Federal

Panel Points Way to Improving K-8 Science Learning

By Sean Cavanagh — September 22, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

To develop a strong understanding of science, students in elementary and middle school should be encouraged to master a relatively small number of crucial concepts, and gradually expand their knowledge of those topics, a new study argues.

Released last week by the congressionally chartered National Research Council, the report says that too often, students are presented with long lists of disconnected facts and ideas, leaving them with no sense of what is most important and a poor understanding of the overall rules of science.

The report, “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” is available from The National Academies Press.

For years, educators have differed over whether students learn science more effectively through an empha-sis on hands-on experimentation or a more straightforward recitation of facts from teachers to students. The study, “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” says both approaches have merit, depending on the science topic.

It seeks to break new ground, however, in focusing more directly on science cognition, or how students learn. Research today, the authors of the study say, shows that focusing on a relatively small number of major concepts, and gradually building on them, works most effectively.

“We have a new and different understanding of how students learn in science,” said Richard A. Duschl, a professor of science education at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., who chaired the 14-member committee that produced the report. “We need to find stronger themes, around which we can coordinate big ideas.”

‘Learning Progressions’

Decades of attempts to reform U.S. science education, dating to the 1950s, have yielded only modest im-provements in student performance on national tests and, most troubling to many observers, on compari-sons between the United States and other nations, the report says. A new, more focused strategy is needed, it contends.

While the 348-page report does not list the core science topics that students should master, it offers a few examples of likely building blocks, such as the theory of evolution and the study of atoms and molecules.

And the report specifically touts the potential of “learning progressions” to improve student performance in science. Learning progressions are detailed descriptions of the order in which student should learn about various topics from grade to grade, based on what is known about their understanding upon entering school, and expectations for what they should know after a certain length of time.

“A lot of science concepts are tough,” said Heidi A. Schweingruber, a senior program officer at the Na-tional Research Council and a co-director of the two-year study. “Students need a sustained experience in dealing with them over time.”

One finding of the study is that science educators consistently underestimate students’ ability to grasp scientific concepts at ages as young as 4 to 6. That early scientific understanding can be expanded quickly, the report says.

“The commonly held view that young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers is outmoded,” it says.

Tasks to Master

At the same time, students from different economic backgrounds and with different English-language ability have varying levels of exposure to science, the authors note. Teachers can adjust instruction to account for those differences, the authors say, without sacrificing the rigor of their lessons.

Scientists often voice frustration over the public’s lack of understanding of the basic rules and standards of science—discontent that has resurfaced during recent furors over the teaching of evolution and “intelli-gent design” in public schools.

The NRC report seems to address the perceived shortcomings in public knowledgeby identifying four tasks that all students should master. Students, the report says, should develop the ability to know and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; generate and evaluate scientific evidence; understand the development of scientific knowledge; and learn to participate productively in scientific practices and discussions.

State standards in science, or expectations for what students need to know by grade, should be stream-lined to focus on fewer topics, the authors argue. To accomplish that goal, they say, the paring-down of ideas also needs to occur in two prime reference documents used by state officials in crafting their stan-dards: the National Research Council’s 1996 “National Science Education Standards,” and the 1993 “Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at California State University-Long Beach, who has studied state science standards and been critical of them, commended the study’s authors for recognizing that students can tackle many science topics in earlier grades—and for saying that educa-tors have consistently set the bar too low.

But he was more circumspect about asking K-8 science teachers to focus more narrowly on certain ideas in their classes. That approach often serves as an excuse to lower expectations for students, he argued.

“It’s very easy for teachers to fool themselves and their students and say, ‘Lets focus on the big picture and not the details,’ ” Mr. Lerner said. “Depth and breadth go together.”

The study also recommends reorganizing local, state, and federal teacher-training programs to focus on core concepts in science, as well as building teachers’ understanding of the rules and practices of science. That approach would be a departure from “what virtually all active teachers learned in college,” the report says, “and what most colleges teach aspiring teachers today.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as Panel Points Way to Improving K-8 Science Learning

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal K-12 Leaders Denounce Antisemitism But Reject That It's Rampant in Schools
Three school district leaders said they're committed to rooting out antisemitism during a hearing in Congress.
6 min read
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York Public schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, President of the Montgomery Count (Md.) Board of Education, Emerson Sykes, Staff Attorney with the ACLU, and Enikia Ford Morthel, Superintendent of the Berkeley United School District, during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York City schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County, Md., school board; Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU; and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified school district in Berkeley, Calif., during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing
FAFSA, rising antisemitism, and Title IX dominated questioning at a U.S. House hearing with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Federal Arming Teachers Could Cause 'Accidents and More Tragedy,' Miguel Cardona Says
"This is not in my opinion a smart option,” the education secretary said at an EdWeek event.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal Opinion Should Migrant Families Pay Tuition for Public School?
The answer must reflect an outlook that is pro-immigration, pro-compassion, and pro-law and order, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Image of a pencil holder filled with a variety of colored pencils that match the background with international flags.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva