Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Science comprehension slipping badly among British pupils

Given the way science teaching has been dumbed down almost to vanishing point, this is no surprise. The article below is written as if it were IQ being tested but that is careless. The researcher in fact makes the point that on a task which relies on IQ rather than specific knowledge, there has been no change. It is the teaching that has deteriorated. The kids all know about global warming, the desirability of a low-fat diet and other myths but would they be able to explain the periodic table to you?

Bright teenagers are a disappearing breed, an alarming new study has revealed. The intellectual ability of the country's cleverest youngsters has declined radically, almost certainly due to the rise of TV and computer games and over-testing in schools. The 'high-level thinking' skills of 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976.

The findings contradict national results which have shown a growth in top grades in SATs at 14, GCSEs and A-levels. But Michael Shayer, the professor of applied psychology who led the study, believes that is the result of exam standards 'edging down'. His team of researchers at London's King's College tested 800 13 and 14-year-olds and compared the results with a similar exercise in 1976.

The tests were intended to measure understanding of abstract scientific concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight, which set pupils up for success not only in maths and science but also in English and history. One test asked pupils to study a pendulum swinging on a string and investigate the factors that cause it to change speed. A second involved weights on a beam. In the pendulum test, average achievement was much the same as in 1976.

But the proportion of teenagers reaching top grades, demanding a 'higher level of thinking', slumped dramatically. Just over one in ten were at that level, down from one in four in 1976. In the second test, assessing mathematical thinking skills, just one in 20 pupils were achieving the high grades - down from one in five in 1976.

Professor Shayer said: 'The pendulum test does not require any knowledge of science at all. 'It looks at how people can deal with complex information and sort it out for themselves.' He believes most of the downturn has occurred over the last ten to 15 years. It may have been hastened by the introduction of national curriculum testing and accompanying targets, which have cut the time available for teaching which develops more advanced skills.

Critics say schools concentrate instead on drilling children for the tests. 'The moment you introduce targets, people will find the most economical strategies to achieve them,' said Professor Shayer. 'In the case of education, I'm sure this has had an effect on driving schools away from developing higher levels of understanding.' He added that while the numeracy hour in primary schools appears to have led to some gains, it has 'squeezed out a lot of things teachers might otherwise be doing'.

Professor Shayer believes the decline in brainpower is also linked to changes in children's leisure activities. The advent of multi-channel TV has encouraged passive viewing while computer games, particularly for boys, are feared to have supplanted time spent playing with tools, gadgets and other mechanisms.

Professor Shayer warned that without the development of higher-order thinking skills, the future supply of scientists will be compromised. 'We don't even have enough scientists now,' he said.

Previous research by Professor Shayer has shown that 11-year-olds' grasp of concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight appears to have declined over the last 30 years. Their mental abilities were up to three years behind youngsters tested in in 1975.

His latest findings, due to appear in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, come in the wake of a report by Dr Aric Sigman which linked the decline in intellectual ability to a shift away from art and craft skills in both schools and the home. Dr Sigman said practical activities such as building models and sandcastles, making dens, using tools, playing with building blocks, knitting, sewing and woodwork were being neglected. Yet they helped develop vital skills such as understanding dimension, volume and density.

Earlier this month the Government bowed to mounting pressure and scrapped SATs for 14-year-olds. Ministers have also created an independent exams watchdog and promised a return to traditional, open-ended questions at A-level plus a new A* grade to mark out the brightest students. A spokesman for the Department for Children said last night: 'Good teachers do not need to teach to the test and there is no evidence that such practice is widespread. 'We have already taken steps to reduce the testing burden, but targets and testing are integral features of any work to drive up standards.'

Last month an Ofsted report said millions of teenagers were finishing compulsory education with a weak grasp of maths because half of the country's schools fail to teach the subject as well as they could. Inspectors said teachers were increasingly drilling pupils to pass exams instead of encouraging them to understand crucial concepts. The report said: 'It is of vital importance to shift from a narrow emphasis towards a focus on pupils' mathematical understanding.'


Australia: Stupid Leftist school "discipline" system a failure

All they do is nag misbehaving kids

A battle is brewing to contain a 26 per cent spike in students being suspended from Queensland schools over the past three years. The alarming wave of aggressive and disrespectful behaviour from southeast and north Queensland students comes as the Government pours another $28.6 million into "positive behaviour strategies" this financial year.

Education Queensland's prolonged trial of the Schoolwide Positive Behaviour Support program now runs in one in six of Queensland's 1250 state schools. But an arsenal of strategies including the costly SWPBS appears to have done little yet to curb problem behaviour. Brisbane and Sunshine Coast schools issued 31 per cent more suspensions and 11 per cent more expulsions in 2007-08 than in 2005-06. During the same period, suspensions rose 25 per cent at Gold Coast and Ipswich region schools, and 22 per cent in and around Townsville.

Last week, The Courier-Mail received a flood of messages from readers concerned about "soft" disciplinary codes, particularly the inability of teachers to use the threat of force, or simple punishments to exert control. The Responsible Thinking Classrooms approach was criticised. This is where bullies and other troublemakers go for "time out" after being asked a series of questions.

In such scenarios troublemakers are asked: "What are you doing? What are the rules? What happens when you break the rules? Is that what you want to happen? What do you want now? What will happen if you disrupt again?". The effectiveness of Positive Learning Centres, where suspended students undergo behaviour programs at one of 14 non-school facilities, also came under fire. The new SWPBS program includes the RTC time-out approach but academics, psychologists and politicians yesterday said it did not work in many instances.

While Griffith University school of education's Fiona Bryer backed the latest schoolwide approach for being evidence-based, she questioned the use of RTCs. "If this is repeated and there's no change in student behaviour then the student definitely wins," Dr Bryer said. The education behavioural specialist said she was "definitely anti-punishment" but said errant students needed clearly defined consequences. Dr Bryer said parents and teachers needed to be trained in proven behavioural techniques and it was critical the Government shared and acted on the data collated from SWPBS.

Psychologist Michael Carr-Greg said time-outs and talks might work for some, but it was important to get a primary schooler's behaviour corrected before high school.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Rod Welford said positive results had been gleaned from the SWPBS trials. "Data shows that the program helps reduce problem behaviour and increases academic performance," she said.

Opposition education spokesman John-Paul Langbroek said the statistics on suspensions called for change. "What's happening at the moment isn't working," he said. Mr Langbroek said if elected the state Liberal National Party would employ 50 new teachers trained in behaviour management at a cost of $16 million over four years, to combat the problem.


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