Science

Calif. Mulls Limiting Hands-On Science Lessons

By Michelle Galley — February 25, 2004 3 min read
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If an advisory board in California has its way, students there will have fewer opportunities to do hands-on science activities.

The state board of education is scheduled to vote next month on a new set of criteria for K-8 textbooks that would cap such exploratory lessons at 25 percent. The state curriculum commission recommended the policy to the board last month.

Additional experiments would be available within the texts, but they would be clearly marked as optional, according to Thomas Adams, the executive director of the curriculum commission.

Instead of using experiments and practical lessons, teachers would be expected to use more direct instruction and group discussion in their classes, Mr. Adams said.

Critics, however, charge that the commission is trying to limit inquiry- based learning. Student experimentation is a feature of inquiry-based science, which emphasizes active participation in learning scientific concepts.

“They believe that students learn best by being told,” Christine Bertrand, the executive director of the California Science Teachers Association, said of the advisory panel. “That is ludicrous.”

Science, by its very nature, demands lessons that involve more discovery-based learning activities, argued Ms. Bertrand. Restricting the amount of time students spend conducting experiments “runs contrary to what we know about how students learn, and how science is done in the real world,” she said.

Teachers should be allowed to use their own expertise to decide which instructional strategies they should use with their classes, Ms. Bertrand said. “Not every kid learns the same way.”

Texts for All Teachers

The debate over how to teach science echoes similar ones in reading and mathematics instruction that had their roots in California.

What side the state school board ultimately will take on the criteria for science, though, is hard to judge, because six of the 11 members are new appointees of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who took office in November. The science issue provides an early chance to see how the reconstituted board breaks down philosophically. The governor’s bipartisan slate of choices was generally seen as politically moderate. (“Schwarzenegger Board Choices Applauded for Political Diversity,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

Rae Belisle, the executive director of the state board, supports the concept advanced by the commission. She said that the suggested criteria for instructional materials should follow the curricular framework the state adopted in 1998. It says that only 25 percent of science-class time should be devoted to hands-on activities, according to Ms. Belisle.

In addition, state-approved instructional materials need to be designed for all teachers, she said, suggesting that those with more science education in their backgrounds are more likely than those with a liberal arts background to use experiments activities in their instruction.

“Teachers have a whole range of science backgrounds,” Ms. Belisle said. “We have to have a text that can be used across that range.”

Before the state adopted new science standards, teachers were required to spend 40 percent of science-class time on hands-on activities, according to Mr. Adams.

A ‘Laughingstock’?

The proposed measure prompted 30 state legislators, led by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat, to call for revisions in the state science framework in a letter to Mr. Adams.

Following the curriculum commission’s vote to adopt the new criteria, Ms. Goldberg wrote a separate letter strongly urging members to change the guidelines “before California is the laughingstock of the nation for taking a hands-on subject like science and limiting the amount of hands-on instruction.”

Despite the proposed guidelines for K-12 texts, the commission won’t “regulate what [teachers] do in the classroom,” Mr. Adams said. “The actual day-to-day instruction of science is decided at a local level.”

Still, if the criteria win the approval of the state board, publishers will need to produce materials that fall in line with the guidelines, or risk having their materials rejected by the board.

K-8 schools in California can use state money only on state- approved instructional materials.

Such a change would likely be felt across the country, as textbook publishers tend to produce materials that meet California’s—and Texas'—requirements for the nation as a whole.

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