Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Defense of Hands-On Science

Investigating Rates of Heating and Cooling
"The debate over how best to teach science has amplified as school districts and states place more emphasis on standardized testing." —David Klahr, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh

In a Palm Beach Post article, middle school science teachers in a Florida school have discarded hands-on science learning activities in favor of demonstrations, videos, PowerPoint lectures, and other direct instruction techniques. Their argument is that lengthy, hands-on science investigations do not translate into significantly positive gains on state standardized tests. As a scientist and educator, I am disturbed and unsettled by this decision to sacrifice a vital component of the process of science in the name of test scores.

Two years ago, our school district adopted a curriculum that promotes inquiry-based learning as an essential component of our students' science education. This inquiry focus is derived from the National Science Education Standards:
Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. [National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.]
In addition to an inquiry focus, our curriculum strives to teach for enduring understanding, whereby students make mindful meaning of their learning as well as transfer their learning to new situations or problems; simple knowledge acquisition is insufficient. To achieve this worthy goal, which ultimately benefits students and society, requires a commitment to creating an environment where the process of science is paramount, where our students are engaged in authentic, hands-on learning.

In my opinion, taking away hands-on learning opportunities denies students access to a rich, quality scientific education experience. It prioritizes extrinsically-driven, short-term knowledge acquisition and test score gains over intrinsically-motivated, deep understanding and lifelong learning. I choose depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge—a depth developed through student engagement in well-designed, meaningful, time-worthy (not time-wasting), hands-on laboratory investigations.

The debate on how best to teach science will continue, but I hope that a rational commitment to authentic, inquiry-based science education—which includes hands-on investigations—survives the pressures of high stakes testing.

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