Upon further review...Paul Gross' critique of the NRC Science Framework

Guest Blogger

Guest blogger Ze'ev Wurman, an executive with Monolithic 3D, a Silicon Valley startup, has participated in developing California's education standards and assessments in mathematics since the mid-1990s. Between 2007 and 2009 he served as a senior policy adviser with the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

Paul Gross has done a fabulous job for Fordham distilling the essence of the recently published NRC Science Framework. His review deals with the Framework's content and rigor, as well as with its clarity and specificity. [pullquote]Gross...wisely observes that any good science program is an artful compromise between what is included and what is not.[/pullquote]Gross generally likes what he sees of the former, and wisely observes that any good science program is an artful compromise between what is included and what is not. The Framework also uses another device to clearly limit its expectations?the Boundary Statements that ?make explicit what is not expected of students at a given level.? Gross recognizes that such limitations amount to a matter of choice and illustrates it with the statement from the end of the 6-8 band:

Boundary Statement. In this grade band, the forces and structures within atoms and their role in the forces between atoms are not introduced?nor are the periodic table and the variety of types of chemical bonds.

Gross spends some time discussing the implication of such limits** and, ultimately, concludes ?that is a matter of professional (scientific and educational) opinion, and choices must be made.? Choices, indeed, must be made, yet this particular example of the Boundary Statement, one of only three examples in the Framework, raises quite a different issue. Expectations for the 6-8 band include students knowing that

?[a]ll substances are made from some 100 different types of atoms, which combine with one another in various ways. Atoms form molecules that range in size from two to thousands of atoms. ? [S]tudents should be able to distinguish between an atom and a molecule and the roles they play in the various states of matter. ? Using evidence collected and analyzed from their own investigations, evidence from outside sources,? students confirm a model that matter consists of atoms in motion ? Students can connect this particle model of matter to observations and present arguments based on it to defend the following claims: all substances are made from approximately 100 different types of atoms [etc.]?

It seems that the Framework's authors want students to know a whole lot about atoms, elements, and molecules; yet they decided to deprive them of the most powerful mental organizing tool invented?the periodic table of elements.[pullquote]It seems that the Framework's authors want students to know a whole lot about atoms, elements, and molecules; yet they decided to deprive them of the most powerful mental organizing tool invented?the periodic table of elements.[/pullquote] Perhaps excluding forces and structures within atoms makes sense, yet excluding the periodic table is akin to expecting students to memorize multiplication facts without teaching them about the decimal place-value system or about the multiplication table. This is not a simple matter of choice; it's a matter the Framework authors did not think clearly through.

Gross nicely states that a ?good framework proposes reasonable limitations and undertakes to justify them? and he finds the Framework quite good on science content and rigor. However, the Framework is deficient in its expectations of doing quantitative science, and for using analytical mathematics in support of science learning, as I have addressed elsewhere.

Beyond content in traditional domains of science, Gross finds much of the rest of the Framework less convincing. He questions the Framework's treatment of engaging in scientific inquiry as distinct from studying science facts. As he dryly notes, the evidence for being able to separate the two ?is thin to nonexistent in modern cognitive psychology.? He pointedly questions the wisdom of the Framework citing discredited post-modernist literature when discussing how science works, and he finally turns to perhaps the most significant change in this Framework, the addition of engineering.

Being an engineer myself, I found his critique scathing and on target. He observes that with the limited hours available for science, the addition of engineering seems counterproductive. He wonders whether it is driven by political motivations and finds the enthusiasm for it irrational. Perhaps his most telling question is ?Why not medicine then?? In my experience students, with few exceptions, are ill prepared to tackle engineering topics in K-12. Their mathematical knowledge is too limited, and this Framework's conspicuous math avoidance just makes it less probable that students will learn much beyond engineering appreciation. Teaching engineering in K-12 seems no more than fashionable nonsense. As with all other work-related skills that our schools sometimes attempt to teach, the employers' pleas are quite clear: Teach students how to read and write well, and how to understand basics of math and science; we will do the job training itself, thank you. (I am discussing engineering in general education here, not dedicated vocational and technical programs.)

But perhaps it is worthwhile to cite here the overarching goal of the new Framework:

The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.

Is this, really, an overarching goal of a nation that wants to be a technological leader of the world? To have students ?appreciate the beauty and wonder? of science, and to be ?careful consumers? of science and technology? Where is the actual knowledge of science and of its mathematical tools in this picture?

** The question of appropriateness of such boundary statements is not a trivial matter, or just a matter of making pedagogical choices. This is the first time I have seen a framework that explicitly and consistently tells teachers to put a ceiling on what they ought to teach their students. Until now, frameworks and standards were about what the average student is expected to know or, sometimes, what are the minimum expectations of them. Putting explicit ceiling on learning in the classroom, independent of how strong the class is, seems wrong-headed and deserves a much broader philosophical debate.

-Ze'ev Wurman

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