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Lecture lessons shouldn't be the model for science class, FSU physics professor Paul Cottle says



Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle is one of the state's most active and vocal proponents for engaging, challenging science courses in the state's schools. He pushes the topic relentlessly on his blog, Bridge to Tomorrow, and in his regular correspondence to state lawmakers and education department officials.

He even sat on the state's panel of experts that worked to improve Florida's once dismal K-12 science curriculum standards.

So you can only imagine his dismay after reading a report in the Palm Beach Post about some middle school science teachers who have abandoned hands-on lessons in favor of 1950's style lectures. Bottom line, he said, this shouldn't even be an option.

So he wrote a guest column for the Gradebook. Here's a snippet:

"Inquiry-driven pedagogies help many more students learn with understanding than lectures do.  And with students' career prospects now so dependent on how good they are at science, it is no longer permissible to keep lecturing when so many more students would master science concepts in a "hands-on" learning environment."

Continue reading for Cottle's full thoughts.

"Allison Ross at the Palm Beach Post reported in this morning's paper that the science teachers at Loxahatchee's Osceola Creek Middle School have gotten rid of "hands-on" science laboratories in their classrooms.  Science department head Greg Loumanis was quoted by Ross saying that "he can teach more quickly and neatly by demonstrating instead of having students spend time clearing their desks, doing the lab and cleaning up."

I actually had some sympathy for Mr. Loumanis as I trudged off to my three-hour inquiry-driven (hands-on) introductory physics class for undergraduates in the life science fields this morning.  I was thinking about what he said as I unlocked my specially constructed 72-seat classroom with the chairs arranged around eight round tables equipped with three computers each.  The room's design was developed by Bob Beichner, the North Carolina State University physics professor who recently received the 2011 McGraw Award for Education.  I continued to think about Mr. Loumanis' frustration as I carried some of the lab equipment we used this morning — complete with easy-to-use computer interfaces — out of the storage closet attached to the classroom.  The closet is stocked with $50,000 worth of equipment purchased by my Dean last year so we could offer this course.  After I told my students that Friday's quiz had demonstrated that they hadn't learned last week's topic as well as I wanted them to, and that we were going to repeat the previous week's work to get it right, I wondered how Mr. Loumanis would have handled that situation.  My students attacked their work with intensity, and I wondered how the Osceola Creek seventh-graders would have responded.

My university continues to invest in inquiry-driven instruction in physics because the student learning gains in these "studio" classes are more than double what they are in traditional lecture classes and we measure them every semester with assessment instruments developed by experts in the field of physics education research.  This is not an isolated result — decades of educational research have demonstrated similar results in physics and other subjects at every level from university down to elementary school.  Only last week, the Orlando Sentinel ran an article on a Catholic high school that has adopted the same instructional model as we have and has made capital and personnel investments to improve student learning.

Middle schools should be teaching science by inquiry — "hands-on," as Post reporter Ross called it — in every class.  A few students in every class succeed at learning science by the lecture method (or "direct instruction" as the psychology professor from Carnegie Mellon quoted in the Post article called it).  Certainly I did — that's why I'm a physics professor.  But inquiry-driven pedagogies help many more students learn with understanding than lectures do.  And with students' career prospects now so dependent on how good they are at science, it is no longer permissible to keep lecturing when so many more students would master science concepts in a "hands-on" learning environment.

But Mr. Loumanis and his colleagues at Osceola Creek Middle School seem to have some serious obstacles when it comes to implementing hands-on pedagogies.  For one thing, they may have a shortage of funds to buy the supplies necessary to do laboratory measurements - much less the high tech equipment we use to make the connection between fundamental principles of nature and measurements so transparent to students.  Mr. Loumanis and his colleagues probably don't have the ideal classroom configuration for an inquiry-driven class.  It seems unlikely that the Osceola Creek teachers have had the months-long professional development experiences that are considered essential by physics education researchers.

One obstacle that Mr. Loumanis cited in the Post article that has been addressed by the State of Florida is the difficulty of fitting all the topics in the state's science standards into a school year.  I was a member of the committee that wrote the state's new standards, which were approved in 2008 and are being implemented this fall.  We were instructed to cut the number of "benchmarks" (topics) in half, and at least in middle school physical science, we did so.  As a result, the problem of having too many topics to cover in a year should now be reduced, if not solved altogether.

In contrast, FCAT science testing is still being done badly at the middle school level.  The idea that a single test in 8th grade can meaningfully measure three years' worth of science learning is just silly.  Instead, the state should adopt an end-of-course testing regime for middle school science, as it has for biology classes in high schools.  Middle schools should devote one year each to Earth/space, life and physical sciences in the middle schools, and should have an end-of-course test for each subject.  Such tests combined with prudent standards would make the testing program a positive instead of the negative it is now.

If the Florida is serious about improving science instruction, as Governor Scott recently said, than the state will have to make investments in facilities, equipment, professional development and assessment to make inquiry work at all educational levels.  Going back to the lecture method, as the Osceola Creek teachers have, shouldn't be an option."

[Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 6:17am]


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