Friday, February 1, 2008

Fixing Science Education

It is generally agreed that U.S. schools are failing in teaching students about science. But there is less agreement -- though lots of opinions -- about how to fix the problem, which is leaving American students far behind their international peers on one achievement test after another.

The speaker at a recent seminar sponsored by the Duke Center for Science Education gave an insider’s look at strategies for fixing middle schools and high schools.

One thing that jumped out was the need to address misconceptions -- all kinds of misconceptions.

For example, many educators are pushing to have more students take Advanced Placement science courses in high school.

But the speaker, Philip Sadler (photo), director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, outlined a growing body of research showing that AP courses do not significantly boost college performance in the sciences. Rather, the best predictors of success seem to be high school classes that foster mathematical fluency, value depth over breadth and feature certain types of laboratory work.

In another case of misconceptions, it turns out that contrary to many critics, most teachers have a sufficient technical knowledge about their subjects. But teachers do often have misconceptions about what their students actually know -- or think they know -- about a particular subject.

As a result, teachers often “teach around” these misconceptions, and students are left still holding a variety of unfounded notions. Teachers lament that “I’m teaching, but they’re not learning,” while an important part of the problem is that teachers often don’t really know just what their students need to learn.

Sadler and others have developed a website that teachers can use for learning how to identify and address their students’ misconceptions.