"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Problems and Solutions in Science Education

The 19 April 2013 issue of the journal Science devotes a considerable section to the state of science education both in the United States and the rest of the world. It starts with an introduction by Hines et al., "Plenty of Challenges for All". The challenges are enumerated as follows:
  • Use technology to improve pedagogy, management, and accountability. 
  • Improve access to, and the quality of pre- and postprimary education. 
  • Develop appropriate policies for regulating and supporting the private sector in education. 
  • Develop an understanding of how individual differences in brain development interact with formal education. 
  • Adapt learning pathways to individual needs. 
  • Create online environments that use stored data from individual students to guide them to virtual experiments that are appropriate for their stage of understanding. 
  • Determine the ideal balance between virtual and physical investigations for courses in different subject areas.
  • Identify the skills and strategies that teachers need to implement a science curriculum featuring virtual and physical laboratories.
  • Identify the underlying mechanisms that make some teacher professional development (PD) programs more effective than others. 
  • Identify the kind of PD that will best prepare teachers to meet the challenges of the Next Generation Science Standards. 
  • Harness new technologies and social media to make high-quality science PD available to all teachers. 
  • Help students explore the personal relevance of science and integrate scientific knowledge into complex practical solutions. 
  • Develop students’ understanding of the social and institutional basis of scientifi c credibility. 
  • Enable students to build on their own enduring, science-related interests. 
  • Shift incentives to encourage education research on the real problems of practice as they exist in school settings. 
  • Create a set of school districts where long-standing, multidisciplinary teams work together to identify effective improvements. 
  • Create a culture within school systems that allows for meaningful experimentation. 
  • Design valid and reliable assessments reflecting the integration of practices, cross-cutting concepts, and core ideas in science. 
  • Use assessment results to establish an empirical evidence base regarding progressions in science proficiency across K–12. 
  • Build and test tools and information systems that help teachers effectively use assessments to promote learning in the classroom

Seeing this list makes it quite obvious that the introductory article is not exaggerating when it says "Plenty". The rest of the articles in this special section equally demonstrate the wide scope of these discussions. The following is the list:


There is even an article that tackles problems basic education faces in developing countries. This particular article by Kremer and coworkers has the following abstract:

The above paper attempts to inform on a lot of issues. Review articles such as this one usually give such impression. Reviews in scientific literature summarize what is currently known with added perspectives from the authors and these do sometimes contain bits and pieces of original and unpublished work. Having a feel of where research on education currently stands should not make seeing what this review article really has to say at the end suspenseful or surprising. Deworming of primary school children, reducing the amount of travel between home and school have long been demonstrated in various countries as cost-effective in reducing the rates of school dropouts. Still, missing in all of these studies is a set of magic potions that actually improve learning inside the school. And at this point, everything remains at a "promising" stage or "results yet to be seen". Otherwise, the introductory article, "Plenty of Challenges for All" will not make sense. These are problems yet to be solved.

With regard to science education, the familiar themes of "active learning" or "inquiry-based approaches" seem to be staple. It is heartening that scientists are really entering into a discussion and examination of these issues. For the journal Science to assign a special section on these topics provides the much needed advocacy and visibility. Hopefully, through this medium, awareness and participation in these studies among scientists will be increased. It is indeed useful  and inspiring to browse through these articles and see what some of the experts have to say.

The fact that the challenges are numerous and that current reforms are not really working that well points to something. After thirty years of reform, success remains elusive. This may be suggesting that we may just be missing, neglecting or overlooking something. Or we are willfully ignoring something. Poverty is, of course, the large gorilla in the room. But beyond poverty, there are issues that may actually be of great importance especially to science education. After all, these issues become visible only to those who are actually trying to teach science so this will not be obvious to scientists in general. One issue is transferability. When a student learns one concept, that concept stays isolated from all the rest and the student is not able to apply it to a new situation. Students do not easily improve upon what they currently know. Refining ideas likewise seems very difficult. An example on dissolution and precipitation has been recently shared in this blog, which shows students are not able to apply what they have learned to something new. This is clearly not just a learning problem but also a pedagogical issue. A second issue is stubbornness. When a consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change has been achieved among scientists, when the theory of evolution has helped explain what we observe in nature for so many decades, and yet, large fractions of the population are still dismissive, it is pretty obvious that a major objective of learning is "unlearning" incorrect notions. Unfortunately, these issues are probably not touched upon closely by existing assessment tools. Standardized exams in math and sciences have not really addressed how some students have developed a sense of "knowing all and be so certain about them". When teachers fail to provide students the very important information that their knowledge and skills may be limited, tests and evaluations do not normally help point to these inadequacies. Thus, even with the long list of challenges shown above, there are remaining ones not on the current list that also require attention.




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