Monday, October 17, 2011

Science labs are messy

I was reading an article from The Palm Beach Post called "Science teachers at Loxahatchee middle school strike back against hands-on labs, but I could have sworn I was reading America's Finest (and funniest) News Source, The Onion.

Apparently science teacher Greg Loumanis is "insulted" by some of the hands-on learning activities that are suggested to science teachers.

Why is he insulted?

According to Loumanis, he is a "data-driven" teacher who finds hands-on science experiments both inefficient and messy, so his science department at Osceola Middle School in Loxahatchee opted to get rid of hands-on science labs in their classrooms.

What data has convinced these educators to abolish hands-on science labs?

Test scores.

Since Loumanis convinced a couple colleagues to throw lab activities "out the window"in 2008 in favor of watching videos and Powerpoint lectures, they've experienced significant rises in standardized test scores.

Another common problem educators face is that they are inundated with a pre-fabricated, content-bloated, top-down mandated curriculum that is a mile-wide and an inch thick, and encourages teachers to cover  everything at break-neck speeds while uncovering almost nothing. This is precisely what Howard Gardner is referring to when he says:
The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage.
I thought reading about a science teacher who abolished hands-on labs experiments was weird enough, but then I read this quote from a professor of psychology named David Klahr:
There's little evidence to support hands-on learning.
Upon reading this, I was stunned -- I had no idea how anyone with any kind of education, let alone a psychology professor, could make such a claim, but then I realized what Klahr might have meant:
There's little evidence to support hands-on learning as the most efficient way to get through a curriculum while simultaneously raising standardized test scores.
Near the end of the article, it is made clear that there are systemic pressures being placed on teachers from outside the classroom that affect their teaching, including increased emphasis on test-based accountability, pacing guides, and merit pay.

When teachers are under intense pressure to teach specific content in a specific way with their salaries married to student test scores, it should be no surprise that teachers feel like the only tool they have is a hammer and every kid looks like a nail.

While it's true that educators who have come to see hands-on learning as a messy, inefficient inconvenience have lost the plot, it's important to realize that these educators tend to be the product of an education system that has come to see student achievement as nothing more than high scores on bad tests.

In this case, the goal is as misguided as the method, and school becomes a massive exercise in missing the point.

I thought David Wees summarized this entire mess up nicely when he tweeted:
If you measure understanding of science using only tests, you don't need to use labs.
If this is true, is the logical conclusion to challenge the labs or the tests?

1 comment:

  1. As a former engineer (10 years before becoming an educator) and as a physics teacher now (for the last 10 years) I can say, without doubt, that hands-on experiments and projects are VITAL to learning science. Test scores are useless in most cases to evaluate learning. In science, we want students to learn how to explore, examine, question, solve problems, fail and retry, work as a team, and so much more. Test scores are the least thing we should be worrying about. My college ( is completely project based learning oriented and we LEARNed because of this.


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