Standardized Science

Mandatory Testing’s Impact on Teaching and Learning

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To the Editor:

In an article describing the likely effects of federal requirements for standardized science testing ("NCLB Could Alter Science Teaching," Nov. 10, 2004), you devote considerable space to a study by David Klahr and Milena Nigam that is said to support direct instruction as opposed to discovery learning. Undoubtedly, this result will be cited triumphantly by U.S. Department of Education officials who were already determined to roll back decades of progress in science teaching and return to a traditional, fact-oriented, teacher-centered model—exactly as they have been doing in reading and math instruction.

It’s important, then, to understand the limits of this study, which was conducted with only about 100 3rd and 4th graders and, more important, used a “discovery” condition that really isn’t representative of the sort of teaching recommended by most experts. It would be a mistake to assume that any deficiencies of a model unique to this experiment, or any effects with this particular age group, can be generalized to all inquiry-based approaches or to all students.

Skepticism about this study deepens if one views it in the context of a substantial body of research that already exists. For example, a review of 57 studies of “activity based” and “process oriented” science programs found that students emerged as much better thinkers than did their counterparts in traditional classrooms—and they didn’t sacrifice any learning of basic content. (The benefit of nontraditional instruction was especially significant for disadvantaged students.) The “one caution” offered by the author, Theodore A. Bredderman of the State University of New York at Albany, was that the advantages of such teaching “may be lost for elementary students when they are later enrolled in classrooms where more traditional methods prevail.”

A subsequent meta-analysis of 140 studies, conducted by Kevin Wise of Southern Illinois University, confirmed an impressive benefit from alternative science teaching strategies as compared with direct instruction.

If anything, the problem with most so-called discovery and hands-on science curricula is that they are too structured, with insufficient opportunity for students to explore and think deeply.

Of course, direct instruction may sometimes seem to produce higher achievement—provided that achievement is construed not in terms of real understanding but simply as facts measured on standardized tests. That’s not a reason to revert to the use of lectures, textbooks, and worksheets; it’s a reason to use more meaningful forms of assessment.

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.
Sharon Janulaw
California Science Teachers Association
Sacramento, Calif.

To the Editor:

I was discouraged to see the terms “hands-on,” “discovery,” and “inquiry” used almost interchangeably in your front-page article “NCLB Could Alter Science Teaching.” The three approaches to science teaching actually have subtly different meanings that imply different levels of teacher involvement.

While hands-on learning is a somewhat generic term that applies to any instance in which students are manipulating materials, discovery learning consists of hands-off teaching methods—those that allow students to develop their own meaning through experience. In contrast, inquiry teaching is highly dependent on involvement by the teacher, as students generate research questions from theory, develop research methods, collect and interpret evidence, and develop scientific explanations. Cornell University’s Barbara A. Crawford places inquiry teaching at the opposite end of a continuum of teacher involvement from discovery, stating that this form of teaching requires more intervention than discovery teaching.

The nuances between hands-on, discovery, and inquiry teaching are relevant when they are contrasted, as a whole, with direct instruction. David Klahr and Milena Nigam carefully define their study as addressing the difference between discovery and direct instruction. The discovery condition provided, as their study states, “no teacher intervention beyond the suggestion of a learning objective: no guiding questions and no feedback about the quality of the child’s suggestion of materials, explorations, or self-assessments.” It is perhaps no wonder that such students did not learn as effectively as those who were taught using direct instruction. Few in the educational community continue to make the argument that discovery learning, in the absence of specific goals and feedback, will lead to student learning; in fact, quite the opposite has been shown.

While the federal No Child Left Behind Act will likely have an impact on how science is taught in schools, I object to the suggestion that, on the basis of one study, inquiry teaching might be lumped together with discovery learning as a potential argument for the advantages of direct instruction, especially when other studies have indicated the effectiveness of inquiry and discovery teaching. A discussion of best practices in science teaching would perhaps be a more constructive approach to anticipating the achievement pressures that will arrive with No Child Left Behind-mandated testing in science.

Erin Marie Furtak
Doctoral Candidate in Science Education
School of Education
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Page 41

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Standardized Science

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