Improving Educational Standards, is an editorial in a recent Science magazine (1Feb 2013) that discussing the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). This document was designed by the governors of the 50 states to develop common standards built around inquiry-centered education in the sciences. Ideally, this is meant to present core material not as a group of facts to be memorized, but as tools that can be uncovered with a more Socratic method of study.
I love the idea of it and I wish it was the way I taught. I imagine it to be a lot more fun for everyone involved. But I do have reservations. I’ve been a student in classes that use this method very effectively (I’m thinking specifically of Dr. Koretzky who did a phenomenal job of teaching T cell biology in my first year graduate immunology class at UPenn. But, then again, he’s brilliant. Over the top brilliant. And he knows the literature cold, so he is able to recall and incorporate specific data that would result from student-suggested experiments.
But how many teachers can do this? Remember, these standards are going into effect for K-12 classrooms. I don’t mean to suggest that teachers aren’t smart or capable. But I do mean to say that Socratic method works well for some educators who are both capable and comfortable with that method of instruction.
I have also sat in lectures that were so focused, informative and entertaining that I would not have traded away, especially if these same instructors would not have been comfortable teaching in any other way.
On the other hand, there are the students. How many students will get engaged by this change in focus? Will it still be the same minority of students who already contribute to classroom discussion? My hope, of course, is that starting children early will cultivate a new crop of students that feel personally involved in their education.
Much has been made of the various approaches to education that different countries make, from allowing the pressure to succeed rest on students, as is done in South Korea, or by focusing on educator preparation, as is done in Finland.
NYTimes article provides some answers to the question of how the US rates against other countries in science and math education.
One way to answer this is to look to data like these that identify top-performing countries. How do other countries, ones with best practices that should provide models of education, approach teaching methods?
This table is from the Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study , providing a ranking of 8th graders’ science literacy scores.
The Center for International Benchmarking overview of the South Korean instructional system provides some predictable explanations for their educational exceptionalism.
Once they reach age fifteen, South Korean students attend school on average 1020 hours a year. This is higher than the OECD average of 902 hours a year, and does not account for additional time spent in extra classes, with private tutors and in hagwons. Some estimates put the average total amount of time spent in school or studying as high as fourteen hours a day, five days a week, though other measures are more tempered; an OECD study indicates that overall, Korean students study, on average, an additional three hours a day compared to their counterparts in any of the other OECD countries. They also sleep an hour less compared to students in the US, the UK, Sweden, Finland and Germany and exercise 22 minutes less.
-Center for International Benchmarking
Of course, this pressure to succeed has a price. South Korea has the highest suicide rate among economically developed countries, with a correspondingly high number of adolescent deaths.
A defining characteristic of Finland’s educational success is its devotion to cultivating and supporting high level teachers. All teachers in Finland have master’s degrees.
Most observers have come to believe that, if there is a key to the success of the Finnish system, it is the quality of their teachers and the trust that the Finnish people have vested in them. Some would argue that this, in some sense, makes the Finnish case irrelevant to the decisions to be made by other countries, because they lack the culture in which such a high value is placed on teachers and teaching. But, when one examines the specific policies that the Finns have adopted with respect to the recruitment, selection, training, supervision and support of teachers, and the way in which the intense focus on teacher quality is matched to the Finnish approach to accountability, curriculum, instruction and school management, then one begins to see that teacher quality in Finland is not the result of an unmatchable culture, but rather of a specific highly integrated system of policies and structures that other nations can emulate to produce a culture that is no less supportive of teachers and no less likely to result in superior student performance.
-Center for International Benchmarking
Recently, The Economist declared that the Scandinavian countries may be models of economic success as well. This is of note because many would expect that, yes, strong governmental support, like that found in socialist countries can lead to strong civil servant preparation, but at what cost to the population? Don’t these policies lead to overwhelming governmental debt?
In fact, it is just the opposite. Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all carry significantly less Gross Government Debt as a percentage of GDP:
Overall, I believe that there are many paths to success. Many countries have developed their own strategies that fall in line with their other cultural beliefs, opinions about education and dependence on student’s successes for a sense of value. So, while I applaud these new standards and wish for their success, I remain skeptical that anything short of a holistic national change in the way that we view and value education in this country will make real, lasting change.