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Arguing over argumentation: BC survey finds science teachers wary of students’ abilities, standardizeds tests

Just like many other important fields these days, the nature of education is changing. Teachers and students alike are discovering new challenges to creating the best possible classroom experience.

Those challenges are just as prevalent in science classes, and researchers have identified two of the major hiccups in science classrooms: firstly, the teachers’ perception of what students can do, and secondly, the pressures placed on public school students by standardized testing.

A team from Boston College’s Lynch School of Education surveyed science teachers across the country and revealed that many teachers worry that their students do not have the academic strength necessary to benefit from a practice known as argumentation, according to a Saturday EurekAlert! press release.

Katherine McNeill, a professor in the Lynch School and one of the study’s leaders, said education non-profit Achieve, which develops standards for school subjects in the United States, released “next generation” science standards for schools last year that focus more on reaching conclusions through logical reasoning.

“Instead of focusing on students just memorizing facts, things like a force is just a push and a pull, they instead focus on having kids engaging in science practices where they have to apply these different science concepts,” McNeill said. “They call for doing things like analyzing data and constructing a claim where they [students] support it with evidence.”

However, McNeill’s survey of science teachers revealed that many teachers worry that adopting argumentation as an educational basis may not work as well as they hope.

“When we surveyed and interviewed the teachers, particularly the teachers who taught in schools where there were students with low socioeconomic statuses, those teachers in particular talked about how the previous science standards and the current science tests really focus much more on memorizing facts,” she said. “They felt like they were very pushed to cover what’s on the tests … While they [science teachers] saw argumentation as important, they didn’t see it as something they would currently assess.”

McNeill said there is potential for teachers to reassess their instruction if standardized tests were changed to require less memorized information.

“Considering the current pressures that these teachers feel, I think we need to help them understand how engaging in argumentation can still help kids achieve these science goals that are being assessed on the current tests,” she said. “There is some research that suggests that involving kids in more problem solving and inquiry work can help them gain a deeper understanding of science concepts.”

While the study focused on elementary, middle and high school education, McNeill said argumentation as a method should be equally important in college science classes, including those at Boston University.

“I think the same learning goals are important for college,” she said. “Unfortunately I think that college education also focuses too much on just memorizing facts, versus critical thinking … On the college level we should also be shifting the focus from memorizing facts to critical thinking skills such as argumentation.”

Several students enrolled in science courses at BU said their classes balance argumentation with memorization of information.

“The style depends on the class,” said Angelica Colletti, a College of General Studies sophomore majoring in health sciences. “In my anatomy class, you have to be in lab in order for it to be hands on, but, as far as lecture goes, it is strict memorization … My tests do call for deeper understanding because I have to connect a lot of ideas in order to answer the questions.”

College of Arts and Sciences freshman Elizabeth Higgins, who is enrolled in a biology course titled Human Infectious Diseases, said she enjoys the way her course is taught.

“In lecture there’s a lot of memorization, but labs involve a lot of critical thinking,” she said. “The course is very even in that way … We have lecture exams, which pulls from memorization of the lecture notes, but then we have lab exams for the more hands-on testing.”

Achieve’s standards emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills for students, something that aligns with national standards, McNeill said.

In 2010, Massachusetts adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of guidelines launched on a national scale in an attempt to refocus the nature of public elementary and secondary education. The standards have mostly been put into practice in schools for the current 2013-14 academic year.

However, the BC study’s results came at a time when the Common Core standards are taking serious and frequent criticism from members of the public. News outlets across the country have reported on packed Board of Education meetings and parents defending their children against the requirements.

A Monday blog in the Washington Post argued from a teacher’s standpoint that Common Core gives students “no time to think.”

McNeill said the researchers hope that testing is adjusted so that the standards of argumentation can be met more appropriately.

“Our hope is, with these new standards, that the assessments will shift as well,” she said. “However, as of right now, your typical kindergarten through 12th grade assessment is often much more focused on defining and identifying things and not on critical thinking skills.”

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