Deep and Wide

25 March 2009

I can't think of any educators who aren't overwhelmed by the amount of material they are supposed to "cover" with their students. I hate the term "coverage" (and its variations) as conversation should be more about what kids learn than what teachers cover. But I digress. The question really is, do we as teachers succumb to the volume of content...or do we pick out a few concepts for our students and delve deeply into that subject matter?

A recent article in Education Week renews this debate as it applies to science:

The scientific world is vast. One key to students' developing a strong understanding of it could be having them focus on relatively few topics, in great depth.

That is the main conclusion of a recent study that examines one of the most enduring debates in science instruction—whether "depth" or “breadth” of knowledge is most important. Its authors come down on the side of depth.

High school students who focus more intensely on core topics within their biology, chemistry, and physics classes fared better in beginning college science than those who delved a little bit into a larger list of topics, the study found. Observers say those findings could offer direction to developers of science curricula, tests, and textbooks.

A central finding is that "breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses," the authors conclude, "although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests."

On the surface, the argument of depth-based high school courses leading to college success makes some sense. "Mastery also can help students overcome common false impressions in science...'If you study something in depth, you have the time to deal with some of the misconceptions that impede you when you get to college,' Mr. Sadler said."

But not so fast, says ASCD. ASCD is not against depth in courses, but seems to believe that the research study's conclusions may be incorrect.
He basically said that while it was fair to look at shortcomings in high school science teaching, not enough attention gets paid to how college-level science is taught. College science courses are heavily oriented toward lectures and covering reams of material, he said. The goal often seems to be to weed out people who don't have the skills to pursue college science majors, Eberle told me, rather than attempting to nurture and build the skills and interests they already have.

Eberle's organization, of course, represents the K-12 teacher's perspective. But he's not the only science advocate I've heard make this argument about college science instruction. And he raises an important issue, particularly at a time when policymakers are keenly interested in boosting the number of students who pursue "STEM" careers. What if the "STEM pipeline" as it's sometimes called, is springing leaks at the entry-level undergraduate, rather than high school level? If anyone can point me to any useful data or studies on this point, I'd like to see it.
I kinda like putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Perhaps it isn't the "fault" of k-12 that students aren't performing well in college science courses. Maybe universities shouldn't throw stones at us until they have a look inside their own glass houses.

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