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Posts Tagged ‘science standards’

After months of delays it’s finally here! On Friday the draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was released, open for public feedback until June 1st. Since these standards could become the equivalent of a US national science curriculum (similar to the Common Core for Math and Language Arts)- it’s kind of a big deal. And yet I haven’t found much of anything out there on the internets in the way of reactions or discussion, positive or negative, about the new standards. So if you teach K-12 science, go check them out and let’s start the conversation now instead of grumbling for years after about what we don’t like. Here’s my initial reactions on the elementary school portion, both the good and the bad:

Good intentions

The Next Gen standards are based on the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education. If you’ve read any of the NRC’s outstanding books on science education and learning in general, then you know that their work synthesizes the huge body of decades of research on learning. So they know what they are talking about! The NRC’s Framework proposed that new science standards have to include 3 elements: core content, scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts. In other words, they recommended that the standards be focused on only the most important scientific content (to avoid the “mile wide and inch deep” curriculum), and put this content on equal footing with learning skills and big, interdisciplinary ideas that cut across different fields (such as patterns and cycles). Since past standards usually get caught up in the content (and lots of it), this is a big shift.

How well do the Next Gen standards realize the Framework‘s vision? On the surface- very well! Each performance expectation in the standards is written with the practices, content, and cross-cutting concepts included in the sentence itself. For example, here’s a performance expectation for a 1st grade about plants and animals: “Obtain and share information to explain that patterns of behaviors between parents and offspring promote survival“. The skills (obtaining and sharing information) and the cross-cutting concept (patterns of behaviors) is right there, being used to describe the core content. In this way, teachers can go ahead and get myopic about the standards wording, because everything is already built into the standard itself. Very clever!

Age appropriate

A clear effort was made to ensure the standards are age-appropriate (unfortunately it looks like this was taken to a fault, but more on that later!) The focus is mostly on macroscopic, observable phenomenon that are easy for kids to investigate in a hands-on way. Often the data to be collected is explicitly qualitative, so that younger students don’t get bogged down in excessive measurement or needless precision. Many of the standards include “boundary statements” which are intended to give a clear idea of what is NOT included in the standard. There are a few items in the elementary standards that will raise your eyebrows about age-appropriateness, but for the most part it seems spot on.

Engineering gets to join the party

As a former engineering student I know I”m biased, but I think it’s great that engineering is finally being included in science standards- and in fact given almost equal weight with science itself! Throughout the standards their are explicit performance expectations for designing, modeling, and applying scientific knowledge to an engineering problem. I’ve always thought of engineering (and used it in my teaching) as the perfect tool for getting students to apply their knowledge and gain a deeper understanding, so it’s wonderful to see someone else agree!

…So far so good, but there are also some major flaws these draft standards that I hope are addressed:

Over-prescriptive performance expectations

The elementary school standards are not banded, but grade-level specific, meaning the standards give specific performance expectations for Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it is going to make the standards difficult for schools to adopt- and this could even de-rail adoption at a larger national scale. What if your school doesn’t currently teach about sound and light in 1st grade? What if you teach it in 2nd grade or Kindergarten instead? According to the way the standards are written now, schools would have to fall in line with a very specific progression. But why is this level of specificity necessary? It’s difficult to see why some topics must be addressed in one grade but not in another. Since many of the topics are very independent, there’s no obvious or perfect learning progression,so I don’t see why the elementary expectations can just be banded to allow for more flexibility.

Tricky topics

When you read through the Next Gen standards they are organized by “topics”. There are 3 or 4 topics per grade level in elementary, so it’s very easy to think of them as units of study. However, in the introduction to how to read the standards, it states that:  The performance expectations were initially written in topical groupings, but can also be viewed independently.  Topical groupings of performance expectations do not imply a preferred ordering for instruction—nor should all performance expectations under one topic necessarily be taught in one course. 

This is hogwash. Trying to re-imagine the elementary performance expectations in any way other then topic units is like trying to re-create the wheel. Why would anyone bother when it’s already done for you? At first this might seem like a good thing- hey, the standards are finally telling us what units to teach in each grade! But the closer you look at these topics the more you realize that they fall short of good units. Some topics (like the 1st grade Patterns and Cycles) are weak and devoid of enough content to even merit a unit of study. Other topics start out with strong core ideas, but then the list of performance indicators keeps on straying further and further from the main focus. (like the 2nd grade Interdependence topic that tacks on bits random expectations about fossils). If the standards are going to be organized into independent topics that teachers will obviously treat like units, then they need to lend themselves to rich units of study. Which brings me to my last critique…

Still half a mile wide

The Next Gen standards made an attempt to reduce the overwhelming amount of scientific content that most current standards contain and focus on core ideas. But the draft only half achieves this. Many of the topics still read like laundry lists with too much content to be able to investigate and explore topics in depth. This is readily apparent when you start thinking of the topics as units. After 1st grade there are 4 topics per grade level, basically meaning 4 units a year, which is already one more unit that I currently teach each year. There is evidence of a lot of “tacking on” in many of the topics, with performance expectations that don’t fit with the core ideas of the topic. These need to be cut. If the standards are truly going to focus on core ideas, then only core ideas should make the cut. Otherwise the Next Gen standards will only be one step in the right direction, and not the bounding leap that we need instead!

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Over the holiday break I finally had a chance to read something that’s been sitting on my desktop for months: Lockhart’s Lament, an essay by the mathematician and teacher Paul Lockhart about the abysmal state of math education (he has also written a longer book version). If you haven’t read it, definitely check it out- it’s extremely thought-provoking and challenges a lot of assumptions about mathematics and education in general.

In his essay, Lockhart makes a lot of sweeping claims that may sound downright sacrilegious out of context: Standards? Get rid of them! Lesson plans? Planning to fail! Schools of education? A “crock”! But there’s a method to his madness, he makes a very convincing argument by cutting right to the quick of the debate: the point of math education itself. Lockhart rejects outright the common assumptions that students need to learn the standard math canon for use in everyday life (when’s the last time you used your school math skills to do something that required more than a calculator?), and he counters that advanced study should be relegated to the university level. In place of the standard math canon, he advocates for students learning by doing math as a mathematician would, puzzling things out for themselves and putting aside rote algorithms and standard notation for creative thinking and a sense of playfulness.

As a science teacher, I can’t speak to whether or not he’s right about math education (although you can read some interesting reactions from math folks here). But reading his essay did keep me coming back to science education to see if his criticisms also applied here… was science education in the same dire straits? My mind is still reeling from the implications, but here’s the first Lockhart-inspired thought I’ve been chewing on:

Scientific literacy: One of the fundamental assumptions of most science educators is that scientific knowledge is important whether or not students go on to work in a scientific field. The idea is that all people should have a certain level of “scientific literacy” so they can make informed decisions on issues that require some scientific understanding (think global warming, genetically modified food, vaccines, etc.). Lockhart argues (for math) that the current standard curriculum isn’t really adapted to this kind of purpose in the first case, and if we were serious about teaching students something useful for every day life it would require major changes. On that last point I have to agree with him in science as well- while I make an effort as a science teacher to show students how the subjects were learning apply to their real life, this idea of usefulness is obviously not the driving force, it’s more of an afterthought. What gives? Should the curriculum be changed to reflect the true importance of the goal of scientific literacy, or is it just weaker secondary justification for science education?

Interestingly enough, in a recent job interview I had for a Middle School science teacher position, a similar question came up: What’s the point of Middle School science education? I had already explained my belief that elementary science was all about establishing fundamental concepts and learning the skills of thinking like a scientist, and I had already conceded the truth that students don’t retain much factual knowledge from grade school anyway, so I had to stop and actually think during the interview (isn’t it funny how uncomfortable actual thinking on the spot is??). What I came down to was the idea that Middle School science would build on those elementary science fundamentals to teach students how science (and of course I also include in this the process of scientific thinking) really is useful and omnipresent in everyday life. After all, if every citizen had the equivalent of a good Middle School science understanding, we’d probably be in better shape than we are now, right?

So I can’t concede dismissing the value of scientific literacy, but I do agree that the standard science canon needs some serious reshaping in order to truly provide students with useful understanding for their everyday lives. Instead of teaching the subject first and then looking for applications afterward, why not start with the useful context and have that lead us to the necessary science? This reminds me a lot of the way Dan Myer approaches math problems: starting with the real-life context, and then having students add math as needed. I think this same approach would be effective to entire units of study.

I’m looking forward to digging into this next year in Middle School, so if you’ve got examples of this from your own teaching, I’d love to hear from you. Also looking for inspiration? Here’s a cool example of this kind of course for high school science.

 

 

 

 

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