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Socially disadvantaged students have dramatically improved their math and science scores in a five-year experimental educational program designed by Weizmann Institute's Science Teaching Department .
"We feel that our experiment can serve as a model for schools in deprived areas in both developed and developing countries," said program codirector Dr. David Ben-Chaim.
The program concentrated on eight high schools in five development towns in Israel's Negev region. Its aim was to upgrade teachers' skills and thus break the downward spiral that subjected low-caliber students to teachers who were offering second-rate instruction.
Guided by Ben-Chaim and Science Teaching Department head Prof. Uri Ganiel, Weizmann education experts and 30 experienced educators visited the schools weekly to conduct workshops for teachers, observe students, and at times take over classes. The Department also upgraded textbooks, curricula and equipment, and held training sessions for school administrators and teachers.
By the time the program ended, the number of students passing the national mathematics exam required for high school matriculation in Israel had more than quadrupled (from 45 in 1990 to 190 in 1995), while the number passing chemistry rose from none at all to 20, and physics from five to 18!
"But perhaps our most important achievement has been to instill in both teachers and students the belief that academic success is a function not of external factors such as family and surroundings, but of effort," Ben-Chaim said.
Keeping Gifted Pupils on Their Toes
New classroom activities that enable more advanced elementary school pupils to move ahead in math without losing the sense of belonging to their class are now being tested in several Israeli schools.
Dr. Alex Friedlander of the Institute's Science Teaching Department, who designed the activities, explains that current methods, in which teachers allow gifted pupils who have mastered a particular topic to work ahead, are problematic. The youngsters soon begin to feel like outsiders ? and they also run out of material. The new program, developed in collaboration with Tel Aviv's Center for Educational Technology, aims to avoid these drawbacks by challenging pupil to design different strategies for a particular problem, deepening their understanding of the current topic rather than racing on to a new one. Thus, more advanced students offer more sophisticated solutions, while lower-level students offer simpler ones to the same problem.
The program uses practical, everyday items such as dice, matches, calendars and chocolate bars in an effort to increase understanding.
"Already by first grade, pupils can get involved and have fun with relatively complex mathematical investigations that are presented as coherent, theme-related undertakings," says Friedlander.