A few months ago, the US National Research Council produced a detailed plan for science education titled Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). It purports to revolutionize the way science is taught in the US “for the 21st century.”
First, this NGSS plan stresses the importance of the four Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Science becomes a collective effort, through class discussions, experiments done in groups, and creative work by teams.
Secondly, the plan insists that the digital revolution be fully integrated into the teaching: the Internet and Wi-Fi have removed the walls of the classroom, extending the place of learning to home and elsewhere — anywhere that educational material can be accessed by the student and interacted with.
Thirdly, a new and important idea that this US education initiative introduces is the integration of engineering in the teaching of science. The NGSS plan proposes to do this by including “design” as a full-fledged element in the teaching of science: design of experiments, design of prototypes, design of computer programs, etc.
And last but not least, the National Research Council proposes to replace the idea of “skills” that pupils need to learn with “scientific practices”, that is, to teach the pupils from early on how scientists really work, not the simplistic “scientific method.” Indeed, the NGSS plan insists on making the history of science an integral part of the learning of science, showing how Pasteur, Dalton, Lavoisier, Einstein and Hubble made their discoveries. (I would add scientists like Ibn Al Haitham, whose methods were thoroughly modern.)
All these educational ideas can be highly relevant and useful for the Arab world, where the situation is depressing not just in terms of international test scores, but also in the low numbers of pupils majoring in science — a bleak prospect for the future of our region.
But in addition to curricular improvements that science education experts are identifying, the Arab world needs to address problems of policy and management.
Let me mention a few:
• Teachers are too heavily burdened. They have too many class hours and tasks. Salaries are too low to attract and retain the best and the brightest to the teaching profession.
• Often, a high pupil-to-teacher ratio prevents the implementation of hands-on methods, group work, project design and creativity.
• A lack of resources in many schools (laboratory equipment, computers, Internet access).
• A dearth of extra-classroom scientific activities, e.g., field trips, astronomical observations, discussions with scientists, etc.
But most importantly, what our educational system seems unable to achieve is explaining the nature of science as a general approach to exploring and understanding nature, whether for practical or conceptual purposes.
To remedy to the situation, I believe we educators need to stress the relevance of science to a host of societal issues, such as the environment, economics, etc.; we also need to re-train the teachers, especially by integrating today’s digital resources; and we need to lighten the curriculum and make it more cross-disciplinary.
All this needs to be done right away, if we do not want to remain at the very bottom of the international scale.
By Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, Professor of Physics and Associate Dean, AUS College of Arts and Sciences. This is Part 2 of an article that originally appeared in Gulf News’ “The Views” on February 1, 2013.
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