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'Hands-On' Science Instruction Declining

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The amount of science-classroom time devoted to "hands on" instruction has declined over the past decade, despite a growing consensus in the field that such instruction is more effective than traditional lectures, a federally funded survey has found.

In the 1985-86 school year, responses from teachers in the survey indicated, 83 percent of junior-high-school science classes had featured lectures in the most recent class period, while 43 percent had used4hands-on activities.

But in a 1977 survey, the report says, 72 percent of such classes had featured lectures and 59 percent had included laboratory projects.

Despite that trend, the study found, 77 percent of junior-high-school science teachers in 1985-86 said they considered laboratory classes more effective than lectures.

The findings indicate that teacher training should better prepare prospective science educators in the methods practitioners deem more effective, said the survey's author, Iris R. Weiss.

"There are a lot of intervention efforts aimed at convincing teachers to use hands-on materials," said Ms. Weiss, who conducted the survey for the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.

"Teachers already know that they should be using hands-on materials," she said. "They are not."

Ms. Weiss, now president of Horizon Research Inc., said many teachers continue to rely on lectures because classrooms are ill-equipped for laboratory work.

At the elementary-school level, the survey found, 38 percent of classrooms have no science facilities or materials, and only 6 percent of science classes are conducted in laboratories or special rooms.

In addition, Ms. Weiss said, teachers, particularly those at the elementary level, lack a background in alternative methods.

"These teachers take courses at the college level that are not hands-on oriented," she said. "The similarity between how science is taught at the college level and what we are seeing at the precollege level is striking."

Textbook Quality

The study, financed by the National Science Foundation, was based on questionnaires completed by 6,156 science and mathematics teachers, including 1,974 at the K-6 level, 1,882 in grades 7-9, and 2,300 in grades 10-12.

Many of the responses were compared with those from a similar survey Ms. Weiss conducted for the Research Triangle Institute in 1977.

Ms. Weiss presented preliminary data from the new survey a year ago at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association.

At the time, she noted that fewer than a third of science teachers had taken enough science courses in college to qualify for the nsta's certification program.

The final report shows that, in addition to lack of preparation, teachers lack the time to develop curricula beyond what appears in textbooks.

"Across the board, teachers let the textbook define the curriculum,'' Ms. Weiss said.

The study found that about 90 percent of all science and math classrooms use textbooks, and that most teachers do not consider textbook quality a serious problem.

However, it notes, only one in five secondary-school classes "covers" 90 percent of the material in the text.

"Whether this finding is 'good' or 'bad' cannot be determined from the survey data," the report states. "A class that uses a wide variety of quality resources and 'covers' only a small part of the science textbook might well learn more science than one that rushes through the entire textbook."

"The survey data do point out, however," it continues, "the need for more in-depth research on the science and mathematics curriculum."

Among the other survey findings:

The time spent on math and science instruction has remained virtually the same over the past decade. However, science instruction in grades 7-9 has shifted from general science to discipline-based teaching during that time.

Pupils in only one in seven K-6 math classes use hand-held calculators, but their use increases by grade. Math classes--particularly at the K-6 level--are more likely than science classes to use computers.

The proportion of science and math teachers who are members of minority groups is greater in the early grades; at the high-school level, 92 percent of science teachers and 94 percent of math teachers are white, compared with 82 percent of K-3 science teachers and 84 percent of K-3 math teachers.

The proportion of teachers who considered the reading ability of their students a serious problem has declined since 1977.

"It is not clear whether this change is due to less-difficult textbooks, students' improved reading abilities, or other factors," the report states.

Copies of the study, "Report of the 1985-86 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education," can be purchased for $10 each. Checks should be mailed to Linda Shaver, Research Triangle Institute, 3040 Cornwallis Rd., P.O. Box 12194, Research Triangle Park, N.C. 27709.

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