What Research Says About K-8 Science Learning and Teaching

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What Research Says About K-8 Science Learning and Teaching

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Tensions with EstablishedPracticesWe face challenges implementing theTSTS recommendations because someestablished school and classroom practicescreate tensions. One tension is thatthe current state of affairs finds scienceinstruction disconnected and frequentlyseparating the teaching of conceptsfrom the teaching of processes, skills,and practices. For example, in many K-8science inquiry programs the emphasisis on domain-general skills (e.g., distinguishobservations from inferences)without any attention being given tohow these skills relate to the disciplinaryknowledge under study—processeslearning goals are separated from theconceptual learning goals.Then there is the tension of far toomany objectives, benchmarks, andstandards at individual grade levels andgrade bands. This is the recognizedproblem of U.S. science curriculabeing a “mile wide and an inch deep.”Many existing curricula, standards,and assessments in the U.S. comprisetoo many disconnected topics givenequal priority. The important unifyingthemes and principles of science aregetting lost in favor of concept coverage.Core knowledge (e.g., propertiesof matter), science practices (e.g.,building and refining models thataccount for evidence), and scientificdiscourses (e.g., collecting, analyzing,and representing data from observationsand experiments) are not beingcarried over from one school year tothe next, nor even from one moduleto the next within a school year. Coreknowledge and practices should becentral to science curriculum content,accessible to students in kindergarten,and have potential for sustained explorationacross K-8.Conceptual knowledge, scientificreasoning, understanding how scientificknowledge is produced, and participatingin science all represent elementsthat are intimately intertwinedin the doing of science. Another tensionfor implementing the TSTS recommendationsis too much sequencingvariation in the implementationof the standards. The use of modularunits shared across classrooms, andthat jump from one topic to another,work against the development ofcoherent learning progressions. Modulesdo provide flexibility for sharingmaterials and textbooks among teachersand across classrooms, but withoutcareful consideration the enactedsequence can confuse rather thanenlighten young science learners.The research on young children’sthinking suggests that children arecapable of abstract reasoning andtheory building from very early agesin select domains. The researchon infants and pre-K children, andresearch on children’s alternative conceptions,demonstrates that studentsdo arrive at school with core knowledge,and as they experience the worldaround them they do develop explanations—albeitnaïve ones at times. 20 Principal n November/December 2007www.naesp.org


Sequence variation can lead to teachershaving too strong a focus on “fixing”students’ misconceptions that can,in turn, lead teachers to overlook theproductive “half-baked” ideas and intuitionsthat can be leverage points forlearning across coordinated sequences.Research on early childhood learningreported in TSTS shows that some areasof knowledge provide more robustfoundations to build on than otherswhen thinking about the sequencing ofcurriculum. Promising core knowledgedomains for the early development(pre-K-2) of reasoning include:n Physical mechanics (locating patternsbased on property size, shape, andweight; describing and representingmechanisms for the causes);n Biology (differentiating betweenanimate and inanimate; describingand representing biological processessuch as digestion, growth, reproduction,and sickness);n Matter and substance (measurementand representation of macroscopicproperties and attributes); andn Naïve psychology (engaging in meaning-makingwith others, recognizingthat beliefs of others may be differentfrom your own and for good reasons).Another tension recognized in theTSTS report is that scientific argumentis rare in science classrooms, althoughcentral to science. We find that teachingfocuses on recall rather than modelbasedreasoning. The classroom normsof teachers and textbooks providinganswers do not facilitate the buildingof scientific models from evidence. Scientificargumentation, when carefullysupported and mediated by classroomteachers, can effectively engage K-8 studentsin examining the following:n What are the measurements/observationsone needs to take to get data forthe question or problem at hand?n What are the data worth keeping andusing as evidence?n How can the evidence be examinedand analyzed to locate patterns andtrends?n How can models be built to constructexplanations and devise further teststo refine the models and/or comparemodels with alternative and establishedscientific theories?Recommendations for Policy,Practice, and ResearchWith respect to standards, curricula,and assessments, the TSTS reportrecommends:n Revising standards, curricula, andassessments to reflect a new understandingof children’s thinking;n Structuring the next generation ofstandards and curricula to identifya few core ideas in a discipline andarticulate how these ideas can begrown in a cumulative manner overgrades K-8; andn Presenting science as a process ofbuilding theories and models usingwww.naesp.org Principal n November/December 2007 21


evidence, checking them for internalconsistency and coherence, and testingthem empirically.Regarding instruction and how toteach, the TSTS report recommends that:n Science instruction should provideopportunities for students to engagein all four strands of proficiency;n State and local leaders in educationshould provide teachers with models ofclassroom instruction that incorporatethe four strands of proficiency; andn Policymakers, educational leaders,and administrators need to ensurethat adequate time and resources areprovided, teachers have adequateknowledge of science content, andadequate professional development isprovided.Professional development is neededfor supporting effective science instructionand the TSTS report recommendsthat:n State and local systems should ensurethat all K-8 teachers experience science-specificprofessional developmentin preparation and inductionprograms and while in service;n University-based courses for teachercandidates and teachers’ ongoingopportunities to learn science in serviceshould mirror the opportunitiesthey will need to provide for theirstudents; andn Federal and state agencies that fundproviders for professional developmentshould design funding programsthat require applicants toincorporate models of instruction thatcombine the four strands of proficiency,focus on core ideas in science,and enhance teachers’ knowledge.The TSTS executive summary andfull report includes 14 conclusionsacross the categories of learning andlearners, curriculum and instruction,and teachers and schools. Implementationof the recommendations listedabove will help address concerns aboutattracting and retaining students toSTEM disciplines. Focusing on theTSTS research conclusions will facilitatea reform of K-8 science curricula,standards, and assessments. PRichard A. Duschl is chair of theCommittee on Science Learning,Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade,and professor of science education atRutgers University. His e-mail address isrduschl@rci.rutgers.edu.Andrew W. Shouse and Heidi A.Schweingruber are co-study directorsof the Committee on Science Learning,Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade,and senior program officers with theBoard on Science Education at theNational Research Council. Their e-mailaddresses are ashouse@nas.edu andaschweingruber@nas.edu.ReferencesNational Center on Education and theEconomy. (2007). Tough choices or toughtimes: The report of the New Commission onthe Skills of the American Workforce. SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons.National Research Council.(2006). Risingabove the gathering storm: Energizingand employing America for a brighterfuture. Washington, DC: The NationalAcademies Press.National Research Council. (2007). Takingscience to school: Learning and teachingscience in grades K-8. Washington, DC:The National Academies Press.Web ResourcesInterested individuals can orderor download the “Taking Science toSchool: Learning and Teaching Sciencein Grades K-8” report and executivesummary.http://newton.nap.edu/catalog/11625.htmlReady, Set, Science: Putting Research toWork in the K-8 Science Classroom is anaccount of the groundbreaking andcomprehensive synthesis of researchinto teaching and learning K-8 science.The book is scheduled for release inOctober 2007 and will be downloadable.http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11882The U.S. Department of Education’sFREE (Federal Resources forEducational Resources) site offersnumerous science resources.www.free.ed.gov/subjects.cfm?subject_id=4122 Principal n November/December 2007www.naesp.org


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