Old ways work best in science
Case H Vanderwolf, emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario and principal author of the research, said:
"Students who are given a heavily student-centred curriculum are not apt to discover or understand many scientific principles."
The study examined curricula and pupil achievement in each of Canada's provinces.
Pupils in Alberta, the province with the most content-based curriculum, scored the highest in the 1999 Third International Maths and Science Study and the recently released 2004 Canadian School Achievement Indicators Program. Seventy-two per cent of Alberta's 16-year-olds achieved level 3 (out of 5) on the SAIP, compared with a 64 per cent average nationally.
By contrast, 58-60 per cent achieved the same level in the four provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island - which share a science curriculum heavily focused on experiential learning and light on teacher explanation.
Newfoundland's curriculum, for example, asks teachers to "not spend a great deal of time telling children about science; instead children should be provided with opportunities to find out on their own". And instead of instructing 15-year-olds about static electricity, New Brunswick expects teachers to supply them with balloons and pieces of fur, which "should eventually lead (students) to the scientific understanding and explanation of static charges".
According to Professor Vanderwolf, good science education requires a balance of teacher-led activities with student laboratories. "It is quite mad to imagine that a group of students, working alone, could discover in a few hours, principles which early scientists puzzled over for years or even centuries," he said.