Plan Cites Foreign Science Curricula
Citing new research on science curricula in the Soviet Union and China, a leading U.S. science educator last week urged American high schools to emulate those countries by providing more intensive instruction in biology, chemistry, and physics for all students.
Newly translated data show that virtually all Soviet and Chinese students study those subjects for at least four years, Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said in an interview.
By contrast, he noted, American students--who performed poorly on a recent 24-nation science assessment--take only one year of each subject, if they take them at all.
The Soviet and Chinese curricula suggest that high-school students are capable of more intensive science instruction than most American schools currently offer, he said.
"Children can learn physics, chemistry, and biology,'' Mr. Aldridge said. "People believe they can't learn them. We just aren't teaching it properly.''
"Nobody can learn those things at a high level if they are thrown into a class for one year and taught in a highly theoretical way.''
As an alternative to the traditional American "layer cake'' approach--in which decreasing numbers of students take a year of biology, followed by a year each of chemistry and physics--Mr. Aldridge proposed that science courses in grades 10-12 be restructured to blend instruction in all three subjects.
In addition, he said, "we should make clear that this is a curriculum for everybody, not just future scientists.''
Mr. Aldridge acknowledged that it was unlikely that schools would follow his recommendations and overhaul their curricula immediately. But he urged the National Science Foundation to select about six districts to serve as national models for such a system.
"If a model school did this, and we see success, we would see a lot of people picking up on it,'' he predicted.
The new data are based on translations of Soviet and Chinese educational materials by SRI International, a California-based research firm. They were released last week at the NSTA's annual meeting in St. Louis.
The firm found that students in the Soviet Union study biology for six years, chemistry for four years, and physics for five years. In China, students take biology and chemistry for four years each, and physics for five years.
By contrast, Mr. Aldridge noted, 59 percent of U.S. high-school graduates in 1980 had taken neither physics nor chemistry.
He said his proposed restructuring of science instruction was designed to overcome that deficiency.
Additional coursework or teachers would not be needed, he said, because teachers could divide a five-hour-per-week science course into units of biology, chemistry, and physics.
Even without additional class time, the new curriculum would improve instruction, he predicted. Too often in the current system, he argued, teachers present highly abstract topics to students who have had little preparation.
Under Mr. Aldridge's proposed three-year program, teachers in the first year would present topics in a "descriptive, hands-on'' way. The second year would introduce more empirical instruction and experimentation, while the third year would cover the theories behind what students had already learned.
The revised curriculum would also allow more integration among the disciplines, Mr. Aldridge said. For example, he noted, topics such as D.N.A. (deoxyribonucleic acid) and genetics, usually taught in 10th-grade biology classes, are more understandable to students with some background in chemistry.
Currently, he said, "we distort biology. It could be handled, if sequenced properly.''