Over 400 8th grade science lessons were videotaped and analyzed as part of a study looking at how science is taught. Random classes in the U.S. and four other nations that perform higher than the U.S. on the international TIMMS test were included. The other four nations were Australia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Japan. Here is a clip from the NSTA Express email I received:
"A video study of eighth grade science classrooms in the United States and four other countries found that U.S. teachers focused on a variety of activities to engage students, but not in a consistent way that developed coherent and challenging science content. In comparison, classrooms in four other higher-achieving countries—Australia, the Czech Republic, Japan, and the Netherlands—exposed eighth graders to science lessons characterized by a core instructional approach that held students to high content standards and expectations for student learning.
The National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences released these and other findings in a report titled Teaching Science in Five Countries: Results From the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) 1999 Video Study that draws on analysis of 439 randomly selected videotaped classroom lessons in the participating countries. To view the reports and for more information, visit http://nces.ed.gov/timss.
A second report released by NCES compares science content in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2000 and TIMSS. To download, view, and print the publication as a PDF file, please visit:
The most interesting part of the report, in my opinion, is that U.S. classes tended to do numerous activities for the sake of doing an activity. The percentage of those hands-on activities (i.e. 'labs') that were actually related to course content was much smaller than activities done in the other countries. I would have to agree that science classes in American schools (including high schools), at least based on my own observations, do include activities for the sake of activities a great deal. Unfortunately, many teachers do not make it a point to have a lab experience relevant to what is being studied, as difficult as that is to believe.
Most science teachers in the U.S. do not have actual science research experience. In university education programs, education majors take a battery of courses including methods courses, but they rarely spend time in the lab for extended periods of time to do actual science research of any kind. Rather, in methods courses and then in student teaching, they are exposed to numerous examples of 'cookbook' labs that are recycled and passed on from generation to generation of teachers. Often these activities give students step by step instructions and even have fill in the blanks which guide students to answers. While these can be useful if students are learning a new procedure, it gives a very poor example of what science is and how it works. And if the activity is not even related to the content being studied, I know from talking with them specifically about this, students feel as if it is all just 'busy-work.' It is a turn-off for students to science in general, and in fact it seems as if a lack of interest in science among the masses begins around grades 5-7 or so, right in the middle school range.
We truly need to re-evaluate how we teach science, and begin acting like a scientist would by looking at actual data such as that presented in this and other studies. Real reform needs to begin in university teacher training programs for the next generation of teachers as well as in staff development programs for current teachers.