March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

SciEd Side Bar: Let Them Figure It Out!

Posted: Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

Supplement to: Poland, Evans, and Grace (2016), Taking Risks with NGSS: A Growth Model for the Classroom, California Classroom Science, (29)1.

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

– Carl Sagan

There is a vast body of research that supports the notion that for students to develop deep conceptual understanding, we must put students in the driver seat of thinking.

Allowing students to have the freedom to work through their thinking without being told they are wrong or the correct “answer” is critical in building their conceptual understanding as well as supporting metacognitive growth. There’s also an added benefit for the teacher: observing students in the process of sense-making provides a powerful opportunity to adequately gage their thinking to inform the next instructional decision. When a teacher realizes the students are “off target”, s/he subsequently provides more experiences that will challenge naïve ideas. Students that experience this tend to question their original ideas and gradually replace those with more scientifically accepted thinking. It is this method, often described as “constructivism”, that is most powerful in helping students overcome their initial preconceptions. Not only is this type of learning more long-term and sustainable, it has the added benefit of increasing student enthusiasm when students get to “work like scientists” and know their thinking is valued, even when flawed (Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., & Shouse, A. W., 2007).

It is this kind of teaching and learning that supports a key shift called for by the NGSS:

K-12 Science Education should reflect the interconnected nature of science as it is practiced and experience in the real world (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

Although the NGSS may seem new, the underpinning ideas are not. Readers might be familiar with “A Private Universe”, where Harvard graduates struggle to explain what causes seasons (Schneps, M. H., Sadler, P. M., Woll, S., & Crouse, L. (1989). Many expressed their naïve conception that seasons are caused based on how close the Earth is to the sun. A conclusion from this pivotal study is that, like these Harvard graduates, the ideas we tend to retain are those we create for ourselves. Therefore, teachers must help students to develop their understanding by providing opportunities that move them from their preconceptions to more scientifically-aligned understanding. It is far more likely that students will retain their ideas constructed in this manner, rather than the ones we tell them.

In the “teaching day” described in this article, students were asked to engage in generating a model to show their understanding of what happened in their system. The practice of scientifically modeling gave students the space to mentally process their ideas. When the students noticed they didn’t have enough information to be successful in the task, this set the stage for challenging their thinking. Further, the teacher resisted the urge to correct student thinking knowing she would use their work to determine her next teaching steps. She carefully questions the students to gain insight into their ideas (a powerful form of formative assessment). The students, in response to the task and teacher questioning, came to their own realization that they were unsure of their ideas. On their own, the students decided they needed to know more. When the teacher walked away, the students independently pulled out their science notebooks to gather more information. This was a powerful moment where students were given the time and opportunity to truly work like a scientist and have experiences to shape their thinking.

Want to take a first step in changing your practice? Here are some of our favorite references that have helped us shift our practice in a way that provides students such opportunities:

For a short dive, try:

Colburn, A. (2007). The Prepared Practitioner: Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part 1. The Science Teacher, 74 (7), 10.

Colburn, A. (2007). The Prepared Practitioner: Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part 1I. The Science Teacher, 74 (8), 14.

For a deeper dive, try:

Coffey, Hammer, Levin, Grant “The Missing Disciplinary Substance of Formative Assessment” Journal of Research in Science Teaching Vol 48, No.10 PP.1109-1136 (2011)

Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, eds. (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Bransford, J., A. Brown, and R. Cocking, eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school committee on developments in the science of learning. With additional materials from The Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino, editors. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

References:

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. (2013).

Appendix A – Conceptual Shifts in the Next Generation Science Standards Retrieved from: http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/Appendix%20A%20-%204.11.13%20Conceptual%20Shifts%20in%20the%20Next%20Generation%20Science%20Standards.pdf

http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/Appendix A – 4.11.13 Conceptual Shifts in the Next Generation Science Standards.pdf

Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, eds. (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Schneps, M. H., Sadler, P. M., Woll, S., & Crouse, L. (1989). A Private universe. S. Burlington, VT: Annenberg Media.

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NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

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