Monday, October 13, 2008

Science Framework

This was actually my third time examining the California content standards for the sciences. I had to go through this document with a fine-toothed comb when I was studying for my two rounds of CSET exams in early 2007 and early 2008. Of course, in those cases I had a month or more to review them, not four days in the middle of the midterm week. ^_^ Needless to say, I gave the document a far more thorough examination the first two times.

Now that I'm actually attempting to teach this stuff to students, my primary reaction to the list of standards is: "Yeah, great. And while I'm at it, let me spin some straw into gold for you." I have one semester to teach my students all the biology they will get in high school. Even with two-hour blocks --which I consider the absolute minimum to get anything accomplished in a lab course -- that's not remotely enough time to address all of the standards they present. I my planning this year by cutting down to three content areas, then eliminated one of those during the summer retreat. Now I'm at the end of the time I had set aside for the first unit, and my students still need more time working with this material to really get it. If they can leave my class with a genuine understanding of physiology and homeostasis, and nothing else, I'll count that a victory at this point.

Having high standards is all well and good, and I believe in holding students to a high bar for achievement. What I've discovered in the last seven weeks is the difference between a high bar and an impossible bar. My students are not prepared, at this age level and maturity level, to process all of the information that the Science Framework asks them to process. If I had four years with them, I might be able to build understanding of all of the content standards for one of the sciences. As it is, though, I need to choose between breadth and depth, and our school's charter is clear on which one wins out.

At any rate, a lot of the stuff they want students to know is really only of tangential importance:

Students know meiosis is an early step in sexual reproduction in which the pairs of chromosomes separate and segregate randomly during cell division to produce gametes containing one chromosome of each type.
(Biology Standard 2a)
Is meiosis an important biological concept? Yes, absolutely -- if you're planning on pursuing a degree in biology. As such, it's absolutely an essential standard for a university-level bio course. But I feel fairly safe in saying that most of my students do not need to know this. I would much rather throw out all of meiosis, all of Mendelian Genetics, and spend extra time on proper sex education and risk assessment. It doesn't matter how much they know about how sex works, on a genetic level, if they don't understand how to make good choices about their own sexual reproduction.

The key here is to separate out the important from the relevant and timely. Many of the content standards fall into the former but not the latter. Unfortunately, as long as the government bureaucrats overseeing school "reform" fail to understand that distinction, it's likely that we're going to keep bashing our heads against the wall, throwing a mountain of information at students and hoping desperately that it sticks.

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