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Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

The Wide World Hits Home

It doesn't take long for middle school students participating in Junior Achievement's new program on world trade to realize that it matters a whole lot more to their daily lives than they might initially think. "It affects them as consumers. They're able to buy some items because we have good trade relations with many countries. That gives them more variety and a product they can afford," explains Neil Deason, JA's senior director of classroom-based programs development. For the past year, the former high school social studies teacher and district-level curriculum specialist has been immersed in creating interactive experiences on world trade.

The result is JA Global Marketplace, a MasterCard International-sponsored program covering topics such as the importance of cultural exchange in trade relations, international business concepts and practices, and how technology facilitates trade and improves productivity. The program updates and consolidates JA's Our World and The International Marketplace programs. And it's the first to be developed under the organization's renewed emphasis on standards alignment. JA now works with content-area experts and is very purposeful about ensuring the program aligns with curriculum standards, Deason says.

But Global Marketplace, which was piloted in 12 locations and is now available to any school, still maintains the JA tradition of recruiting classroom volunteers from the business community to deliver the curriculum, provided at no cost through local JA offices. In six 45-minute sessions, the volunteers share their international business experience as they take students through the activities. Supporting materials include a take-home CD-ROM so students can continue their world exploration.

Georgia Allows Larger Science Classes

When it comes to class size mandates, the Georgia State Board of Education has shown that the law can be flexible in trying budget times. The board recently amended its rule about high school science class sizes having a limit of 28 students to allow up to 30 students. The change comes soon after the state adopted a new science curriculum.

While you'd be hard-pressed to find an administrator against the concept of smaller class sizes, Georgia administrators argued that state class size mandates should be state funded. The Georgia School Superintendents Association supported the change, which could be a cost-saving measure and a way to save small, advanced-level science classes, which are difficult to fund without options on increasing the number of students in basic courses.

Meanwhile, state Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, and teacher groups were against the allowance. They cited low science state test scores, safety issues and the challenges of offering hands-on experiences in large classes. A National Science Teachers Association policy establishes a maximum limit of 24 students in any science class and reminds schools they must comply with fire and building code occupancy limits.

Stand and Deliver ... Or Let Them Discover?

Picture this: While using a new computer application, you're stuck. As you start experimenting with key commands, a friend looks over your shoulder and says, "Just press that button." Onward, to the task at hand.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that the same thinking can be applied to science teaching. Discovery learning, widely accepted as the best road to true understanding of scientific phenomena and procedures, can be an effective option. But in certain instances, direct instruction may be better.

The study contrasted discovery learning, with only the teacher's suggestion of a learning objective, and direct instruction, which included teacher-controlled goals, materials, examples, explanations and pace, in getting 112 third- and fourth-graders in four elementary schools to learn good experiment design.

The discovery learners were asked to find out what they could about designing a good experiment to see how far a ball rolls down a ramp, explains co-researcher David Klahr, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. The direct instruction group was told how to design a good experiment, and then asked to do so. Afterwards, students designed four more experiments. And a week later, the effectiveness of the two teaching methods was tested in a more authentic context, with children evaluating science fair posters.

The findings? Discovery works for some kids, "but many more learn in direct instruction," Klahr asserts. Procedures, for example, are tough to discover. "If you want to get kids to a mastery level real fast, then you can tell them what they need to know. ... Given the tremendous amount of stuff [science teachers] have to cover, I'd like them to see that direct instruction can be good science."

Given discovery learning's popularity, education listservs were abuzz about the study. Klahr says he saw it "quoted, misquoted and counter-quoted." He could see future studies on when discovery learning is best. Kids also need to feel "how wonderful science is [through] discovery."

ACT Scores a Call to Action

Good news first: The average national composite score on the ACT Assessment is up from 2003, a feat that hasn't happened in seven years. Granted, it's only up a smidge, from 20.8 in 2002 and 2003 to 20.9 in 2004.

The exam's highest possible score is 36 for each of its four subject area sections. Students who reach a score of 24 on the science portion and 22 on the ACT the math have a high probability of earning a "C" or higher in credit-bearing college biology and algebra courses.

And that's where the problem lies. In 2003 and 2004, the majority of students weren't reaching those benchmarks. ACT research suggests that these students are less likely to stay in college and earn a degree than those who score well on the exam.

Too few students taking challenging high school coursework may well be the reason behind the lack of college-level skills. Fewer than two-thirds of the class of 2004 who took the exam completed the recommended four years of English and three years each of math (algebra and higher), natural sciences and social sciences.

Richard L. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive officer, says it's not too late too boost younger students' college readiness. "They must be made aware as early as possible that the key to college success is taking challenging courses in high school and studying hard."

Storytelling Good Math Prep

Youngsters who can tell a good story may end up being better mathematicians, according to a study by Daniela O'Neill, a University of Waterloo psychology professor. Kids ages three and four were shown a book containing only pictures and asked to tell the story to a puppet. Several aspects of their storytelling abilities were noted, and then two years later the same children were given a number of academic achievement tests. Those who scored highly on the math test had also scored highly on certain measures of their storytelling ability.

The biggest storytelling skill predictors of later mathematical ability are: relating all the different events in the story; shifting clearly from the actions of one character to another; and adopting the perspective of different characters to show what they're thinking. The study suggests that building strong storytelling skills during children's pre-school years can help in preparing children for learning math.