News: News Archives
Less is More? Teachers Get a Surprising Insight on Teaching from a Project 2061 Workshop
Atlas of Science Literacy
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Teaching more "stuff" may not be the best way to boost learning—that’s one of the key lessons a group of veteran science teachers took away from AAAS's latest Project 2061 workshop.
It seems counter-intuitive. After all, the lack of science literacy among Americans of all ages has been well-documented. So shouldn’t students be covering lots more material in their classrooms? But teaching fewer, more important ideas and then helping students see how the ideas relate to each other is actually much smarter teaching, said Jim Tomlin, a biologist and a teacher-education specialist from Wright State University in Dayton.
Benchmarks for Science Literacy
"This is about making sure that less is more and narrowing the curriculum down, rather than making it a mile-wide and an inch deep," said Tomlin, one of 16 Midwest science educators attending the three-day workshop hosted by COSI, the Center of Science and Industry, from 16-18 July here in the capital city of Ohio.
Project 2061 is AAAS's influential long-range program to help boost American science literacy. The workshop is one of a series that has been conducted at science centers across the nation since 2002. The aim is to introduce Project 2061's tools and strategies for standards-based teaching, including its popular Atlas of Science Literacy. Teachers practice using Project 2061's resources to make better decisions about what to teach and when to teach it, what kinds of experiences and discussions can help kids make sense of science ideas, and how to assess what they’ve learned.
Teachers at the Ohio workshop quickly caught onto the implications of a less-is-more approach to making decisions about the curriculum. Consider the concept of weight vs. mass, something about which physics teachers can get pretty hung up.
"Sorting out the difference can take a great deal of class time that might be better spent on other ideas. When students leave high school there are so many other things they need to know," said one teacher, pointing out that, on Earth, where most of us spend most of our time, there is essentially no difference between the two. And despite some initial concerns, teachers could also see how an emphasis on building students' scientific vocabulary often takes the place of building their understanding of the core concepts.
The workshop helped teachers use the strand maps in the Atlas of Science Literacy to see how science ideas relate to each other and how learning one idea can contribute to learning others. The Atlas maps, which cover nearly 100 science topics from kindergarten through 12th grade, display the conceptual connections among the ideas and skills that students should learn. For a teacher, they clarify what students need to know about the big ideas of science such as natural selection, weather and climate, and gravity, said Karla Browning, who works with Michigan-based educational service provider MOSAICA Education.
Gravity, for example, can be introduced to kindergarteners without ever naming it simply by discussing the ideas of push and pull. By elementary school, the word is introduced, along with the idea that gravity is a force that pulls all objects towards the earth. In middle school, students come to understand that all objects have mass and exert gravity on other objects and, finally in high school, they learn that the magnitude of the force between two objects is proportional to their masses and diminishes with distance.
The maps in the Atlas are built from the K-12 learning goals presented in Project 2061's Benchmarks for Science Literacy. The benchmarks were derived from the recommendations for adult science literacy proposed in Project 2061's report Science for All Americans. Together, these documents have been used to develop science standards in nearly every U.S. state.
The Columbus workshop was one of several that will be conducted this year. Four more workshops remain: Winston-Salem, N.C., from 15-17 September; Birmingham, Ala., from 15–17 September; Washington, D.C., from 15-17 October; and San Francisco, Calif., from 5-7 November.
The lessons teachers learned in Columbus are ones that workshop leader Marlene Hilkowitz has experienced firsthand. One day, the former Philadelphia-area high-school biology teacher was explaining mitosis, the process of cell division, and had written several terms on the blackboard. "Stop," she suddenly told her students. "You don’t need to memorize all the steps of mitosis."
The kids were dumbstruck, but happy.
"I erased all of it," Hilkowitz recalled. "What they did need to know is that genetic material is replicated and the same half goes into each daughter cell. This was a turning point for me. I always thought I was doing an excellent job."
The workshops are geared to encourage teachers to try new ideas. There are still some teachers, especially in middle-school, who, uncomfortable or unfamiliar with science, teach from the same set of notes year after year. Increasingly, there are also second-career people entering classrooms. They may know the subject but need help to develop coherent lesson plans and to deal with some of the difficulties that many students have in learning science.
"It's human nature to be comfortable with what you know. Teachers must be able to step out of their comfort zone," Hilkowitz said. "They must be able to look at the evidence and re-evaluate their thinking."
5 August 2008