Why dumbing down education isn’t cutting it

I found out some years ago, that my son learns best when there’s a challenge. For a while, he seemed to be suffering from an attention deficit problem … he used to run round in circles nonstop in every sort of preschool programme driving teachers mad.

Then one day I found out the only way to keep him still and quiet was to give him a maze book. Within a week, he had completed every maze book that I’d bought in desperation from every store in the town. He was about to turn three years old. I also found out that if I threw him the hardest mazes, puzzles, problems or any sort of questions that required complicated processes or untangling, he was onto it with total absorption and would focus all day and missing meals while at it.

From then on, I repackaged mundane information or stuff he was supposed to learn into some sort of quiz or visual puzzle, and that always did the trick.

Today, he is still the same. He works best when there is a difficult project ahead, he likes thinking about deep philosophical questions like religion or pondering how the Big Bang could have occurred. He likes designing original games, with original rules. He still likes mazes, asks if how he can get his own mazes published. He likes botany, taxonomy figuring out how plants evolved, the relationship between the species, the patterns and dissecting parts. And he likes knitting, figuring out how designs and patterns fit together…the more intricate the better.

Conventional schooling like local public schools that require a lot of seatwork and hours of listening to the teacher teach from a textbook, is hard on kids like my son. The boy who sits beside my son works on his Rubix cube stealthily to keep boredom at bay. His time on the Rubix cube is close to the world record.

Below is an article that elaborates on this particular propensity and need for difficulty or challenge that I observed in my son.

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.

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.

 

 

United States Focuses Less Than Other Countries on Making Connections

 

 

Compared to students in other countries, American students cover many more science topics in each grade.

Students in Japan, who perform at higher levels than U.S. students on international comparisons, encounter far more activities in science class that focus on making connections among ideas, experiences, patterns, and explanations. U.S. lessons tend to focus more on acquiring information such as facts, definitions, and algorithms.

 

Successful science curricula ensure that students identify and use scientific methods. Such programs carefully guide students to gather evidence and connect findings to their existing ideas. Simply providing hands-on science activities without careful guidance is not sufficient.

 

 

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 of lifelong science learning.

Why Lifelong Learning?

 

 
Science courses do not have time to cover every important topic, so they need to instill a desire to learn more.

Most students find uses for mathematics and reading every day but claim that nothing learned in science is relevant to their lives. One way to counteract this belief is to embed some science teaching in personally relevant situations — for example, exploring the role of thermodynamics in picnic cooler design.

Research shows that carefully designed experiences with real or simulated investigations can substantially improve understanding of complex ideas and lead to long-term understanding of science.

These experiences have the added advantage of attracting and supporting a diverse group of science learners to meet the need for an educated workforce.

Successful science curricula ensure that students identify and use scientific methods. Such programs carefully guide students to gather evidence and connect findings to their existing ideas.
Visualizations Help
Using powerful technology to embed scientific visualizations in investigations can illuminate processes such as molecular interactions, mitosis, or the forces in an automobile collision. Research shows that students gain insights when they use visualizations to link situations, rather than using only text or static drawings. Such tools can help learners connect salient information to their existing ideas.

Conclusion

 

 


Instruction that invites students to make sense of science by explaining complex ideas, uses the power of technology to provide a window on scientific processes, guides students to explore compelling problems, and focuses on key ideas can sustain interest in science and promote lifelong learning.

Loading students down with too many facts and insufficient connections to appreciate the power and potential of science has deterred students and frustrated teachers. This unfortunate situation results from textbooks that lack coherence, science projects that lack conclusions, and tests that emphasize recall of isolated ideas. We can do better. Science provides essential knowledge to improve on this situation right now.

First, research indicates that slowing learning by requiring students to explain their ideas and connect scientific events can improve outcomes.

Second, by carefully guiding scientific investigations, teachers can help students explore complex phenomena, develop confidence in their abilities to make sense of science, and extend scientific ideas beyond the classroom.

Third, by making sophisticated use of technology, science courses can provide visualizations of complex phenomena that help students connect school science to everyday situations.

What Should Policymakers Do?
First, support policies to create curricula and develop instructional practices that focus on key topics and on teaching them in an in-depth manner. The curricula also should include enough connections
showing how science affects students’ everyday lives to keep students interested along the way.

Second, create an environment that provides the necessary supports to engage students in understanding, explaining, and critiquing science using effective investigative practices rather than learning isolated
ideas.
Third, provide funds so that schools can use today’s powerful technologies to support visualization of scientific phenomena.

FACTS

  • 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.
  • Requiring students to complete difficult tasks, such as generating a response rather than reading or responding to multiplechoice questions, slows learning but improves outcomes.

Source: Science Education That Makes Sense

–By AK

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