Strategies to improve teaching

American students’ science and math skills have been losing ground relative to those of their peers in other countries even as the economic importance of analytical skills has continued to climb. A new book from the National Research Council aims to improve science education by building on the results of a recent study of U.S. teaching methods and emerging data on how children learn and retain scientific concepts. Ready, Set, Science! Putting Research to Work in K–8 Science Classrooms (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008) is for parents, teachers, and curriculum designers.

Science textbooks “have often drawn a fairly sharp distinction between scientific content and scientific processes,” says the new book, which urges educators instead to marry the presentation of facts with hands-on science experiments.

The National Research Council recommends that schools present fundamental concepts gradually over several years, rather than cramming them in to a few weeks or months. It also suggests focusing on core topics, such as the atomic-molecular theory of matter, evolution, cell theory, and Newtonian laws of force and motion. The book offers examples of classroom projects that let kids assimilate such concepts by testing them out.

“Understanding what it takes to teach and learn science effectively is very different today than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” the new book says. It argues that to boost student achievement, schools must recognize and incorporate the new findings about how children learn.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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