The disconnect in science education

Every year, Project Tomorrow administers the annual SpeakUp survey of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Every year, we hear from U.S. students that they are fascinated by technology, love learning, and want more. Results from the over 300,000 participants in the 2008 survey should be available soon.

While we wait, let’s look at some interesting data from the science questions from 2007.

In the U.S., STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a hot topic these days. Pundits bemoan the lack of basic science literacy, blame American students for apathy, and predict we will be crushed by global competition. But who ever asks students what they are interested in or how best they learn?

In looking at the report, Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators: Students, Parents and Educators Speak Up about Science Education, you immediately see the glaring inconsistencies in how students learn, what fascinates and excites them, how teachers want to teach, and what’s actually happening in classrooms. What does it mean for the future when less than 40 percent of these students see learning science as important for making informed decisions in the future? How does that square with the same students reporting that they “…are open to learning science and pursuing STEM careers—intrigued by opportunities to participate in hands-on, group-oriented, “fun” experiences, as well as by opportunities to meet with professionals and use professional-level tools.”

It’s obvious that students are experiencing a disconnect. They are interested and intrigued by science — but not in school.

  • Students report that their especially fun or interesting learning experiences using science and math have been hands-on and group-oriented.
  • Students are interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields — when they know about them.
  • When asked about the essential features of their imagined ultimate science classroom, the leading answer for students in grades K-2 and in grades 9-12 was “teachers excited about science”. Students in grades 3-5 were more interested in “fun experiments” (69 percent). Other highly essential features for students in grades 3-12 were “real tools” (standard lab and technology-based tools) and being able to do “real research,” including online research on computers.

Imagine that — students want teachers who are inspired and inspiring, who bring the classroom to life with real world tools and examples. These teachers are out there, students want and need them, but apparently are getting them too rarely.

This disconnect is reflected in the teacher responses as well.

  • Just 25% of teachers say they’re using inquiry-based methods with their students; methods that both educators and researchers argue are essential for the development of scientific literacy.
  • Only 16 percent of teachers reported they are assigning projects that help students develop problem-solving skills.
  • Teachers report that 21st century tools and projects would help — but lack the time and funding to implement them, and feel constrained by mandated curriculum.

But the biggest disconnect is that most K-12 school administrators don’t see this problem. Here’s the percentage of each category that gave a passing grade to their school for preparing students for jobs of the future.

K-12 Administrators: 57%
Teachers: 47%
Parents: 47%
Students: 23%

This perception gap is a crucial indicator that we are not only failing our students in providing the relevant, inquiry-based, hands-on science education they hunger for, but that we are fooling ourselves about it. What’s worse?

Full report (PDF)

Sylvia

Research supporting service-learning

Yesterday I blogged about a crisis (or opportunity) for service-learning in schools.

This is based on a new report Community Service and Service-Learning in America’s Schools by the Corporation for National & Community Service.

In a nutshell, the report confirms a decade long decline in more formal, curriculum based service-learning. However, it also shows a recent slight upward trend in school support for youth doing community service work.

But here’s why the decline in service-learning is worrisome. From the report’s summary:

Research confirms that service-learning is a strong vehicle for enhancing and deepening the learning experience to improve both civic and academic behaviors. Service-learning can also diminish “risky behavior” and behavioral problems at school and help students develop social confidence and skills. While community service also has positive impacts on students, service-learning offers a much more substantial service experience through structured activities that give youth leadership roles and connect the activities to reflection and learning.

“Schools across America have rallied around community service and they are to be applauded,” said Dr. Robert Grimm, the Corporation’s Director of Research and Policy. “But research shows that service-learning offers more meaningful service opportunities for students and has numerous impacts on both students’ civic and academic success. Service helps learning come alive. It is time to put learning back into service.”

Other key findings of the study include:

  • The majority of school districts do not provide service-learning policies, according to school principals. Only 19 percent of school principals report that their districts have a policy that promotes service-learning, and 28 percent of principals do not know whether their district has such a policy.
  • Elementary schools are the least likely to offer service-learning activities. 20 percent of elementary schools have service-learning programs, compared to a quarter of middle schools and over a third (35%) of high schools. Furthermore, over half (51%) of elementary school principals believe their students are too young to engage in service-learning.
  • The class gap in service learning is decreasing but still exists. Schools in low-income areas are significantly less likely to have service-learning activities than other schools. In 1999, schools in low-income areas were 36 percent less likely to have service-learning activities; in 2008 they were only 26 percent less likely to offer service-learning. Still, only 20 percent of schools in low-income areas currently offer service-learning activities compared to 27 percent of schools that are not in low-income areas.

More research from Learn & Serve America on the Impact of Service-Learning:
Research studies of service-learning, an educational method that intentionally connects community service to classroom learning, demonstrate that service-learning programs can have positive impacts on youth in three general areas: academic engagement and achievement; civic attitudes and behaviors; and social and personal skills. The studies also demonstrate that students gain the maximum benefit when their service-learning experience includes a direct tie to the curriculum, planning and design of service projects by students, structured reflection on the service experience in the classroom, and continuity of service for at least one semester. This issue brief offers some of the most compelling evidence to date on how service-learning positively affects youth. Issue Brief on “The Impact of Service-Learning: A Review of Current Research” (PDF)

Sylvia

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Fostering Meaningful Teaching and Learning with Technology

I’d like to share a book with you about technology professional development. Meaningful Learning Using Technology: What Educators Need to Know And Do by Elizabeth Alexander Ashburn (Editor), Robert E. Floden (Editor) (Amazon link)

In this book, national experts use concrete examples to describe specific knowledge, beliefs, and strategies that will enable teachers and district leaders to support meaningful learning using technology. Chapters examine the intersection between course content, types of technology, and the supports and professional development required to effectively implement technology in the K–12 classroom. (From the publisher)

“This book provides both practical and scholarly insights about how teachers’ technology use can help students to master deep content and sophisticated skills. Practitioners, policymakers, and researchers all will benefit from the ideas in this volume.” – Chris Dede, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“These chapters offer innovative insights for restoring meaning to learning. They show that the answer to ‘How can new technologies support inquiry?’ lies not in the hardware or software, but in the beliefs and values of students, teachers, and administrators. These findings are essential for anyone interested in the potential of new learning technologies.” – Bertram C. Bruce, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Many educators are looking for research that shows “what works” in technology professional development. This book is an excellent starting point for discussions about new strategies and best practices. In one chapter, GenYES was one of four models selected for correlation to key dimensions to successful K-12 technology professional development. GenYES and the other models were selected as “… large-scale efforts that were shown to be effective in affecting teachers’ use of technology.”

Fostering Meaningful Teaching and Learning with Technology: Characteristics of Effective Professional Development
Written by Yong Zhao, Kenneth Frank, and Nicole Ellefson of Michigan State University Michigan State University (MSU), these researchers studied four “large-scale efforts that were shown to be effective in affecting teachers’ use of technology”:

1. The Project-Based Learning Multimedia Model (PBL+MM)
2. The Galileo Education Network Association (GENA)
3. Project Information Technology (PIT)
4. The Generation Y Model (previous name of the GenYES model)

Based on data collected from hundreds of teachers, the study determined that several key factors positively influenced teacher’ use of computers.

Study Findings – Key Factors of Successful Technology Professional Development

  1. Time to experiment and play. “Use of computers was positively correlated (.3) with the extent to which a teacher was able to experiment with district-supported software.”
  2. Focus on student learning. “Teachers’ use of computers was positively correlated (.4) with the extent to which the content of professional development was focused on student learning.”
  3. Building social connections and learning communities. “Computer use was positively correlated (.2) with the extent to which teachers accessed other teachers’ expertise.”
  4. Localizing professional development. “Computer use was positively correlated (.2 for each) with the extent to which professional development was provided locally, either in the classroom or school lab.”

The study outlines why and how these models support each of these factors. Unfortunately, I can’t reproduce the entire chapter here, but there is a bit of it online at Amazon.com (the chapter starts at page 161). Buy the book!

In the next few blog posts, I’ll explore these factors in more detail, and the specific results for the GenYES model.

Sylvia

Game-making with students – resources & rationale from Australia

Australia has long been a stronghold of digital game-making and programming as an academic subject. Why Australia? My friend Tony Forster says this, “I’m wary of stereotypes but we do have a national stereotype of making do with improvised junkyard creations, that fits with taking game freeware and repurposing it. We seem to lean more to constructivism than the US. The US leans particularly towards instruction in the current pendulum swing.”

From my own travels, I hear quite a bit of interest in U.S. schools about game design and robotics. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back! So, we can look to Australia for a peek into the community and resources that sustain this terrific educational activity. Warning! This is a long post!

“The computer is a medium of human expression and if it has not yet had its Shakespeares, its Michelangelos or its Einsteins, it will. …. We have scarcely begun to grasp its human and social implications.”
Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking By Seymour Papert

A Peek into the Australian GameMaker Community

GameMaker is one of a number of educationally-appropriate engines available for game development. Three Australians: Bill Kerr, Margaret Meijers and Tony Forster independently discovered Gamemaker and its potential as a learning tool for school students. Through their efforts, a number of Australian Schools have discovered Gamemaker and built a strong community that supports their own efforts and welcomes new participants.

Bill Kerr teaches secondary school students at Woodville High School, Margaret Meijers teaches at Newtown High School and has developed material for the Tasmanian Education Department, and Tony Forster, a parent, runs the Haileybury Computer Club.

Here are their websites:

  • Schoolgamemaker – Programming Games at School Tony Forster’s website has sample student work, useful snippets of code, and a collection of quotes and articles supporting game design in school.
  • Bill Kerr’s Website Articles and free GameMaker educational resources
  • ICT Mindtools Extensive website by Margaret Meijers with links, tutorials, resources for teachers and video demos. “The title ‘ICT Mindtools’ is designed to bring a focus on uses of ICT where students are required to use higher order thinking skills to become producers, rather than just consumers, of ICT products.”

There are teachers all around the world using game design and programming as an educational activity, but I think the Australian community is particularly strong, and a great example of just a few like-minded people finding each other across space and time to build community and share resources.

Pedagogical base supporting game design as an educational activity (most of this supplied by Tony)

Game design and programming is firmly based in constructivist learning theory – that children learn best when they are active agents in their learning and are given authentic and relevant tasks.

Game programming was advanced by Seymour Papert of MIT and is the originator of Logo which later was commercialized as Microworlds. MIT was also involved in the programming of Lego Mindstorms. The justification for teaching Logo to young children was that programming a computer is a powerful experience where a child can “…learn to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a complexity that was not previously accessible to children.” (Papert)

Seymour Papert Collected Works. Seymour Papert is the father of educational computing, and often talks about children making games as part of his vision that students use computers as constructive materials in every aspect of education. A good article to start with is Looking at Technology Through School-colored Spectacles.

There is research which supports the value of game programming as an educationally valuable activity for children of all ages.

Books

  • The Game Maker’s Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners
    by Jacob Habgood & Mark Overmars (Amazon link)
  • Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1995) (Amazon link) (Questia link)

Last but not least – learn with your students and join with others

Don’t suppose that you need to learn a game engine perfectly before you introduce it to students. The experience of learning together is valuable. There are people worldwide who will help.

“there is such a thing as becoming a good learner and therefore … teachers should do a lot of learning in the presence of the children and in collaboration with them.”
Seymour Papert

Educational software that doesn’t work

OK, so here’s the list of software evaluated in the USDOE study of educational software. No surprises here, it’s pretty much what I predicted after the initial headlines – big publishers, big test prep.

The good news is that these products are great examples of outmoded uses of computers in schools. They are what people are running from in the search for the latest Web 2.0 tools. learning games, and open-ended creativity tools.

Here’s the list:

First grade reading software (11 districts and 43 schools. 158 teachers and 2,619 students.)

  • Destination Reading (published by Riverdeep)
  • Waterford Early Reading Program (published by Pearson Digital Learning)
  • Headsprout (published by Headsprout)
  • Plato Focus (published by Plato)
  • Academy of Reading (published by Autoskill)

Fourth grade four reading products (nine districts and 43 schools. 118 teachers and 2,265 students.)

  • Leapfrog (published by Leaptrack)
  • Read 180 (published by Scholastic)
  • Academy of Reading (published by Autoskill)
  • KnowledgeBox (published by Pearson Digital Learning)

Sixth grade math products (10 districts and 28 schools. 81 teachers and 3,136 students.)

  • Larson Pre-Algebra (published by Houghton-Mifflin)
  • Achieve Now (published by Plato),
  • iLearn Math (published by iLearn)

Algebra products (10 districts and 23 schools. 69 classrooms and 1,404 students.)

  • Cognitive Tutor Algebra (published by Carnegie Learning)
  • Plato Algebra (published by Plato)
  • Larson Algebra (published by Houghton-Mifflin)

It’s a good thing – knowing what was evaluated means we can move on to better uses of computers in education. There has been some discussion around the web that the methodology used for this study is faulty, and that may be true. Wes Freyer also posted some links to research done about educational technology that is much more credible.

But I’m happy if this study helps people conclude that money used for technology test prep is being wasted, and opens up opportunities for authentic, student-centered technology use.

Keep hope alive!