Leib Sutcher: A Necessary Shift Modeled by New Science

The final assignment for SOC419 is an essay detailing a reform measure that could be taken to respond to the crisis in American education. The following is a student recommendation for public education policy. 

Inequality plagues the United States education system. The educational gap between white and marginalized minority students has reached unprecedented levels. As measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) the average black twelfth grader is four years behind white and Asian peers (Daniel Long’s Handout). Virginia Lea characterizes teachers in our education today as “important frontline agents in reproduction of the corporate-military capitalist state” (Barbara Madeloni’s Virginia Lea Quote). If we plan to not just pay lip service to the American dream and to democracy, it is of utmost importance that the students of our nation be educated in a way that equips them with the tools and passion to be socially mobile and to critically analyze the world. To accomplish this goal we will need to upgrade, refine, and revise our pedagogy, curriculum, and mode of delivery. As we move forward in the twenty-first century and beyond, dynamic reforms that focus on our strengths and mirror the technological revolution around us will be crucial to accomplish our goals. We must adapt the classroom experience. Learner-centered curriculum, that engages students in investigation and analysis resulting in deep learning is where education reform needs to head. Technology is a powerful tool that will help aid this process and is vital in the future of education. Through the examples of New Science, a cutting edge science curriculum out of UC Berkeley that heavily intertwines technology, I will show you it is clear that this approach has both merit and practicality.  It embodies principles of critical analysis and democracy, and is designed to be scalable to the rest of the education system.

New Science demonstrates the power of curriculum and how computer tablets can serve to enhance the learning experience. Pedagogically, New Science sets an example in education. It dives deep, focusing on fewer topics but in far greater depth. For example, instead of studying the topic of cellular respiration for just a couple of days (as is typically done), the New Science curriculum spends three weeks to engage students in learning about this topic. Students investigate, explore, question, write, and truly engage with the material on more than the surface level. Evidence shows that this approach enables students to acquire a more complex understanding of the material as well as allowing for development of other skills such as reading science text and making evidence-based explanations. Our friends in Finland, Korea, and Japan all have very lean standards that allow for deep dives (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). Although it can be argued that you might not cover as much material, evidence shows that students learn more and retain more than when they are allowed to engage deeply with material.

It is common for American schools to focus on delivering the “right answer,” rather than focusing on “finding how to find out.”  New Science allows for students to actively investigate scientific principles on their own, drawing their own conclusions. This approach more closely represents the real scientific world and provides students with the opportunity to develop other skills. For example, rather than being told how cellular respiration works, students in the New Science program are introduced to a human body simulation, and invited to explore and discover the different pathways of oxygen, glucose, and how these relate to energy all on their own (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). This type of exploration creates a space and a need for students to back up their claims with evidence and reasoning.

As both New Science and Barbara Madeloni confirm, the journey and struggle with knowledge can be more valuable then the knowledge itself. In New Science this is illustrated by the practice of not just teaching accepted scientific explanations, rather the curriculum provides students with the opportunity engage in argumentation and to construct their own explanations. This allows for room to discuss and debate scientific explanations, a practice that results in students learning the norms for creating scientific explanations not just learning the explanations themselves. Madeloni similarly puts an emphasis on this point stating “The rule of my classroom is that you leave with more questions than you started with” (Madeloni). Paulo Freire would agree that you cannot treat history, society, and reality “as if [they] were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable,” rather they pose the “problems of human beings in relation to the world” (Freire, 71 and 79). As demonstrated by these three thinkers, education must engage students in a dynamic practice, always being questioned, and actively and deliberately teach our students how to examine knowledge.

Learning must be active and student-centered. In New Science there is a strong reliance on the students. The student is surrounded by learning and teaching. With a one-to-one tablet to student ratio, student-centered learning becomes the norm. Rather than delivering information from the front of the room, teachers are able to focus on assisting students in small groups (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). Students become the center of investigation and exploration, being expertly navigated by the teacher.

If our mission is to equip students to be productive members of a democratic society with the tools and abilities of critical analysis, then our tests should be an aid to help the teachers achieve this goal.  New Science again provides us with an example. Through the use of tablets, students’ work is constantly being recorded and evaluated. Teachers can check in at any point to see the learning progress of individual students and of the class. For instance, seeing which students properly diagnosed and explained what metabolic disease was present in each patient enables the teacher glimpse students’ learning progress. Teachers can send students who need more practice in diagnosing certain conditions to parts of the simulation that provide more opportunities to learn. These formative evaluations are all meant to give feedback to the students and help the teachers more effectively teach (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). They have nothing to do with grades nor are they just for the sake of testing. This alignment of the goals of the curriculum and pedagogy with the goals of the testing is essential.

It is worth briefly digressing to discuss the role of curriculum as a whole. Expertly developed curriculum provides teachers with current knowledge in the field, addresses state content standards, and is built around what the education field knows about student learning and student engagement. Developing curriculum requires different skills than teaching; even if teachers have these skills they do not have the time that curriculum design and development requires. It is teachers’ mission to customize curriculum materials for their students. Teachers’ role is to focus on the difficult challenge of teaching (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). New Science and similar curricula in no way change the role of the teacher. They just help the teacher teach more effectively.

Technology is used throughout the New Science curriculum. It is important to remember that technology is only a tool that creates opportunities for learner-centered curriculum, it is not a replacement for pedagogy. Pedagogy of the teacher remains of utmost importance. Our world is going through a technological revolution. Everyones’ lives, regardless of socioeconomic status, are surrounded by technology (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). If we are preparing our students for the future why would we not use technology in the classroom? Technology is on the rise and one of the things we are doing really well right now. With the help of of curriculum designers and good teaching, technology has the potential to have great influence in education.

The reforms described above have the potential for great impact on the U.S. educational system. The Trends in Math and Science Education Study (TIMSS) presents evidence in support of these shifts in education. These reforms bring the focus back to the student, attempting to develop good thinking, good understanding, and good communication (Jacqueline Barber’s Talk). The New Science curriculum has shown us a way forward in science, that can be scaled up, has evidence of effectiveness. It has shown how technology can be used to enhance students’ learning opportunities, representing great hope for our educational futures. New Science is just one example of a reform that undertakes the educational shifts outlined above. It is time for our teachers and schools to all take on these shifts whether by adopting curriculum or designing their own, these classroom reforms are needed. This type of reform is not out of reach for the U.S. education system. Whether by adopting an instructional sequence or incorporating a pedagogical change, U.S. classrooms can heed the evidence and shift towards the future of education. By no means is this a silver bullet to the issues of education. Teacher development schools, poverty, and class barriers still must all be addressed, however shifting these reforms is a big step in the right direction and it is an important piece along the road. Deep dives, focusing on finding out, learning how to critically engage with knowledge, providing a student-centered approach, and goal-aligned assessment are all necessary shifts to classroom curriculum and pedagogy that together would have a meaningful effect on the U.S. education system. For that reason, with great confidence and urgency, I recommend and fully endorse the policy changes presented above.


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