October Update

Bought a standard poodle puppy.  Bringing him home October 5, so October will be full of housebreaking, and FUN.



Entries in science education (4)


Life Is Short

Climate is a long-term phenomenon.  And relative to climate, human life is short.

     In 1976, I lived in Santa Barbara from January through March, just when southern California was being deluged with torrential daily rains.  The TV news showed film of these downpours while "It never rains in southern California..." played in the background. 

     But an article in a Los Angeles newspaper at the time revealed that actually the last couple of centuries had been equally soaked.  In fact, the driest period on record had stretched from the 1930's until the 1970's, exactly when the most recent migration to California had occurred.  All those unsuspecting sun-seekers had put down roots in California just when the rains were holding off for forty years.

     Now the West and Midwest are in the midst of a severe, record-setting drought, and those of us who live here or farm here, are looking forward to live-giving, wetter years ahead.  But in fact, recent climate research shows that for the past 100 and even the past 2000 years, the country has been drying out more and more severely.

     Our problem is that we live such a short time compared to climate trends, it's easy to make the mistake of judging climate by a few decades of experience.  Instead, we need to do more climate research.  And we need our elected officials to start believing that research as if their, and our, lives depend on it.


How Can We Get High-Quality Education in American Schools? Part 2

In my last post I cited one of two essays from the April 30 Op-Ed section of The New York Times.  These essays were about improving American education. 

         The first essay suggested supporting our teachers instead of attacking them, in order to improve the quality of American education.

         The second essay, by R. Barker Bausell, criticizes current teacher evaluation methods, and suggests a new method: 

         Using standardized test scores to measure what teachers add to their students’ knowledge is notoriously inaccurate, Bausell writes.  The same teacher may show different results from one year to the next, and even from one class to the next in the same school year. 

         A measure that makes more sense is the amount of time a teacher actually spends teaching the curriculum.  This can be measured via video samples throughout a teacher’s day.  Using this method, studies have found that “some teachers were able to deliver as much as 14 more weeks a year of relevant instruction than their less efficient peers.”

         This has certainly been true in my own life as a teacher.  When I started teaching high school science, I taught five sections of chemistry or honors chemistry every year.  With the energy of a brand new teacher, I prepared detailed outlines of curriculum content and examples to use in teaching it.  My students did much better, day after day, on that curriculum-rich diet, than some chemistry classes I had years later.         

         What had changed?  In the intervening years, I taught Biology & AP Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Honors Physics, and Plant science.  Then I concentrated on teaching Advanced Placement Biology and Honors Physics only.  By the time I was assigned to teach Chemistry again, I had tossed out my detailed notebooks (Alas!  What was I thinking?); the textbook had changed, and I was so busy, I taught Chemistry “off the top of my head.”  The result was that I covered less of the curriculum, less effectively, and my students were the poorer for it.  When I finally had time to generate new Chem outlines for myself, my teaching became vastly more effective.

         I believe there is an important spiritual aspect of time-spent-teaching:  A teacher who spends most of his/her time teaching the curriculum is communicating faith in the ability of students to learn and belief in the importance of learning.  Teachers who kid around and waste time communicate the opposite.  I know I was better at teaching from my detailed outlines because I had made those outlines in the first place with the goal of teaching effectively.


Good News: AP Biology Is Changing, Part Three

In my last two posts, I described some advantages and disadvantages of the AP Biology course as it was when I taught it.  Now The New York Times reports that The College Board will rid AP Biology of its impossible quantity of reading and memorizing.  Instead, the course will require higher level thinking skills in both its factual and laboratory components.

         The new AP Biology will require students to consider broad ideas, such as:

   1) Evolution is responsible for the unity and diversity of life. 

   2) All living things—from microscopic, single-celled organisms to large animals, fungi, and plants—are systematic in the following ways:

      a. They use energy and molecular building blocks to grow.

      b. They respond to needed information.

      c. They interact in complex ways.

         This new course design allows teachers to pick and choose among the hundreds of pages of a biology book.  Any number of topics within that book can demonstrate the same broad ideas.  At the same time, students will have to think deeply to come up with the generalizations leading to and from these broad ideas.  And the AP Biology final exam will no longer be a matter of strict memorization with a few essay questions.  Instead, it will require deeply thoughtful experience in the course and deeply thoughtful answers to exam questions.

         In addition, the new AP Biology will assign labs so that students can form their own hypotheses and design their own laboratory experiments to try to support these hypotheses.  For instance: what factors control photosynthesis? 

         One of the worst faults of the AP Biology course when I was teaching it was lack of time to revise an experiment when the hypothesis was disproved.  But in the newly designed course, with a lighter reading burden, there will be sufficient time for students to reinvestigate lab results: If a hypothesis is disproved, a different hypothesis and experiment may be enlightening.  If a hypothesis is supported, the result might lead to a new, more detailed experiment.  In other words, students will be learning and practicing real science.

         And notice that the result is higher level thinking throughout.  My only regret is that I am no longer teaching high school.  I would love to teach the new AP Biology!


Good News: AP Biology Is Changing, Part One

Advanced Placement Biology is a beginning college biology course for high school juniors and seniors.  The AP Biology course actually belongs to The College Board (Educational Testing Service); that’s the outfit that also owns the SAT, the GRE, and various other qualifying exams used in higher education.

         The College Board outlines the AP Biology course so that high school teachers can teach it.  The College Board also writes, administers, and grades the final exam.  Many colleges and universities will give entering freshmen college credit for taking AP Biology if they get a high enough grade on the final.

         For years, I taught AP Biology at Tinley Park High School in Illinois District 228.  It was an exciting and rewarding experience.  Since there were four high schools in District 228, and since the AP Biology class lasted two hours, we started every morning at 7:00 AM so that students could get back to their home high schools without missing too much of the day.  Getting to know and work with students from a variety of schools was great for me, the teacher, and for all the students.

         But there were also problems.  The amount of material we had to cover each year was overwhelming.  I was always looking for a textbook that could lop off 300-400 pages without dumbing down.  The course called for a lot of rote memorization, yet we had to cover whole chapters in three days, leading to 3 exams every two weeks, nearly impossible for even the most dedicated students if they were also going learn anything in their other courses. 

         We also had to cover 12 required labs throughout the year.  These were fun, but the hypotheses were built in and so called for little independent thought.  There was never any time to go back and reexamine or redesign the lab if a hypothesis was disproved.  There was never time to learn from a disproved hypothesis as scientists actually do. 

         But stay tuned: Now there is good news about AP Biology.