Revision of the AP Program, Good or Bad?

I recently read an article in the Washington Post by Jay Matthews, New, deeper AP Program, that discusses the College Board’s plan to revise several AP curriculum.  Here’s a quote from the article.

The revised AP courses, beginning with biology, will put more emphasis on conceptual understanding and cut back on memorizing content, the designers say. AP will become more like the International Baccalaureate program, which is also popular in this area. Teachers may go deep into some topics and rush quickly past others. Essay questions will focus on concepts, so students will be able to use facts from the topics their teachers choose without having to master every detail in every subject category. Multiple-choice questions will test analytical skill, not memory.

In my mind, this is a move in the right direction.  It is certainly going to make waves as change always does, but has the potential to create courses that are more relevant to today’s learner.  Unfortunately,  the fact based approach of the past is not as relevant in the information age.  When you need facts what do you do?  I use Google or other tools to quickly find the info I need.  Information is much easier to acquire than it was in the past, making the need to memorize facts less important.  Skills and critical thinking are more important than ever, as consumers of knowledge need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

When I was teaching physical science there was a constant struggle to balance the need to teach facts and my desire to teach critical thinking and problem solving.  My gut feeling is that the problem solving and critical thinking will carry a student farther then the facts.  The trick was that our state standards focused so much on facts that we some times did not have the time to fully explore some concepts.  If you wanted, or needed, to teach to all of the standards there was less time to do some experiential learning that created a much better understanding of the concepts.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think that there needs to be a framework of facts in order to learn critical thinking and explore topics in depth.  In fact, most of my students were very knowledgeable about the facts in the topics that we explored in depth.  The only problem is that the time it takes to go in depth and allow kids to problem solve needs to come from somewhere, meaning some of the standards were perhaps neglected a little.  This was a price I was willing to pay as I knew that in a couple of years the students wouldn’t remember the facts anymore anyways.  But there problem solving and analytical skills would still be there and could be used on a daily basis.  Heck, since I stopped teaching a few year’s ago I don’t remember the latent heat of fusion of water but I do know how to look it up in Bing or better yet I know how to design an experiment to find it out.

I have read several articles of schools deciding not to offer AP classes in a move to go back to “Honors” classes.  Their reasoning, to have more control over the curriculum so that they can move slower through some material  and go deeper into some concepts.  They felt they were not able to do this within AP as students need to be filled with facts in order to score well on the influential exams.  Perhaps, the College Board hopes to address some of these concerns with these revisions

I hope the College Board’s revision is successful. Our students need to be taught to think and be problem solvers, not repositories of knowledge.  In this day an age, critical thinking  skills trump memorization.  My BlackBerry has the facts, but is not so good at the thinking part.

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