Adventures in Ethics and Science

The U.S. Department of Education has just announced the results of a study comparing what’s going on in 8th grade science classrooms in the U.S. , the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Japan, and Australia.

You will be shocked — shocked! — to learn that U.S. science students did not do as well as their counterparts in the other four countries in the study when it came to learning science content.

The Dept. of Ed. press release, and a wee bit of commentary, below the fold.

U.S. Science Lessons Focus More on Activities, Less on Content, Study Shows

April 4, 2006

Contact: Mike Bowler, (202) 219-1662
David Thomas, (202) 401-1579

Washington, D.C.
— A video study of 8th-grade science classrooms in the United States and four other countries found U.S. teachers focused on a variety of activities to engage students but not in a consistent way that developed coherent and challenging science content.

In comparison, classrooms in Australia, the Czech Republic, Japan, and the Netherlands exposed 8th graders to science lessons characterized by a core instructional approach that held students to high content standards and expectations for student learning.

The National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences today released these and other findings in a report titled Teaching Science in Five Countries: Results From the TIMSS 1999 Video Study that draws on analysis of 439 randomly selected videotaped classroom lessons in the participating countries.

The results of the newly released science study highlight variations across the countries in how science lessons are organized, how the science content is developed for the students, and how the students participate in actively doing science work.

For example, in Japan, the lessons emphasized identifying patterns in data and making connections among ideas and evidence. Australian lessons developed basic science content ideas through inquiry. Whereas in the Netherlands, independent student learning is given priority. Dutch students often kept track of a long-term set of assignments, checking their work in a class answer book as they proceeded independently.

In the Czech Republic, students were held accountable for mastering challenging and often theoretical science content in front of their peers through class discussions, work at the blackboard, and oral quizzes.

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.

The science report is the second released by TIMSS 1999 Video Study. The first report, focused on 8th grade mathematics teaching, was released in 2003.

To view the reports and for more information, visit

It’s not a bad thing that science students in the U.S. are getting hands-on activities, small group discussions, and the like. A lot of science is hands-on work and discussion with other people working on the same kinds of questions you are. But, even if the teachers understand how the activities the students are doing are connected to the activities that are a part of science, the kids don’t necessarily make that connection. Teachers need to set up the connections for them — and help them draw those connections. They need to come out and say, “The reason we’re doing this activity is to learn about this concept, or this methodology, that is very important in this area of science.” If they don’t, the kids may have fun, but they’ll suspect that the activities are mostly intended to burn through the allotted class time painlessly.

With luck, the videotapes of the approaches used in the four other countries in the study will give U.S. educators a wide selection of effective techniques to borrow, the better to connect the activities back to the ideas that science students ought to have in their heads as a lasting effect of having taken science class.


  1. #1 Mark Paris
    April 5, 2006

    I suspect that one of the problems is that there are virtually no scientists teaching science at that level. I attended a very good prep school, so good that I never had to study as much in my college undergraduate days as I did in high school. But not too long ago (but many years after high school) I saw where a chemistry teacher from my old school attended a session at a state university to learn about new experiments and so forth. What I took away from it was that the teacher was unfamiliar with chemistry — an education major rather than a chemistry major. As you know, most public schools require education degrees. Even my brother or I, both with phds, could not teach public school with our current degrees. My state has a program to encourage people with advanced degrees to teach in public schools, but even those require us to go back to school ourselves. And I would never do that. I doubt many would.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    April 5, 2006

    It sounds like the problem is exactly as you diagnose it — but I do have to admit to being a little nervous when the focus is on “content.” Part of that is that the term “content” is one of my pet peeves, left over from the dot-com boom when people thought that “content” was just another box to check on your website like “layout” and “server space”, a commodity that was all the same.

    However, more educationally relevant, it’s very tempting to teach science with a whole lot of content (i.e. facts) and very little understanding. 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.


  3. #3 Kele
    April 5, 2006

    I can’t remember at all what I learned in my 8th grade science class. Same with 7th. To me, it seemed like these two grades were a big waste of time…

  4. #4 megan
    April 5, 2006

    Well here in Michigan we just finally passed a bill YESTERDAY that even requires students to take science in high school – up until now the only requirement for a high school diploma has been civics…I’m not even kidding. That could explain why we’re behind as well. It doesn’t matter what you study kids, so long as you know your rights. sigh.,1607,7-192–139907–,00.html

  5. #5 wheatdogg
    April 5, 2006

    There is considerable resistance among teachers against letting non-teachers leapfrog over the ed course requirements. The resistance is stronger in districts where the teacher unions (AFT and NEA) are particularly powerful. There is additionally a perception (not supported by observational studies, BTW) that education courses make students better teachers. It should be so easy …

    I was in newspaper work before ditching reporting for teaching. I enrolled in a masters of arts in teaching physics program, which required me to take both physics courses and ed courses. The ed courses were basically “bunny” classes, which only the most brain-dead student could manage to fail. There was one exception, about the history of public education in the US. The content of the rest was pretty forgetable and pretty useless in practice.

    In the end, I got a job with a private school, which do typically not require state teacher certification (the whole reason for those ed courses) or a standardized teacher test, like the Praxis.

    Alternative certification routes exist, but the expectation is that non-ed majors will still have to take the ed courses eventually. It’s a way to validate the typically mind-numbing ed courses as “professional requirements” and certification as “professional licensure.”

    National board certification procedures are entirely a different animal, I should hasten to add. These actually require substantial coursework in one’s teaching field.

  6. #6 Unlearned Hand
    April 5, 2006

    I don’t recall much detail, but I remember a rather solid dose of science at my grade school. Junior high was a great step backwards. Activities and exercises without reasons. For example, there was no apparent reason for doing disections but to do disections. Three years of agony bored science out of me.

    So let me serve as a warning – if your kids don’t have good science education, they may end up in law school.

  7. #7 yagwara
    April 5, 2006

    Mark Paris has a good point. We produce more PhDs than there will ever be university positions for. Many of these people are passionate about math and science, and love teaching, yet they can’t find jobs that use their skills. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of K-12 teachers qualified in these subjects, and it seems that some of those who are qualified on paper are just barely competent.

    I could maybe see requiring the education degree for K-8, which is arguably as much about child psychology as it is about content. But do we seriously believe that math and science PhDs are incapable of teaching high school?

    And, really, could we be doing any worse than we are now?

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