Directions in science education

Demand for students with a solid foundation in science continues to grow. By 2010, jobs in science and engineering nationally are expected to increase by 2.2 million. Equally important, science education needs to ready citizens who do not pursue careers in science to handle dilemmas
they will face in their lives, such as selecting treatments for diseases, evaluating messages about climate change, or using new technologies.

Do you know if your kids’ science curriculum or classroom measures up to the best standards today? Do Japanese science classrooms or does home school science curriculum measure up to the key trends and best practices today?

Key trends noted in science education in the developed world (see this link) are:
1) integrated sciences (where the science learning content is interdisciplinary, that is integrated or merged with other disciplines)
2) integrated technology (internet and computer games or simulation learning)
3) project-based and activities/hands-on learning.
4) better facilities/environments that provide a better learning environment or that can simulate the natural environment.

There is currently ongoing in Japan a debate on the need to raise the interest of Japanese students in the science fields and observations in the media about the declining abilities and creativity of Japanese scientific researchers. See “Science education in need of rejuvenation” Friday, April 6, 2007 Daily Yomiuri. The debate on science education doesn’t seem to be going anywhere to the heart of the matter… although there have been a few suggestions that more children’s books and literature on the field of science and by scientists should be made available and published (comparing the local paucity in books to the tremendous availability of such books in the US).

I found Futurelab’s report on enhancing science education in the classroom
to be useful in pointing one possible cause for the doldrums and the lack of sparkles for the Japanese science classroom – excessive and narrow focus on learning science curriculum content for the purpose of success in standardized tests. According to Futurelab’s Learning Research Report, research shows that past science education has had a narrow focus in delivering science learning content IS DEMOTIVATING and that allows students to be successful only in standard assessment tests. It suggests that the way forward is to develop children’s scientific capability and science literacy skills, focus on children’s ability to create representations of scientific phenomena (as opposed to merely achieving of understanding of specific subject content).
Source: Learning Research Report (July 2004) by Ben Williamson, Learning Researcher, Futurelab

The same article also makes suggestions for enhancing creativity in the science classroom. Some mooted in the article include:

– children must be given the space to work beyond the constraints of the curriculum, and to bring skills from other disciplines into the science classroom. “Creativity is a process, not an event,” Overton (2004) explains, “so it is an essential part of being a competent learner” (22). In this respect, the learning that occurs can be seen as more authentic to children’s experiences, and therefore both more meaningful to the child’s own life and more motivating to further scientific inquiry
-to marry the creativity of children’s drawing activities with their science inquiry skills. Image-making has been acknowledged as important both in its own right and in the science classroom. (The science classroom is a ‘multimodal’ environment in which text, voice, image, gesture, numbers and figures all play a role) Graphical tools and animating software in science may influence visual thinking and practices in the same way that word processing applications influence the process of writing.
– to develop scientific process skills, foster the acquisition of concepts, and develop certain attitudes. Amongst the key skills identified as important are: experimenting, often in a trial-and-error manner; fashioning hypotheses or reasonable ‘guesses’ to explain events or observations; formulating predictions, or foretelling the result of an investigation based on observed results and measurements; communication-through a variety of media and modalities-to present what has been discovered or observed; and manipulating variables to control the conditions of a test and produce valid results. We would also wish to see pupils with co-operative and curious attitudes in their practical science work.
– ultimately, the aim of science education might be to – to give children access to the skills and understandings they need to be able to think like a scientist, to practice working as a scientist would, and to collaborate with other ‘scientists’ to develop shared understandings and representations which communicate those conclusions. Moovl provides children with a play experience which is both authentic to their everyday activities and, to an extent, the methods and processes which must be followed in science inquiry, namely raising questions and hypotheses, testing out the conditions of a study and revising these based on observations, and presenting conclusions to others
– applying the use of newer technologies such as tablet PCs in science classrooms, and ICT in supporting primary science – applications that support children working together on science problems, that can simulate science phenomena, and which allow children to present and describe their ideas, observations, predictions and hypotheses

(Futurelab’s website details its projects with its i-curriculum, digital software learning games. Some of the edu games seem interesting : Jungulator, Future Landscapes (human impact on environment), Astroversity (scenarios in outer space), Space Mission: Ice Moon, Savannah. )

Incidentally, Hans Persson is a popular speaker Swedish science educator who has written many books including Reactions in English (see his webpage Hanper’s website) – advocates above all focusing on stimulating students’ interest/attitudes / curiosity towards science as much as knowledge. His common-sensical tenet is that if you don’t enjoy dealing with science, you won’t learn much. Other key factors are having courage to be truly playful and enthusiastic, and utilising every aspect of everyday life to impart science. He says diversity, variation and creativity are the themes that run through his work.
Some of the questions he raises when training teachers are:
– How can teaching science be concrete as well as creative?
– How can we discover and utilize the hidden talents of children in the classroom?
– How can we make the invisible visible, using simple experiments and everyday equipment?
– How can we awaken interest in science and then keep that interest alive?

Some Difficulties Are Good

Surprisingly, students do not always benefit when instructional materials make
learning easier or faster.
Requiring students to complete difficult tasks, such as generating a response
rather than reading or responding to multiple-choice questions, slows learning
but improves outcomes. Difficulties are desirable when students have to explain
their ideas.

For example, when students carefully distinguish phenomena such as plant and
animal respiration, they learn and remember more information.
Science learning requires integrating knowledge from disparate sources. By emphasizing explanations, science instruction motivates students to organize their own ideas and look for connections to new information.
Extensive research shows that students naturally develop multiple conflicting,
often confusing ideas that they must wrestle with in their everyday interactions
with science. For example, students often report that plants eat dirt, objects
in motion come to rest, and Earth is round like a pancake. Instruction is most
effective when teachers use students’ views as a starting point for investigating scientific phenomena, guiding learners as they articulate their ideas, adding evidence that stimulates students to reflect on the ideas they have developed, enabling students to learn how to distinguish among ideas, and encouraging students to seek coherent accounts of science.

Questions that require students to integrate new knowledge and articulate their ideas help students learn science. They also inform teachers and instructional material designers about the strengths and limitations of the instruction.

When Is Less More?

Students need time to explore science topics and test their ideas on practical, realistic dilemmas. Current textbooks, in an attempt to meet wide-ranging science standards, cover a daunting array of topics and offer students an extremely incoherent and, at times, almost incomprehensible array of facts.11 They leave out the important connections among ideas. Fleeting coverage of multiple topics results in instructional materials that emphasize memorization more than coherent understanding of scientific concepts and lead to students’ rapidly forgetting the material.
This situation is intensifying as scientific knowledge expands while instructional time stays constant or even declines. Typically, students study science infrequently in the early grades, for four years between 5th and 8th grades, and for two years in high school. During this time they need to learn biology, physics, chemistry, and earth science, along with topics that bridge these disciplines, such as biochemistry, geophysics, biophysics, and engineering. Rapid advances in scientific knowledge bring an increasing array of complex issues that compound the problem.
Compared to students in other countries, American students cover many more science topics in each grade.12 Countries such as Japan where students regularly outperform U.S. students on international assessments implement a narrow curriculum that requires deep, integrated understanding so that students can build on foundational concepts as they integrate new ones. By designing science teaching tools that challenge students to develop coherent ideas about key science concepts, we can guarantee a deeper understanding of science and instill the practice .

Other related articles:

Science Education That Makes Sense

A key component of the curriculum is writing skills See The Value of Writing in the Science Classroom

The role of science content in lessons

Core patterns of science teaching

Read also

Science Education’s ‘Overlooked Ingredient’: Why the Path to Global Competitiveness Begins in Elementary Schoolby Harold Pratt. Read it here or listen to his comments here

1 thought on “Directions in science education”

  1. Hi. I am a graduate student currently working on the use multimodal representations in improving learning of chemistry concepts.

    I would be glad if there is someone out there whom I can collaborate with regarding this topic.

    Thank you.

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