Monday, June 28, 2010

The Decline of Creative Teaching

A feature article in this week's Time Magazine titled Thomas Edison; Why He's Relevant Today bemoans the decline of scientific innovation and careers among the American students of today. The article points out that the U.S. now ranks near the bottom in the proportion of college degrees awarded in science and engineering compared to other industrialized nations. Also of doctorate degrees granted by U.S. universities in science and engineering in 2007, more than half went to foreign nationals. During the time of Thomas Edison, and for one hundred years thereafter the U.S. led the world in scientific discoveries and inventions. The authors point out that when one considers the need for new and cleaner forms of energy and other technology challenges of today there is a critical need to encourage American students to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Edison. Yet compared to the push by the National Science Foundation in the 1960's and 70's to advance science and math education partly because of the US/Russia space race, today there seems little effort to promote science and math related careers in our schools.

I was a young high school science teacher in the 60's and 70's and I remember with great fondness the push led by the National Science Foundation to encourage innovative and exciting techniques by science and math teachers. The idea was to demonstrate to students the excitement of scientific discovery by teaching science using a laboratory approach. Before the teacher described a basic law or theory of science, the teacher led student inquiry efforts in the laboratory so students could arrive at an appropriate explanation for a phenomenon of nature the same way real scientists have always done it. It worked! You could feel the excitement in the laboratory as first one or two then the majority of students experienced the thrill of scientific discovery. Those lessons I believe stuck with many of our students throughout their lives. Most of my science students developed a true appreciation of science and the scientific method. Many went on to become engineers, doctors, and even science teachers.

In contrast to today's heavy handed directives for improving instruction by both the Federal and State authorities, the NSF initiative for improving Science and Math instruction involved no intimidation of teachers. There was no quota set for numbers of students who were to attain proficiency, no threat of firing teachers who did not produce a certain passing rate. There was not even a standardized test score required of all students and there were no grade level expectations (GLEs). Surely without state or federal imposed standards and achievement expectations there could be no expectations of success!

Yet the Science and Math push of the 60's and 70's was considered a resounding success. Many more of our students than before went on to achieve college degrees in math and science and there was a general surge of scientific achievement in the U.S. that still has lasting effects today. How could such a program have succeeded without the enforcement of accountability measures?

The National Science Foundation initiative for promoting math and science in the 60's and 70's was based almost totally on the use of incentives to teachers and their schools. Math and Science teachers were offered 8 to 10 weeks courses at key universities where the new laboratory approaches were taught by professors who were considered leaders in their field. The teachers selected for these projects were paid a generous stipend and were provided room and board for these summer institutes. In addition, their school was awarded an equipment and supply allocation so that the new textbooks, lab equipment and supplies could be purchased. All that was required of the teachers and their schools was that the new curriculum in science and math be added in at least one section, and that the teachers trained become mentors for other teachers who may also adopt the new teaching methods. The teachers participating in these institutes were expected to be creative in the teaching of math and science using the new laboratory techniques. In short, teachers were treated as professionals, not as mindless tools of the education policy makers! The idea was not to teach a certain number of GLEs, but to use creativity to instill a love of science and math in middle through high school students. Considering that this program was funded by the NSF for only a few years, its impact on the teaching of science and math was enormous. If such a program existed today, I believe there would be no crisis in the promotion of math and science careers.

I have great concern that the current trend stressing the teaching of a set quantity of math, and science concepts or GLEs instead of emphasizing in-depth understanding of how such concepts apply in real life and how scientists and mathematicians work and appreciate their careers will have the effect of discouraging rather than promoting math and science careers. In addition, I expect much less enthusiasm and creativity from the teachers who are now forced to produce test results rather than the joy of learning! I am waiting impatiently for the true educators out there to stand up to education decision makers who often have never set foot in a classroom and set our public schools on a truly effective course.

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