Federal Opinion

Jack Hassard: Are Science Standards Taught as if they were Bricks?

By Anthony Cody — March 06, 2012 9 min read
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Guest Post by Jack Hassard.

In the last postwe used science education research to show how accountability standards in science education today pose barriers to meaningful learning in science. Today, we extend this theme, and show that the theory of learning underlying the accountability standards movement is in conflict with contemporary theories used to explain how students learn.

Ideas as Bricks.
John Dewey believed that learning is embedded in experiences when the student interacts with the environment, which is when humans work to deal with the tensions between themselves and their surroundings. Dewey believed that learning is natural, not process limited. He would say that humans are always in motion trying to resolve or seek a goal, or working on something intently. To Dewey, the learner is active, and within science education they would be experimenting, analyzing an environment and using tools like microscopes and hand lens to glimpse the world they are exploring.

To learn, Dewey insists that we cannot simply “give” ideas directly to students as if they were bricks, rather they have to be presented indirectly. Fishman and McCarthy, when explaining this idea, put it this way:

Is a standard like a brick? Do we teach the standards thinking that they can taught directly to students as if they were bricks? Dewey tells teachers that we cannot hand ideas to students as if they were bricks. Although Dewey does not develop this image, I believe he would say we are tempted to try and pass out ideas because, like bricks, they are separable. They can be isolated and decontextualized. But, according to Dewey, to understand aims, beliefs, and ideas we must, to extend his metaphor, see bricks as part of the building they support, as connected purposefully to other bricks as well as to timber and steel. Further, to even care about bricks, we must have the need to use them. We must have the desire to live in a building, construct a new one, or demolish an old one...this view of Dewey's--that learning is tied to use, to the drama of doubt, need and discovery--is central to his philosophy of education.

(Fishman and McCarthy, 1998).

So, if ideas cannot be handed off to students like bricks, what would be a better alternative? Dewey believed that “non-school learning” could be used to provide the kind of energy that learning in school would require to engage students.

Some science educators and researchers strive to understand “informal learning” opportunities including field trips, museums and community experiences. Dewey’s concern is that learning in formal settings is presented in abstract and symbolic forms, as Carolyn Wallace documented in her research and discussed in this blog post. If educators reflected on the qualities of non-school learning, greater emphasis would be placed on emotional and attitudinal aspects of learning. Thus Dewey saw that “informal” and “incidental” learning was significant in that it would shed light on the shortcomings of “formal” and “intentional instruction.[i] Most of the instruction that goes on in school is formal and intentional, especially since its in the interest of teachers to teach to test to make sure students “master” the standardized bricks measured on the high-stakes examination given in the Spring.

One specific learning strategy that has direct application here is “project-based teaching.” In project-based teaching, students are involved in experiences that have elements of the informal and incidental, although within the context of the formal and intentional classroom. More experimentation, inquiry-based learning, and giving students opportunities to choose content and activities would help make classroom learning more meaningful.

Standard Bricks
How does Dewey’s idea that we cannot hand ideas to students as if they were bricks relate to standards accountability that shapes the behavior of administrators, teachers and students? If you take a look at a any list of science standards, whether they be national standards, state science standards, or standards that were used to evaluate the science state standards, one could make the case that in isolation, standards statements have brick like characteristics. Although standards statements are typically grouped by content (sometimes process), they are written without any context, as isolated bits of information (concepts, core ideas) that represent the proposed content for students to learn.

Here are few examples of standards or expectations of what students should learn taken from the Thomas Fordham 2012 report, State of the State Science Standards. They developed their own list of standards which they used to evaluate the standards written by each state. I am bringing in the Fordham report here because they used their own set of standards to judge the science standards in each state. You can read my analyses here and here.

When you look at the Fordham list, you see discrete bits of content (content-specific criteria). The only context that is included are subheadings such as physical science, life science, earth science. Each content statement or standard is isolated from any process. The Fordham experts suggest there is no need to name specific laboratory activities. Ok. But their document is short on integrating modern ideas about how students learn science, and that there is a connection between the specific content to be understand, and the types of processes that would help students in problem solving or inquiry.

Here are a few examples. I analyzed the Fordham standards using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Objectives, and found ninety percent of all of the Fordham science criteria fall into the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the cognitive domain. Indeed, 52% of the statements are at the lowest level (Knowledge) which includes primarily the recall of data or information. Twenty-eight percent of the Fordham science statements were written at the Comprehension level, and only 10% at the Application level. What this means is that the authors wrote their own science standards at a very low level. In fact of the 100 statements only 10% were at the higher levels. No statements were identified at the synthesis level, which in science is awful. And it is amazing, given the low level of the Fordham standards that any state would score lower than the Fordham standards.

. Know how to define “gravity.”
. Describe the organization of matter in the universe into stars and galaxies.
. Identify the broadest physical and chemical characteristics of Earth’s biota.

Clearly, the Fordham standards are metaphorically bricks that students need to master at the end of grade eight or grade twelve.

These statements are typical of the types of standards’ statements that are written in state department of education documents. For example, Georgia Performance Standards, according the GaDOE website, provide clear expectations for instruction, assessment and student work. Here is how the state sees a performance standard:

The performance standard incorporates the content standard, which simply tells the teacher what a student is expected to know (i.e., what concepts he or she is expected to master).

The image here is the performance standard is to be “mastered,” and this is what impacts the way students are taught-to be prepared to show that they have “mastered” the standard.

The high-stakes tests that are administered to students in Georgia (or any other state) “measure” the students’ mastery on some of the standards in each content area (science, mathematics, social studies, etc.). Indeed, because of this kind of accountability system that only is concerned with mastery of content statements, teaching for these standards is what we call teaching to the test. In this metaphor the ideas that are being taught are no different than thinking that an idea is like a brick, and simply be taught to students with texts, Powerpoints, or worksheets.

A Better Brick

If you look at the standards for any grade level in elementary science in Georgia, or any content area or course for middle and high school, you will find the standards divided into two categories:

Characteristics of science
(habits of mind, & the nature of science)
Example: Students will communicate scientific ideas and activities clearly. (S5CS5)
Content of science (earth science, physical science, & life science)
Students will identify surface features of the Earth caused by constructive and destructive processes.

The standards are not integrated by writing this way. For example the habits of mind, which are processes or skills, have no relation to the content performance standards. The standards are decoupled in separate lists, content & skills . Presumably, one could teach the characteristics of science separate from the content, and still help the students master the performance standard. But is this line with how cognitive scientists explain learning?

One of the problems with creating this decoupling of the reasoning skills from the content is that science education research has concluded that there is a thing such as domain-specific knowledge and it can affect students ability to explore different areas of science. Having separate lists of content standards and process standards will lend support to teaching the standards’ ideas as if they were bricks. One could build better bricks by constructing standards in context (of a unit of study), with a rationale, and with the identification of domain specific knowledge. But we also need to change way bricks are connected to each and create experiences where students modify the bricks and make them their own.

Instead of an observation and inference activity, it would be more meaningful if it was a crafted story, leading the students to a paleontological interpretation of the fossil dinosaur footprints, and takes the students into journey of genuine fossil artifacts. Mary Budd Row, as cited in Ault & Dodick, 2009.

Charles R. Ault, Jr. and Jeff Dodick authored a paper relevant here entitled “Tracking the Footprints Puzzle: The problematic persistence of science-as-process in teaching the nature and culture of science.” The footprint puzzle is a conceptually-based activity that was developed with a context of paleontology and geology in an Earth science program. To use this activity simply to teach students some science skills (such as inferring, measuring), Ault and Dodick state that teachers miss the opportunity to engage students a meaningful learning activity where students:

uncover an approach to solving paleontological problems, the challenge presented to use actual data, the limits of inference stemming from the discipline's characteristic "historical-comparative method, the disciplined use of appropriate analogies to make inferences (predicting the order of events in the past with time-as-refere)."

In the research reported in my previous post, Dr. Carolyn Wallace suggests the framing of standards in a different way. Dr. Wallace suggests standards should be written “in a language that connects the learning objectives with the types thinking and reasoning to achieve them.” She also suggests that if standards’ managers would frame the standards using nonauthoritarian and participatory language, science teaching and learning could be transformed. Teachers need to have the authority to interpret standards in ways that make the standards relevant and meaningful to their students, and culture.

Wallace also cites research that suggests that standards, for example the Georgia case where standards are bifurcated into content and skills, need to be linked together in an “organic whole.”

To create science standards that reflect a consensus among researchers in cognitive science, they must be written in such a way the content aims are combined with the skill or processes needed to help students have a chance at meaningful learning.

And to make this even more possible, we need to ban high-stakes tests as a way to “measure” student “mastery” of the standards.
Teachers need to be center-stage creating and being responsible for assessing their own students. If states want to give state wide exams, they should use the NAEP design which is low-stakes, and is not used to punish students, teachers or administrators.

What do you think about the use of standards? Do they encourage us to teach science concepts as “bricks”?

Jack Hassard is Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. He is author of The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, The Art of Teaching Science (2009), Second Edition, Routledge, and most recently, Science As Inquiry (2011), 2nd Edition, Good Year Books. Specialities include science teaching & learning, global thinking & education, geology, web publishing, blogging, writing, and antiquing. His blog is The Art of Teaching Science.

Brick image by Marc Falardeau, used with permission from Creative Commons.

Footprint image: Earth Science Curriculum Project, American Geological Institute, 1967. Graphic in the Public Domain

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.