WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question

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Margaret Honey

Margaret Honey

President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science

Transforming Science (Via Informal) Learning

Recent studies call attention to the fact that at the elementary level science is barely being taught. The situation is worse in schools that have been identified as in need of improvement, where science is entirely eclipsed by the subjects that students will be tested on, and these are the very same schools that are likely to have higher levels of underprivileged children. The evidence is clear – grade-level, high stakes testing is heavily biasing the curriculum toward the teaching of tested subjects and away from less frequently tested subjects like science. Further, when science is given time during the school week, students are much more likely to be memorizing information presented in textbooks and answering questions at the end of the chapter than engaging in the kind of real-world problem solving that is key to building young people’s passions for science learning.

While the endpoint of our current trajectory is clear, the future can be – and must be – different.  We know what can work to motivate children. Perhaps the greatest asset in redirecting our course is children’s innate curiosity about the world around them. Children are born curious and come equipped with a desire to learn that rivals even the most determined scientist. Early in school, however, this spark – what psychologists have dubbed intrinsic motivation – is all too frequently extinguished by the extrinsic goals and expectations of school. Fortunately, there is research-based evidence that says it is possible to rekindle this natural motivation to learn by designing environments that are supportive, that engage learners in meaningful activities, that lessen a student’s anxiety and fear, and that provide a level of challenge matched to students’ skills.

The Carnegie Corporation’s Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education argues that for such a transformation to occur we must move away from the current system of “telling” students about science to one that helps students gain critical problem-solving and inquiry skills in the context of relevant, real-world, interdisciplinary problems. While it’s clear from the Commission’s research that young people care deeply about contemporary science- and engineering-related problems and are motivated to solve them (e.g., health and global warming), we need to develop learning practices that can stimulate students’ passions for science and  methodologies that teachers can use that motivate students and support deeper learning.

By design, informal learning environments such as science centers are inherently “low stakes,” making them ideal environments in which to develop, test, and iterate new models of learning. Science centers encompass a diverse ecology of different engagement strategies, from kinetic to contemplative, from experiential to instructional. The thread through all of these strategies is unpressured exploration and invention – what the informal science field calls freechoice learning – the characteristics that define play and lead to creative thought and innovation.  The diversity of this ecology offers an unparalleled laboratory setting in which to investigate and incubate different strategies for different learners that sustain high levels of engagement in science with the possibility of supporting the deep learning of scientific content.

Copyright – Margaret Honey