Trivializing My Nieces’ Science Education

I needed an exasperating situation to wake me up from my blogging slumber, and the ruination of my nieces’ science education is it.  I was reminded today of this sad state of affairs by Bruce Alberts in his editorial, Trivializing Science Education, from last week’s edition of the journal Science (subscription required for access to full article).  Mr. Alberts explains that “science” has been reduced to the ability to “regurgitate” facts without understanding.  Good science education has been replaced by “rigorous” approaches that emphasize recall over curiosity and comprehension.  To my great annoyance, my nieces are being subjected to this blunt, deadening approach to science education that Mr. Alberts describes.  And, to my chagrin, I live too far away to spend one-on-one time with them in more authentic scientific pursuits.  It’s such a shame.

My nieces’ 5th-grade teacher in Kentucky has taken away the joy of science with rote memorization of facts and processes beyond their understanding.  Among other things, she has had them memorize parts of a cell and facts about the periodic table, just like Mr. Alberts mentions.  In the 5th grade!  Here are some excerpts from my sister’s description of their most recent test:

They just had a science test this Wednesday and I still have the “study guide” sitting around…So the questions on the guide were–compare and contrast a plant and animal cell–expecting them to memorize words like “organelles” , “chloroplast” and “cytoplasm”;  list and define the 4 parts of animal cells, and the same for plant cells—so then they have to know stuff like what “chloroplast” actually does; the parts and jobs of the circulatory system; parts and jobs of the digestive system;  compare and contrast vertebrates and invertebrates; describe the difference between reptiles, mammals, and amphibians; the 3 levels of organization between “cells” and “organism” and describe the function of cells in each level; 4 characteristics that mammals share; 4 characteristics that arthropods share. YES, ALL ON ONE TEST (my emphasis)…A year ago they would have been incapable of memorizing any of that; just would’ve been like memorizing greek to them.  I am very thankful to say they are definitely getting better at it.

My nieces’ teacher has frustrated them continuously this year.  They used to like science class.  Now, it is a chore that could change their attitudes about science forever.

While I seek for ways to circumvent this teacher’s unknowing plan to beat science out of my nieces (SUGGESTIONS ARE WELCOME), I am also forced to consider the science education of the students in my own district and, closer to home, the students in my own classroom.  For years, I have been cognizant of the fact that science is “boring” or “not my thing” to many of my regular-level physics students.  Each year I have attempted to improve the connection between their lives and the science we do in my classroom.  Mr. Alberts’ article was a reminder of the importance of this effort.

However, Mr. Alberts also hints at how students usually come to love or dislike science at an age long before they reach me in their junior or senior years of high school.  Too often, schools slay students’ love of science during the elementary years, just when curiosity waxes high.  My district is currently redesigning our science curriculum, as part of a 7-year curriculum cycle, and I am on the curriculum committee.  I consider myself fortunate to have this voice on the committee, even though the process is frustrating.  I am encouraged that the committee has talked a great deal about scientific practices, skills, and cross-cutting themes, as championed in the Framework for K-12 Science Education.  I plan to do my part to ensure that this vision doesn’t get lost in the nitty-gritty details of curriculum design and during the process of materials adoption.

At this point, our district is redesigning only the curriculum for grades 7 through 12.  Undertaking a redesign of grades K through 6 will occur later, and will probably require a Herculean effort, as there is currently NO science curriculum for these grades.  Due to NCLB, time for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics has been maximized, and science has been pushed aside with other less important subjects, like history, art, and music.  Science is simply left out of many elementary schools in our K-12 district.  And yet, as Mr. Alberts notes, “When we teach children about aspects of science that the vast majority of them cannot yet grasp, then we have wasted valuable educational resources and produced nothing of lasting value.”  In other words, a poorly designed curriculum is a waste of time anyway, so maybe no science is better than bad science.  I suppose that I would prefer to deal with students that have no opinion of science, rather than ones that have had “all the enjoyment [taken] out of science.”

I can only hope that the effort we make in the 7 – 12 curriculum committee will carry over to future efforts at the K – 6 level.  We must move away from the notion that “rigor” means memorizing lots of facts.  We must instead nurture students’ natural curiosity and help them build the skills and practices necessary for successful investigation, problem solving, and communication in science.  Our success at the 7 – 12 level, and my students’ experience of science as juniors and seniors, depend on it.


5 thoughts on “Trivializing My Nieces’ Science Education

  1. Sorry I’m so late to this post, but when I saw it I had to reply. I taught my students how to do science for 38 years, test scores didn’t always put me in the best light, but they all could do da__ good science. (Whether they were my AP Bio or tech college bound chemistry students.) In addition to my teaching I served as the science coordinator for a district of 7k students. For the past 3 years, since retirement, I have been doing professional development, and consulting, for a program that is all about doing science, within the new frameworks ( and old standards). For those interested, there are a very few good “science” programs out there, that teach the students how to do good science and result in good refer scores. Check out the programs out of UC Berkeley, e.g. FOSS, then talk to your curriculum director in your districts. It can be done, but it takes a mind shift, to say nothing of the institutional shift.

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