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…

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