I recently received an e-mail Ken Parejko, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stout. He described his experiences in taking the PRAXIS II Content Exam in science. He points out that the exam is overwhelmingly based on the facts of science, with no attention paid to science as a process. I think he raises some important points, and I have posted below the fold, with his permission, a letter he sent to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on this subject.

I have some experience with training future elementary and secondary mathematics teachers, and can report some of the same frustrations Parejko describes. In addition to the difficulties posed by having to teach to the test, which tends to emphasize content over process, it is very difficult to persuade students who have spent their whole lives thinking of mathematics and arithmetic as the same thing that there is more to the subject than that. The trouble is that these people then teach mathematics in the simplistic way they have always thought of it, which leads to the next generation of students coming to college with the same misconceptions. It is very hard to dispell that notion in a semester-long course. It’s a vicious cycle that I have not figured out how to break.

Now for Parejko’s letter:

I’m a biology professor at UW-Stout. The School of Education here has asked us to help them be sure our science curriculum is adequately preparing their students to teach, and to pass the licensing exams. As part of that effort this Saturday I took the Praxis II Middle School Content Knowledge exam, to see what concepts, level of understanding, etc., is expected of our students.

As I’m sure you know, scientific knowledge is rapidly expanding. Those of us who design and implement college-level science curricula, for non-majors especially, have a difficult time deciding what to include in our courses, and what to leave out. As we learn more and more about the world, through science, we end up leaving out more and more. Consequently, the emphasis in recent reforms in science education has been towards science as a PROCESS. That is, the scientific method, by which we come to understand the world: observation, inference, hypothesis, hypothesis testing, interpretation of data, critical thinking, etc. All recent efforts by the National Science Foundation, AAAS, and other scientific organizations emphasize process. It IS necessary to understand the concepts of science at a certain level. I think the Praxis did a pretty fair job at testing those concept issues, though in a somewhat random fashion having chosen, e.g., 10 questions on biology out of all possible content areas. But the Praxis did not adequately address the process of science. The TIMMS exams, offered internationally, in my opinion do a much better job of assessing the test-taker’s ability to deal with science as a process.

I really don’t think the science portion of the Praxis II exam adequately reflects what I consider a middle school teacher should know about science. To me, the exam was mostly a random selection of questions about science topics, which were not very thought-provoking but mostly at the memorization level of understanding. As such, they didn’t get at the real issue of what science is – that is, the PROCESS skills. If we have no idea whether the teacher understands science as a process, we have no idea that he or she can educate their students on science as a process. The ability to collect and appropriate data, to critically analyze alternative hypotheses are skills NOT addressed in the Praxis II, but the fundament of what science is. To me it is much more important that I can have faith that a middle school teacher understand how science works (not addressed in the Praxis) than that they can read a weather map to predict the direction of winds (one of the questions.) In fact I think the Praxis is inappropriate to be used as the standard for whether a teacher should be allowed to teach in Wisconsin’s middle schools or not.

I’m not sure what to do, since ETS’ Praxis exams are used nationally as standards for licensing. I visited their webpage but could find no clear way to contact them regarding their test, which I would like to do.

Comments

  1. #1 Dior
    June 1, 2006

    Thanks for putting this on; as a new science teacher I need more of this type of info.

  2. #2 CanuckRob
    June 1, 2006

    Thanks for bringing this up. I would agree that most people understand science as a bunch of facts (or they confuse it with technology) rather than as a process. Look at the way the IDiots try to claim that evolution is “just” a theory, as if facts were somehow more valuable or useful than the explanation of those facts. Teaching the process rather than a bunch of data points is also more likely to be of value and itnerst to non-science students taht are jsut taking a acience becosue they have to. The story of our understanding of evolution or of how the big bang theory developed over many years is a heck of a lot more intersting than memorizing a bunch of animal and plant names. We are the story telling ape (Pan narrans as Pratchett et al term it (sorry don’t know how to italicize in comments)) and we like stories better than collections of data.

  3. #3 Dan S.
    June 1, 2006

    Quite true – and the Middle School Social Studies Praxis is rather similar. I can’t actually remember any questions on either that addressed process issues. I suppose it’s possible that a mastery of science facts is highly correlated with process knowledge – but why not just test it directly? The only sensible reason I can imagine (knowing basically nothing about test design) is that any such question would in fact be testing two different areas – process andfact knowledge, in that it would deal with some area of science (or life experience) that would be of greater or lesser familarity to the testtaker – but presumably, even if this would be a problem, they could find some areas of overwhelmingly shared general knowledge?

    Suspect I’m overthinking this . . .

  4. #4 DFX
    June 1, 2006

    One of my favorite “science” books of all-time is “A Short History of Nearly Everything” which doesn’t just rattle off facts, but also goes into how some of the discoveries were made. It made for a really interesting read and I learned a lot of science tidbits as well. Something like that could easily be used to teach and illustrate the scientific method to students.

  5. #5 PiGuy
    June 1, 2006

    The first thing that I thought when I saw this was the ID thing, too. Apparently, the greatest hurdle in convincing them that ID is not science has been convincing that they really don’t really grasp the whole scientific enterprise.

    But, as Jason points out (sort of), the people who wind up teaching our kids science and math are neither scientists nor mathematicians. They don’t really have a stake in the process. Their greatest concern is getting the students to pass tests like the kind Ken took. It’s a vicious downward spiral, I fear.

  6. #6 bmkmd
    June 2, 2006

    The proxis problem is worse than the ID lack of understanding of real science.
    The ID/Creationists care nothing for science, society in makin gsure teachers know science care very much what students are to learn.
    The ID/Creationists have a non-science agenda, religion, literal bible religion, for which they only use science to prove, caring nothing for learning using scientific methods.
    But our children and society itself has a vested interest in developing children and then adults who can think using the tools and processes of science. There should be no extrainious agenda…unless making simple to score examinations is the agenda.

    Maybe process could be included as more rather than instead of facts.

  7. #7 Paul S
    June 2, 2006

    I couldn’t agree more. Science, math, even history are all taught is school as collections of discrete facts rather than as ways of viewing and discovering facts. This single problem leads to almost all of the other problems that these disciplines encounter/cause in mainstream society.

    For example, the view of science as knowledge instead of as a process for refining knowledge supports the fact/theory fallacies of creationism. And the view of mathematics as a static collection of theorems rather than as a way of thinking about abstract concepts makes it very difficult for students to learn the subject. They try to memorize a map rather than learn map-reading as a guide to the terrain through which they’re walking.

    I wonder, is this because teaching/thinking about process is actually harder? After all, most human mistakes result from taking the easiest path (or at least the path that appears easiest at the time) rather than the best one. If that is the problem, then how could we make it easier?

  8. #8 z.king
    June 3, 2006

    The ID/Creationists have a non-science agenda, religion, literal bible religion, for which they only use science to prove, caring nothing for learning using scientific methods.

    Yea, that sorry hard-core believer Isaac Newton. What a fool.

    And I can’t wait to get indoctrinated by the establishment this summer, so I can learn how to teach those middle school students obnoxious math tricks to pass the TEKS.

    Lately I’ve been thinking that I should try and teach them how to understand core principles. But, that establishment indoctrination is gonna set me straight. And that’s good, because I’m don’t wanna be no fool like that crazy believer Isaac Newton.

  9. #9 z.king
    June 3, 2006

    Oh yea. And I’m so very, very happy the education establishment has been dominated by evolutionists for the last 40, 50, or 60 years.

    Somehow, I get the feeling the current methodology is a result of that, and that makes me so very happy.

    You better believe it. You can depend on me to get some good establishment indoctrination this summer and not turn out like Newton, Gauss, Pascal, Galileo, and all those other believer fools.

  10. #10 Richard Simons
    June 7, 2006

    Jason,

    I am also teaching maths to prospective teachers, with the added difficulty that I’m going in to remote areas (some with no road access) and teaching for a month solid. Many students are anxious to memorize formulas but I stress that if they understand they will not need to do as much memory work. I also try to bring in some history as asides, for example the reluctance of Greeks to accept the idea of non-rational numbers and the surprisingly-recent use of graphs for showing data. I also give anecdotes about some of the people who developed concepts. I find it increases their interest and also makes them feel less stupid if they know it took hundreds of years of maths before people were comfortable with the idea that zero is a number. But you probably do this anyway.

    In the sciences, I feel a lot of emphasis is on remembering definitions rather than concepts and understanding processes. Years ago I read of a study comparing first year university courses that found students had to learn more words in biology than in the French course. It seems to me that is about the best way to kill any interest in a subject. I find it gets the students’ attention if, at the start, you tell them that in science courses they may be told things that are wrong, not because the instructor is ignorant but because people in general have the wrong idea.

    Not being in the US, I am not familiar with Praxis but if it is as described I hope you are successful in changing it.

  11. #11 Jon Silcox
    June 10, 2006

    CanukRob says “Look at the way the IDiots try to claim that evolution is “just” a theory, as if facts were somehow more valuable or useful than the explanation of those facts.

    PiGuy says “The first thing that I thought when I saw this was the ID thing, too. Apparently, the greatest hurle in convincing them that ID is not science has been convincing that they really don’t really grasp the whole scientific enterprise.

    BMKMD says “The proxis problem is worse than the ID lack of understanding of real science. The ID/Creationists care nothing for science, society in makin gsure teachers know science care very much what students are to learn. The ID/Creationists have a non-science agenda, religion, literal bible religion, for which they only use science to prove, caring nothing for learning using scientific methods.

    Paul S says “the view of science as knowledge instead of as a process for refining knowledge supports the fact/theory fallacies of creationism.”

    I had no problem with the article itself. It seemed fairly neutral and unbiased. But when I read the comments above I couldn’t help but wonder where this confusion of Creationism came from. The article said nothing of Creationism, ID, or evolution. It merely explained how important Parejko believes it is for science teachers to understand the scientific method as a process. I don’t see why any Creationist or ID supporter would have a problem with the article itself, but the comments indicate a lack of understanding, and are unscientific.
    And as z.king hinted in his post, there are many great Creationist scientists of the past who used the scientific method, and there are many more today. So where is all this trash talk coming from? In fact it was creationist Francis Bacon who is usually considered to be the man primarily responsible for forming and establishing the scientific method in science. His writings are also credited to leading to the founding of the Royal Society of London. Evolutionists don’t own the rights to science or the scientific method. The thought that Creationists don’t understand science or can’t practice real science is a fallacy that has no factual basis.

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