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Curriculum Update

Eighth-grade science around the globe; Defining best practices in writing; Technology enriches scien

Eighth-Grade Science Around the Globe

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released results from its 1999 video study of eigth-grade science lessons, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The report analyzes and compares U.S. instruction to the approaches used in four high-achieving countries: Australia, Japan, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The goal is to help educators identify factors that could enhance student learning and achievement.

Each nation relied on a distinct general approach, and the report finds key commonalities and differences among classrooms. According to the report, science instruction in the four high-achieving countries differs from the U.S. in two ways:

International eigth-grade lessons focused on high content standards and expectations for student learning.

Science lessons followed a common, content-focused instructional approach vs. a variety of pedagogical approaches and content.

On the flip side, there are common denominators in science instruction among all five nations. For example:

95 percent of lessons spent at least some time developing new science content.

Practical activities such as demonstrations or model building occurred in at least 72 percent of lessons across all five countries.

Students participated in discussions in 81 percent of lessons with whole class interactions.

Student-generated research questions and student-designed procedures occurred in less than 10 percent of lessons.

Defining Best Practices in Writing

Three years have passed since the National Writing Commission identified writing as the neglected "R" and recommended sweeping changes in writing instruction.

The challenges for educators are to commit sufficient time and resources to writing and to ensure quality instruction.

The good news is writing instruction is occurring in more U.S. classrooms, but the goal is to make writing part of every child's education and across all subjects, says Judy Buchanan, deputy director of the National Writing Project.

Effective instruction is equally important. Last month, the Alliance for Excellent Education released WritingNext, a paper aimed at identifying effective instructional practices.

WritingNext can serve as a roadmap for administrators and educators as they hone in on writing instruction. The paper's authors, Steve Graham and Dolores Perin, analyzed research studies and outcomes to produce a list of effective instructional practices for grades 4 through 12. The top three practices with a demonstrated effect on students' skills are:

1. Explicit instruction in writing strategies such as how to plan, revise or draft

2. Explicit and systematic instruction in summary writing

3. Collaborative writing, where adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions.

Technology Enriches Science Education

Technology-based inquiry bridges national science and technology standards and can meet both sets of standards, says Edwin Christmann, author of Technology-Based Inquiry for Middle School. This month, Christmann offers educators tips about integrating technology into science classes.

DA: How can district leaders support technology-based inquiry?

Christmann: Budgets may hold some districts back. Administrators and teachers need to make collaborative decisions about how much to budget for science and technology and how to use funds.

DA: What technologies support technology-based inquiry?

Christmann: Palm Pilots, graphing calculators, microcomputers and software can be used. It's important to remember that teachers can use different instruments to complete the same experiment. For example, students can use a PDA or graphing calculator to compile temperature or PH readings. If a district has 200 graphing calculators it may not be necessary to invest in other devices. Instead, it should purchase appropriate probes for the calculators. This strategy helps districts make the most of the technology budget.

DA: Are there low or no-cost options?

Christmann: The Internet offers a lot of free solutions. Technology-Based Inquiry for Middle School includes sites and links to help administrators and teachers save time.

Pluto Demotion Impacts Curriculum

When the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is no longer a planet last summer, officially downsizing the solar system from nine planets to eight, the change affected the curriculum in every school district. Pluto was disqualified from the planetary status it had held since its discovery in 1930, since its orbit overlaps with that of Neptune, which violates a new Union rule for defining true planets.

While Pluto's demotion to a new category of dwarf planets made all K-12 curriculum materials pertaining to the solar system inaccurate and obsolete, educators are also looking on the change as a unique educational opportunity. "Pluto will remain a great teaching tool because the controversy is a great example of the scientific method in action," says Roy Morris, director of the planetarium for the Columbia Public Schools in Missouri. Similarly, Dale Basler, president of the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers says, "Science is all about rewriting and revising after each new discovery." And for kids who learned the order of the planets through the mnemonic "My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas," Basler said, "It will now have to be "... Served Us Noodles!"

-Odvard Egil Dyrli

China Rolls Out the Welcome Mat

The world's most populous nation and 21st century economic powerhouse welcomed a group of 16 high school students last May. "China will have a tremendous impact on our society. We wanted to create awareness about China among future business leaders," says Xavier Herve, president of Youth Across Borders Foundation. Students immersed themselves in Chinese culture by visiting factories and universities. In return for the foundation's sponsorship of the trip, students will make 32 presentations about China at high schools in Quebec, Canada.

The fledgling Youth Across Borders Foundation hopes to fund other educational projects that share its goal of increased global awareness and will consider proposals that engage students in projects in other countries around the world.