Learning Big Ideas By Doing Science: Radical Changes in K-12 Science Teaching

Two education professors, experts on how children learn science, have endorsed radical proposed changes in the nation’s K-12 science education standards. In an essay in the January 25 edition of Science, Ravit Duncan, associate professor of science education at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education; and Ann Rivet,  associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, call on scientists to get behind proposed new standards and advocate for their adoption by the states.

The current science education standards, which were put in place in 1996, describe scientific concepts that students need to know each school year, and the methods by which science is taught. Duncan and Rivet’s essay is about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), drawn up by a national committee of science educators, education researchers, and scientists and currently available for public review. The new guidelines are based on “learning progressions,” a concept of teaching and learning science that has gained traction among education researchers in the past decade. In their essay, Duncan and Rivet aim to explain this concept to scientists, and encourage scientists to support and advocate for the new standards, which would completely change the way K-12 science and engineering are taught and learned.
“Educators often criticize American K-12 science education as being a mile wide and an inch deep,” says Duncan. Students learn about different topics in science – the water cycle one year, cell mitosis the next – but they’re often not connected to one another or to anything students can see, feel or experience for themselves.  But with the new proposed standards based on learning progressions, students learn the “big ideas” in science – atomic and molecular theory, for example – with increasingly sophisticated levels of understanding as they move through the K-12 science program. At each level, Duncan and Rivet believe, students should learn to use scientific practices to create new knowledge that they can use as “stepping stones” to the next level. The best way to study science, they assert, is to do more science.
The new guidelines under review by more than two dozen states – New Jersey and New York among them – are much needed, Duncan says, citing a common middle school experiment in which students test two brands of paper towel to see which one holds more coins while wet. “So, you find out which brand is stronger,” Duncan says. “So what?” The experiment doesn’t develop scientific knowledge about why a paper towel might be better. An NGSS alternative would ask students to think first about why a towel might be stronger or weaker. What is it about the materials that allow it to hold water and not break apart?  By investigating the differences between the two brands, students can examine how two things that look the same can have different properties that make them act in different ways.  These are precursor ideas to more advanced chemistry, and students can use this knowledge later on to address other problems.
The first experiment is “hands-on,” Duncan says, but the second one is what she calls “mind-on.” “Students are taught about the scientific method, but they don’t get as much opportunity as they should to practice the scientific method.”  The NGSS standards “use experiments as means to an end, ends in themselves,” she says. “There is a lot of creative thinking that precedes and follows the experiment. Scientists develop models, test them through experiments, and then revise these models based on their findings. It is the models that are at the center; they exemplify the thinking.” Rivet argues that students “need to do science at every level, to build scientific models, not just study models in textbooks.”
“These standards can fundamentally change the way students come to understand science in K-12 education,” says Rivet, who is serving on the New York State review committee for the proposed new standards. And because they are embedded in learning progressions, “they will support the kinds of learning and teaching we’ve been advocating for the past 10 years.”
Students don’t need to memorize a lot of facts to get there. “Do you remember the steps of mitosis?” Duncan said. “You probably heard them in the seventh grade, and unless you’re a biologist, you probably don’t remember them now. But you don’t really need to memorize the gory details in the seventh grade; you need to know what mitosis does, that mitosis is the process by which a cell divides the chromosomes in its nucleus into two identical parts.”
Duncan and Rivet both study the way children develop scientific knowledge across schooling. Duncan’s own recent research has showed that middle school students, for example, can make the connection between genes, which are basically recipes for making proteins, and the malformation of proteins that may lead to disease. With a colleague, Kim Kastens, formerly at Columbia, Rivet has been conducting a study of teaching strategies and student learning with the use of table top models to explain earth sciences phenomena in 7th and 8th grade classrooms. That study is contributing to the body of research related to the science practice of developing and using scientific models, and it will inform learning progressions for earth processes.
There is substantial evidence that learning progressions are valid, Rivet says. In their essay, Duncan and Rivet write that “it is important for the scientific community to be partners in the dialogue, even as we are mindful of the promises and pitfalls of learning progressions and their translation into standards. Scientists need to be aware of the long view taken by this approach and the conceptual role of simplified stepping-stone ideas in the learning process.”
The proposed standards are based on concepts laid out in the Framework for K-12 Science Education, a description of key scientific ideas and practices published by the National Research Council in 2011. Achieve, a nonprofit organization founded by state governors and educators to promote educational reform, has been managing the standards through a series of drafts and public comment periods for more than a year.
The current draft of the NGSS is available for public comment until January 29.  The final standards will be released in March.