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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘The Biggest Challenge to Science Teachers Is Time’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 12, 2016 14 min read
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(Today’s post is the first in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

All of us educators face challenges. This series will explore what specific ones face science teachers.

Today, Alfonso Gonzalez, Mike Janatovich, Anne Jolly, and Camie Walker share their thoughts.

You can listen to a 10-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. I just recorded the one hundredth episode!

You might also be interested in previous Q & A posts on Science Instruction.

Response From Alfonso Gonzalez

Alfonso Gonzalez has been teaching grades 4 to 8 for 25 years. He is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of Early Adolescent Generalist with a Masters of Arts in Teaching and has completed two ISTE Capstone certifications. He blogs regularly at Mr. Gonzalez’s Classroom:

I have been teaching for 25 years, 19 of those years teaching Science. In that time I have seen changes in our Washington state standards to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). One of the biggest challenges facing Science teachers is engaging all of our students in learning Science while attending to ever-changing standards.

I am fortunate enough to be able to take my 6th graders to Mt Saint Helens (MSH) every year. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) show that a way Science teachers can engage their students in learning Science is by starting with a phenomenon. If we hook our students and get THEM asking questions, the inquiry process has begun and they are willing to LEARN Science. So I start every year showing the 1980 eruption of MSH and taking students to MSH. Wonderful phenomena - an active volcano! Over the years I’ve seen the Science standards that deal with volcanic activity change thusly:

2004 WA Essential Academic Learning Requirement (EALR) 1, Grade Level Expectation (GLE) 1.3.4 for grades 6 to 8:

“Understand the processes that continually change the surface of the Earth. Describe how constructive processes change landforms (e.g., crustal deformation, volcanic eruption, deposition of sediment). Describe how destructive processes change landforms (e.g., rivers erode landforms).”

2009 WA Learning Standard from grades 6 to 8, ES3D Content Standard:

“Earth has been shaped by many natural catastrophes, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, glaciers, floods, storms, tsunami, and the impacts of asteroids. Interpret current landforms of the Pacific Northwest as evidence of past geologic events (e.g., Mount St. Helens and Crater Lake provide evidence of volcanism, the Channeled Scablands provides evidence of floods that resulted from melting of glaciers).”

Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) Middle School (MS) History of Earth, performance expectation MS-ESS2-2:

“Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.”

The standards are all very similar and I have no problem with the way they have evolved. What the NGSS has packed into its standards are what they call the three dimensions that include the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI), the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP), and the Cross-Cutting Concepts (CCC). In every NGSS performance expectation all three dimensions are included because they should always be integrated into learning activities. In the above NGSS History of Earth performance expectation, the part where students need to explain, “how geoscience processes have changed the Earth’s surface,” is the DCI.The part where students, “construct an explanation based on evidence,” is the SEP, and the part where they use, “varying times and scales,” is the CCC.

By embedding all three dimensions into each and every performance expectation the NGSS makes it easier for teachers to plan integrated units of study for their students. Starting units of study with a phenomena to hook students and attending to all three dimensions, Science teachers will ensure that all our students become scientifically literate problem-solvers. I have hope that the NGSS will help us Science teachers respond to the challenge of engaging all our students in learning and doing Science.

Response From Mike Janatovich

Mike Janatovich is the assistant principal of Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio, and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

The largest challenge facing science teachers today is finding a balance. Science teachers are being pulled in two opposite directions and science teachers are conflicted as to which way to go. The two directions that I speak of is the “standardized” route that focuses on content and ultimately vocabulary. This direction is detrimental to the students but is usually a focus of standardized tests that influence state scores and teacher evaluation. Science educators feel that there is a conflict due to the impact that this could have on their personal or schools performance. They feel that they must at least introduce this path to ensure success on these test. With this path, students will not be able to “do” science, but they at least will know of the concepts that make up science.

The other direction that teachers are pulled in is the discovery/inquiry learning path. I think it is safe for me to have a declaratory statement here: This is best for kids, but it is very difficult and challenging to implement. Labs, investigations, discovery, and everything else can be costly and takes up a large chunk of time to implement. A lesson that takes one day in the “standardization” model, might take a week in the “inquiry” model. Here lies the conflict with teachers. One path is easier to implement, and you can cover all the standards (and probably leave time to review) and the other path is challenging and is not predictable as all students and classes will experience learning at a different rate.

While science teachers are struggling to find a balance in their classroom, there is one more added pressure; administrators. There are some building and district level administrators that do not fully understand an inquiry approach to learning. Some administrators rely on pre-made pacing guides to make sure the “progress will be made.” Hopefully, as science teachers, you are not in this situation, but if you are, it is a must that you get support from your building principals in order to ensure long-term success. Be a teacher-leader and advocate for your students and program. Provide continuous updates, data, and then invite the administrators into your classroom so they can experience the learning as well. When they see that not only science is being taught but also math, ELA, critical thinking, social skills, etc they will understand the importance of your class.

In the end, in order to get deep and complex with science, we must keep it simple: We must focus on our “power standards.” When implementing inquiry-based lessons, choose those topics that are broad enough to cover multiple standards. By doing this, you can use a large chunk of time to allow students to experience science, but still have the ability to connect the dots (standards) where you see fit. When we choose this path, there is a natural recycling of material, but the second time around, students are using prior learning as a means to construct new meaning. Through this process, you will have ample opportunities to provide feedback to students and to collect quantitative and qualitative data that will demonstrate and support student learning.

Response From Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly (@ajollygal) is a former middle school science teacher and an Alabama State Teacher of the year who writes STEM curriculum. Her popular blog is full of practical ideas for implementing and teaching STEM, and her website features tips and tools from her new book, STEM by Design: Strategies and Activities for Grades 4 to 8:

I begin my career as a research scientist before a series of fortunate events led me to the world of science teaching. I soon realized that the official job description didn’t begin to cover the real work of my new profession. And I quickly realized that I was the key to making genuine teaching and learning happen in my classroom—whatever that took.

I worked through many challenges to make real learning happen for my students. You may face some of the same challenges you face as you tackle the worlds’ most important job!

Challenge #1: Staying current and using cutting-edge teaching practices. I did my best to stay current in science content by subscribing to professional journals and researching topics I would be teaching. I focused on involving my kids in hands-on science practices and learned that inquiry-based, learner-focused teaching practices are the way to go. Our Google-generation students can get science facts within seconds. My goal is for students to be open-minded thinkers, self-regulating, and collaborative. To develop those skills, I provided guidance not only in science content, but in critical thinking, problem-solving, autonomy, and relationship-building.

Challenge #2: Including STEM lessons in the science classroom. STEM lessons bring the engineering factor into play to help kids integrate and apply knowledge from science, math, and technology. This gives their learning more depth and prepares them for solving problems in their 21st-century world. STEM lessons generally last several class periods, so I recommend teaching in-depth STEM lessons one or more times per quarter to help students apply the science principles they studied. Here are some STEM lesson criteria I use.

Challenge #3: Tackling inadequate science equipment and/or facilities head-on. The first thing I did after stepping foot into my newly assigned school was to a launch a search for science equipment. I finally located some broken microscopes and crusted beakers in a hall closet. Although I was the newbie, I enlisted the support of other science teachers and the administration to upgrade equipment for the whole science department. We began a quest for science resources through grants, businesses, and community sources.

We didn’t wait for equipment to drop in our laps. I found medical professionals (dentists, doctors, hospitals) to furnish surgical gloves and medical supplies for labs. Police drug units were often a good source of triple beam balances. University biology departments donated perfectly good working microscopes when they purchased new ones. Parents donated paper towels and grocery store supplies. We always kept in mind that paper cups and plastic spoons are better than nothing, but our purpose was to introduce students to the actual tools of the trade--real science equipment.

Challenge #4: Leading students in productive teaming. After working in a real-world laboratory setting, it took me by surprise when most of my students were not good at working together in teams. I planned lessons to involve students in active learning problem-solving, and experimentation. To do that they needed to work together in teams - one of the most important lifelong skills they would need. While I made this a top priority, it was definitely an uphill challenge. You will deal with frequent frustration (yours and theirs) as you structure teams to help students develop this skill. I have a free student teaming tips document that might assist you.

Challenge #5: Teaching in isolation. When I started teaching I was surprised to discover that I was basically isolated from other teachers. As an assistant virologist, I had worked daily with colleagues to analyze and discuss our work and progress. Naturally I was perplexed by the lack of communication and collaboration among teachers who were charged with students’ learning and progress.

Hopefully you have authentic professional learning communities in your schools where you work with other teachers to learn, grow, and improve your instruction. If you don’t, take a leadership role in establishing learning connections with your colleagues and regularly working together to continually increase instructional knowledge and build a collective sense of responsibility for all students.

Take care to develop connections to science teacher colleagues in other schools and locations provide you with fresh ideas, trouble-shooting tips, and collegial support to refuel your enthusiasm when you feel discouraged. You can find virtual groups and support through a number of science organizations. Start with the National Science Teachers Association—a great source of online communities, information, conferences, lessons, and workable ideas from real science teachers.

Finally, plan for a long and fulfilling career teaching real science to many hundreds of naturally curious students. Remember, you’re doing something every day that matters--not just to those students who will choose to pursue STEM careers, but to every kid who comes to see the important and exciting place science holds in our 21st century world.

Response From Camie Walker

Camie Walker is an elementary science teacher at John Murdy Elementary School in Garden Grove, California and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC), a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

The biggest challenge for all science teachers is time. It takes time to prepare, plan, and teach performance-based instruction. Elementary teachers also face additional challenges. Elementary School Science has long been the “curricular cousin” who visits on occasion. Now this cousin is moving in.

Next Generation Science & Engineering Standards provide vibrant opportunities for students to become scientists and engineers, but Elementary level teachers have to be experts in all curriculum. Some feel they lack the knowledge to do justice to the new science expectations, so they direct their energy elsewhere. The biggest challenge is to make science matter in the elementary classroom.

This will take time, training, and patience. Legislators, administrators and science teachers need to create a climate where elementary teachers have time to develop the skills, strategies, and confidence necessary to make science matter. For example, as I worked on the NGSS & Engineering Framework committee, I facilitated sessions allowing teachers to review the California Science Curriculum Framework and provide feedback. This helped teachers to become familiar with the standards and gain confidence as they shared their expertise with the Department of Education. Providing additional opportunities for collaboration strengthens science instruction.

Flexibility is also needed. Scheduling needs to change allowing for integration of curricular areas. Team teaching will provide more dedicated time for teachers to become experts in science, enjoying the benefits of planning with a colleague.

Through Instructional Leadership Corps workshops, I share how Engineering created a transformation in my own students. They became interested in solving global problems as they investigated ways to create better housing for earthquake survival. When teachers see the power science and engineering have in strengthening critical thinking skills, they become more motivated to make science matter. This change in attitude will result in change of behavior and change of heart.

Thanks to Al, Mike, Anne and Camie for their contributions!

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