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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 7, May/June 2006

Don’t experiment with science

by John Gillingham

As a science teacher, what I like about television shows like the three CSIs and even House is that they help to clarify what it means to be a scientist. Not surprisingly, when I discuss science teaching with people outside the profession they think it’s a complete "no-brainer" that science students should be doing experiments. After all, what better way to learn the skills of the practicing scientists than to engage in activities that mimic their work. I believe this ideal of science learning is well received because it appeals to our sense that "we learn by doing."

I am writing this letter because the B.C provincial government (perhaps unknowingly) has started down a path that will seriously hinder the efforts of science teachers to move toward "experiment-centred" curriculum. How have they done this? There is no simple way to answer this, but it begins with the Science 10 final exam.

You may or may not be aware that the BC Science 10 final exam is a rigorous test that covers all aspects of an overly encompassing curriculum. What happens when you try to make teachers "accountable" by using this type of test? Teachers start to do all the things you would expect them to do when the goal is to "cram in knowledge." They write more notes on the board, hold more discussion (with pre-determined questions), handout more worksheets and assign more textbook questions sacrificing hands-on activities, new modes of experimentation, and problem-solving investigations.

The teacher talks and the students listen. Memorization is emphasized over experimental inquiry-instead of using a microscope, students study the graphics of one. In essence, students are taught to know about science, but not the skills that foster natural inquiry.

Do I have anything to back up my claim that the Science 10 provincial exam has the power to blight experiments from classrooms? When I met with the Science 10 teachers (at the school that my students feed into) they basically told me that 80% (or more) of the laboratory experiments they had been doing, were chopped out in order to focus more on the Science 10 exam content. One teacher, in particular, described how he recently went against the routines of "cram it in" by trying to fit in some "old" labs only to see his provincial exam scores suffer. In his words "they could build beautiful parallel and series circuits but they could not write the test."

It is not surprising to me that the BC government has started to turn the curriculum against science investigations and experiments. They have never asked the right people the right questions, so they do not know how to move science teaching in a progressive direction. The fact that they act with self righteousness, moving forward without care of the consequences, giving no indication at all that they are really going to listen to any teacher concerns, is sickening. I have said that the BC Science 10 exam was the staring point that will undermine the pursuit of experiment-based science teaching in this province. Bludgeoning the science IRPs (as they have begun to do) will also set us back.

I think science teachers should aspire to teach young people the investigative skills of scientists. The curriculum should be a resource guide that helps teachers find originating experiences (science investigations). The knowledge taught to students should be acquired for the purpose of aiding the conscious act of inquiry—anything less, trivializes the knowledge.

I have one parting statement to make about the BC Science 10 exam and tests in general. Tests are part of the snap shot that helps to measure student learning—it takes students time to learn how to study for and write tests, so they need to write them. In a subject area like math, the exam validly tests for the requisite skills, but in science, tests can only measure the memorization of knowledge. They cannot and do not measure scientific ability—if you believe otherwise, then you have it all wrong.

Jim Gillingham teaches at Mount Slesse Middle School, Chilliwack.

Source: Letters to the editor, The Chilliwack Times


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