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Students' Views of Science Not Universal, International Research Team Finds

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Las Vegas

Early findings from a cross-cultural study of four Asian nations, Australia, and the United States show that 10- and 13-year-olds in different countries see eye to eye in some of their views on science. But the study, which asked students what they think about science as well as what interests them in the subject, also found revealing differences.

Andrew C. Kemp

The results were presented by an international team of researchers at the annual convention of the National Science Teachers Association, held here April 16-19.

Across all six nations, students agreed that new ideas in science "arise from many observations and experiments," the researchers write. Students in Australia, China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States were surveyed.

The students were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a variety of statements about science, including: "The way to solve problems in science is to gather information to find patterns," and "The way to solve problems in science is to make a hypothesis and test it by observing and experimenting." The Japanese students agreed with the statements, but the Australian and U.S. students did not agree as strongly.

Carole Kubota

American and Australian students consistently answered in ways indicating they did not believe as much as other students in the traditional view of formulating a scientific hypothesis and collecting facts that lead to a conclusion. One of the U.S. researchers, Andrew C. Kemp, a graduate student in education at the University of Georgia in Athens, said the dissimilarity may reflect the recognition in American schools of "different ways of knowing, different ways of doing science."

The research team surveyed a total of 3,547 students in the six countries. Between 417 and 803 students from each country were polled, with 526 students surveyed in the United States. The U.S. students were in the 5th and 8th grades. Schools were not selected at random, but the researchers attempted to get a diverse and representative group of schools. In this country, students in Georgia, North Carolina, and the Seattle area were polled.

A concurrent examination of all the countries in the study except Australia also reveals that students in the Philippines had the highest level of interest in doing science-related activities and that Japanese students had the lowest. American students came out between the two, except for their special interest in computer and video games and in chemical experiments.

The Japanese researcher who presented those data said he was surprised by the results because the level of poverty in the Philippines keeps many schools from having science laboratories or equipment. Every Japanese elementary school, by contrast, has a well-stocked science lab, Mr. Kemp added. An American colleague, Carole Kubota, an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell, told conference attendees that impoverished students in a more rural country like the Philippines may have more opportunities to explore the natural world around them, while students in a highly urbanized country like Japan "don't have an opportunity to be ... getting their hands dirty."

Two science teachers at a middle school in Northern California recently wanted to find out whether the so-called constructivist style one used--allowing students to do more exploration and hands-on activities--or the direct-instruction style of the other--having students listen to lectures or watch demonstrations--promoted better student learning. So they did an experiment on themselves. What they found, based on a preliminary analysis presented at the NSTA convention, was it mattered what type of question you wanted students to be able to answer and what a student's preferred learning style was.

For a unit on static electricity for 7th graders at Orinda Intermediate School in Orinda, Calif., the two teachers, who both have science degrees and an interest in improving their instruction, slightly exaggerated their respective teaching techniques. The study, conducted at a school with a mostly white and affluent enrollment, looked at 156 students divided evenly between the two teachers.

They gave the students pre- and post-tests on both the content of the unit on static electricity and on student learning- and teaching-style preferences. The post-test on content was given six weeks after the unit.

Between the pre- and post-tests, the study found that on a question asking for two examples of static electricity at work, the two groups of students did not differ significantly in their improvement on answering the question. When they were asked to write an open-ended explanation of why two balloons in a diagram might stick together, however, the students from the constructivist class improved significantly more in their answers than the students in the direct-instruction class.

The study also found that students showed more gain in knowledge on the open-ended question if their preferred learning style matched well with the teacher's style--but there was no such effect for the recall question. For example, the students who showed the most improvement on the question requiring explanation were girls who had expressed a preference for a constructivist style and were in the constructivist teacher's class. Boys who like constructivism and were in that class showed the next biggest gains. Girls who stated they preferred a constructivist style yet were in the direct-instruction class exhibited the worst improvement study-wide.

Sue Boudreau, the study's co-author and the constructivist teacher, said the findings argue for placing students with certain expressed learning styles in the classrooms of teachers that match that style. She acknowledged to conference attendees that another factor in girls' performance could be that they identified with her more as a woman teaching constructivism; the direct-instruction teacher is a man.

--MILLICENT LAWTON

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