Researcher advocates 'student-centered' approach to science education

Oct 16, 2012 by Barry Ray
Researcher advocates 'student-centered' approach to science education
Credit: Florida State University

(Phys.org)—A group of educational researchers at Florida State University are drawing widespread attention after their paper measuring the superior results of a more "student-centered" approach to teaching science was published in the pre-eminent journal Science.

The stakes are extraordinarily high, so it is critical that the United States find more effective ways of teaching the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in K-12 classrooms, said the paper's lead author, Ellen Granger.

"By many measures, the United States is not making much, if any, progress in science and math learning," said Granger, who is director of Florida State's Office of Science Teaching Activities and co-director of FSU-Teach. "Ultimately, this has the potential to put us at a global , in addition to not preparing our for their adult roles in dealing with the many future societal issues that will have their foundations in science."

Working with five colleagues, Granger compared science instruction as it looks in most U.S. elementary school classrooms today—what's known as "teacher-centered instruction"—with the "student-centered instruction" recently called for by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

The FSU researchers found that students who received student-centered instruction scored higher on tests measuring content knowledge and had a better understanding of the processes of science inquiry than those who were taught in the more traditional teacher-centered classrooms. Their findings were documented in the paper "The Efficacy of Student-Centered Instruction in Supporting Science Learning."

The study was a large-scale, randomized control trial comparing these two approaches using a space science unit. A total of 125 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and their 2,600 students participated—half in the teacher-centered (control) group and half in the student-centered (experimental) group.

In the teacher-centered model that is prevalent today, the act of "sense making"—mentally processing and developing an understanding of complex problems, then working toward solutions—is done by the teachers and relayed to their students through lectures and/or readings. They may also use hands-on activities, but usually these simply confirm what the teacher has already told the students.

"In teacher-centered instruction, the students do not have to do much thinking—they just follow the recipe," Granger said.

By contrast, in student-centered instruction, the teacher acts as a facilitator to support and guide students as they engage in scientific practices—the students are doing the sense making. This kind of teaching is difficult and requires high-quality professional development, but it tends to result in a deeper understanding of scientific principles and improved reasoning skills among students, Granger said.

Among the study's findings:

  • Children in the student-centered group scored significantly higher on content knowledge, knowledge about models and evidence in science, and understanding of science inquiry than students in the teacher-centered group. Some of these gains were still present above those of the teacher-centered group more than five months later.
  • Statistical models support the concept that learning science using models and evidence to back up ideas indirectly supports content knowledge gains.
  • In both groups of teachers, their scores were like a "dosage effect" for student outcomes, suggesting that student-centeredness is a feature of more effective teaching. The researchers used videos to ensure that teachers were faithful to either the student-center or teacher-centered approach, which previous studies had not addressed.
In addition to Granger, the research team consisted of Todd Bevis, a research associate in the Office of Science Teaching Activities; Yavuz Saka, a former FSU postdoctoral researcher now teaching at Bülent Ecevit University in Turkey; Professor Sherry Southerland of FSU's School of Teacher Education, who also co-directs FSU-Teach with Granger; Victor Sampson, an assistant professor in the School of Teacher Education; and Richard Tate, a retired College of Education faculty member specializing in applied statistics and measurement.

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More information: www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6103/105.full

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Forestgnome
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 16, 2012
It would be nice if they explained what "student-centered" teaching is. I could guess, but that wouldn't be very scientific.
drhoo
5 / 5 (3) Oct 16, 2012
I though we have known for a long time that directly solving problems is the way to learn something. Mathematics for instance cannot be learned by reading alone.
HannesAlfven
2 / 5 (8) Oct 16, 2012
The elephant in the room is that in order to perform student-centered learning, instructors must relinquish control over the inferential step sufficient for the student to imagine that they are drawing their own conclusions -- which begs the question: What happens when students actually disagree with conventional theory?

This is the ultimate irony of science education which consistently precludes the adoption of critical thinking techniques into science education: The fear of students believing in pseudoscience or "fringe" science induces an educational policy which relies more on teaching students *what* to think rather than *how* to think. But, without students actually practicing that process, they are simply engaging in a process of rote memorization.

Conventional science, it turns out, is its own worst enemy when it comes to teaching science. The culture of consensus in science simply precludes educational reform in science. If you want to fix science education, change this.
DaFranker
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
It would be nice if they explained what "student-centered" teaching is. I could guess, but that wouldn't be very scientific.

They did:
In the teacher-centered model that is prevalent today, the act of "sense making"—mentally processing and developing an understanding of complex problems, then working toward solutions—is done by the teachers and relayed to their students through lectures and/or readings. They may also use hands-on activities, but usually these simply confirm what the teacher has already told the students.

"In teacher-centered instruction, the students do not have to do much thinking—they just follow the recipe," Granger said.

By contrast, in student-centered instruction, the teacher acts as a facilitator to support and guide students as they engage in scientific practices—the students are doing the sense making.[...]
DaFranker
3 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
The elephant in the room is that in order to perform student-centered learning, instructors must relinquish control over the inferential step sufficient for the student to imagine that they are drawing their own conclusions -- which begs the question: What happens when students actually disagree with conventional theory?

Ignoring the incorrect use of the expression, the question you ask is easy to answer: They have a different conclusion, and either this conclusion stems from misinterpreting the information, or from new information they acquired which "mainstream" science did not have/consider, or from a different/broken prior if they're doing bayesian reasoning.

The teacher (or a third-party expert paid to handle these cases) must figure out where the mistake was made; it will be a mistake in >95% of the cases, since that's the cutoff rate for mainstream status). Then the mistake can be pointed out, and the student can really learn.
PhotonX
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
I really don't want to ignite a flame war, but I feel it must be said that the outright hostility towards science exhibited by so many religious fundamentalists in America today is having at least some negative effect. It can't be good when kids have to decide on choosing STEM classes to study, if they fear animosity at home as a result.
Dr Bob64
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2012
I wonder if they controlled for teacher competence. An incompetent teacher can certainly skew the results in favor of a student-centered model. Since we are talking about science finding competent teachers is not a trivial exercise.
JoeBlue
1 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2012
I agree with this article, as a former and current student, I saw many instances where teachers would simply stand in front of the class spouting off facts and conclusions without involving the students. This sort of education does nothing to help student understanding, which is what classes are for in the first place.

As an Econ major, I saw it often where professors would simply spout of some nonsense without stating where the conclusion originated. Econ is a soft-science, and as a result there is no empirical evidence that can factually prove anything to a degree of certainty where it's obvious the conclusion should be. There are also positions where the conclusion may be incorrect, but the teacher's own bias will sill be evident with their determination of what the evidence supports.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (6) Oct 17, 2012
Re: "The teacher (or a third-party expert paid to handle these cases) must figure out where the mistake was made; it will be a mistake in >95% of the cases, since that's the cutoff rate for mainstream status). Then the mistake can be pointed out, and the student can really learn."

Have you considered that part of the problem of science education is in portraying all questions as having just one answer? If you take a look at Lahey and Kegan's Immunity to Change, you will notice that what is missing in our culture is a self-transforming mindset -- in other words, a mindset which has an ability to not only critique its own views, but also one that is multiframe and permits contradictions. When we fail to train students to be self-transforming, we fail to give them the very tool which they would need to link current theory to better theory: An ability to meet an *adaptive* -- as opposed to a technical -- mental challenge.

Less than 1% exhibit a self-transforming mindset, as is ...
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (6) Oct 17, 2012
Even just a casual look at the online science forums - including this one, but even more so at places like Slashdot and bautforum.com - exhibits an over-emphasis upon the debunking of anything which disagrees with mainstream views on controversial topics. Students are not being trained to recognize longstanding controversies in science. Two examples are striking: Hannes Alfven's 1970 Nobel acceptance speech where he distanced himself from the astrophysicists' application of the very models for which he was being awarded a prize; and the longstanding cell biology controversy by Gerald Pollack and Gilbert Ling in which they question the sodium pump hypothesis.

The debunking culture ignores ALL controversies in favor of siding with mainstream science. This raises a vital question: How can we train students to differentiate cutting edge science from fringe science, when our educational priorities focus exclusively upon debunking, and lack any place for considering anomalies?