The developing integrated instructional units are based on the principle that learning is enhanced when the environment is knowledge-centered. That is, the laboratory experiences and other instruction included in integrated instructional units are designed to help students learn with understanding, rather than simply acquiring sets of disconnected facts and skills (National Research Council, 1999).
In science, the body of knowledge with which students must engage includes accepted scientific ideas about natural phenomena as well as an understanding of what it means to “do science.” These two aspects of science are reflected in the goals of laboratory experiences, which include mastery of subject matter (accepted scientific ideas about phenomena) and several goals related to the processes of science (understanding the complexity of empirical work, development of scientific reasoning). Research on student thinking about science shows a progression of ideas about scientific knowledge and how it is justified. At the first stage, students perceive scientific knowledge as right or wrong. Later, students characterize discrepant ideas and evidence as “mere opinion.” Eventually, students recognize scientific knowledge as being justified by evidence derived through rigorous research. Several studies have shown that a large proportion of high school students are at the first stage in their views of scientific knowledge (National Research Council, 2005).
Knowledge-centered environments encourage students to reflect on their own learning progress (metacognition). Learning is facilitated when individuals identify, monitor, and regulate their own thinking and learning. To be effective problem solvers and learners, students need to determine what they already know and what else they need to know in any given situation, including when things are not going as expected. For example, students with better developed metacognitive strategies will abandon an unproductive problem-solving strategy very quickly and substitute a more productive one, whereas students with less effective metacognitive skills will continue to use the same strategy long after it has failed to produce results (Gobert and Clement, 1999). The basic metacognitive strategies include: (1) connecting new information to former knowledge, (2) selecting thinking strategies deliberately, and (3) monitoring one’s progress during problem solving.
A final aspect of knowledge-centered learning, which may be particularly relevant to integrated instructional units, is that the practices and activities in which people engage while learning shape what they learn. Transfer (the ability to apply learning in varying situations) is made possible to the extent that knowledge and learning are grounded in multiple contexts. Transfer is more difficult when a concept is taught in a limited set of contexts or through a limited set of activities. By encountering the same concept at work in multiple contexts (such as in laboratory experiences and in discussion),