Start with a Vision of High-Quality Education
Imagine a classroom in which students are sitting in small groups, not in rows. The teacher is walking around the classroom answering questions and listening to ideas instead of standing in front of the class, reading from a book, or lecturing while the students take notes. This classroom is probably very different from the one you remember from your own school years.
This particular class, a group of second-graders, is beginning a unit on weather. As an introduction to the subject, the teacher has asked the children what they already know about weather and what they would like to learn. She discovers that they already have some basic ideas related to weather; they know about temperature, wind, rain, and snow and that weather can be predicted.
Then the teacher divides the class into small groups. One group is learning how to use a thermometer. They are responsible for going outside each morning, reading the temperature, and recording it on a class weather chart. Another group is looking up wind speed in the paper each day and recording that information while learning how scientists measure its strength and direction. A third group is measuring daily precipitation by using a rain gauge. These data, too, are recorded on the class weather chart. After several days of data collection, the groups rotate responsibilities. As the data accumulate, the class reviews its weather data and summarizes the weather in a class weather bulletin. One group enters the data in a student network program on the Internet and compares these data with those from students in other states.
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.
Key Ingredients of Science Education: Important Content and Active Learning
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.
By middle school, students are ready to extend these early ideas to learn about the structure of life at the cellular level and to understand the processes of reproduction and behavior. Similarly, in high school, students can deepen their understanding of the cell by adding concepts of molecular genetics. At each level, subjects are introduced in a systematic way, building on what was learned in earlier grades. By the time students graduate from high school, they have developed a deep understanding of the characteristics that all living things share. A similarly well-ordered, progressive development of ideas can take place in all the science disciplines.
Effective teaching in the physical sciences should have a similar focus on important concepts and effective learning experiences. In grades K-4, for example, students are expected to learn about the distinctive properties of the materials that surround us, as well as methods for measuring those properties. They may be given two solid powders—baking soda and cornstarch—and asked to perform a number of tests to determine their properties. Knowing these properties, students can identify the powders in a mixture with other powders.
Later, students may mix the powders with liquids, use a filtration process to separate the solids from the liquids, and heat the mixture as part of the experimental process. Through these investigations, children learn to recognize the states of matter and begin to understand how to transform materials from one state to another.
Students in grades 5-8 build on this base while learning about chemical elements, chemical reactions, and compounds, such as those we encounter in living and nonliving things. High-school students are
able to relate their observations of the chemical reactions to atomic-scale interactions they infer from their understanding of the structure of atoms. These students do far more than just memorize the names of the elements in the periodic table. They are expected to connect the behavior of chemical elements to their atomic structure.
Active Learning. Parents, teachers, and psychologists have long known that children learn best through concrete experiences. Young children often need to have an experience first, before they are ready to read about or discuss an underlying concept. Older students also benefit from engaging in scientific investigations to learn important science concepts.
An instructional approach patterned after the way scientists study the natural world, called inquiry, can achieve several important results. Through a combination of ''hands-on" and "minds-on" learning, inquiry engages students in a process through which they learn science content best. By carrying out investigations, students learn how to make observations, pose questions, plan investigations, use tools to gather information, make predictions, propose explanations, communicate results, and reflect on the processes they have used. As students engage in these processes, they develop the ability to think critically and
Active Learning: Belief vs. Practice
According to the 1993 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, approximately three out of four teachers surveyed in all grades said that hands-on activities should be a part of science instruction. However, the same survey reported that in half of the elementary science classes studied and in nearly two-thirds of the middle- and high-school classes studied, terms and facts were emphasized, and the largest proportion of class time was devoted to lecture and discussion.
to learn how to learn. They learn to use inquiry to acquire ideas and information on their own.
In addition, students learn that what they are doing is similar to the way scientists develop hypotheses, test their ideas, and discover new ideas or create new products. The uniqueness of science and a major reason it has made a major contribution to civilization is its basis in observations and experimentation. Scientists learn by starting with what is already known and asking questions, inquiring into what they do not know. These questions often lead to hypotheses about what the answers might be. The most useful hypotheses are those that can be tested experimentally. When the experimental results are those predicted by the hypothesis, a scientific theory begins to emerge. If the results are confirmed by others and no evidence to the contrary is found, scientists become more and more confident in the theory, and it becomes treated as a fact.
This ability to learn how to learn through inquiry should also be a crucial component of exemplary science teaching and learning. Knowing how to learn means that young people can locate new information and data, answer their own questions about the natural world, and solve problems with new technologies. It is a process not used in other subjects and one of the reasons science should be a part of all students' education from the beginning.
It's Time to Raise Everyone's Expectations
Higher student achievement requires excellent teachers who are trained in teaching strategies that promote active, inquiry-based learning. An understanding of science content is not enough. Teachers need to be able to let students explore their own questions and raise issues in class with which teachers may be unfamiliar.
To improve achievement, teachers are not the only people in the classroom who have to change. Students must change, too. They must become more responsible for their own learning. Students may have to work harder and spend more time on projects before and after school. Teachers and administrators must hold students to higher standards than they have in the past.