Focusing on Essential Knowledge and Skills

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Michele Cahill responds to probing questions about why stronger math and science education is crucial for all American students. MORE

 

Connecting to Your Work

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Key Ideas in Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8

Heidi Schweingruber
Board on Science Education, The National Academies
2007

Prepared for the Carnegie-IAS Commission on Mathematics and Science Education

Understanding of what it takes to teach and learn science effectively is very different today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. We now know that young children bring a strong foundation of knowledge and skills to school with them, including knowledge of the natural world, the ability to engage in complex reasoning about the natural world, a basic understanding of data sets, competing ideas about different science concepts, and the ability to apply their own thinking to a particular scientific domain as it evolves over time. They also have the ability to work collaboratively with classmates and teachers in ways that approximate practices in the scientific community: posing informed questions, representing ideas to one another using a range of methods, and critically appraising and incorporating diverse ideas and observations in order to build a common scientific understanding. With this foundation, young children entering school can begin to build and extend their science knowledge as they advance through the grades and become proficient in science.

Understanding of what it takes to teach and learn science effectively is very different today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Strands of Proficiency in Science

The committee that authored Taking Science to School described four strands of proficiency that provide a framework for thinking about the elements of scientific knowledge and practice. The four strands encompass the knowledge and reasoning skills that students must eventually acquire to be considered proficient in science. Evidence to date indicates that in the process of achieving proficiency, the four strands are intertwined so that advances in one strand support and advance those in another.

Used in concert with science standards documents like the Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the National Science Education Standards, the strands can be useful to educators in their effort to plan and assess student learning in classrooms and across school systems. They can also be a helpful tool for assessing the science that is emphasized in a given curriculum guide, textbook, or assessment and for planning professional development.

Strand 1: Know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world.

This strand includes acquiring facts and the conceptual structures that incorporate those facts and using these ideas productively to understand many phenomena in the natural world. This includes using those ideas to construct and refine explanations, arguments, or models of particular phenomena.

Strand 2: Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations.

This strand encompasses the knowledge and skills needed to build and refine models based on evidence. This includes designing and analyzing empirical investigations and using empirical evidence to construct and defend arguments.

Strand 3: Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge.

This strand focuses on students’ understanding of science as a way of knowing. Scientific knowledge is a particular kind of knowledge with its own sources, justifications, and uncertainties. Students who understand scientific knowledge recognize that predictions or explanations can be revised on the basis of seeing new evidence or developing a new model.

Strand 4: Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

This strand includes students’ understanding of the norms of participating in science as well as their motivation and attitudes toward science. Students who see science as valuable and interesting tend to be good learners and participants in science. They believe that steady effort in understanding science pays off – not that some people understand science and other people never will. To engage productively in science, however, students need to understand how to participate in scientific debates, adopt a critical stance, and be willing to ask questions.

A System That Supports Science Learning

Despite entering school with a strong foundation, students still need the support of good teaching in order to understand and master the scientific ideas and practices described in the strands. Students need to work with scientific concepts presented through challenging, well-designed problems—problems that are meaningful from both a scientific standpoint and a personal standpoint. They need to be challenged to think about the natural world in new and different ways. They need guidance in adopting the practices of the scientific community, with its particular ways of seeing, building explanations, and supporting claims about knowledge.

The typical practices in today’s science classrooms do not reflect the most recent findings regarding effective science teaching and learning. Current curricula tend to cover too many disparate topics in a superficial manner, and many are based on an outdated understanding of how children learn. They do not build on the core ideas of science in a progressive fashion from kindergarten through eighth grade. In order to achieve this kind of success, clearly developed standards and goals for learning must be defined, and they must drive both the organization of the system and deployment of resources. Both the system itself and the individuals in it must reorient themselves to the current understanding of science learning.

Current knowledge about science learning should form the foundation of the system for science education in the following ways:

  • Standards should be revised to stress core science ideas. They should outline specific, coherent goals for curriculum and practice, organized around these core ideas.
  • Curricula should enable these goals to be realized through sustained, progressive instruction over the K-8 years.
  • Instruction should engage students in the four strands of scientific proficiency in challenging and stimulating ways.
  • The typical practices in today’s science classrooms do not reflect the most recent findings regarding effective science teaching and learning.
  • Assessments should provide teachers and students with timely feedback about students’ thinking, and these assessments should support teachers’ efforts to improve instruction.
  • Professional development and teacher preparation should focus on effective methods for teaching science, understanding how students learn science, and helping teachers to understand core science ideas and how they connect.

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Teachers’ Knowledge

To teach science well, teachers must draw on a body of knowledge that can be divided into three broad, partially overlapping categories: knowledge of science, knowledge of how students learn science, and knowledge of how to teach science effectively.

Knowledge of Science

In order to teach effectively, a teacher must first understand the subject being taught. There is a growing body of evidence that what a teacher knows about science influences the quality of instruction and has a powerful effect on the success of that teacher and type of discussions that teacher can engage in and sustain with students. Yet, many elementary and middle school teachers, like many college-educated adults in this society, have only a superficial knowledge of science. Inadequate undergraduate courses, as well as inadequate teacher education or credentialing programs, and insufficient professional development opportunities all contribute to the problem.

...clearly developed standards and goals for learning must be defined, and they must drive both the organization of the system and deployment of resources.

The strands of science learning provide a useful rubric for analyzing the kinds of science that teachers currently learn and identifying the aspects of science proficiency that current professional development is unlikely to support. For example, two recurrent patterns in undergraduate science curricula emerge when considered in light of the strands. First, much like many current K-12 science curricula, undergraduate science curricula tend to emphasize conceptual and factual knowledge (Strand 1). There is some emphasis on doing investigations (Strand 2), although typically through contrived experiments in which both process and results are clearly spelled out for students. Undergraduate science rarely emphasizes reflection on scientific knowledge (Strand 3), and participation in science (Strand 4) is rarer still. Not surprisingly then, undergraduates’ and prospective science teachers’ views of science reflect these emphases. They often view science narrowly as a body of facts and scientific practice as nothing more than the application of a sequential scientific method. Subsequent professional development opportunities do little to change this narrow view of science.

The strands of science learning provide a useful rubric for analyzing the kinds of science that teachers currently learn and identifying the aspects of science proficiency that current professional development is unlikely to support.

Knowledge of how students learn science

Effective teaching requires that teachers understand what students do when they learn and what cognitive, linguistic, and emotional resources they bring to the table. One of the implications of recent findings about how students learn is that everyone involved in the education system must rethink his or her assumptions about teaching and learning science. At the core of teacher professional development, we should focus on challenging conventional wisdom about learners and building a contemporary, research-based view. Several common beliefs about young science learners need to be challenged: (1) Young children are not able to reason abstractly and so should learn about science as observation (not theory building); (2) Science content and process should be isolated and taught discretely; (3) Immersing students in unstructured exploration and “investigation” will teach them scientific principles and concepts; (4) Children’s ideas about the natural world are primarily misconceptions that teachers should aim to identify and correct or replace with canonical science.

Knowledge of how to teach science effectively

In order to teach science well, teachers need to understand science differently from the way that scientists do. A scientist understands scientific theory and its historical origins, the questions being investigated, and the ways in which questions are investigated in his or her field. A scientist does not necessarily know how to create science learning opportunities; how to select approp riate instructional materials and problems; how to identify the appropriate points in an investigation to teach a new skill; and how to help students understand the unique qualities of scientific language and reasoning and how they relate to everyday forms.

In order to teach science well, teachers need to understand science differently from the way that scientists do.

Supporting Science Teachers

Teachers need support in order to develop the knowledge and related skills described above. There have been few rigorous studies of effective professional development for science teachers specifically. However, studies in mathematics and other disciplines provide insight into what works best for supporting teachers.

Teacher Learning Opportunities Should…

...teachers need access to effective professional development programs that are sustained over the long term and provide clear, consistent linkages to science.

  • Reflect a clear focus on student learning in a specific content area;
  • Focus on the strengths and needs of learners in that area and draw on evidence about what works from research;
  • Include school-based and job-embedded support in which teachers may assess student work, design or refine units of study, or observe and reflect on colleagues lessons;
  • Provide adequate time during the school day and throughout the year for both intensive work and regular reflection on practice. Professional development also needs to span multiple years;
  • Emphasize the collective participation of groups of teachers, including teachers from the same school, department, or grade level; and
  • Provide teachers with a coherent view of the instructional system, from content and performance standards to instructional materials to local and state assessments to the development of a professional community.

Unfortunately, many learning opportunities for teachers do not meet these criteria. In particular, professional development opportunities often do not have a content focus. This is especially a problem in science at the K-5 level. Also, these opportunities are often short-term in nature and not closely tied to teachers’ everyday work in their own classrooms. Instead, teachers need access to effective professional development programs that are sustained over the long term and provide clear, consistent linkages to science. Curriculum-based institutes, mentoring programs, study groups, and teacher coaching can also provide teachers with opportunities to deepen their subject matter expertise and reflect on classroom practice.