Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Big Idea

New Jersey has an End of Course exam for all high school biology students. Well, it actually has two separate exams, developed by two separate entities, measuring separate goals. Neither is (yet) required for graduation, though apparently one counts more than the other. The exam is given in May, so it's more an Almost the End of Course exam. With two separate tests given more than a month before our district breaks for summer, our kids got a little beaten up this year.

Still, the folks down in Trenton seem to be headed the right way, at least on paper, and good people are working hard to fine tune the curriculum, leading to documents like the New Jersey Standards Clarification Project, Phase I with a video describing the concept of the Big Idea.

I'm a little nervous when clarification requires projects that come in phases, but at least I sleep better knowing that I'm not the only one confused by the state core curriculum standards. And I like broad statements like this one in the NJ DOE's High School Biology/Life Science Course Guidance:
The content of the course should be organized around Enduring Understandings .... Essential Questions for the Life Science course should be at the heart of the curriculum. The Essential Questions are deliberately open, promote inquiry, and may produce different plausible responses.

Unfortunately, the document later gets into specifics, such as lists of terms (but don't worry, "Biologically Speaking is a list of terms that students and teachers should integrate into their normal daily conversations around science topics. These are not vocabulary lists for students to memorize").

Uh-oh. I had just taught my kids how to fluently weave "condensation reactions" into their normal daily conversations around science topics and the State calls them "dehydration synthesis reactions."

I'm thrilled with any normal daily conversation around science topics with my students that does not degenerate into which alien is having which celebrity's baby, so if they want to toss "condensation reaction" in there, I'll take my chances and defy the State.

But back to the End of Course exam(s) and Big Ideas. Here's a sample question. I am not allowed to see the test the students actually take even as I proctor, but the state DOE doe
s give practice exam questions on their website.

At first glance it's a good question, no doubt refined by hours of committee work. The conclusion Adrian draws, however, subtly implies a few unscientific biases I just spent 9 months trying to break. Some Big Ideas I like are:
  • Plants do not need animals, and were here a long time before critters arrived on the scene
  • O2 levels have been bouncing around for over a 3 billion years--starting from virtually none, then rising to levels even higher than today.
  • Humans invariably underestimate the complexity of even tiny ecosystems, and should resist the temptation to "fix" things
  • Life depends on the influx of energy
My pond's CO2/O2 ratio bounces daily as the elodea converts carbon dioxide to plant stuff, snapping oxygen atoms off few gazillion water molecules as the sun shines. At night, my fish and the plants keep burning up organic compounds, using up some of the O2 and releasing lots of carbon dioxide.

Heck, in the northern hemisphere, our O2/CO2 ration bounces with the seasons, up in summer, down in winter.

Most of my kids will not go on to become scientists, but I hope more than a few of them go on to be critical thinkers.

Questions like this do not help.

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