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Science Education Confusion

The Next Generation Science Standards that premiered on Apr. 9 are designed to increase the number of high school graduates who opt for scientific and technical majors in college ("New Guidelines Call for Broad Changes in Science Education," The New York Times, Apr. 10). This is a worthy goal, but I question if those who were part of the consortium developing the standards fully understand the difference between curriculum and instruction.

Standardizing the body of skills and knowledge (curriculum) that is deemed important is one thing. But standardizing pedagogy (instruction) is quite another. In any subject, teachers who are responsible for teaching the same curriculum often do so in unique ways. I've long supported broadly stated objectives as helpful targets for teachers to aim at. But I've also cautioned against pressuring teachers to adopt uniform ways of teaching.

Science is no exception. There is more than one way for teachers to achieve their objectives. If teachers are constrained in their efforts, creativity will suffer and students will be shortchanged. When I taught English, department meetings stressed the importance of teachers working together toward the same ends. But at the same time, teachers were encouraged to tailor their instruction to the unique needs of their students. I don't see how science is any different.

By sheer coincidence, on the same day that the media reported the news about the new science standards, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial about a proposed fourth college system for California ("No teaching, just tests: A new California college?" Apr. 10). Called the New University of California, it would have no faculty and no teaching. Instead, students seeking a degree would study however they wanted (on the Internet, through books or with tutors) to pass an exam. In other words, students would instruct themselves to master the curriculum for any given subject. This is another example of the distinction between curriculum and instruction.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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