that the only reason is the culture of school—students come to school with different family experiences, and attitudes toward learning, and these can impact anything that the school might do to mitigate against these students experiences. However….

It’s the however, that I want to write about here.

Schools can influence the kind of school that students enter in a variety of ways. One way is by changing the culture of learning that students will experience when they pass through the metal detectors. Once in the school, schools officials can influence the way students think about learning, themselves and their peers.

How can this be done? One way is size. Small is better in learning situations. We’ve known this for a long time. Students do better in smaller schools. More students can be leaders in small schools; students have a greater chance of knowing each other, and the faculty. They can become more involved in the content of their courses, because teachers can implement methods that favor inquiry, small group learning, and research. Graduation rates are higher in these kinds of situations.

Not all schools can become suddenly small. However, schools can create smaller communities of learning within larger schools. Schools can be divided up into smaller “units.” Classrooms can implement cooperative group learning, thereby influencing the landscape of learning. In either of these cases, we need to look to the influence of a Russian psychologist.

In my book, The Art of Teaching Science there is a discussion of the influence of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky on the culture of learning, in particular his impact on the use of language in learning. According to Vygotsky, all higher level learning took place on the “social plane.” For students to learn science in this way, teachers need to provide ample opportunities for students to talk science, read science, and write science.

Students who are in school cultures that emphasize “talking, reading and writing science” have a greater chance of changing many of their pre-conceived ideas about science, and developing science concepts than in schools that emphasize rote learning (lecture, note taking, and test taking—the common terrain of science classrooms).

One of the biggest problems encountered in trying to develop classroom practice that articulates talking, reading and writing, is the education of science teachers. It’s simply not enought to know science content. Teachers need to be experts of pedagogical content knowledge.

Changing the culture of learning in high schools can lead to more successful students (and teachers), and increase the graduation rate. Can it really be done? Are there any really good examples?

Dropping Out of High School is the Thing to Do

Or at least, that seems to be the situation in American high schools. According to statistics compiled by The Gates Foundation, and reported on their website Stand Up, one-third of public high school students will not graduate.

You can investigate the statistics for your own state, and even get statistics on any public school in America. I checked Georgia (where I live), and it was reported that the graduation rate is 56%, one of the lowest in the country. Statistics on each school, which is supported by Standard and Poor’s (a division of McGraw Hill), includes Reading and Math Proficiency (%-compared to the state’s results), enrollment, and % of economically disadvantaged enrolled in the school.

The Gates Foundation has funded more than 1900 high schools to help improve the graduation rate, and prepare students for college. You can see a video describing a school in the Bronx, NY, and how students respond to the changes that were made.

I was interested in the approach that is advocated in the Gates funded schools to improve graduation rates, and preparation for college. The Foundation has a very rigorous research and evaluation program to assess this ambitious program. One of the reports focused on the creation of cultures of learning at the high school level. You can download the report (90 pages) by going to the previous link. I found it interesting. One of the emphases in successful schools for African-American and Hispanic students was the focus on relationships among students, and teachers and students, and of course one way to do this is to reduce school size. We’ve known for many years, that smaller schools are more successful with students than with large, campus -type schools. One of the high schools that I taught in many years ago had an enrollment of 3,600 (grades 9-12). To deal with the size, the school was divided into separate “units” of 300 students, with its own faculty, commons area, and lunch area.

In earlier posts, I started a conversation on reform in science education. Improvement in science education must go hand-in-hand with the reform of high schools. Simply pouring money into innovative science curricular without considering the context of the school, will not improve science education, nor will it help the students that need the assistance.

As reported in the Gates studies, size of school is not the real factor. It’s what teachers and students do to change the culture of learning. We’ll talk more about that in another post. In the meantime, travel to the Gates site, and take a look.

1906 San Francsico Earthquake Centennial

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which hit the city at 5.12 a.m. on that day. In an earlier post, I commented on the significance of the 1906 earthquake, and recommended a book by Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Winchester’s book tells the story of the “new geology” and helps us understand the cause of the earthquake (and all earthquakes), and provides a deeper understanding of the earth.

The city of San Francisco set up a web site marking the earthquake, and also held a huge gathering in the financial district.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake literally destroyed the city, and the great fire that followed reeked devastating damage of the city for days after. The earthquake is considered one of the worst disasters to hit the U.S. with more than 3,000 people killed, more than 20,000 buildings destroyed (see image of city hall below), and it took until 1915 to re-build the city. This seems like very timely information for the rebuilding of New Orleans.

The quake was caused by a rupture (of more than 300 miles) along the San Andreas fault, the fault that separates two huge crustal plates: the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate.

These two masses of rocks rub up against each other along the San Andreas Fault, and at times, the build up of stress is released when the plates move, causing an earthquake.

More on Reform in Science Education

In the last post, I called into question a recent editorial in the leading research journal in science education (Journal of Research in Science Teaching). The recommendations suggested were made more than 2 decades ago in a report that I sited (A Nation at Risk), and more recently, the AAAS published Science for All Americans. This report and subsequent publications by AAAS under the umbella of Project 2061, outlined reform in science education that surely supercedes the article in the JRST.

Charles Hutchison responded to my original post, and pointed out the dismal situation of graduation rates for high schools, and especially for African-Americans, Native-Americans and Hispanics.

The recommendations for reform suggested by AAAS and NSTA have made their way into schools over the past 20 years. However, during that time, the high school drop rate has increased slightly. The reform suggestions that have been made have not impacted the very groups that need reform. Why is that so?

It is a tough question to answer. Science educators have emphasized inquiry and hands-on teaching for as long as I have been a science educator (and that’s a long time). Yet, research that reports the nature of teaching (e.g. strategies used in the classroom), has yet to show that inquiry and hands-on learning lead the way in teaching methodology. It’s still teacher-centered, and presentation-oriented. So, the reforms that have been suggested have really not made their way into classroom practice—on a large scale.

How can that be changed? For starters, the new reformers need to be willing to look at who is NOT doing well in our schools. Why aren’t these students succeeding? What are the barriers preventing them from learning? Reformers also need to be drawn from the classroom as well as from educators, scientists, and citizens that understand the real problems in urban schools—especially middle and high schools.

The challenge is to see how science can be in the service of society, and the students who seem to be failing school today. How can science really help students become interested in school resulting in success?