Are Next Generation Science Standards a Brick Wall or a Bridge to Learning?

Are Next Generation Science Standards a Brick Wall or a Bridge to Learning?  After a review of the new standards, one has to wonder.

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, suggested that brick walls are there for a reason.  The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Bridges are there to get us across something such as a river or a canyon.  But sometimes we build bridges that take us nowhere?

In this post, I am going to suggest that the authoritarian standards are metaphorically brick walls acting as barriers to learning and teaching.  By understanding how authoritarian standards can prevent teachers from helping students learn, opportunities for change will come to light.

And at the same time, especially after reading the Next Generation Science Standards, I have to wonder where the standards are taking us.  The NGSS website is not a bridge connecting the content of science with classroom learning.  It’s an impersonal document that consists of one list after another of objectives that teachers will have to wade through and be accountable for teaching to a diverse population of students.  The standards are more of a barrier than a bridge to learning.

Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning Science

According to research published by  Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace,  a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science.  She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”

1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.

2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant in that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, bringing America very close to having a national set of common standards and possibly a national curriculum, at least in English language arts and mathematics, with science next in line to be adopted by each state.

And to further support the notion of inflexibility of the standards, Achieve, the developers of the Common Core State Standards, makes the assumption that one set of standards will provide consistency, and the appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.  This is a troublesome assumption in that it is in conflict with findings in the learning sciences about how students learn.  Do all students learn in the same way?  How do students prior experiences and conceptions of science concepts fit into the way standards are written?

And on the heels of these standards is the development of Common State Assessments, with funding from Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA), with the goal to develop a technology based next-generation assessment system.  You can read about all of this here.

Wallace’s research sheds light on how science standards have posed barriers to meaningful science teaching and learning.  Dr. Wallace’s research integrates experiential learning theory (her own experience as a data source), and scholarly literature of educational policy, curriculum theory, and science education.  Let’s take a look.

Barriers to Learning

As Wallace points out, the research evidence is very clear that student’s worldviews, and prior experiences are crucial to their learning.  In science education research, the consensus is that students generate their own meanings for science concepts—such as energy, mass, or heat—within a sociocultural context.

Yet, as Wallace shows, the content of the school science curriculum uses a content (of science) and product (of science) model K-12.  Indeed, if you were to look at any list of standards in science (NSES or state standards) the language according to Wallace is “authoritarian” in the sense that the standards as written defines what is to be learned and how it will be “mastered.”  This model of curriculum stands in contrast to the “alternative models” suggested in STS or STSE in the discussion above.

The  content and product model basically says that there is a body of knowledge that must be learned by all learners.  As Wallace shows, its the individuals in charge of curriculum (read standards) that determine the lists of standards to be learned.  The lists of science content to be learned exists without a context, and without any knowledge of the students who are required to master this stuff, and teachers who plan and carry out the instruction.

An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, rather than having been a part of the process in creating the standards.  By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards.  But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, in the first place.  That was done by elite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace integrates research by Apple and Kelly to show that standards are written in technical language rather than in plain language.  Standards statements are full of technical words that student’s will be held responsible for learning.  But the problem is that standards statements are “decontextualized” into discrete pieces that can be tested by groups far removed from the classroom.

Standards as Bridges

Can we have standards in a democratic society that won’t impede teachers from teaching science, and students from learning science?  In the American democracy, things don’t look very promising.

The Next Generation Science Standards is currently online for review by Achieve, Inc., based on the NRC’s document A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.   Are the new standards provide an alternative to the current status of state science standards, the NSES, and the Common Core State Standards?  After reading them, and a few reviews, it is not likely that the new standards will lead to the reform that the writers assume.

One solution or alternative to the current drive to hold teachers and students hostage to a set of authoritarian standards is to impose a democratic approach in which teachers can negotiate ways to interprete the standards based on the needs of their own student.  She points us to the New Zealand National Curriculum.  According to Wallace:

The new national curriculum in New Zealand is one example of a standards framework, which links reasoning skills with content objectives and leaves the nature of achievement performances open-ended.

Wallace suggests that standards need to allow for more democratic participation, flexibility, and plurality for teachers.  Teachers need to be the professionals who determine what makes for successful learning performance—in the context of local communities and cultures.

Her second democratic principle would firmly enable teachers to do more inquiry-based activities.  This is especially important in that in this case, teachers would have options to engage student in “open-ended reasoning processes and performances.  Done in a context of engaging students in local inquiry would help students “exercise their own thinking skills with the goals of fostering intellectual independence and developing a science identify.”

One of the barriers that standards reform presents is the way in which students are assessed using high-stakes tests.  Instead of tests that are context-based, these tests measure discrete knowledge and facts primarily though multiple choice tests.  Wallace alludes to research by Songer and colleagues on assessments being developed within the context of learning progressions.  Until we either ban high-stakes tests, or change them so that teachers are ones that are involved in their development, we will have made very little progress.

New Roles for Teachers

To clear away standards as barriers to learning, policy makers have to change the way standards are used to hold teachers back.  Instead of using high-stakes tests to effectively create a narrow curriculum based on teaching to the test, teachers should be prepared to design their own curriculum (based on the standards, if you wish), and assess their own students using diagnostic and formative assessment systems.  If the state wants to participate in low-stakes tests such as NAEP, PISA, or TIMSS, so be it.  Not all students need to participate, and in the end bureaucrats will have tons of data to explore.

In Finland, teaching is an esteemed profession.  According to Pasi Sahlberg, director of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, many American policy makers have looked to Finland as a model for educational reform.  As Sahlberg points out, however, many of these policy makers really don’t want to hear what educators such as Sahlberg have to say.  Sahlberg points out that Finland has a lot to offer the U.S., but to simply take one or two aspects of their approach to education, and transport it to the U.S. simply won’t work.

But knowing what underscores Finland’s educational system, helps us see how we are miles apart.  For one thing, all schools in Finland receive equal allocation of funding, all children in have access to childcare, health care, and pre-school, and education is a human right, from preschool to university.

In this context, here is how teachers and the profession of teaching is contextualized:

In Finland, there is a strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities. There is no external inspection of schools or standardized testing of all pupils in Finland. For our national analysis of educational performance, we rely on testing only a small sample of students. The United States really cannot leave curriculum design and student assessment in the hands of schools and teachers unless there is similar public confidence in schools and teachers. To get there, a more coherent national system of teacher education is one major step.

Finland is home to such a coherent national system of teacher education. And unlike in the United States, teaching is one of the top career choices among young Finns. Teachers in Finland are highly regarded professionals — akin to medical doctors and lawyers. There are eight universities educating teachers in Finland, and all their programs have the same high academic standards. Furthermore, a research-based master’s degree is the minimum requirement to teach in Finland.

Teaching in Finland is, in fact, such a desired profession that the University of Helsinki, where I teach part-time, received 2,300 applicants this spring for 120 spots in its primary school teacher education program. In this teacher education program and the seven others, teachers are prepared to design their own curricula, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching and their school. Until the United States has improved its teacher education, its teachers cannot enjoy similar prestige, public confidence and autonomy.

Do you think that we can confront the barrier that standards present to us?  What are some ways that we can make standards more realistic in a democratic society?

ResearchBlogging.org

Wallace, C. (2012). Authoritarian science curriculum standards as barriers to teaching and learning: An interpretation of personal experience Science Education, 96 (2), 291-310 DOI: 10.1002/sce.20470

Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland

Note: This is the second post by Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. In his first post, which you can read here, Dr. Stål gave us an overview of the Finnish educational system, which provides a basic education to all Finnish citizens ages 7 to 16, as well as a higher education.  In the first post, Dr. Stål helped us understand the overall structure of the Finnish educational system, beginning with basic education, grades 1 – 6, followed by lower secondary, grades 7 – 10, and upper secondary, 11 and 12.

Dr. Stål teaches at Botby School, Helsinki, Finland.  He conducts teacher training courses in science at Turku ( 92,6 miles or 149,02 km from Helsinki), School Resources.  He is also doing research in Science Education for his second doctorate at Interdisciplinary Science Education, Technologies and Learning (ISETL), School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK ( 1098,8 miles or 1768,3 km from Helsinki) under supervision of Professor Vic Lally.

In this post, Dr. Stål writes about the methods that science teachers use in Finnish classrooms by comparing the behavioristic teaching of school physics, which is teacher-centered (TCM) to the humanistic science inquiry oriented (HSIO) method, which student-centered (SCM).  This post is based on a research paper by Dr. Stål which you can read in full here.

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

In class, regardless of the country there is always a central figure – the teacher. The teacher knows how to work with students, in order to involve them in teaching process. The teacher is responsible for the organization of curriculum content for the students.  Therefore, the teacher must have appropriate education for this activity.

Finnish Science Teachers and Teaching

Dr. Ingvar Stål, science teacher and researcher, Botby School, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright © Botbyscience.com | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

In the Finnish comprehensive school, teachers still have a respectable position in society. The education of physics teachers takes about 5 years and is carried out by local universities, and as additional training to obligatory specialization.

After this training teachers receive a Mastes Degree in a subject and a Teaching Certificate. For example, a teacher may have a Masters Degree in Physics and Certificate of Teaching in Physics at Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools. In order to receive this certificate candidates must have at least 60 credits in Pedagogy Studies and Practice.

In recent years in the Finnish comprehensive schools there has been a shortage of Physics teachers. In the Finland-Swedish comprehensive school year 2008 only 57,1 % physics teachers had a Teaching Certificate [1]. There are several reasons for the physics teacher shortage: lack of candidates, preference to work as a physics teacher at upper secondary school due to problems with discipline and low level of curriculum content, low salary compared to the amount of work and responsibilities.

The common responsibilities of science teachers are as follows : teaching, preparation of lab work and demonstrations, ordering of material and instruments, design of assessment tests for students, maintain contact with students’ parents.

The teaching process in school physics is a teacher-centered activity. It means that the teacher is the presenter of physics content and students are the recipients.  In the Finnish comprehensive schools, the teaching of school physics and others school sciences is a variation of the three stage model of teaching: Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE [2]), and is described as the Teacher-Centered Model TCM [3, 4].
Continue reading “Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland”

Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Education in Finland, Part 1

This post is based on my correspondence with Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. Dr. Stål and I began corresponding three years ago and I wrote about his work in designing inquiry-based and optional science courses at Botby Junior High. Dr. Stål has designed a science curriculum at his school and you can read about his work at the Botby school website.

After reading the post What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform?, I asked Dr. Stål to comment on the article. What follows are insights into education in Finland from one of the leading science educator’s in Finland. His approach to science teaching has been highlighted not only at teacher development programs in Finland, but at research conferences, and when visiting groups of educators from other countries, especially in Europe visit Botby Junior High. Much of what you will read about in this post is based on his presentation to a group of 55 teachers from Estonia earlier this month, and recent papers on teaching sciences in Finnish compulsory schools, and research on humanistic and scientific inquiry.

Teachers in the U.S. will be very interested in how Finland tests its students, especially in grades 1 – 9.  Comparing education between different countries needs to take into consideration the foundation of the country upon which its educational system rests.  In Finland, for example, all children, by law, have access to childcare, health care and pre-school.  All citizens have a right to education, grades 1 – college, free of charge.  All schools in Finland are funded on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources, regardless of the school’s location.  None of these is true for U.S. students.  Yet, at the same time, it is valuable to find out what the is nature of schooling in other countries, and compare that to our own system.

Here is the first of two posts on Education in Finland.  This one will focus on education in general in Finland; the second will focus on science education, and pedagogy.  Much of the discussion of this post is based on this paper by Dr. Stål

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

Overview of the Finnish Educational System

Eduction authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to get education also after compulsory schooling and right to pre-primary and basic education according to the Basic Education Act (1998). The Finnish government underlines that the Finnish educational system is geared to promote the competitiveness of the Finnish welfare society. Finland, as a member of EU, support the overall lines of Finnish education and science policy with the EU Lisbon strategy.

Nowadays the Finnish Educational system is the result of several changes and reforms. The content of curriculum and the goals in education changes approximately every 10 years, but the Finnish Educational system remains traditional (see figure 1).

The Basic Education Act contains the main goal with the Compulsory Education in Finland:

The objective of basic education is to support pupils’ growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society, and to provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary in life. The instruction shall promote equality in society and the pupils’ abilities to participate in education and to otherwise develop themselves during their lives (Basic Education Act, 1998).

Basic Education

Basic education in Finland is provided for children between the ages of 7 to 16. The basic education is compulsory and free of charge, what is more it is forbidden to charge students. All students during their compulsory studies receive books, notebooks, pencils and all needed material so that their studies remains free, it is even an obligation for the school to provide students with study materials. As a
rule, all children are to be educated in the school closest to where they live, but parents may chose other schools if possible.

Basic education consists of Elementary School (grades 1 – 6) and Lower Secondary School (grades 7 – 9).  The curriculum of elementary school consists of “mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish), mathematics, foreign language, nature, geography, religion (or ethics, visual arts, physical education, music and craft. In elementary school, there are no examinations.  In the fifth grade, however, student are introduced to the mark-system.
Continue reading “Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Education in Finland, Part 1”

How Standards are like Brick Walls in the face of Teaching and Learning

Note:  This is the fourth article in a series on the consequences of the authoritarian standards & high-stakes testing.

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, suggested that brick walls are there for a reason.  The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

In this post, I am going to suggest that the authoritarian standards are metaphorically brick walls acting as barriers to learning and teaching.  By understanding how authoritarian standards can prevent teachers from helping students learn, opportunities for change will come to light.

Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning Science

According to research published by  Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace,  a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science.  She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

The purpose of Wallace’s paper was to uncover insights about the science standards that have been used over the past decade and a half that have posed barriers to science teaching and learning.

She puts it this way in her research study:

I synthesize research from educational policy, science education, curriculum theory, critical inquiry, and my own experiential learning from a particular case in the state of Georgia to analyze the effects of authoritarian standards language on science classroom teaching. I argue that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education (A. V. Kelly, 1999), have been in-congruent with research from cognitive psychology, science identity formation, language use, and science as inquiry.

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”

1. The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fits the needs of their students.

2. The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Continue reading “How Standards are like Brick Walls in the face of Teaching and Learning”

Science Teaching at Botby Högstadieskolas: An Experiment in Teaching Science as an Optional Course

Would it be viable to offer science as an optional subject? What would happen to enrollment in science if it were an optional course? Would students sign up for such a course? How could the course be structured to interest students in wanting to take the course?

In this post, I am going to feature a school that has moved in the direction of making science optional for its students. In November I received an email from Ingvar Stål, PhD in didactics of Physics, and a science teacher of physics and chemistry in the Botby Högstadieskolas (Junior High School), near Helsinki, Finland. Through our correspondence, Dr. Stål informed me that the idea of offering science as an optional subject was launched in 2005 with only 10 students, with voluntary club lessons twice a week. Now, the science program is a three-year curriculum (grades 7, 8 & 9), and includes 47 students, which according to the Botbyscience.com website, is 1/6 of the school population.

This is a screen shot of the Botbyscience.com site, Botby, Finland

I’ve visited the Botbyscience.com website, and there you will find details of the curriculum, and images of the students and the project work that engages them. The program is based on an inquiry-oriented approach to science teaching in which students are involved in making investigations into questions about various topics in science.

The curriculum of the Botby science program is detailed at their website—a valuable resource for other science teachers. You can follow this link to read about the day-by-day activities organized by weeks. According to the website, the students are engaged in activities such as these:

  • We organize a scientific event for the whole school (in September) “Up to the top”.
  • Science students (Sc1) were preparing to the TekNatur contest (Science Fair Project).
  • Science students (SC2) prepared presentations on Charles Darwin and introduced them in different teachers’ classes (if they wanted it). Everything was culminated on a morning meeting of the whole school.
  • This year we are preparing (SC2) students’ astronomy presentations (the year 2009 is an astronomy year).
  • We organize (SC2 students) Science days for primary school students.

There are many images at the Botbyscience website that show students actively involved in science investigations, and show how project-based science teaching is attractive to students, and teachers alike, and can result in a robust science program.

Botby is community in Finland near Helsinki, as shown in the map below. I think you will find this program, and the science website intriguing, and model of humanistic and inquiry-oriented science teaching that has been explored in detail at this weblog. You can follow this link to the Botby school website.

Location of Botby, Finland