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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Give Me Longer Class Periods and More Space,’ Science Teacher Pleads

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 14, 2016 14 min read
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(Today’s post is the last in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What do science teachers view as their biggest challenges and how can they best respond to them?

In Part One, Alfonso Gonzalez, Mike Janatovich, Anne Jolly, and Camie Walker shared their thoughts.You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Al, Mike, Anne and Camie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Anne Vilen, Marsha Ratzel, Charles R. Ault, Jr., and AJ Sisneros provide responses.

Response From Anne Vilen

Anne Vilen is a writer and school coach for EL Education and an author of Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction (2016). Previously, she taught language arts in middle and high school and served as director of program and professional development in a high-performing charter school:

Ask science teachers what their biggest challenge is and invariably they’ll say something like, “I have too much to cover. My standards include four disciplines of science and there’s no telling which miniscule facts are going to be on the end-of-course test. The only way to cover it all is to plow through the textbook with lectures and throw in a cookbook lab now and then so that students don’t fall asleep.”

The problem with this approach, of course, is that many students drift off when the teacher’s voice drones on, and even among those who learn best from listening, only some will retain factoids long enough to regurgitate them on the test. In the end, none will finish the course having truly experienced what it means to be a scientist.

Our solution to this dilemma is a surface and dive approach. Students, especially those who have less scientific background, need the big picture view provided by a well-charted cruise across the open ocean of “content.” But the “deep-dive” experience fostered by slowing down and investigating one issue, one place, or one scientific phenomenon is what students will remember beyond the tests and what will foster a lifetime of curiosity, questioning, and arguing with evidence.

First, cover the surface

State science standards that cherry-pick from physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering often feel to both teachers and students like being dropped into the deep end. With your head just an inch above the waves, it’s hard to see where you are going or how to get there. To make the minutia more manageable and more meaningful, many new standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards, bundle facts and explanations around core ideas that give coherence to the disciplines. These big ideas help students make sense of seemingly isolated or esoteric facts.

Covering the big ideas through lectures or reading can be punctuated with engaging discussion protocols and other instructional techniques that help students go deeper into the material. Well crafted notecatchers, close reading lessons for scientific text, science notebooks, protocols like the chalk talk or interactive word walls, and student-engaged assessment techniques are ways to put students at the helm, steering their own learning even as they skim across a great deal of content.

Second, pause and dive deep

Preparing to be college and career-ready scientists (as opposed to just learning some science), however, takes more than even a carefully plotted voyage across the surface. “Students need experience solving problems the way that scientists do, by experimenting in the laboratory, gathering evaluating and interpreting data; constructing explanations and arguments; and communicating information,” write Ron Berger, Anne Vilen, and Libby Woodfin in Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students With Deeper Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Knowing when to stop the boat and dive deep is a strategic and important instructional decision.

When 10th grade biology teacher Eric Levine from the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Mass., was considering a way to enliven and illuminate the broad topic of genetics, he decided to take his students on a deep dive into the science of disease-resistant bacteria. Students paused within the big frame of genetics and natural selection to spend four weeks investigating the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their own school. Then they used information from articles they read and discussed, as well as data they’d collected themselves, to construct scientific arguments about a solution to the problem. You can see Levine’s students thinking and speaking like scientists as they present their evidence and their arguments in a seminar-like science talk.

Thinking and Speaking Like Scientists through a Science Talk from EL Education on Vimeo.

Interestingly, the three guiding questions that form the prompts for Levine’s students’ science talk parallel a cover-the-surface-then-dive-deep progression:

  1. Is antibiotic resistance a global threat?
  2. What do our own data tell us about the problem?
  3. What can scientists, politicians, and the public do about it? What do the experts say? What does our own data say about a solution?

Students talk first about what they know from reading background information, describing the global threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Then they dive deep into what they can prove from their own experiments and data. And finally, they resurface, data in hand, to synthesize their conclusions and offer solutions. This iterative process is what scientists do over and over again throughout their professional lives—identifying problems, reading the literature, investigating empirically, and then adding their evidence and perspective to the scientific debate.

Levine’s students put those same habits and skills into practice.

  • They reviewed the literature to understand the problem and contextualize research in a broader field
  • They designed valid data collection methods
  • They compared, analyzed, and evaluated data for reliability
  • They drew inferences and conclusions
  • They supported their claims with evidence to a broader community

Levine’s study is a great example of how a deep dive into a narrow topic that illuminates big ideas integrates both the content standards of science and the process standardsthe habits of scientific thinking and the skills required to “do” science. While state tests often privilege the content standards, the process standards are the currency of college and career readiness. Because the surface information was anchored by the deep dive, students persevered with challenging genetic concepts (e.g., “horizontal gene transfer”), mastered scientific vocabulary, (e.g., “validity and reliability”), and conducted original research.

Students like these who think, speak, and act like scientists are much more likely to one day become scientists and scientifically literate citizens. Toward that goal, it’s worthwhile to chart a new course in your science scope and sequence, pausing strategically as you cover content to dive into a narrow investigation, so that students can experience the fascinating depths of science.

Response From Marsha Ratzel

Marsha Ratzel is a middle school math and science teacher at Leawood Middle School in Leawood, Kan. She has been twice nationally board-certified in science:

We are in the midst of implementing a new set of science standards (Next Generation Science Standards or NGSS) which radically changes the way we provide science instruction. Science instruction must not include cross-cutting concepts and science/engineering practices along with the content. This is called 3D lesson design. 3D teaching pushes teachers to re-design lessons to be much more active and application oriented—and designed with connections back to real-life scenarios. It’s not like you have to start completely overbut you do have to be much more aware of connecting to concepts that spiral throughout K-12 and to include ways of thinking/building/engineering in lessons.

There are not many supporting resources available right now. Suppliers and textbook publishers are still scrambling to catch up. So schools are spending loads of money to buy new equipment, provide more professional development and collaboration time as well as investing in new textbooks. Some states are strapped for money, so implementing a new, more lab-intensive curriculum is very difficult.

Response From Charles R. Ault, Jr.

Charles R. Ault, Jr. recently retired from the faculty of the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). His lifelong interests in paleontology are reflected in his forthcoming book Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (Comstock Associates/Cornell University Press, 2016).

I submitted this question to a respected high school physics teacher--call him “Sam"--who also has led summer natural history classes. Sam’s range is remarkable and he has, in addition to teaching in a large, urban high school, led numerous workshops for local teachers. His response on the day we talked distilled to “time and space”not the concepts as understood by a physicist, but the more prosaic problem of dedicated lab space and adequate time for students to engage in authentic investigations. In his words, “There is a lot of time and money put into deep philosophical discussions about how to teach science. I think these discussions are important and valuable. However, logistical concerns limit me more than a lack of ideas or methods on how to teach our diverse students.”

Same must move from room to room without the continuity of a dedicated lab. Scheduling and classroom allocation combine to obstruct his ability to engage students in authentic investigations. Repeatedly loading a cart and hustling through the hallwaysand sometimes on and off an elevatorfeels absurd and exhausting to him.

Time and space concerns do loop back to “deep philosophical issues.” School science reflects what society values. “What about science?” and “Which sciences?” to teach is the domain of the Next Generation Science Standards. At their heart resides the inquiry ideal: John Dewey’s notion that recapitulating essential aspects of the work of scientists is crucial to the meaningful learning of science by novices. Are time and space (and storage) allocated to make that happen? According to Sam, the answer is increasingly “no.”

The NGSS place new demands on teachers: aligning lessons and assessments, for example, with general practices and broad concepts. Such is the case for the new core idea, “Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer.” It’s an ambitious update to the science standards that challenges teachers to integrate the physics of wave propagation with sending information. It’s a science and engineering challenge. The linking of engineering to scientific fundamentals means that students are expected to conduct investigations of vibration, resonance, wave interference, propagation, etc., as a foundation for the construction of systems designed to transfer information. The ultimate aim is to advance public understanding of modern technology even though the engineered product may be as simple as a two-string banjo made from a recycled plastic jug (an exercise from the 1960s Elementary Science Study’s “Musical Instrument Recipe Book”) that when plucked can be interpreted as sending binary coded messages.

Imagine three classes of fourth-graders with a couple dozen students in each one: that’s a lot of banjos to build. Each needs a bridge and stringing. The process is laboriousyet rewarding. Some adult volunteering helps as well as dedicated science specialist (that was me in this example) in the first year.

In the elementary school that accepted the challenge of teaching about waves and information transfer, dedicated space, ample time, and storage were not problems even when faced with adding engineering to the curriculum. Secondary students deserve no less.

On June 30, 2016, The New York Times obituaries noted the passing of the famous rocket scientist Dr. Simon Ramo, author of the revered text, “Fields and Waves in Communication Electronics.” Dr. Ramo was a pioneer in technology applications that have become instrumental to modern life and the NGSS standards reflect his legacy. Our society values this knowledge immensely. Sam’s struggles to set up classes for authentic investigations and engineering challenges merit the time and space the subject requires. He simply pleads, “Give me longer class periods and more space!”

Response From AJ Sisneros

AJ Sisneros is a physics teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. He graduated from CSU Sacramento with a degree in physics with a concentration in education and has been teaching for 4 years:

As science departments slowly start to roll out the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we’re faced with 2 sets of challenges: the traditional challenges of teaching science and the challenge of adjusting to the NGSS.

There are several challenges that have always faced science teachers (common misconceptions, beliefs that contradict scientific observations, etc.). One of the biggest traditional challenges for science teachers (in my opinion) has been how we can make classroom labs and activities that are meaningful and help students understand the material better. As a science student and an observer of science classrooms - before I became a teacher - I felt as if the lab activities were removed from the content. It was a sentiment often expressed by other students. As a teacher, I can look back and see the connective tissue to many labs that had little impact on my understanding of the material at the time. Now, as I develop my own labs and activities, I ask myself how I can make these experiences matter more to my students and to my content. The way that I address this problem is tied closely to the challenges regarding the NGSS.

The NGSS attempts to fundamentally shift the focus of the science classroom away from science as a body of knowledge to science as a way to methodically explore the universe. Before the NGSS, science standards would include all the major topics of the subject as well as a separate category for the “scientific method” or “science skills”. Shifting to the NGSS means, for many teachers, that they will have to adjust from viewing lab experience solely as a lens to better understand the topic to viewing the topic as a lens to better engage in investigative skills as well. As a relatively new teacher, I learned about the NGSS through my credentialing program and even I am still trying to fully adjust my view of a science classroom to fit the newer expectations.

For both of these challenges, I’ve been working on shifting my paradigm regarding science classrooms. I no longer view my lab experiences only as ways to support my topic, but instead view my topic as a set of tools my students can use to develop and carry out their own lab/investigative experiences. Like any paradigm shift, this will require time, concrete examples of what others are doing, and honest self reflection.

Thanks to Anne, Marsha, Charles, and AJ for their contributions!

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