Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Schools That Support 21st Century Science and Math

President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative proposes putting 70,000 to 100,000 new teachers in secondary schools to teach additional advanced math and science courses. Having spent twenty years preparing math and science teachers, I am certainly pleased to see such a commitment. However, it is unlikely that the ACI can deliver those teachers and even if it did, they may not be addressing the right priority.

For over twenty years colleges and universities have been called on to produce more math and science teachers. Programs to fast-track certification for second-career scientists and engineers wishing to teach are one result. However the problem is not the capacity to produce teachers, but finding candidates to participate in those programs and then actually taking teaching jobs. Most college and alternative certification programs could double their output by filling empty seats in existing classes. One part of the problem right now is that even of those who complete certification, many take higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

Even if these candidates can be found, they should not be used to offer more upper-level math and science classes. Most high schools also have the capacity to teach more math and science students now but adolescents do not choose to take the classes. This is because by the time children reach middle school they are turned off by boring and meaningless math and science. Without eager and prepared learners, more high school classes will have limited effect. This problem is more difficult, but also more important, to solve.

One way to increase kids’ interest would be to put the most important subject—science—at the heart of the elementary school program. Starting in kindergarten and first grade, revisions to the elementary curriculum would have to be made to center the curriculum on science. Then, each year, as those children advanced to the next grade, the curriculum revisions would keep pace right up to eighth grade. In six to seven years, a new cadre of kids would be ready to fill the existing high school math and science classes. Then we could talk about adding more teachers and classes.

This is not simply a vision of changing the entire curriculum to solve the science and math crisis—it is a vision of aligning the elementary curriculum with what we have learned about how all children learn best. This new science-centered curriculum cannot be based on the science lessons of reading about esoteric facts famous scientists discovered in their labs. It must be the science of exploring the natural and human-created worlds using kids’ senses and their brains. The other subjects would build on this experience with the real world. Cognitive science tells us that based on the development of children’s brains learning based on physical experience is the most effective way to learn.

The central, beginning lesson every day would be to observe, classify, predict, infer or use other “science” processes to learn with concrete materials and activities. The next lesson might be a Language Arts activity talking with each other or writing about what they learned. In that science lesson the children would count and measure and keep records. The next class might be math where the children could process the numbers that resulted from their hands-on activities to understand their experiences. Motivated by the physical experience they had, children would be ready to read more about it. Almost every lesson presented in Science and Children, the elementary-level publication of the National Science Teachers Association, is supported by reading materials that link to the content. Science-inspired kids could write essays, do presentations, investigate web sites or write blogs to demonstrate their understanding. Every day starts with science, i.e. physical experience, which is used to generate, access, process and transfer children’s knowledge and skills and the rest of the curriculum builds on these activities.

The biggest problem with this scenario is that the teachers least ready to teach science are the ones who would have to make these changes. Where might we find support for this conversion without massively infusing new resources for schools? We could prepare the best master science teachers already in our schools to build the skills the elementary teachers need. Experienced high school, middle school or elementary teachers now in our schools could be consultants in their own districts working with the teachers who need assistance with the changes to the curriculum. These teacher consultants would need to be backed by training and release time to act like many special education consultant teachers work now. They would oversee instructional changes and help construct a new curriculum strong in math and science at the primary level. Such a program built upon the best cognitive science and learning theory would deliver the pupils needed for effective reform.