As humans, we are driven to explore and explain our surroundings; we wonder about the things we see and try to figure out how and why they appear the way they do and what some of the underlying mechanisms might be that drive what we see in the world. At its core, science is a systematic and community-driven process by which humans make sense of the world around them by examining patterns and data from the world and developing models that can account for those patterns. Ultimately, it is the models we have of the world that allow us to create explanations for the things we see around us. This process whereby we examine, wonder, and seek to explain is a cyclic one and is at the core of the scientific enterprise.
In contrast, as teachers we are used to thinking about our classes as a series of discrete topics to teach. We consult textbooks, pacing guides, and standards documents to get the list of things to make sure we cover by the end of our grade level. We tend to think about each unit of instruction separately, and despite good intentions to weave things together, many of us have trouble making really substantive connections from one unit to the next. But, this conceptualization is not in line with how scientists themselves think about their disciplines. The writers of the Framework for K-12 Science Education have been very deliberate about how they portrayed the content of each discipline as a set of big, overarching, interconnected core ideas with just a few major components identified for each idea. Part of the promise—and the challenge—inherent in the vision portrayed in the Framework is for us as educators to move away from lists of discrete facts organized into separate units and toward a coherent set of ideas that can provide a foundation for further thought and exploration in the discipline. Indeed, the writers of the Framework and most science educators agree that it is impossible to cover all the scientific content that is relevant to modern science.
Instead, our ambitions as teachers of science need to be re-focused on developing deep and flexible thinkers with an understanding of how a relatively small number of truly core ideas support the broader scientific endeavor on an ongoing and generative basis. Students with encyclopedic but inert knowledge will not be prepared for the 21st century. Instead, the outcome of a quality science education that spans grade levels and develops in appropriate ways from early childhood through adolescence should be a cadre of students who can use their understanding of the core ideas of the discipline to make sense of the world and to further our collective understanding of it. Good science education is not an end unto itself, but a beginning.
Come with me for a walk through an imaginary school. Let’s tiptoe into a classroom and see what kids are doing. We open the door and slip into the back of the room. We see kids at tables working with clear bins of water, cups of hot water and food coloring. We ask the kids what they are trying to figure out. One girl pipes up and says, “We’re learning about convection currents. See, when you put the cup of hot water under the end of the bin here it makes that drop of food coloring swirl around.” Another student pipes up, “Yeah, see, the food coloring drop goes up once the area is heated. Heat rises, that’s convection.” Sounds pretty good right? Kids are working with stuff, watching how things work, and using science vocabulary. Seems cool, huh?
Now let’s go into the class next door. We sneak in the back and see they have the same set up at their lab tables. Let’s ask the same question: “Hey guys, what are you up to here? What are you trying to figure out?” This time a student says, “We’re trying to figure out how hot air balloons work.” “Oh yeah”, you say, “what do these tubs of water have to do with hot air balloons?” The students proceed to tell us that they are using the tubs, the food coloring, and the cups of hot water to see what happens when you heat up just one area of a fluid. A boy says, “see when we put this drop of food coloring on the bottom of the bin and then put our hot cup of water underneath, something starts to happen. The food coloring swirls around!” A girl adds, “yeah, so it’s kind of like the hot air balloon. You heat up one part of the water or the air or whatever and that part goes up. We want to know why that happens!”
So, what is the difference between these two classrooms and what does this have to do with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the science and engineering practices? In the first classroom, the students are engaged in learning about a science idea, convection, whereas in the second classroom the kids are trying to figure out how some aspect of the world works. They are investigating, questioning, and modeling a phenomenon with the ultimate goal of developing an explanation for why hot air balloons go up when the air inside them is heated. In this second case the kids are engaged in the science practices and it is through that engagement that they will learn an important science concept. In the first classroom the kids may emerge with that same concept under their belts. Presumably at the end of these lessons both groups of kids should be able to define convection. However, in the first classroom that definition seems to be the end goal. In the classroom centered on a phenomenon, it is the start of something more. The kids recreate a convection current in their tubs and then ask, “why does that happen?” Understanding how differential heating of a fluid can cause movement is a fundamental idea to much of Earth Science. Here rather than positioning that idea as basically a term, convection, that needs to be given to students and experienced, the second teacher has created a rich problem space around it. The kids not only get to the basic idea of convection, but wonder why it happens, which can lead to further investigations of the nature of matter, density, and many, many applications of density currents in the natural world.
One way to characterize the difference here is around framing. The term framing is one we use in our everyday life quite a bit. Listen for it over the next few days. We say things like “the media framed the debate around…” or “she framed her participation in the discussion by…” The way I am using it here is consistent with Scherr and Hammer’s description in their 2009 paper called Student Behavior and Epistemological Framing: Examples from Collaborative Active Learning Activities in Physics published in a journal called Cognition and Instruction. In that paper they say “a student may frame a learning activity as an opportunity for sense-making or as an assignment to fill out a worksheet. The student’s understanding of the nature of the activity affects what she notices, what knowledge she accesses, and how she thinks to act.” For any activity in a science class we should be asking: How are the kids framing their activity, what do they think they are up to? In the first class they’ve framed the task as demonstrating convection. The second class they’ve framed it as investigating a phenomenon.
The more I work with teachers on shifting their practice to better align with the NGSS, the more I realize the importance of framing. The material activity in the two classrooms was exactly the same; kids were creating convection currents in tubs of water. However, how those activities were set up and what the kids thought they were doing was completely different. One was confirmatory; the other was exploratory. So even though the material activity was the same, the intellectual work was quite different. In order to be fully engaged in the practices, it’s simply not enough to merely learn about the science idea, however creative and hands on the task may be. To engage in the practices, really participate in them, a student has to frame the task as an exploration. The intellectual work of the classroom has to be centered on figuring out how or why something happens.
So, as you begin to shift your classroom towards the vision of the Framework and the NGSS I ask you to pay attention to this issue of framing. What have you done to set up the tasks in your classroom? What do the students think they are doing and why? How can you create the conditions for students to participate in the practices?
Today’s Guest Blogger
Cynthia Passmore, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor specializing in science education in the University of California, Davis School of Education. She did her doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and prior to that she was a high school science teacher. Her research focuses on the role of models and modeling in student learning, curriculum design and teacher professional development. She investigates model-based reasoning in a range of contexts and is particularly interested in understanding how the design of learning environments interacts with students’ reasoning practices. She has been the principal investigator of several large grants and has co-authored several papers on modeling in science education that have been published in journals such as Science & Education, The International Journal of Science Education and School Science and Mathematics; e-mail her at email@example.com.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.