Palm Beach County middle school rebels against “hands-on” learning

From the Palm Beach Post, a cautionary tale on science education reform:

Greg Loumanis says he’s “insulted” by some of the hands-on learning activities that are suggested to science teachers.

Even some of the hands-on labs he finds helpful, he says he can teach more quickly and neatly by demonstrating instead of having students spend time clearing their desks, doing the lab and cleaning up.

So a few years ago, Loumanis – the science department head at Osceola Creek Middle School in Loxahatchee – and some of his fellow teachers made an unorthodox decision: They opted to get rid of hands-on science labs in their classrooms.

As one of the authors of the new middle school physical science standards, I want to scream when I read this.

There are so many questions here:  What are the qualifications of the Osceola Creek science teachers?  How much professional development did they have to prepare for inquiry-driven teaching?  The new standards went into effect only this year – do they help or hurt?

And of course, all this raises questions about how science learning is assessed in Florida’s schools.

h/t Gradebook morning education news roundup.

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6 Responses to Palm Beach County middle school rebels against “hands-on” learning

  1. Jonathan Smith says:

    I’ve said this before. I think learning to be a scientist is much like an apprenticeship, you can’t learn to be a serious mechanical engineer if you never set foot in a machine shop, even though that simulation might help you learn the concepts involved. Experimental science requires something like a green thumb, a hard to describe ability to use your tools with just the right touch. Many experiments are technically challenging, and require dexterity and experience to do them well.

  2. Bob Calder says:

    I just took a position in the PB district at a school with kindergarten through high school. Though I’m not a science teacher, I saw our elementary staff introduced to hands-on projects through a 2 hour workshop by a vendor. I suggested the high school science staff mentor the elementary staff by modeling proper behavior and the principal agreed. (Our middle school and high school staff is ridiculously over-qualified though we will have a typical Title One score profile of under 30% passing the EOC.)

  3. Bob Calder says:

    The first post was about district hand waving as a cheap substitute for training. This one is about another contributor, trust. What I do know about is how to be dependent on technology and what it’s like to feel abandoned when nobody will buy the stuff you need to teach. The fact is, if the district doesn’t invest in refreshing equipment, the time you put into developing curriculum is wasted. I’m not saying it may happen. I’m saying it is virtually certain unless buy-in is present at several levels of “leadership”. The probability of the planets aligning in the future? Nil. So it’s likely that teachers feel the need to take control of destiny?

    Bringing “leadership” downward successively from Washington, Tallahassee, district board budgets, curriculum managers, and giving it back to the principal would be a nice first step.

  4. Doc Carr says:

    I’m glad you finally opened comments back up!

    You left out the most important part of the article: “74 percent of Osceola Creek’s eighth-graders scored a 3 or better on the science FCAT last year, compared to only 46 percent of eighth-graders statewide with those scores.”

    I think you are being pretty hard on someone when you haven’t walked in his shoes for a year. The data of relevance to a Middle school — science FCAT — are truly outstanding for this teacher and his colleagues, so you should consider if your experience with a selective population of high-SAT adult university students applies in a classroom with a far more diverse population of tween children, let alone a more typical classroom in this state than that particular one. [I looked it up and it has only about a quarter of its students eligible for reduced price lunch compared to almost half statewide, although its fraction of gifted students is well below the state average.] That district’s graduation rate and college attendance rate is probably above average.

    Just consider his point about student behavior problems during what students might treat as a free day. A significant fraction of middle school students are reading and doing math well below grade level and on track to drop out as soon as they are old enough. Only a tiny fraction will end up in a junior-level pre-med physics class at a moderately selective university, even in the best of all possible worlds. Remember, about 25% don’t graduate from HS in this state, but that group is ALL still in middle school.

    I’d guess that some of this teacher’s frustration is with curricular ideas generated by ed researchers or pitched by salesmen who have never taught in a middle school science classroom, let alone taught in one for a decade, and are unfamiliar with the background and preparation of a particular group of students.

  5. Bob Calder says:

    Doc, My thought on labs is that they are aimed at the vast middle of the student body where anything remotely exciting is desperately appreciated by students that lack enrichment. Also don’t forget that middle schools are small and average scores are affected by very small numbers – even more so by the outliers.

    • Doc Carr says:

      I guess that school, with 845 students, is small. It is a lot smaller than mine was. But that said, the number quoted is a pass rate, not the average score.

      I agree on the “remotely exciting” point, but there are many ways to achieve that within the time and cost constraints of middle school. We have a fairly expensive cart that presents a counter-intuitive and very surprising result concerning projectile motion, but I know it can also be done with a wagon and a basketball. Either one will get them thinking, and I’d guess that this last detail is what makes this group of teachers effective. (Heard a great talk today about what TIMMS has learned about the primacy of thinking over any of the superficial, yet huge, differences between pedagogies used in different countries.)

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