One would believe that the most affluent and open country on the planet would have one of the best, if not the best, education systems. Yet, the United States of America distinguishes itself by being thoroughly mediocre in a ranking of developed nations in science, mathematics and reading. How can we makes amends for our children?
Take the 2009 PISA test, which assessed the knowledge of students from 65 countries and economies—34 of which are members of the development organization the OECD, including the United States—in math, science, and reading. Of the OECD countries, the United States came in 17th place in science literacy; of all countries and economies surveyed, it came in 23rd place. The U.S. score of 502 practically matched the OECD average of 501. That puts us firmly in the middle. Where we don’t want to be.
What do the leading countries do differently? To find out, Slate asked science teachers from five countries that are among the world’s best in science education—Finland, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, and Canada—how they approach their subject and the classroom. Their recommendations: Keep students engaged and make the science seem relevant.
Finland: “To Make Students Enjoy Chemistry Is Hard Work”
Finland was first among the 34 OECD countries in the 2009 PISA science rankings and second—behind mainland China—among all 65 nations and economies that took the test. Ari Myllyviita teaches chemistry and works with future science educators at the Viikki Teacher Training School of Helsinki University.
Finland’s National Core Curriculum is premised on the idea “that learning is a result of a student’s active and focused actions aimed to process and interpret received information in interaction with other students, teachers and the environment and on the basis of his or her existing knowledge structures.”
My conception of learning lies strongly on this citation from our curriculum. My aim is to support knowledge-building, socioculturally: to create socially supported activity in student’s zone of proximal development (the area where student need some support to achieve next level of understanding or skill). The student’s previous knowledge is the starting point, and then the learning is bound to the activity during lessons—experiments, simulations, and observing phenomena.
The National Core Curriculum also states, “The purpose of instruction in chemistry is to support development of students’ scientific thinking and modern worldview.” Our teaching is based on examination and observations of substances and chemical phenomena, their structures and properties, and reactions between substances. Through experiments and theoretical models, students are taught to understand everyday life and nature. In my classroom, I use discussion, lectures, demonstrations, and experimental work—quite often based on group work. Between lessons, I use social media and other information communication technologies to stay in touch with students.
In addition to the National Core Curriculum, my school has its own. They have the same bases, but our own curriculum is more concrete. Based on these, I write my course and lesson plans. Because of different learning styles, I use different kinds of approaches, sometimes theoretical and sometimes experimental. Always there are new concepts and perhaps new models to explain the phenomena or results.
To make students enjoy learning chemistry is hard work. I think that as a teacher, you have to love your subject and enjoy teaching even when there are sometimes students who don´t pay attention to you. But I get satisfaction when I can give a purpose for the future by being a supportive teacher.
New Zealand: “Students Disengage When a Teacher Is Simply Repeating Facts or Ideas”
New Zealand came in seventh place out of 65 in the 2009 PISA assessment. Steve Martin is head of junior science at Howick College. In 2010, he received the prime minister’s award for science teaching.
Science education is an important part of preparing students for their role in the community. Scientific understanding will allow them to engage in issues that concern them now and in the future, such as genetically modified crops. In New Zealand, science is also viewed as having a crucial role to play in the future of the economic health of the country. This can be seen in the creation of the “Prime Minister’s Science Prizes,” a program that identifies the nation’s leading scientists, emerging and future scientists, and science teachers.
The New Zealand Science Curriculum allows for flexibility depending on contextual factors such as school location, interests of students, and teachers’ specialization. The curriculum has the “Nature of Science” as its foundation, which supports students learning the skills essential to a scientist, such as problem-solving and effective communication. The Nature of Science refers to the skills required to work as a scientist, how to communicate science effectively through science-specific vocabulary, and how to participate in debates and issues with a scientific perspective.
School administrators support innovation and risk-taking by teachers, which fosters the “let’s have a go” attitude. In my own classroom, I utilize computer technology to create virtual science lessons that support and encourage students to think for themselves and learn at their own pace. Virtual Lessons are Web-based documents that support learning in and outside the classroom. They include support for students of all abilities by providing digital resources targeted at different levels of thinking. These could include digital flashcards that support vocabulary development, videos that explain the relationships between ideas or facts, and links to websites that allow students to create cartoon animations. The students are then supported by the use of instant messaging, online collaborative documents, and email so they can get support from their peers and myself at anytime. I provide students with various levels of success criteria, which are statements that students and teachers use to evaluate performance. In every lesson I provide the students with three different levels of success criteria, each providing an increase in cognitive demand. The following is an example based on the topic of the carbon cycle:
I can identify the different parts of the carbon cycle.
I can explain how all the parts interact with each other to form the carbon cycle.
I can predict the effect that removing one part of the carbon cycle has on the environment.
These provide challenge for all abilities and at the same time make it clear what students need to do to be successful. I value creativity and innovation, and this greatly influences the opportunities I provide for students.
My students learn to love to be challenged and to see that all ideas help develop greater understanding. Students value the opportunity to contribute to others’ understanding, and they disengage when a teacher is simply repeating facts or ideas.