In this classroom, the teacher has a different role from what most people have experienced in school. The teacher is a guide who selects and designs activities, listens to what the children have to say, and asks appropriate questions to help these already curious children learn more. The teacher is well versed in the subject matter, is working with exemplary curriculum materials, and is familiar with a range of teaching strategies.
This kind of classroom reflects a vision of high-quality science education. Children are engaged through the use of materials and experimental techniques to answer questions that they have helped to formulate. Children who learn best through reading have an opportunity to do so; those who learn through discussion with others can work collaboratively. All children—from the academically gifted to those with learning disabilities—have a conviction that they can succeed in science class and are provided with the opportunity to do so. Parents and school staff hold high expectations that all students will learn what they need to know.
What is unique about exemplary science teaching and learning? Two variables that stand out are well-selected, important content and a teaching approach that develops a deep understanding of the content.
Content. In the previous example, students were not memorizing the terminology of weather. They were focusing on what these words mean and how they can be used to describe the weather. The teacher did not introduce specific facts in isolation. Information was presented in context so that students could incorporate it into growing bodies of knowledge.
Another example that can be extended throughout elementary and secondary education involves life in an aquarium. In the third grade, a group of two students can maintain an aquarium and be responsible for feeding the animals and keeping their environment clean. As they observe the animals, these students learn what organisms need to survive. Students then can apply these concepts to organisms in any setting (a pond, a desert, a rain forest, or an urban park).
Teaching Science the Old-Fashioned Way
In many science classrooms around the country, students are still being taught in traditional ways. They read aloud from science textbooks, memorize long lists of scientific terms, and prepare to take tests that call for simple rote recall. Laboratory experiences are usually designed to confirm what they have read or been told. Opportunities that allow students to think critically are few and far between.
According to NAEP data, most students taught in this way lose interest in science as they move through school to higher grade levels. As they lose interest, achievement declines.