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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms 1 A New Vision of Science in Education Joanna Fredericks feared that she was becoming the teacher she’d vowed never to be. She’d arrived at Tubman Middle School a year and a half earlier to teach science after a successful career in geographical information systems. While she’d enjoyed her previous job, she wanted to do something that would make a real difference in the lives of children. So she enrolled in a highly regarded university teaching master’s program, became certified in middle school science, and took a job in the city near her home. Her colleagues at Tubman Middle School considered her a smart, energetic, and passionate teacher. But her new job was turning out to be much harder than Ms. Fredericks had expected. Her school district, one of the largest, most diverse, and poorest in the state, had adopted a textbook that covered far too many topics. The resulting curriculum was, as many of the national reports on science have observed, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” There was simply no way for her to cover all the lessons, vocabulary, and experiments described in the book in enough depth that the students would really understand the concepts being presented. While students were interested in the demonstrations suggested by the textbook and in the experiments Ms. Fredericks had them do, there was rarely enough time to follow up on the results, so the students had difficulty understanding them. Also, Ms. Fredericks knew that her students needed to do well on the state tests given in science at the end of eighth grade, but 80 to 90 percent of them were failing the end-of-chapter tests in the textbook. As the year went on, her students became increasingly disrespectful to each other. Part of the problem, she knew, was that they were bored, but she didn’t know how to make her lessons more interesting while still following the curriculum. The more she asked her students to sit quietly and do their worksheets, the more they acted out.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Well into her second year, Ms. Fredericks felt her worst nightmare was coming true. She was becoming one of those science teachers who taught her students only two things: that they didn’t like science and that they weren’t any good at it. The Importance of Teaching Science Well Science has become a cornerstone of 21st-century education. This is evident in the provision that the No Child Left Behind Act calls for assessments in science, along with reading and mathematics, starting in the 2007-2008 school year. Apart from the law, there are many other reasons why it is important to teach science well in schools. Science is a powerful enterprise that can improve people’s lives in fundamental ways. Teams of scientists participate in developing treatments for diseases, technologies for distributing clean water in arid environments, building systems for enhancing national security, and building computer models that help track the impact of human behavior on the environment. These issues, and many others of equal importance, will continue to require attention now and far into the future. Generating scientific productivity requires a workforce, not only of scientists, engineers, medical and health care professionals, but also of journalists, teachers, policy makers, and the broader network of people who make critical contributions to science and the scientific enterprise. It is imperative that we teach science well to all children, as science is a critical factor in maintaining and improving the quality of life. Science can also provide a foundation for continued science learning, as well as for the study of other academic subjects. Students who learn to talk with peers in scientific ways, for example, tracing logical connections among ideas and evidence and criticizing ideas constructively, may employ those skills in other subject areas. Science is important for another, often overlooked reason. To the degree that we actually know science, we have knowledge and strategies with which to examine evidence systematically, interpret, and control our surroundings. Knowledge of science can enable us to think critically and frame productive questions. Without scientific knowledge, we are wholly dependent on others as “experts.” With scientific knowledge, we are empowered to become participants rather than merely observers. Science, in this sense, is more than a means for getting ahead in the world of work. It is a resource for becoming a critical and engaged citizen in a democracy.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms The growing importance of science in the modern world has focused increased attention on K-12 science education. The development in the 1990s of national standards and benchmarks catalyzed a nationwide conversation about what students need to learn in science and how the education system can support student learning. Standards and benchmarks at the national level provided the basis for state standards and curriculum frameworks that have had a significant impact on what students learn in science classes. Four Reasons to Teach Science Well Science is an enterprise that can be harnessed to improve quality of life on a global scale. Science may provide a foundation for the development of language, logic, and problem-solving skills in the classroom. A democracy demands that its citizens make personal, community-based, and national decisions that involve scientific information. For some students, science will become a lifelong vocation or avocation. These changes have taken us only partway to where we need to go. Research on learning and teaching has now progressed significantly beyond where it was when the standards were being written. Enough is now known for educators, administrators, and policy makers to rethink key aspects of science education. We’ve also come to understand the ways in which standards are used that have implications for how they are designed. As originally developed, the national standards provide very broad guidelines for the content that should be covered in science classes and for instructional practice. But they don’t provide much guidance on which topics are most important. They offer a few instructional exemplars, but they fall short of providing a model of successful instruction. New research points toward a kind of science education that differs substantially from what occurs in most science classrooms today. This new vision of science education embraces different ways of thinking about science, different ways of thinking about students, and different ways of thinking about science education. What Scientists Really Do Over the past few decades, historians, philosophers of science, and sociologists have taken a much closer look at what scientists actually do—with often surprising results. In the conventional view, the lone scientist, usually male and usually white, struggles heroically with nature in order to understand the natural world. Sometimes scientists are seen as applying a “scientific method” to get their results. They are perceived as removed from the real world, operating in an airy realm of abstraction.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Studies of what scientists actually do belie these stereotypes. They approach problems in many different ways and with many different preconceptions. There is no single “scientific method” universally employed by all. Scientists use a wide array of methods to develop hypotheses, models, and formal and informal theories. They also use different methods to assess the fruitfulness of their theories and to refine their models, explanations, and theories. They use a range of techniques to collect data systematically and a variety of tools to enhance their observations, measurements, and data analyses and representations. Studies also show that science is fundamentally a social enterprise. Scientists talk frequently with their colleagues, both formally and informally. Science is mainly conducted by large groups or widespread networks of scientists. An increasing number of women and minorities are scientists—although still not enough to match their representation in the population. They exchange e-mails, engage in discussions at conferences, and present and respond to ideas via publication in journals and books. Scientists also make use of a wide variety of cultural tools, including technological devices, mathematical representations, and methods of communication. These tools not only determine what scientists see but also shape the kinds of observations they make. Although different domains of science rely on different processes to develop scientific theories, all domains of science share certain features. Data and evidence hold a primary position in deciding any issue. When well-established data, from experiments or observations, conflict with a hypothesis or theory, that idea must be modified or abandoned and other explanations must be sought that can incorporate or take account of the new evidence. Theories, models, and hypotheses are rooted in empirical evidence and therefore can be tested and revised or expanded if necessary. Scientists develop and modify models, hypotheses, and theories to account for the broadest range of observations possible. The Language of Science In science, words are often given specific meanings that may be different from or more precise than their everyday meanings. It is important for educators to be clear about specific scientific usage to avoid confusion. A scientific theory—particularly one that is referred to as “the theory of …,” as in the theory of electromagnetism or the theory of thermodynamics or the theory of Newtonian mechanics—is an explanation that has undergone significant testing.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Through those tests and the resulting refinement, it takes a form that is a well-established description of, and predictor for, phenomena in a particular domain. A theory is so well established that it is unlikely that new data within that domain will totally discredit it; instead, the theory may be modified and revised to take new evidence into account. There may be domains in which the theory can be applied but has yet to be tested; in those domains the theory is called a working hypothesis. Indeed, the term “hypothesis” is used by scientists for an idea that may contribute important explanations to the development of a scientific theory. Scientists use and test hypotheses in the development and refinement of models and scenarios that collectively serve as tools in the development of a theory. Outside science, the term “theory” has additional meanings, and these other meanings differ in important ways from the above use of the term. One alternative use comes from everyday language, in which “theory” is often indistinguishable in its use from “guess,” “conjecture,” “speculation,” “prediction,” or even “belief” (e.g., “My theory is that indoor polo will become very popular” or “My theory is that it will rain tomorrow”). Such “theories” are typically very particular and unlike scientific theories have no broader conceptual scope. A datum—or “data” in plural form—is an observation or measurement recorded for subsequent analysis. The observation or measurement may be of a natural system or of a designed and constructed experimental situation. Observation, even in the elementary and middle school classroom, may be direct or may involve inference or technological assistance. For example, students may begin by conducting unaided observations of natural phenomena and then progress to using simple measurement tools or instruments, such as microscopes. Evidence is the cumulative body of data or observations of a phenomenon. When the evidence base provides very persistent patterns for a well-established property, correlation, or occurrence, this becomes the basis for a scientific claim. Scientific claims, always based on evidence, may or may not stand the test of time. Some will eventually be shown to be false. Some are demonstrated to occur forever and always in any context, and scientists refer to these claims as factual (e.g., the sun rises in the east). Facts are best seen as evidence and claims of phenomena that come together to develop and refine or to challenge explanations. For example, the fact that earthquakes occur has been long known, but the explanation for the fact that earthquakes occur takes on a different meaning if one adopts plate tectonics as a theoretical framework. The fact that there are different types of earthquakes (shallow and deep focus) helps deepen and expand the explanatory power of the theory of plate tectonics.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms The way that scientists operate in the real world is remarkably similar to how students operate in effective science classrooms. Throughout this book we examine different science classrooms in which educators strive to structure students’ scientific practice so that it resembles that of scientists. In these classrooms, students engage in a process of logical reasoning about evidence. They work cooperatively to explore ideas. They use mathematical or mechanical models, develop representations of phenomena, and work with various technological and intellectual tools. Students participate in active and rigorous discussion—of predictions, of evidence, of explanations, and of the relationships between hypotheses and data. They examine, review, and evaluate their own knowledge. This ability to evaluate knowledge in relation to new information or alternative frameworks and to alter ideas accordingly is a key scientific practice. Of course, students can’t behave exactly like scientists. They don’t yet know enough and haven’t had enough experience with the practices of science. But students who understand science as a process of building theories from evidence develop many of the skills and practices that scientists demonstrate. They can be taught to apply their existing knowledge to new problems or in new or different contexts. They can make connections between different representations of a concept. They can ask themselves why they believe something and how certain they are in their beliefs. They can become aware that their ideas change over time as they confront new evidence or use new tools or models to examine data. They can learn how to ask fruitful and researchable questions, how to challenge a claim, and where to go to learn more. Rethinking Children’s Capacity for Scientific Understanding Just as studies have revealed a radically different picture of what scientists do, they have also revealed a radically different picture of what young children are capable of doing. Cognitive researchers have become much more sophisticated in probing children’s capabilities. In the process, they have uncovered much richer stores of knowledge and reasoning skills than they expected to find in young children. Studies show that even children in kindergarten have surprisingly sophisticated ways of thinking about the natural world based on direct experiences with the physical environment, such as watching objects fall or collide, and observing animals and plants. Children also learn about the world by talking with their
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms families, watching television, going to parks, or playing outside. Children apply their understanding when they try to describe their experiences or persuade other people about what’s right or what’s wrong. In trying to understand and influence the world around them, they develop ideas about how the world works and their role in it. Experiences outside school influence and shape the knowledge and skills that children bring with them to the classroom. These experiences vary from child to child and often result in knowledge, skills, and interests that vary from child to child as well. Children who go to science museums or summer camps may have extensive experience investigating nature or topics in science. Children whose parents talk to them often about science are likely to be more knowledgeable about science. Research has shown that even raising goldfish at home can accelerate children’s understanding of some biological processes! The variability in student knowledge and skill that these nonschool experiences can produce can be drawn on in a constructive way in a well-structured science classroom. The capacity of very young children to reason scientifically is also much greater than has previously been assumed. Children from all backgrounds and all socioeconomic levels show evidence of sophisticated reasoning skills. Although they may lack knowledge and experience, they can and do engage in a wide range of subtle and complex reasoning processes. These processes can form the underpinnings of scientific thinking. Thus, children begin school with a set of ideas about the physical, biological, and social worlds. By paying more attention to their thinking, listening to and taking their ideas seriously, and trying to understand their thinking, educators can build on what children already know and can do. Their ideas may be more or less cohesive, and certainly in very young children they may be underdeveloped. But these initial ideas can be used as a foundation to build remarkable understanding, even in the earliest grades.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms This is a marked departure from previously accepted ways of looking at children’s capabilities or knowledge. Much of current science education is based on the idea that younger children have specific cognitive deficiencies that cannot be overcome. One widely accepted view has been that children pass through cognitive stages naturally and with little direct intervention from adults, gradually developing new capabilities as they get older. As a result, educators have often assumed they must wait until a child reaches a certain stage and is ready to grasp specific ideas or activities, rather than building on a child’s existing knowledge and skills. The reality, as the following case studies demonstrate, is that children as young as kindergarten age have the ability to think in ways that can serve as a foundation for later, more sophisticated scientific reasoning. Although we focus on measurement here, this is just one of many important areas in which children have strong skills and experiences to build on but need structured learning opportunities to make progress. Kindergartners enter school with little understanding of the deeper reasons for using instruments or of how to judge what makes a good measurement. Measurement introduces students to the importance of generating data that can be described in reproducible ways (so they can be verified) and that can be plugged into mathematical representations and manipulated. Measurement also helps children find patterns in data—patterns that would be obscured if they always rely on commonsense impressions. These cases are meant to illustrate what it looks like when young children engage in scientific practice—what happens when they are challenged to reason about a problem, when they examine a problem in light of what they already know or have experienced, and when they work toward a collective understanding of a problem. The instructional practice depicted here is built on the teachers’ knowledge of the subject, their understanding of the skills and knowledge their students have, and their ability to orchestrate complex, unscripted classroom discussions. Laying a foundation through work on measurement in kindergarten and first grade will have important payoffs in later grades, when students are able to reason about measuring and use the results of measurements in more sophisticated ways.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Science Class SEEING OURSELVES IN MEASUREMENT1 As part of a unit called “Seeing Ourselves in Measurement,” Julia Martinez’s kindergartners were about to measure themselves to create a full-size height chart. Each student had a small photograph of himself or herself, and a tape measure was attached to the wall. Before they got started, Ms. Martinez said she had an important measurement question to ask the students, and they had to come to a decision as an entire group. “Should we measure your height with or without your shoes on?” Ms. Martinez asked. “Sit down in your circle time spots, and let’s discuss this as scientists. Think about it first by yourself for a minute, and then let’s talk.” Hands went up. “I have an idea!” “I know!” Ms. Martinez waited until many hands were up. Then she said, “You’re all going to get a chance to give your ideas. But first you have to listen really, really hard to what everyone has to say, so we can come up with a good decision together.” Ms. Martinez called on Alexandra. “I think we should do it with our shoes off because some of our shoes are little and some are big or like high up. That wouldn’t be fair,” said Alexandra. “What do you mean by fair? Can you say a bit more about that?” “You know. Someone might be taller because of their shoes but not really taller. That wouldn’t be fair.” “Does anyone want to add on to what Alexandra said? Does anyone disagree?” “I no agree,” said Ramon, who spoke Spanish at home and was just beginning to learn English. “Shoes all the same. All like this big.” He measured the bottom of his shoe and held up two fingers. “It no make no difference.” “So let me see if I’ve got your idea right,” Ms. Martinez said. “Are you saying that since we all have shoes on and they’re all about the same size, it adds the same amount to everyone’s height and so it would be fair? Is that what you’re thinking?” Ramon nodded. “I think we should take our shoes off because some shoes are taller,” said Damani. “Look at your shoes! They’re way taller.” He pointed to Ms. Martinez’s shoes, which had 2-inch heels. “And mine are short, and Lexi’s are tall.” By now several kids had their legs in the air, showing off their shoes. “Okay, friends, we have a disagreement here,” said Ms. Martinez. “Alexandra’s saying that it wouldn’t be fair, and Ramon is saying that it wouldn’t make any difference. Damani says it would make a difference. How should we decide?” Kataisha raised her hand. “We could line up our shoes and measure them and see if they’re all the same height. But you can tell that they aren’t, so I don’t think we really need to measure them all. Lexi’s are really big, and mine are not so big. That wouldn’t be fair.” Ramon said that he had changed his mind. Now he agreed that no shoes would be better. The other students agreed. After 10 minutes of discussion, the group had arrived at a consensus.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms At first, Ms. Martinez had thought that a vote might settle things, but instead her students used evidence and a shared sense of fairness to make a decision. They were able to explain their reasons with evidence (the different heights of the shoes) and challenge someone else’s evidence with counterevidence. They were able to propose a simple experiment to evaluate a particular claim (measure all the shoes). They listened respectfully to each other’s opinions, agreed and disagreed, and even changed their minds as new evidence was introduced. They were able to reason about the idea of a “fair test,” which in later years they might extend and apply to the more sophisticated idea of holding variables constant. Young children still need assistance as they build on and add to their knowledge of science. In Ms. Martinez’s class, the children arrived with some sense of measure but little understanding of the methods of standard measure, the purposes for developing standard measure, or the ways of checking the quality of a measurement (e.g., developing reproducible results). In science, adults play a central role in “promoting children’s curiosity and persistence by directing their attention, structuring their experiences, supporting their learning attempts, and regulating the complexity and difficulty of levels of information for them.”2 Ms. Martinez challenged her students with an interesting problem. She used several good instructional techniques to help the children listen to one another and take each other’s ideas seriously. By helping them clarify and explicate their reasoning, she built on their existing experiences with measurement and guided them toward effective scientific practices. Ms. Martinez also helped the students engage in collective reasoning much in the same way that a community of scientists does. She facilitated the discussion so that a variety of observations were considered. By making sure that everyone had access to the conversation, including students who were English language learners, she helped the children benefit from the more complex reasoning as a group than any single child could have alone. In the end, Ms. Martinez’s class was able to accomplish far more by investigating the measurement question than they would have if they had simply resolved the question with a vote. Often, teachers mistakenly believe that a vote is a good way to make scientific decisions. In Ms. Martinez’s class, the students went beyond simply offering opinions. They gave reasons for their opinions, and then they explained their reasons with evidence.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Science Class MEASURING AND GRAPHING HEIGHT3 Robert Dolens’s first graders were engaged in a science activity similar to Ms. Martinez’s kindergarten class. They too were measuring and graphing height, although they were taking the activity a step further. They were planning to measure the height of all the first graders in the school and then examine their data both within individual classrooms and across the entire first grade. Mr. Dolens wanted to emphasize with his students the importance of explaining their reasons and supporting their ideas with evidence. He also wanted them to find ways to make their evidence visible to their classmates, even before they became accomplished writers, so they could discuss it together. As a possible extension activity, Mr. Dolens, who had a friend who taught first grade in Anchorage, Alaska, hoped to exchange height charts with his friend’s class as a way of demonstrating the importance of sharing scientific data. Mr. Dolens began the activity by calling his 25 students to the meeting area. He explained that they were going to gather information on their own heights as well as the heights of all the first graders in the school. But first, he told them, they would have to make decisions about how to measure, how careful to be, what measuring tools to use, and how to keep track of their data. He began by asking the same question as Ms. Martinez: “Should we measure our heights with or without our shoes on?” Before his students could respond, Mr. Dolens said, “Don’t answer yet. Just think for a moment. While you’re thinking, I’m going to call up a few of you and measure your heights.” Mr. Dolens called on three girls and asked them to take their shoes off. He quickly measured them with a tape measure and recorded their heights on one side of a large sheet of one-inch graph paper (see Figure 1-1). Then he called on three boys and measured their heights with their shoes on. FIGURE 1-1 Student heights recorded on graph paper. Immediately, his students began to call out. “No fair!” “They have to take their shoes off!” Mr. Dolens reminded them that this was thinking and observing time with no talking yet. Finally, Mr. Dolens organized the students into groups of four. He said that each group would have to come up with an answer to his original question. And they had to follow a few rules in finding their answers: they had to use data to support their arguments, and they had to base their decisions on evidence, either drawing on data from the chart or supplementing the chart with other data. Once they had come to a decision, they were to make a recommendation and record their decision and the evidence that supported it on paper. He assigned each member of the group the role of reporter, scribe, or facilitator. (His class had done a number of activities using these roles on a rotating basis, and they
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms frequently reflected on how the roles were working, so that everyone participated actively.) “Get started, scientists,” Mr. Dolens said. The class went right to work. Over the next two days, during science time, the class worked on answering the measurement question. Many times they sent a member of their group back to the wall chart to look at the data and take notes. Two groups asked Mr. Dolens for permission to borrow his tape measure, and they remeasured the girls with their shoes on. Another group carefully measured the height of the heels of the three boys’ shoes. There was a good deal of talk about whether to measure in inches or centimeters, something the students had been doing a lot of in math class. Each group ended up deciding to use inches (probably because this was what Mr. Dolens had used). One group noticed that one of the boys was wearing a different pair of shoes and had him stand next to the chart. He was slightly taller now, although not by much. At last it was time for the “Measurement Congress,” as Mr. Dolens called it. He explained to his students how scientists come together to explain their processes and their findings and take questions from the audience. Each group arrived at the rug with documents, a poster, or chart paper. One by one, they presented their decision and their reasons. The first group to present included two reporters, Shandra and Coral. Shandra spoke first. “At first we couldn’t decide, based on the chart. We figured you couldn’t do it both ways—measure some kids with shoes on and some kids with shoes off, because that wouldn’t be fair.” Both Ms. Martinez and Mr. Dolens knew that if their students were simply told to measure length in a unit such as a centimeter or an inch, they would develop very little understanding of the principles of measurement. Even children who appear to use rulers and scales appropriately often do not understand core ideas like the zero point, iteration, constant units, and tiling, for example. What is important for success in science, in contrast, is having a solid theory of measure that encompasses several kinds of measurement and units. This involves much more than understanding how to measure things. Over the course of many different measurement activities, Ms. Martinez and Mr. Dolens guided their students in discovering and exploring a number of key principles about measurement, including: Appropriate units Use units of measure appropriate to the thing being measured. Units that work for measuring the length of your driveway may not work for measuring the length of your notebook. Identical units To say that a candy bar is 5 inches long means that every inch is exactly the same. Measurement conventions Standard units like centimeters or inches exist as the result of discussions and agreements among people about measurement problems. Because children will invariably encounter conventions in science, they need opportunities to learn why and how such conventions are established. When children participate in the process of forming conventions, they come to see their utility. Iteration Measurement means repeated applications of identical units.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms “We noticed on the chart that Shandra and Jeremy ended up being the same height, but they weren’t really,” Coral said. “We had them go back to back without their shoes on and Shandra was taller. So that was proof, I mean, evidence. So we decided that you couldn’t do both.” “But we couldn’t tell from the chart which was better,” Shandra added. “We couldn’t really tell if it made a difference on the boys. They were all different heights, but maybe their shoes didn’t matter.” Mr. Dolens said it wasn’t completely clear what they meant by “their shoes didn’t matter” and asked if anyone in the group could clarify. Gabby, another group member said, “She means that maybe keeping shoes on, if everyone did it, wouldn’t matter. We couldn’t really tell from the chart.” She pointed to the chart Mr. Dolens had made, indicating that the boys were three different heights. Shandra spoke again. “Oh yeah, and we found a problem. Dorian was wearing different shoes today, and when we stood him next to his height on the chart he was just a teeny bit taller, so we figured that was a problem. We think you should measure without shoes on, even though it might be sort of hard to measure everyone in every class without their shoes on.” The next group stepped forward to present their findings. They had measured the heels of the boys and found that they were practically identical. They showed the evidence on their poster. They had drawn the shoes of each boy and recorded their measurements. They measured the entire back of the shoe, the height from the heel to the top edge of the shoe, and then from the heel padding inside the shoe to the bottom of the sole. According to their measurements, the heel was about one inch for all three boys, so they decided it would be much the same for everyone. Under questioning, they admitted that it had been difficult to measure from the inside of the shoe to the bottom, so they had measured with their fingers and estimated. They also hadn’t realized that Dorian had worn different shoes and was no longer the same height against the chart. After each group had presented, all but one recommended measuring with shoes off. Mr. Dolens asked his students to make a group decision, taking into account the issue of getting all of the first graders in the school to take their shoes off and what they would do if some didn’t want to. Finally, one student proposed that they measure with shoes off, and if someone didn’t want to take their shoes off, they could subtract one inch from that person’s height. Everyone agreed with this idea. The entire decision-making process had taken Mr. Dolens’s class three days compared with the 10 minutes it had taken Ms. Martinez’s class. But Mr. Dolens’s class had considered several different issues, and students had supported their ideas with carefully collected evidence and thoughtful public debate. Several months later, Mr. Dolens’s class exchanged their height data with the first grade students from Anchorage, Alaska. There was tremendous excitement the day the Alaskan height data arrived in the mail. It turned out that the Alaskan students were almost an inch taller, on average, than the students in Mr. Dolens’s class! The results surprised everyone and prompted several ideas about what might have caused the Alaskan students to be taller. Some thought it might be the colder weather, while others theorized that it might be the different food. At least one student thought that the Alaskan kids might have taken their measurements with their shoes on!
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Building on Knowledge, Interest, and Experience Both of these cases show ways that teachers build on the knowledge, interest, and experience students bring to school. The activities allowed Mr. Dolens’s and Ms. Martinez’s students to build knowledge and skill with measurement. In later years, these same students will draw upon this knowledge and skill when interpreting growth patterns in individual plants and when tracking growth in populations. In both Ms. Martinez’s and Mr. Dolens’s classrooms, students were proposing and designing empirical investigations to make arguments and claims about appropriate measurement techniques. In Mr. Dolens’s class, students had to generate and present evidence for their positions, collect data (on children’s heights or shoe heights), structure the data in posters, and explain their positions to their peers. Students in the audience were involved in evaluating their peers’ claims, challenging assumptions, critiquing their conclusions, and coming to a classroom consensus based on weighing all of the evidence and claims. The students came to appreciate that in scientific practice how you measure and observe impacts the data you collect and analyze and your ultimate findings. The students explored the reasons for conducting measurement in consistent ways. They explored the implications of inconsistent measurement practice. In both classrooms, students presented evidence to each other, and sometimes they changed their minds based on new evidence or arguments that undermined previous claims. Mr. Dolens pointed out to his students that in generating evidence for their claims, examining others’ evidence carefully, and presenting their work to colleagues they were behaving like real scientists. He used charts and posters to help students consolidate their ideas and make them visible to one another. These public representations of ideas can be revisited later, and students can be asked to reflect on how their ideas have remained the same and how they have changed over time. This helps build the classroom norm that, in science, ideas are constantly evolving based on new evidence. It is important that students step back from evidence-based explanations and consider the plausibility of other interpretations. Just as scientists do, the students in these classrooms worked within a community on a common problem, striving to account for a wide range of observations or interpretations. Both Ms. Martinez and Mr. Dolens engaged their students in a problem that was compelling and accessible. Every student was able to participate because each had relevant knowledge and experiences to bring to the discussion. Unlike scientists, the students had not yet mastered scientific discourse.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Accordingly, teachers supported the students in making their ideas clear and accessible to others, through spoken language and visual aids. This made it possible for the students to engage in discussion, conjecture, decision making, and argumentation, with evidence. In important but subtle ways, both teachers carefully tracked students’ thinking, including their occasional frustrations. They used particular “talk moves” to ensure that their students explicated their ideas fully and listened well to each other. Ms. Martinez and Mr. Dolens both asked for explanations of specific comments or conclusions made by students when they felt further clarification was needed. Helping the students explicate and make public their thinking also served both Ms. Martinez and Mr. Dolens as teachers. They were better able to understand their students’ thinking about measurement and data display and guide it in productive ways. To do this effectively, both teachers had to carefully establish norms for discussion, group work, and group presentations. Over a period of months, they emphasized and modeled the importance of listening well, working hard to make their ideas clear to others, and respectfully challenging ideas, not people, with evidence. Over time, their students developed a shared understanding of the norms of participation in science. They learned how to construct and present a scientific argument and how to engage in scientific debates. This chapter introduces several major themes that we’ll revisit throughout this book. One such theme is that children are more competent and capable science learners than we once thought. Their capabilities and knowledge are a resource that can and should be accessed and built upon during science instruction. Another theme is that science learning can be modeled in important ways on how real scientists do science. Children offer amazing promise for science learning when we compare their knowledge and skills to what scientists do in the course of their work. Effectively changing science teaching and learning will require dramatic change on the part of those involved in the education system. This book urges the many educators who shape K-8 science learning to reexamine their work in light of current thinking about teaching and learning science. In order to be effective, science learning must be supported by a broad, complex education system that supports and guides good teaching.
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Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms In addition to encouraging and supporting instructional practices that are complex and require a high degree of skill and knowledge on the part of teachers, we draw in science assessment, professional development, and school administration as essential pieces to meaningful improvement in science education. The many teachers who are struggling to do their work well, but in isolation, should interpret their struggles in light of this. For teachers like Ms. Fredericks and her contemporaries, who often work without sufficient systems of support, this book will not solve every problem but may offer some help in the science classroom, both in the short term and for the future. For Further Reading Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Brewer, W.F., and Samarapungavan, A. (1991). Children’s theories vs. scientific theories: Differences in reasoning or differences in knowledge. In R.R. Hoffman and D.S. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes (pp. 209-232). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Giere, R.N. (1996). The scientist as adult. Philosophy of Science, 63, 538-541. Harris, P.L. (1994). Thinking by children and scientists: False analogies and neglected similarities. In L.A. Hirschfeld and S.A. Gelman (Eds.), Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture (pp. 294-315). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. National Research Council. (2007). Goals for science education. Chapter 2 in Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade, Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8 (pp. 26-50). R.A. Duschl, H.A. Schweingruber, and A.W. Shouse (Eds.). Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Nersessian, N.J. (2005). Interpreting scientific and engineering practices: Integrating the cognitive, social, and cultural dimensions. In M. Gorman, R. Tweney, D. Gooding, and A. Kincannon (Eds.), Scientific and technological thinking (pp. 17-56). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.