Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Evidence Based Science Education

A recent trend in medical field is evidence based medicine. While it might seem obvious to most of us that medicine should be evidence based, often times it is based more on what doctors have always done or gut reaction then on the latest science, or even worse alternative medicine is often based on nothing more than a crazy idea. What does this have to do with science education? Well as obvious as it may seem that science education should also be evidence based, that also is not always the case. Science teachers, like doctors, often teach the way they have always taught or based on their impression of the best way to teach rather than following the sciences of pedagogy, psychology, and neurology.

Psychology tells us that everyone falls into the traps set by our own brains. These traps include confirmation bias, finding patterns where none exist, and extrapolating conclusions from insufficient evidence. In understanding these brain traps can we avoid them, by gathering evidence through the use of science. That is one of the powers of science, it can light the way out of the traps and show us what really is. Unfortunately it is very easy for teachers to fall in these traps. Thinking that their teaching methodology is effective because they want to be effective, ineffective teachers and teachers using ineffective techniques often don’t even know that they are being ineffective because of confirmation bias, or extrapolating wrong conclusions from insufficient evidence.

So what do these fields of science tell us about teaching in general and science teaching in particular?

•That people learn science by doing science, not just studying science. People’s brains must be actively engaged from true learning and understanding to take place (this is why Socratic seminars are so powerful).

•That concentration centers and short term memory centers of the brain are only good for about 10 minutes and 3 or 5 facts before they are overloaded and people begin to tune out.

•People learn what is most important to them first and best, the rest of the details don’t stick in our brains, and those details may become distorted in our brains.

•Our brains work by making connections between what we already know and we are learning. Students are not blank slates coming into a classroom. Even Preschoolers already have a notion of how the world works.

•It is hard to break the cognitive dissonance often created by science. Science is not intuitive, and as a species we are programmed to trust our previous experience and intuition more than what someone tells us.

•Our brains still work on problems even when we are not thinking about them (have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with the answer to some question from the previous day? Or remembered someone’s name hours after you were talking with them and could remember their name, and you were even thinking about them anymore?) This is the processing time our brains need to make connections and solve problems. This processing time takes days to occur for a new idea or concept.

All this helps point a way forward for a better education system. One where students are engaged, given processing time, and not bored by brain unfriendly activities, such as worksheets or overly long lectures with too many facts than someone can possibly remember. A classroom where the cognitive dissonance is recognized and talked about so that students can connect new learning to existing neural pathways. This is science based science education.

In medicine being science based isn’t just about the clinical practice, but also educating patents on their health and why you are doing what you are doing or suggesting treatment. In medicine the mind of the patent is a powerful ally or foe when it comes to treatment, think of the placebo effect.

Science Teaching is the same. Students don’t just need to know their science facts, but they need to know the data and stories behind those facts, again the fields of psychology and neurology light the way forward. In understanding that the human mind has evolved over countless generations to pay attention to what is most important (usually for survival) and to understand stories and as a powerful pattern finding organ we can use this to our advantage when teaching by playing to these strengths of the human mind, rather than its weaknesses.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Literacy Creep

An interesting discussion is happening at The Core Knowledge Blog about Literacy Creep. Check it out at http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2010/01/11/literacy-creep/

This is in no way an endorsement of Core Knowledge, but it is an interesting discussion.

After checking it out, I would love to hear what you think. Is Literacy Creep a problem? Does having to teach literacy get in your way of teaching science or does it enhance your science your classroom and your students ability to learn science?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Learning progressions

The standards movement in education has yet to fulfill its promise and potential of raising the achievement level for all students. Instead of being used as benchmarks to measure the progress of student s, the standards, and the assessments used to measure them, have too often been co-opted into a ranking system. Learning progressions, used well, can help change the conversation in classrooms to what strategies can we use so all students meet the standards.

Learning progressions defined a sequence of learning steps with in a specific topic. An example of a learning progression with infants is first sitting up, then pushing themselves up, then crawling, then walking, then running. Every big concept has a similar series of progressive steps that need to be mastered before going on to the next one. Within any subject area there are only a handful of big or important ideas that someone should know. The rest are just details about that idea. It can certainly be debated what those big ideas are, but once there is a consensus around those big ideas a progression can be made of the concepts and skills that a student needs to master in order to understand each big idea can be established. Students must build their concept of any of the big ideas over time starting with less sophisticated concepts and skills gradually getting more and more sophisticated with those ideas.

The power of learning progressions within a big idea is the tools it provides teachers for differentiation and intervention for all students. Often the topics being studied in science class have a set of prerequisite knowledge for students to be successful, without this background students struggle with the topics. Learning progressions provide powerful tools to teachers by prescribing pre-assessments for students. These pre-assessments should test range of learning progressions within a big idea, so that teachers know where individual students are on the continuum of learning within that big idea. Armed with data from the pre-assessment teachers can then tailor their lessons to meet the students where they are instead of expecting the students to all be ready to tackle that topic in the same way. These same pre-assessments also let students know where they are and where they are expected to go.

Similarly, defined learning progressions also point to intervention strategies when a student is struggling. Students struggling in science classrooms often don’t have the prerequisite knowledge for where the teacher is. By understanding the learning progression of big ideas teachers can more easily fill in the gaps in student knowledge using a deliberate plan action rather than randomly trying different things for that student.

Publications such as AAAS’s Atlas of Science Literacy provide the map needed to start using learning progressions in Standards, Curriculum planning, and Instruction.