Focus: What matters in science education

In June of 2011, my school district invited Dr. Schmoker to speak to all campus administrators and gave a copy of his book, Focus, to all participants in the workshop.  Given the format of the book, I turned directly to his chapter on science and read his vision for a science classroom.  His vision is supported both by research and by interviews with science students and scientists.  However, I was very concerned with what would happen if that vision became the norm for American science education.

I found out that Dr. Schmoker is again visiting educators in my city, and will be extending his work based on the book Focus.  When I saw this news I was reminded of my reaction to his chapter about science, and decided this time to write a rebuttal to some of the points in his chapter.

As I read the chapter, these are the main arguments that stand out to me:

  1. Students are not learning enough science the way classes are traditionally taught.
  2. Science classes are traditionally based on hands on activities to generate student interest and observe phenomena and lecture to clarify concepts.  In addition science classes tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep, a popular expression for trying to cover too much material and only giving everything superficial coverage.
  3. If students instead spent the majority of their time reading, discussing, and writing about important scientific concepts they will know more science, be able to interact with the content, enjoy class more, and be better prepared for future science courses.

Within the first few pages of the chapter it is clear that Dr. Schmoker and I have very different beliefs about what it means to “learn science.”  For Dr. Schmoker learning science seems to mean filling your brain with facts and understating the models and processes that are created to explain natural phenomena.  To me learning science means learning how to create models and how to observe the facts that are written about in textbooks.

Before I explain why this difference in what it means to learn science is so important, let me explain the ways in which I agree with the science chapter in Focus.

First, science textbooks are generally underused in science classes.  For the reasons cited in the chapter, teachers need to take more time to teach students how to learn from textbooks and increase their capacity to understand news and magazine articles written about science.

Next, my experience affirms that daily writing by students is essential to allow students to make connections and understand content as well as to give teachers a concrete way to assess mastery and give students useful feedback.  It would serve students well to have 6 to 10 good short answer (three to 5 sentences) questions on a test rather than 50 multiple choice items.

Finally, I agree with the book’s primary complaints about labs.  Many, most, or all (depending on the skill of the teacher) science labs do not allow students to raise questions about how things work, they do not allow students to apply a newly learned concept to an authentic problem solving situation, and they do not allow students to make inductive connections between results measured in a lab and the natural processes in the world.

From this common ground let me raise my concern.  The most important improvement that needs to be made in science classrooms is to increase the quality of labs, the quality of student writing about labs, and the quality of teacher feedback on student lab work.  I am afraid that instructional leaders who read this chapter on science will throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak, and in an effort to end the practice of bad labs that are not conducive to science education, they will not help teachers develop the good labs that are essential to quality science education.  Improving labs is paramount to actually making a difference in students’ attitude towards science, their ability to make sense of science content, and our nation’s capacity to produce scientists.

There are two negative trends that this Schmoker’s vision for science is intended to end. The first is that the number of young people going into STEM careers is not meeting the demand necessary for the United States to remain at the forefront of technological innovation and global problem solving.  The second trend is that other nations are scoring significantly higher than ours in international measures of science content learning.

From the chapter it would seem Schmoker thinks the reason for the first trend is that students do not have the necessary content understanding to enter those fields.  My experience with students indicates that they are choosing to not enter those fields because their science classes are either too difficult or too boring, or (sadly) for various reasons teachers mentor them away from advanced science coursework in high school.  While increasing the focus on literacy will help reduce the problems of students finding science content inaccessible, if the teacher does not regularly (40 to 50 percent of the time) include lab activities then students will not realize why being a scientist is fun and rewarding.  Although scientists may enjoy reading books and articles about their area of expertise, that is not why they entered into the field.   The fun and reward of being a scientist is in discovering that from our chaotic and complex real world, we can create and manipulate simple models.

The science chapter in Focus makes a contrasting point.  The article includes quotes from an astronomer, and biologist, and reflections from two individuals about what was lacking in their high school science preparation.  All of these quotes point to the idea that what these individuals wanted from school was a chance to read and discuss interesting science content, not “measuring, pouring, and filling in of blanks.”

A number of people who enter in teaching, do so after excelling in school and being excellent students.  They then tend to feel most comfortable teaching in the ways that they were taught and then face a moment when they realize that those “traditional” methods are not effective for a significant number of their students.  In a similar way, I think that the scientists and students in this chapter who claim to be more excited by reading about science in action rather than experimenting in the classroom represent a specific learning style, and it would be ill advised to assume that what excites them would work for low-income minority students.

The best and brightest science students at my school have grown up doing the hands-on activities with their parents or on their own and never needed a classroom to show them that science is fun and exciting.  They already get what makes science exciting, because they grew up in a culture that reinforced scientific thought.  It is very likely that students who are white, suburban, or wealthy will grow up exposed to science and do not need a science teacher to give them opportunities to do experiments and make models.  In my case, I had two uncles who were geologists and my mom’s best friend was a chemist.  I grew up with my parents teaching me to explore nature and ask questions.  I went to college after high school planning on being a research scientist.  And it did not matter whether my high school science classes were any good.

If science classes in high school focused more on having students perform authentic experiments rather than on learning the content, our students will find the subject more appealing. For students who do not grow up being taught to think scientifically by their family, this is clearly true.  I promise you that a low income inner-city school that reduced labs to 10 to 20 percent of the instructional time so that extra time could be spent on learning content through literacy would have test scores that skyrocket and student interest in the subject plummet.

To be frank, the science classroom described in Focus sounds boring.  When a student walks into a science classroom and sees the following agenda:

  1. Journal Prompt
  2. Close reading
  3. Socratic discussion
  4. Reflection

They are not going to be excited about class that day, and if what they remember most about their high school science classes is reading and discussion, they are not going to want a career as a scientist.  Pretty much every student I have taught is disappointed when they come to class if there isn’t a lab that day.

Being good at reading and writing about science is of zero use to students if they do not understand that science is a process of determining truth through experimental means and that this is what makes science fun and rewarding.  If a school is truly committed to educational equity, then they need a science program that will teach low income and minority students what it looks like and feels like to investigate scientific concepts through measurement and experimentation with classroom models.  If schools don’t include regular high quality inquiry than professional scientists and engineers will continue to predominantly be nerdy white kids who grew up getting science kits from their relatives for Christmas and taking apart their parents old computers during summer vacation.

Perhaps giving lab work half of the instructional time puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to international test scores.  However, this is where American universities have an opportunity and a responsibility.  If me and my fellow high school teachers produce students who are interested in being scientists and know how to learn science through text, writing, discussion, and experimentation then the colleges can use a core sequence that delivers all of the concepts, facts, and technical skills that are necessary for science employment.  Because honestly, it’s never been the expectation that high schools would produce workforce ready scientists.

I’m sure that there are college professors who observe students from other countries who come to our colleges as freshmen having memorized trends of the periodic table, the names of all stages of cellular respiration and reproduction, and the difference between diffraction and interference.  They are disappointed that American kids don’t seem as “well prepared” and want secondary teachers to do a better job of delivering their content so it sticks.  They are probably aware of international tests which show how little American students have memorized compared to their peers.  However, just as secondary school teachers get students from a variety of backgrounds and differentiate to meet their needs, there is no reason that college instructors shouldn’t be expected to do the same thing.  To be disappointed that American students don’t recall some science facts on international tests or in their freshmen classes is like being disappointed that a student compared Maya Angelou to Bob Dylan in high school instead of memorizing Robert Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged.”

In conclusion, we all know a great writer is not just someone who constructs pleasing sentences.  A great historian is not just someone who knows all the details about past events, and a great mathematician is not just someone who is great at solving equations.  Likewise, a great scientist is not just someone who reads and understands scientific texts and journals.  Our goal should be to produce students who are capable of being great scientists. Different schools and teachers are realizing this at different rates- indeed the educational inequity in our society seems to be that classrooms in schools for wealthy students tends to focus on the skills and ideas that produce great thinkers and problem solvers, while classrooms in poorer schools are more likely to get bogged down in learning “just the facts.”

My hope is that when well-intentioned researches and writers discuss reducing the amount lab experiences and increasing the amount of reading, science teachers and educational leaders will be able to advocate for a balanced approach: For 50 to 60 percent of class students are reading, writing, and discussing.  For 40 to 50 percent of the time students are questioning, building, troubleshooting, measuring, analyzing, and problem solving.

The book, Focus, provoked me to consider my practice and how to make it stronger and for that I am thankful.  I hope that others who read it will also be as thoughtful in considering all of the implications.  Clearly, I’ve made many generalizations and assertions based on my 14 years in the classroom rather than research.  If there’s any research that supports or refutes my claims I’d be grateful for the feedback.  Likewise let me know what you think is most important in a science classroom.