A plan to reinvigorate science ed

A new report by the National Research Council offers an alternative approach than that which many states, including California, have taken toward science education. The Council, affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, released “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” earlier this month. Its broad goal, according to the report, is that by the end of 12th grade,all students, not just those pursuing careers in science and engineering, should have gained sufficient knowledge of the practices and core ideas of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to continue to learn about science throughout their lives.”

Helen Quinn (Dan Quinn photo)
Helen Quinn (photo by Dan Quinn)

I asked Helen Quinn, who chaired the Council’s Board on Science Education, to explain the report and its significance. Quinn is a physics professor emeritus at Stanford University.

What is the framework and why is a new one needed?

The framework is a guiding document on what every student needs to learn about science. It will inform the development of the “Next Generation Science Standards” by a multistate partnership led by Achieve Inc. It is hoped that these standards will play a similar role for science education to that the Common Core standards are playing for mathematics and language arts, with many states choosing to adopt them. California is one of about 20 states that have applied to be partners in this development process.

What distinguishes this from previous frameworks and the guidance it gives to standards? How might science be taught differently in California based on the new framework, assuming the state participates in adopting eventual standards and assessments?

In the 15 years or so since the first round of science standards were developed, much has been learned. Science has advanced, the world has changed, we understand better what makes for effective science learning, and we understand better how standards affect instruction, so it is time to reexamine and update previous documents at the national level.

For California in particular, the difference lies in stressing the coherent development of understanding of a limited number of core disciplinary ideas over multiple years, and the integration of learning and using science practices and crosscutting concepts with the learning of those ideas. Current California standards lack this coherence and integration.

The report mentions that educators have new insights into how students learn science. Can you cite an example?

The research on learning progressions, summarized in the NRC report “Taking Science to School” and its companion volume for teachers “Ready Set Science,” shows that children learn best when their prior conceptions or level of understanding is taken into account and they experience a set of learning opportunities designed to help them change those understandings over time toward a more scientific perspective. Both of these reports can now be downloaded free of charge from the National Academies.

The report talks a lot about the need for coherence in learning. Please explain.

Coherence means designing student experiences both within a single subject area or course and across courses (horizontally at any given time, and vertically, i.e., from year to year) to work together to help students make sense of the new knowledge and build it into their mental model of the world, rather than seeing each lesson as a separate bit of information to be remembered.

The report refers to three dimensions:

  • Crosscutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering through their common application across fields;
  • Scientific and engineering practices; and
  • Core ideas in four disciplinary areas: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering/technology.

Let’s talk about each. What are crosscutting concepts and why are they important? Let’s pick one – patterns or cause and effect – and illustrate how it might apply across all disciplines?

These concepts are a core part of the way scientists look at the world, and they apply in all of science. They look at patterns in events or objects because they recognize that the patterns of similarity and difference, of repetition or variation, are often things that raise questions that can help us learn something new. This is true across disciplines, in life sciences (for example in categorizing plants into families based on patterns in their appearance, or in their genes); in earth sciences (for example patterns of folding and faulting in rock formations can help uncover the geological history of a region); in physical science (patterns of similarity in chemical behavior led to the development of the periodic table, which led to the discovery of further elements that complete the pattern), and even in engineering, where patterns of failure help identify weaknesses of a design.

Likewise in every area of science scientists look for explanations of the mechanisms that underlie cause-and-effect relationships between events. For students, stress on these commonalities can help them recognize the unity of science, which otherwise seems to be a set of disconnected topics.

Scientific and engineering practices are critical to understanding science yet are often lost, particularly in early grades, in a fact-based curriculum. What are they and how might they be integrated into the classroom?

We define a set of eight practices (see below) that scientists and engineers use iteratively and recursively as they work to understand a particular system or develop a particular design. Interestingly, six of the eight are common to science and engineering. Only for two did we need to differentiate what scientists and engineers do. Research shows that students need to engage in these practices as they seek to understand science concepts and also to understand the nature of science itself.

Let’s take one of the eight practices. Please illustrate how it might be integrated at various grades in a particular discipline or across a discipline.

Let us consider the practice of developing explanations, together with that of argument from evidence. If a student is asked to give her own explanation of a phenomenon, and to argue how the evidence supports her explanation, then three things happen. First, the student begins to recognize for herself where the explanation and the evidence are not consistent, and thus sees the need for a change in her ideas about what is going on. Second, other students learn and modify their own perceptions of the situation as they too engage in argumentation to support or critique the proffered explanation. Third, the teacher gets rich information about what the students have and have not yet understood about the topic.

This can occur in a first grade classroom or in a 10th grade one. Of course the level of explanation and of argumentation about it, as well as the aspects of the topic being discussed, will be different. Just as students progressively develop understanding of core ideas, so they progressively develop understanding of how to formulate and present their ideas, and how to engage in a process of argument from evidence that has its own norms of behavior.

What are the four core disciplines, and why was engineering and technology included among them? Please explain some core ideas in one of the disciplines.

We chose to organize core disciplinary ideas by broad disciplinary areas rather than by separating disciplines (e.g., physics and chemistry as physical sciences, biology and ecology as life sciences), because we think it reflects a more modern view of the interrelationships of the disciplines and provides for a more coherent description of what every student should learn. We added “engineering, technology, and the applications of science” because we recognized that a focus on the core ideas of the disciplines leaves out the important role that science plays in our world through its applications, via engineering, to development of new technologies, and the role that technology plays in science through the tools it gives us.

We felt that the understanding of the role of science in the human-designed world is as important for students to understand as its role in the study of the natural world. Actually this linkage existed in prior documents at the national level as well, but has not been fully realized in the way these documents have been implemented in the classroom in most states. Some states, for example Massachusetts, already include engineering in their science standards.

How open was the process in determining the frameworks and what are the next steps?

While National Research Council committees work in a closed fashion, we made every effort to get external input to our work, both via presentations made to the committee in open sessions, and via the unusual step (for NRC studies) of presenting a preliminary draft of the central content of the framework for public comment a year ago. We not only had an open web-based response alternative, but also organized multiple focus groups and asked many experts to give us detailed written input. This step was very useful, and there are many things that changed between the preliminary draft and the final report because of the thoughtful responses that we received.

What are the advantages of having many states adopt the frameworks and common standards? Why should California be interested in them?

There are advantages for states working together in that there are many elements of the system, such as assessments, where there can be economies of scale by using a common set, rather than each state developing its own. Also, given the mobility of the U.S. population, there are advantages as many students move between states; a common set of expectations across states makes it easier for schools to absorb and serve these students, and obviously is better for the students themselves.

* The eight practices are 1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering); 2. Developing and using models; 3. Planning and carrying out investigations; 4. Analyzing and interpreting data; 5. Using mathematics and computational thinking; 6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering); 7. Engaging in argument from evidence; 8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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