Intersections of Science Standards and 21st Century Skills
This chapter focuses on two questions:
What are the areas of overlap between 21st century skills and the skills and knowledge that are the goals of current efforts to reform science education?
What are the unique domain-specific aspects and practices of science that appear to hold promise for developing 21st century skills?
To address these two questions, the planning committee commissioned a paper that assesses the extent to which the educational goals included in current science standards incorporate all or some elements of the 21st century skills that emerged from the May 2007 workshop (see Box 1-1).
ARE 21ST CENTURY SKILLS FOUND IN SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS?
Christian Schunn (University of Pittsburgh) focused his examination of science standards on the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and on the standards of nine states that have joined the Partnership for 21st Century Skills: Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (Schunn, 2009). He thought that these states would be particularly interested in whether their standards incorporated elements of 21st century skills.
Schunn gave his rationale for focusing on science standards, rather than other elements of the education system. He said that different visions of the goals of science education, including those advanced in influential reports (e.g., National Research Council, 2005, 2007a), those included in state and national science standards, and those embodied in state science assessments, may influence science teaching and learning (see Figure 2-1). Although state science assessments have an especially strong influence, their content is changing rapidly as states respond to the science testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. In contrast, state science standards change far less frequently, because creating and reaching consensus on standards is difficult and time-consuming (National Research Council, 2008b). Therefore, the analysis focusing on standards is likely to hold true for several years.
Schunn then discussed his comparison between the five skills and the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). These national standards address not only student science learning, but also science teaching, professional development, assessment, and other aspects of science education; his comparison included the student learning and science teaching standards. Schunn said that the student learning standards include eight categories of goals (National Research Council, 1996, p. 6):
Unifying concepts and processes in science
Science as inquiry
Earth and space science
Science and technology
Science in personal and social perspective
History and nature of science
Among these categories of learning goals, Schunn found science as inquiry and science and technology most relevant to 21st century skills. For example, the science as inquiry standard includes references to communication skills and to planning and selecting appropriate evidence. The science and technology category includes technological design, which involves systems thinking and nonroutine problem solving.
Because the nine sets of state standards draw on these national standards, Schunn said, he observes a “family resemblance” among them. All nine sets of standards include the first four categories listed above, a common core of content. However, Schunn found greater variability in how students are expected to engage with these content areas. Some states focus primarily on basic understanding of core theories, ideas, and facts, while other states call for students to be able to solve particular types of problems in the content area or to be able to describe patterns or explain phenomena.
Schunn noted that all of the state standards include process strands that are presented separately from the subject-matter areas, just as the national standards separate science as inquiry from the subject areas of physical science, life science, and earth and space science. These process strands present various goals for students, such as the use of appropriate scientific instrumentation, design and implementation of controlled experiments, and replication to test the validity of proposed solutions. This separation of subject-matter content from science process in state and national education standards is not supported by the research evidence, which indicates that development of science process skills is closely intertwined with—and supports—learning of science content (National Research Council, 2005, 2007a).
Schunn observed that many of the nine sets of state standards also include goals for student skills and knowledge in the design of technology, and these goals overlap extensively with 21st century skills.
Schunn then compared the nine sets of state standards with the five 21st century skills used as a framework for the workshop. He divided the broad definitions of these skills into components in order to analyze the extent to which science standards might develop each broad skill.
Schunn based his approach on cognitive research and theory indicating that skills and knowledge have components, that learning of the components occurs through practice, and that transfer can occur only when
components of the new situation overlap with components of the old situation (Klahr and Carver, 1988; Singley and Anderson, 1989; Thorndike and Woodworth, 1901). Using this approach, Schunn created a five-point degree-of-overlap scale:
4—Strong whole skill: The skill is found almost in its entirety in the standards in a strong form likely to produce high levels of performance if the standards are met.
3—Weak whole skill: The skill is found almost in its entirety in the standards in a weak form, either because it is made optional or described vaguely.
2—Strong component skill: Only one or two components of the larger skill are found in the standards, but those elements are met to a high degree.
1—Weak component skill: Only one or two components of the larger skill are found in the standards, and even then only a weak form, either because they are made optional or described vaguely or are implicit in the activities of a listed standard.
0—None: The skill is completely absent.
Overall Level of Overlap
Overall, Schunn found a moderate level of overlap among the five broad skills, the nine state standards, and the National Science Education Standards (see Figure 2-2). For example, four sets of state standards and the national standards include one or two components of adaptability in a weak form (Level 1), whereas one set of state standards includes one or two components of adaptability in a strong form (Level 2), and four sets of standards do not include adaptability at all. Similarly, four states and the national standards include a few components of complex communication/social skills in a weak form (Level 1), and seven states and the national standards include a few components of nonroutine problem solving in a weak form (Level 1). Seven states either include only one or two components of self-management/self-development in a weak form (Level 1) or do not include any components of this skill at all. Only for systems thinking is the degree of overlap higher. As shown in Figure 2-2, four states include most components of systems thinking but in a weak form (Level 3); two states and the National Science Education Standards include a few components of the skill in a stronger form (Level 2); and three states include a few components of the skill in a weak form (Level 1).
Schunn divided the definition of adaptability into the following four components (Pulakos et al., 2000):
Ability and willingness to cope with uncertain, new, and rapidly changing conditions on the job;
Handling work stress;
Adapting to different personalities, communication styles, and cultures; and
Physical adaptability to various indoor or outdoor work environments.
He first considered the extent to which the nine sets of state standards include goals related to “ability and willingness to cope with uncertain,
new, and rapidly changing conditions on the job.” He observed that several sets of state standards call for students to engage in design of technological processes, and that design involves identifying new problems as they emerge and developing appropriate solutions, which is similar to this component of adaptability. Although most states do not connect design skills with adapt-ability in the student’s own life and career, West Virginia calls for students to be able to “investigate, compare and design scientific and technological solutions to personal and societal problems.”
Schunn said he did not find the second component of adaptability, “handling work stress,” in any of the sets of state standards. The third component of adaptability, “adapting to different personalities, communication styles, and cultures,” appears in the National Science Education Standards’ Teaching Standard “E,” which refers to supporting collaboration (National Research Council, 1996). Schunn explained that, because today’s public school population is very diverse, supporting collaboration should indirectly lead to learning to adapt to different personalities, communication styles, and cultures. He noted that West Virginia’s science standards were the most explicitly related to this component of adaptability (West Virginia Department of Education, 2006, pp. 11, 16, 21):
Demonstrate the ability to listen to, be tolerant of, and evaluate the impact of different points of view on health, population, resources and environmental practices while working in collaborative groups.
Finally, Schunn said that he did not find the final component of adaptability, “physical adaptability to various indoor or outdoor work environments,” in any of the state or national science standards.
Complex Communication/Social Skills
Schunn divided complex communication/social skills into five components. He found that these skills appear more strongly than adaptability in science standards. The majority of the nine states and the national standards refer to communication of scientific findings orally and in writing. However, the standards emphasize the cognitive, rational aspects of communication, rather than the social ones.
The first component of this skill, “select key pieces of a complex idea to express in words, sounds, and images, in order to build shared understanding” (Levy and Murnane, 2004), appears in a few state standards. For example, the Wisconsin standards explicitly refer to trying to build understanding, and the Kansas inquiry standards include detailed goals for written and oral communication, including constructing arguments and responding appropriately to critical comments. Turning to the second com-
ponent of this skill, “social perceptiveness,” Schunn said some standards refer to attending to the views of others, but none directly refers to social perceptiveness.
The third component of this skill is “persuasion and negotiation.” Schunn said that the concept of persuasion appears often in the science standards’ call for students to use evidence to support a scientific argument. He noted that the Kansas inquiry standards for grades 8-12 are especially detailed in this area, when describing the expectation that the student “actively engages in communicating and defending the design, results, and conclusion of his or her investigation” (Kansas Department of Education, 2007, p. 63). This standard includes the following components (p. 63):
Writes procedures, expresses concepts, reviews information, summarizes data, and uses language appropriately.
Develops diagrams and charts to summarize and analyze data.
Presents information clearly and logically, both orally and writing.
Constructs reasoned arguments.
Responds appropriately to critical comments.
Schunn observed that the social elements of persuasion and negotiation are not mentioned in the science standards. Turning to “instructing,” the fourth component, Schunn said that the emphasis on clear communication and explanation in most of the state standards is relevant to instructing others. However, effective instruction involves not only clear communication, but also actively assessing the knowledge of others, and the latter aspect of instruction is not mentioned in any of the science standards.
The fifth component, “service orientation,” did not emerge in any of the state or national science standards Schunn reviewed.
Nonroutine Problem Solving
Schunn divided this skill into six components:
Narrow the information to reach a diagnosis of the problem.
Ability to reflect on whether a problem-solving strategy is working and switch to another strategy if the current strategy is not working.
Creativity to generate new and innovative solutions.
Integrating seemingly unrelated information.
Recognize patterns not noticed by novices.
Knowledge of how the information is linked conceptually.
Across all of the science standards, Schunn found nonroutine problem solving at a relatively low level on his five-point degree-of-overlap scale. Although the science standards include some components of this skill by calling for students to be engaged in inquiry and technological design, these two types of learning activities may be scripted and routine, so that they do not support development of nonroutine problem solving.1
Schunn found that science standards frequently referred to the first component of nonroutine problem solving—the ability to narrow information in order to reach a diagnosis of the problem (Levy and Murnane, 2004)—and they did so in a variety of ways. For example, the Iowa inquiry standards for grades 9-12 include the benchmark “reads and interprets scientific information.” Within this benchmark is a standard for grade 10 students to “select best evidence” (Iowa Area Education Agencies, 2005). The New Jersey inquiry standards for grade 4 state: “Develop strategies and skills for information-gathering and problem-solving, using appropriate tools and technologies” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2004, p. E-5). North Carolina science and technology standards call for grade 8 students to be able to “identify problems appropriate for technological design; develop criteria for evaluating the problem or solution; identify constraints that must be taken into consideration” (North Carolina Public Schools, 2004, p. 83).
The second component is the “ability to reflect on whether a problem-solving strategy is working and switch to another strategy if necessary.” Schunn observed that revision of strategies is somewhat similar to revision of theories, which is mentioned in the national standards and in several sets of state standards. In addition, a few state standards discuss this component in their technological design standards, because redesigning a product or process involves moving beyond an existing solution and deciding that a new approach is required. For example, the Maine inquiry and technological design standards for grades 9-12 state: “Students use a systematic process, tools and techniques, and a variety of materials to design and produce a solution or product that meets new needs or improves existing designs” (Maine Department of Education, 2007, p. 87).
Turning to the third component, “creativity to generate new and innovative solutions,” Schunn said that most states mention creating new scientific theories and/or new designs. For example, West Virginia standards call for students in grades 5 through 7 to “apply skepticism, careful methods, logical reasoning and creativity in investigating the observable universe” (West Virginia Department of Education, 2006, pp. 24, 29, 34).
The Wisconsin Standard G (Science Applications) calls for students at grade 8 to “propose a design (or re-design) or an applied science model or machine that will have an impact in the community or elsewhere in the world” (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2008, Standard G.8.4). With regard to the fourth component, “integrating seemingly unrelated information,” Schunn observed that, although the science standards do not refer to this specifically, both science and design involve integration of various kinds of information.
According to Schunn, the fifth and sixth components of nonroutine problem solving, “recognize patterns not noticed by novices” and “knowledge of how the information is linked conceptually,” develop naturally through extensive practice and growing expertise in a domain (Chase and Simon, 1973; Chi and Koeske, 1983; Gobet and Simon, 1996). He cautioned that, because these skills are intertwined with deep domain knowledge, they may not readily transfer to another domain, such as from science education to the workplace. Noting that both analysis of patterns and knowledge of how information is linked conceptually are core aspects of scientific reasoning, he said he found these components in some of the state science standards.
Schunn divided the broad skill of self-management/self-development into six components:
Ability to work remotely, in virtual teams.
Ability to work autonomously.
Willingness and ability to acquire new information related to work.
Willingness and ability to acquire new skills related to work.
Overall, he found a high degree of overlap between these six components and the teaching standards of the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996), but much less overlap with state science standards.
Although a few sets of state standards and the national standards mention the “ability to work collaboratively,” which is related to work in virtual teams, the standards do not explicitly discuss virtual collaboration. Similarly, “self-motivation” is not directly discussed in any of the sets of science standards. However, students may develop self-motivation through the National Science Education Standards’ Teaching Standard E, which calls on teachers to “enable students to have a significant voice and decision
about the content and context of their work and require students to take responsibility for the learning of all members of the community” (National Research Council, 1996, p. 46).
Schunn said that the goal of developing self-monitoring in students is reflected in the National Science Education Standards’ Teaching Standard C, which directs teachers to “guide students in self-assessment” (National Research Council, 1996, p. 42). He also found aspects of self-monitoring in two sets of state science standards, including the following element of the Kansas science inquiry standards for grades 8-12: “Evaluates personal preconceptions and biases with respect to his/her conclusions” (Kansas State Department of Education, 2007, p. 63).
Schunn said that, because gathering new information to inform scientific theories is related to the component “willingness and ability to acquire new information related to work,” all of the sets of science standards reflect this aspect of self-development/self-management. With regard to “willing-ness and ability to acquire new skills related to work,” Schunn said that, although the science standards do not explicitly mention this component, it could be developed through Teaching Standard E of the National Science Education Standards, discussed above.
Turning to systems thinking, Schunn divided this broad skill into two components: “systems analysis” and “systems decision making.” Noting that systems analysis is “what scientists do,” he said that references to this component appear in all nine sets of state standards. For example, the Massachusetts technology/engineering standards call for students in grades 6-8 to be able to “identify and describe three subsystems of a transportation vehicle or device, i.e., structural, propulsion, guidance, suspension, control, and support” (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2006, p. 89). In contrast, systems decision making, which he described as “the bread and butter of engineering,” appears less frequently in the sets of science standards included in the review.
Schunn concluded that he sees the current state of science standards, in relation to 21st century skills, as “the glass half full.” If all students learned exactly what the national and state science standards call for, he said, they would not possess all components of the five broad 21st century skills. Nevertheless, the components of the skills they had learned would provide a foundation for further learning of these complex skills over time, including through in-depth training at work. Schunn cautioned against cursory com-
parisons of textbooks, standards, or other materials to assess the degree to which they include 21st century skills. It is easy to find a particular phrase, such as “communication skills,” on one page of a textbook and conclude that it is aligned, but this will not ensure that students develop the skills and are able to transfer them to new contexts. He also warned that including 21st century skills in state science standards does not necessarily lead to increased student learning of science. Despite his finding that state and national standards are “half full” of 21st century skills, student scores on recent state science assessments show that they are very weak in science knowledge and skills.
Schunn said that, on the basis of his finding that engineering design standards call for development of more components of the five skills than do science standards alone, it would be valuable for states to include engineering design standards in their sets of science standards. He also predicted that assessing student learning of the five skills would be very difficult. He predicted that later workshop presentations would show that engaging students in large, team-based design projects supports development of 21st century skills, because of what such projects require (Kolodner, 2009; Kracjik and Sutherland, 2009): working in a team would develop communications and social skills, a large team size requires adaptability and self-management skills, and the design process requires problem-solving and systems thinking skills.
Struck by the wide variation in the different states’ science standards, Bruce Fuchs said he was both pleased and surprised by the extent to which 21st century skills were included. He sounded two notes of caution about the analysis. First, he observed that science standards generally overestimate the quality of actual classroom lessons. Second, he noted that Schunn’s analysis probably underestimates the level of development of 21st century skills in a few exemplary lessons.
Fuchs said it was important to define such terms as “nonroutine problem solving” in order to understand how best to teach and assess them. For example, he noted that, in Teaching the New Basic Skills, Murnane and Levy (1996) argue that a critical skill for obtaining a middle-class job is the ability to solve a semistructured problem by creating and testing a hypothesis. They provide detailed examples of this type of problem solving at work on an auto assembly line and in a life insurance company. Fuchs said this raised the question in his mind of whether nonroutine problem solving, as defined by Levy and Murnane (2004) and used in the workshop, includes hypothesis-testing. If so, he said, science standards might include this type of problem solving more frequently than Schunn found in his
analysis. He added that problem solving and the other 21st century skills could be taught in history or other subjects, not only in science.
Fuchs then asked Schunn whether 21st century skills are developed only in specific domains of knowledge, or whether they might be transferred to other domains, such as from a science classroom to a workplace problem. He noted that Klahr and Nigam (2004) found that, with appropriate instruction, 77 percent of a class of third and fourth graders learned how to design a controlled experiment. These young students were also able, at a later time, to transfer this new skill, applying it to evaluate other students’ poster presentations of their experiments at a science fair. Fuchs described these findings as “amazing,” because, in his own experience, not all graduate students develop the skill of control of variables. Those who do master it, he said, could apply it not only in science, but also in business and other domains.
Schunn responded that, although much of the research in the learning sciences focuses on transfer of knowledge and skills, researchers rarely obtain evidence of transfer. He also noted that Klahr and colleagues found that helping students master control of variables was more difficult and time-consuming in urban schools than in more affluent, suburban schools (Li, Klahr, and Siler, 2006). He went on to say that he realized how complex systems thinking is when he asked some faculty colleagues to review his paper on development of systems thinking among K-12 students. Some of the reviewers said that, although they think about how concepts relate to each other in their particular fields, such as earth systems and biological systems, they do not consistently employ systems thinking.
Moderator Marcia Linn (University of California, Berkeley) invited the audience members to talk with their neighbors about their reflections on the session and to write down their questions for the presenters. Participants raised several questions, including:
Do science teachers possess 21st century skills?
What is the relationship between standards and actual teaching practices?
Are schools culturally ready for new approaches to teaching 21st century skills that might appear chaotic when compared with teaching practices in other classrooms?
What 21st century skills should students learn in school as a complement to informal learning outside school and as a base for deepening their skills in higher education and the workplace?
Schunn responded that these questions shared a focus on systems and recognition that systems-level thinking is essential in order to reform science education. He agreed with an idea embodied in the fourth question: Teaching and learning of 21st century skills in formal elementary and secondary education is only one component of a larger system of lifelong informal and formal learning. He called for thinking about how to reform that larger learning system but cautioned that he and other workshop participants were ill prepared to do so, because their U.S. education had not developed their skills in systems thinking.
Linn added that science standards are driving decisions in schools today that do not support development of 21st century learning skills. Current science standards, she said, push teachers and schools to cover many topics superficially, reducing students’ interest in science and discouraging teachers from leading inquiry activities that would develop their ability to think deeply about science.
Responding to the question about whether teachers possess 21st century skills, Fuchs said that teachers solve nonroutine problems, engage in complex communication, and work in teams. However, he said, he was discouraged by the findings of an evaluation of implementation of curriculum supplements developed by the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education. He noted that his office collaborated with well-known curriculum development organizations to create “really exemplary inquiry-based materials” on life sciences topics, such as genetics and bioethics. However, when evaluators observed classrooms using these materials, they found teachers emphasizing memorization and vocabulary, rather than inquiry. He concluded that teacher readiness is a big problem, even if good instructional materials are available.
Linn agreed with Fuchs that it is important to think not only about the kinds of instructional materials that support learning of 21st century skills, but also about how to support both teachers and students in developing these skills. She said that she often visits classrooms using materials that she and her colleagues have developed, and that, because the materials are delivered in online environments, they require students to conduct experiments and reflect on their learning (Linn, Davis, and Bell, 2004). Teachers can read student reflections immediately, in order to find out whether they understand a particular lesson or concept. The challenge, Linn said, lies in helping teachers respond appropriately if they find out students are not learning. She described a video in which a teacher responds to students’ lack of understanding of aspects of evolution by delivering a lecture, noting that the teacher lacked the repertoire of skills needed to teach more effectively.
Schunn added that there is a continuum of levels in systems thinking. Individuals do not simply either possess or lack this kind of thinking, but instead may build from a very rudimentary awareness that elements of a
system affect each other to a much more sophisticated understanding of how concepts or elements interact within systems. Considering education as a system, Schunn said that feedback is “a completely broken construct.” The focus of feedback is on assessments to help teachers monitor student progress, with no attention to developing teachers’ skills to change the course of instruction in response to the feedback.