Thursday, December 19, 2013

Making Time for Science in the Elementary Grades

I constantly hear from elementary teachers that they don’t have time for science. In fact, some Wisconsin schools allow for no science specific time in grades K-2, which is clearly not adequate for preparing students for our 21st century world. Many schools only have one hour per week for grades 3-5. Students decide from a very young age whether or not they are science or math people. That's why programs like this one make sense and why we have to dispel the myth of math/science people. Administrators in particularly have the challenge of figuring out ways to support science teaching with current testing and state policy demands. It's important to figure out how effective science teaching can boost mathematics and reading scores (and better engage students), not detract from other education efforts.

So, how do we make time for elementary science?

1)      School communities have to establish science as a priority. When professional development support only goes to math and reading, that’s what teachers will feel more comfortable doing. Ideally, which subjects are linked to accountability should not set our priorities, what we feel is best for children should set our priorities. A word of caution: establishing science as a priority does not mean emphasizing college and career readiness to elementary students. It should come up, particularly as you bring in experts, but elementary (and often middle and high school) students aren’t motivated by talk of careers and college. It’s too abstract. Parents will buy into that as a reason to have more science taught, but making that an emphasis in classrooms could accomplish nothing but boring students. Science should be a priority because it engages students, it builds their ability to make informed decisions and judgments, and it connects their learning to the real world (a context aids in retention of learning and transfer of knowledge and skills among subjects).

2)      Be flexible with schedules. More and more I’m hearing teachers tell me that they have to spend x number of minutes on math, reading and writing every day, only using a canned curriculum provided by the district. I would argue that there isn't strong enough research evidence to narrowly use many instructional materials with “fidelity,” when the cost is damaging teacher motivation and professionalism. Let teachers make some professional judgments! If students are writing about science and it goes into writing time occasionally, that’s really okay. Or, if students are graphing and interpreting science data and it goes into math time, that’s effective learning, not a betrayal of a set curriculum.

3)      Be flexible with required reading. We’ve talked about an oil spill unit in some of my elementary science workshops, and teachers have said that they wouldn’t be able to read the book Oil Spill during their reading time. They can only read the required books within their curriculum.  Seriously? Teaching science content by reading relevant, non-fiction books during reading frees up science time to not be more literacy, but to actually be used for hands-on science activities (as it should be). This again is an area where teachers deserve some professional flexibility.

4)      Units that connect disciplines = effective learning. Another teacher told me recently that she could no longer teach the big interdisciplinary units she used to teach. The set math, literacy and writing curriculum did not allow for those types of connections. As these units go away, so goes a lot of the passion for teaching. I liked being able to teach about things that I thought were really cool, about current events in the world around us, and new science discoveries. Students clearly enjoy it too.  Admittedly, teachers should not always be allowed to select their own units. We don’t want dinosaurs or butterflies taught at every grade. A clear scope and sequence is important, but it can still allow for many paths to learning the content and gaining the skills. Teachers can readily use interesting phenomena in the world around us to connect to student interest and their own passions, within the frame of a K-12 continuum of learning – a win-win situation. These connections are what make learning fun!

5)      Develop your teachers. If teachers are uncomfortable teaching science, they won’t feel so bad about skipping it on occasion to do some extra mathematics or reading. If teachers don’t feel confident teaching it, it becomes very easy to let it slide, or just read about it occasionally. Teachers need support in using and/or designing quality interdisciplinary units, particularly those that involve real-world problem solving. The training and the science units don’t even have to be especially complex – giving students time to explore and observe the school grounds is relatively easy. Teachers don’t need to be trained with the goal of them having all the answers for students (impossible anyway). They just need to be comfortable saying, I don’t know, let’s investigate that together, and then be able to structure those student explorations.

6)      Use time efficiently. In my experience a fair amount of time is wasted in transitions and in students waiting for others to finish. I like the idea of STEM education baskets. When students finish work early, or there is a few minutes before the next transition, teachers typically have educational games and books for students. But, they could also have bins of materials on a cart like this one that students can use. Encouraging creative and unstructured exploration time to fill in time gaps benefits students of all ages. Materials in these baskets could include Legos, K’Nex, Tinker Toys, packaged STEM kits from curriculum companies, probeware, etc. For the vast majority of students, I absolutely do not think that more screen time is a good alternative to hands-on exploration, though I've seen several classroom guidelines allowing electronics use after work is complete.

7)      Do less testing! I don’t really need to point out to teachers that testing is beginning to take up too much time. The data frequently only tells you about student content knowledge or ability to go through a set procedure. If you’re not getting a real sense of student thinking and conceptual understanding from a test, I argue that it’s not something to spend time on unless you have to do it. If the tests aren't giving you unique and actionable information, you don’t need multiple school-wide reading and math tests each done three times per year, with additional classroom-based assessments in every subject weekly. Within a framework of standards-based grading (which is fortunately the norm for most elementary schools), ongoing formative assessment is much more important than large-scale tests. Teachers should be using well thought out common assessments across a grade level and talking about results and subsequent action plans. Such a framework is much more effective than another round of standardized tests.

8)      Provide instructional materials and supplies. If teachers have to always find their own science lessons and purchase the necessary materials, they’re not going to do it as often, as that clearly takes a lot of time. Science materials really do not have to be expensive. Just going outside with a notebook can produce great science learning. Basic materials can be requested from parents, asked for as donations from local stores or businesses (parent/PTA could direct this collecting), or requested within grants (see this grants page). Elementary teachers frequently do not have the expertise to develop their own science-based units or scour the web for high-quality lessons linked to their standards. Districts (or consortiums of small districts) need science experts to support that type of work. But, be cautious, just giving out science kits to teachers is not going to magically make good science teaching happen. I see a lot of kits collecting dust on shelves and a lot of boring cookbook science taking place because of kits. Teachers need time to collaborate around using science materials innovatively and effectively.

9)      From a policy perspective, science assessment could have a part within a state accountability system or a greater emphasis in local reporting of educational outcomes. If parents and community members have a better sense of how well students perform in science, particularly in comparison to particular college or career readiness standards, or other states or districts, the focus on it would certainly intensify in classrooms.

WE owe it to our children and our future to increase science teaching at the elementary level. Kids and teachers love it. How are you planning to help make this happen? 

*Would you like some citations for the claims above to help convince an administrator? Would you like more specific examples for anything mentioned above?  Let me know…

Friday, December 6, 2013

NRC Science Framework - Introductory Workshop Ideas

Teachers and school leaders often want a one day introduction to the landscape of new science standards. Importantly, Wisconsin's model academic standards (WMAS) in science remain the same. In consideration of science program reviews, some districts are looking to build on the WMAS with the National Research Council's Science Education Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards. A one day workshop can be the starting point for the more in depth process I outlined in my last blog post, though I think teachers would benefit from reading through the NRC Framework  beforehand (a guided book study perhaps?). I definitely do not think that groups of teachers should get a brief introduction to a new set of standards and then be left to implement a new science program in their limited PLC time. 

Here are links to the slides from some CESA 2 elementary and secondary standards workshops (note, there’s an extra unit idea at the end of the secondary slides with a HS life science focus):

When I start these workshops, I ask participants to think about their main goal(s) for their students’ science learning for the year. Because I see many teachers who get too hung up on covering the content, I want them to consider the big picture of science. I refer back to these ideas throughout the workshop, particularly when a teacher asks something like, “Why don’t they mention the stages of meiosis within these DCI’s?”

I next discuss the development of the NRC Framework and NGSS. I think it’s important to note that the NGSS were a state-led, non-federally funded effort!

We then review the structure of the standards, looking together at a page. What is this disciplinary core idea vs. topic view? How are we supposed to use the PE’s? What is a standard here? Notably, here in WI, we’ve decided that the standard is the whole page – emphasizing the practice, DCI and CCC connection. For some reason teachers rarely ask questions as we go through the structure, even though they have them (maybe it’s just a bit overwhelming). I make sure to discuss what the acronyms and numbers mean, as well as those little asterisks. I’ve found that this resource from NSTA on the three dimensions to be useful. I make sure to point out that each PE connects the three dimensions, showing the handy multi-color view provided when looking at standards on  I also note that ability to get more info by clicking on almost anything on those standards pages – linking directly to the framework and the CCSS (excellent!). 

Recently, I have next been going through some of the basics of designing a unit. We first talk about interesting phenomena in the world around us. Students (particularly those not generally interested in science/math) are really engaged by talking about issues in their community or on the news now. My units that I detail a little on my slides are oil spills (ES), Near Earth Objects (MS), and the Wisconsin wolf hunt (HS). There are certainly loads of other possibilities, and at the early elementary grades students could do fairly simple phenomena like animals, people and plants in changing seasons (very appropriate in WI with a wind chill expected to be -30ish next week!).

I then imagine that I’m a teacher at a particular grading wanting to connect a unit to a particular phenomenon. I ask, does this work with the DCI’s and the PE’s designated for my grade?  I have found that interesting phenomena don’t work at every grade in K-5, but do connect within every grade band somewhere. And, they typically connect across science disciplines and build well into engineering connections.

After discussing connections to students’ background knowledge, and having some type of entry event to kick things off, we do some modeling. I emphasize that modeling is an iterative process where students create some sort of representation of their thinking. In the elementary PD, teachers draw out the basics of an ecosystem/food web at a local river. We then discuss the oil spill incident (and I’d do some background with students on what oil is). We go back to the model (drawing) of the river and create an after scene—adding an oil spill to it and asking how it would affect the ecosystem. Teachers ask, so is modeling just drawing something? No. It could be 3-D or computer-based. It should likely include some words and details. The key is that it shows student thinking before the learning activities and is used as a tool to develop and assess their thinking throughout the unit. Tools for Ambitious Science teaching has a fabulous primer on modeling.  I have teachers do this modeling in groups, as it fosters some great conversations. As a teacher I could see doing the modeling as a whole class, particularly at the beginning with lower elementary students. In the end, I would have students create the models individually to assess their learning, although I don’t have teachers do that step. 

I only describe the interim learning in brief. We do reference and read from the Engineering is Elementary unit on oil spills. It has a lot of great ideas. Many learning experiences will happen between the introductory modeling and engagement steps, and the final model creation and presentations. In the workshop, the learning activities that we actually do include creating an experimental or engineering model, and going through writing claims, evidence and reasoning.

To do a little hands-on science, we do what’s really an engineering activity. Teachers try out some sample oil spill clean up. Within the PD I ask teachers to design how to do these tests, though I’d give elementary students a bit more structure. After they model an oil spill clean-up (vegetable oil with black oil based food coloring in it put into water), we discuss the benefits and limitations of the model with this worksheet.

Next, we discuss the claims, evidence and reasoning methodology to write a good conclusion. Notably, the claim is not a hypothesis here. The claim is the beginning part of the conclusion students are writing after they’ve done the investigation. Evidence can be pictorial or written, qualitative or quantitative.
I use this CER template to guide this writing (built from work of Joe Krajcik and Eric Brunsell). 

There is some review time built in here. How can we include authentic engineering? What NGSS practices and crosscutting concepts did we use in our activities? How would you assess this work (think PE’s)? 

Teachers at this point are anxious to think about their own lessons and units. I use this worksheet to help guide those small group discussions around improving a particular lesson. I ask teachers to bring a lesson or their books to the workshop. After some review time (about 30 min depending on how engaged they are), we create a set of considerations together for what teachers should do as they review their current lessons.

I tend to think that the NGSS appendices (see the left column here) are an underutilized resource, so we jigsaw them next. When groups report out, I ask them to especially focus on how these appendices could be used by groups of teachers to support their implementation efforts. In the secondary session we discuss appendix K for quite a while, including an exploration of the pros and cons of an integrated science program. 

At this point I acknowledge that standards purists would likely prefer teachers to build units and lessons up from the standards, rather than tweaking what they already have (being practical I think both are legitimate parts of reconsidering your science instruction). We use this Understanding by Design template to map objectives for an NGSS unit (basic idea from Eric Brunsell). I review this template with ideas included to describe the unit planning process.  Within this discussion, we talk about how crosscutting concepts (CCC’s) can provide the frame for essential questions. Scientists and engineers certainly have particular lenses for looking at the world around them—these are basically represented within the CCC’s. So, I discuss how you might look at a particular phenomenon through the lens of each of the CCC’s (on my slide of ideas, I’m considering brain-eating amoeba in ponds). I credit Emily Miller with this CCC and essential question idea.

Finally, we have a little time for planning. What are you main takeaways from the day? What are your short and long terms goals? How are you going to share what you’ve learned with others within your school/district?

And, at the end of the workshop, I always offer my willingness to answer questions by email as they come up – kevin-dot-anderson-at-dpi-dot-wi-dot-gov! 

*I want to also note the great work done by Dave Bydlowski and Greg Johnson of the Wayne County RESA. Check it out here for further PD ideas.