You might think, from the title of this post, that I have a completely worked out answer to the question of how to improve science education in the U.S.
But, I have some observations that bear on the question, and I think looking at them might help us move in the right direction.
This is a follow-up to my earlier post about a study looking at how U.S. science instruction (in 8th grade) differs from science instruction in Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. You’ll remember that the U.S. Department of Education press release noted:
In the United States, lessons kept students busy on a variety of activities such as hands-on work, small group discussions, and other “motivational” activities such as games, role-playing, physical movement, and puzzles. The various activities, however, were not typically connected to the development of science content ideas. More than a quarter of the U.S. lessons were focused almost completely on carrying out the activity as opposed to learning a specific idea.
My quick response to the findings was that the activities were likely a good feature of the science classroom, but that more probably needs to be done to help students make connections between activities and course content (including not only the details of scientific theories or empirical data, but also methodologies characteristic of science). Indeed, it sounds like two of the other countries in the study made a point of using classroom activities as a way to to get kids to engage with content:
[I]n Japan, the lessons emphasized identifying patterns in data and making connections among ideas and evidence. Australian lessons developed basic science content ideas through inquiry.
And, as Rob Knop notes, cramming science instruction with “content” at the expense of a chance to really mess around and explore connections might turn science class back into the boring rote parade of facts suitable only for regurgitation on exams. He writes:
I’d rather have the students in my astronomy class really understand a smaller number of concepts than know a large number of terms, facts, and ideas. I’d rather they come away with some idea of how science really works, than with the idea that it’s simply a body of revealed knowledge, however much of that “revealed knowledge” they may be able to repeat when asked factual questions.
Cutting back on the content a bit to make sure the understanding is strong seems like a good idea to me. In fact, it seems like the kind of thing that might help students retain more of what they’ve learned after the class is over. And getting the students involved in using the content — to interpret data, to design an experiment, etc. — makes the connection between what scientists know and what scientists do less mysterious.
Building the connections between “content” and activities is part of the value a good teacher adds to a science education. But, as some of my commenters noted, part of the problem may be that we don’t have a huge supply of good science teachers.
To deliver the kind of science education that might really leave kids with a good working understanding of what science is up to, ideally we’d want teachers who understand science themselves, and who can teach kids effectively (preferably in a way that makes science interesting rather than boring). Also, as a practical matter, these teachers would have to be folks that local school districts could hire and retain.
And this is where things get dicey. There are a good number of people with science degrees, and a good number of people with education degrees, but the people certified to teach science aren’t necessarily all that comfortable with science themselves, and the people with science degrees would often rather eat broken Pyrex glassware than sit through your typical education course.
Perhaps there’s a fundamental difference in temperament between the folks drawn to ed. school and the folks drawn to science. People who are attracted to the idea of building new knowledge in the lab or in the field might not be thrilled by coursework in instructional methods or cognitive and sociocultural theories of adolescent psychology. On the other hand, people who are interested in digging deeper into pedagogies and the question of how to get them to reach hormone-addled teenagers may feel daunted by science questions that go beyond what’s covered by the instructor’s manual.
The current state of affairs in most U.S. (public) school districts is that you need the education coursework to be certified as a teacher. To be certified as a science teacher, you need science coursework, but typically not a full science degree. (Also, the required science coursework doesn’t typically include independent scientific research of the sort that many science majors do in the course of their undergraduate education.) Besides, since you have to fit in all those ed courses, there just isn’t a lot of time to take extra science courses.
It’s not uncommon for teachers who are a little bit scared of the subject they’re teaching (because they know that their own mastery of that subject is not very solid or not very deep) to leave their students a little bit scared of that subject. Maybe emphasizing the classroom activities (which could resemble pedagogocal approaches used in other subjects) is a way to spend a bit less time with formal content that gives you the willies.
This is not to say that a science education is sufficient to make a person into a good science teacher. Certainly, some of the science professors out there in colleges and universities who have made their subjects more incomprehensible should alert us to the fact that pedagogy takes some work. Beyond knowing the science, a science teacher needs a good idea how to explain the science to people who don’t yet know it (actually, more like several ideas how to explain it, since no one explanation works for everyone). He or she needs to reflect on how students can get a feel for new experimental techniques and new patterns of reasoning. And, he or she needs to be able to convey not only what makes science valuable and powerful, but what makes science fun.
I’ve seen enough excellent science teachers without formal teaching credentials that I think a teaching credential isn’t a necessary component of a good science teacher. I’ve seen enough shaky but credentialed science teachers that I think a teaching credential isn’t a sufficient component of a good science teacher. And, I know there are a great many trained scientists who are gifted teachers and would love to teach science in public schools but who cannot bring themselves to go through ed school to get the credential.
Maybe it’s time to re-examine what we require of people looking to be science teachers.
Maybe we need to find an alternative route to credential those with serious scientific training who want to be science teachers. Keep the student teaching under supervision, but replace the standard complement of ed courses with pedagogical training that focuses on the particular teaching issues science teachers will face in their teaching assignments (e.g., engaging students with weak math skills, or setting up meaningful lab experiments of lecture demonstrations on a limited budget). Give the prospective teachers opportunities to be reflective about their pedagogy and to share strategies with other science teachers. But cut out the “bunny courses” and stick to the stuff that helps scientists to be effective teachers of science.
Given how much we need exciting, dynamic science teachers, we ought to figure out how to make getting certification a lot less like hazing. Otherwise, we’re chasing good talent away.
Indeed, to the extent that ed school may be teaching new teachers how to implement pedagogical strategies that aren’t actually working for our science students, rethinking what we teach the teachers may be an idea whose time has come.