The September/October 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind has an article on how "recent studies from neuroscience and psychology suggest ways to improve science education in the U.S." ("A new vision for teaching science," by J. Randy McGinnis and Deborah Roberts-Harris) The authors quote the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which found that "the average science score of U.S. 15-year-olds dropped below that of teens in 28 out of 57 participating countries." (This Excel file from the OECD website contains much more information on the results, for those of you who are interested.)
The authors summarize the findings of two recent reports, "Taking science to school" and "Ready, Set, Science!", which advocate an absolute (rather than relative to other countries) level of science proficiency based on the following four targets:
- "students must be able to know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world,"
- "they must be able to generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations,"
- "they must be able to understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge,"
- "they must be able to participate meaningfully in scientific activities and discourse."
Two points the authors make particularly resonated with me:
- Science is currently packaged to students as "a collection of unproblematic facts", leading students to believe that "most knowledge results from direct observation." This gives them a distorted image of what scientists do and deprives them of the excitement of discovering knowledge.
- "[T]he most successful route to mastery in any subject follows a spiral path, in which students regularly revisit and refine their conceptual underpinnings [of a topic across grade levels]." This has been called a "spiral curriculum" in the education literature and builds upon the fact that "students master an idea more readily when they have some foundation of knowledge to build on."
According to the authors, even young children can develop abstract thinking skills in an age-appropriate fashion; it was previously believed, because of a 1958 (that is, five decades old!) study, that "no form of instruction could hasten the onset - typically at age 12 - of logical thinking." This led to the current focus on memorization, rather than understanding, for elementary and middle school students. But new studies show that this development really depends on "a child's prior learning experiences."
The article is full of valuable information, including: comments on the weaknesses of the U.S. science curriculum ("the [U.S.] curricula lay out too many discrete pieces of knowledge, with no hierarchy or meaningful sequencing [...] countries that teach fewer topics overall produce higher scores" in the PISA study), an example of how the reports' recommendations can be incorporated into a fifth-grade science class, and potential issues that could slow down the adoption of these groundbreaking ideas.