FOSSconnect Larry: Seeing Voices

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
February 24, 2016 | Observations by Larry

A Brief History of Science Education Reform

In the mid 1990s, NSF was mounting a series of major science education reform efforts—the State Systemic Reform program, the Urban Systemic Reform program, the Rural Systemic Reform program, and the Local Systemic Reform program. The architects of these programs were sincere; the goals were laudable, and the enthusiasm on the ground was palpable. But ultimately, the envisioned reforms were not realized.

The architects of the programs got one thing right; for reform to be broad-based and durable, the reform had to be systemic. But they missed the mark on two counts; they identified the wrong systems as the targets for reform, and they used the wrong action process. The systems were far too large and complex to reform in the short time frame allowed and with the modest funding provided. The visions and expectations were just too grand to succeed. And reform is not the right description of the desired change. The problem with reform was that project organizers and managers attempted to do just that—simply reshape the science education enterprise by reassembling the same institutional parts in slightly different ways. Same old pieces reconfigured in a different ineffective way. What the program visionaries should have called for was revolution: that the participating projects reinvent their systems' whole approach to teaching science. Revolution suggests bold, creative innovation, probably involving some measured risk-taking.

An Audacious Attempt at Remedy

In the late 1980s, The Full Option Science System (FOSS) concept was cobbled together from a small special education program and a heroic dream. The science education climate in the United States was dismal. Undaunted, we accepted the challenge of breathing life into the moribund science education enterprise. Two National Science Foundation grants and six years later in 1995, the first edition of K–6 FOSS was in the box (the black-and-white cabinets), and we found ourselves confronting a dimension of our work that we had not really thought through. To realize the potential for student science learning we had to engage the support of the classroom teacher. Teachers needed to learn how to use the FOSS modules effectively.

Fast forward two decades to 2016. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight—and the experience of having played in all iterations of the systemic reforms of the late 20th century—it is now time to reassert the call for a new systemic revolution (revolution, not reform). What follows are some thoughts by Larry concerning the 21st century call to reinvent school science.

  1. The unit of systemic reform should be the school. Science education reform can and should be a site-based activity.
  2. The reform should be enacted using a staff development model (not a traditional professional development model, which advances the professional learning of individuals). The entire staff must engage the revolution together.
  3. The staff learning should be classroom curriculum centric (FOSS certainly the preferred treatment). Teachers learn to teach science using the science curriculum that students will experience.
  4. Revolution leaders should design and communicate clearly defined goals. I don't have room in this piece to elaborate on the goals of staff development. However, one goal should be to create a school culture with clear unflinching focus on improving student learning, which is one element of an overall school culture of constant improvement.

The goal of such an enterprise is first-rate science teaching/learning. As we stand here preparing to explore the next generation of science education, it is natural to feel a bit of apprehension. The new standards present an invitation to a revolution. Yes, it is complex, but not difficult.

Exposing the Educative Curriculum

The terrain has been carefully mapped and the signage along the path is clear and ample. The map is the FOSS curriculum and the signage is the Investigations Guide. An educative curriculum is one that is written in two voices, one voice is the traditional voice providing a carefully crafted, coherent framework for guiding student learning; the second voice speaks directly to the teacher with information concerning dimensions of the subject matter content, pertinent bits of educational research, and opportunities to integrate other dimensions of learning into the science instruction. I'd like to introduce you to some of the educative elements in the FOSS Investigations Guide.

The primary voice in the Investigations Guide is the suggested learning activities—in short, the lesson plan. That is the traditional voice of a curriculum guide. It describes the sequence of learning events that will guide students carefully through learning experiences that lead to effective acquisition of intended knowledge. It is straightforward, but not always easy to engineer in the classroom. This is the pass-through message in the curriculum guide—the voice of the curriculum heard by the student learners with the teacher as intermediary.

There is nuance to creating the environment that promotes efficient, effective engagement with focused learning. The methods used by the teacher to carry the learning forward are pedagogical moves—the how-to-teach dimension of classroom instruction. And pedagogy is further subdivided into general pedagogical moves (classroom organization and management, discourse norms, etc.) and those pedagogical moves that are specific to the content being taught. The second voice in the Investigations Guide is related to the pedagogical moves, and it is heard by the teacher only.

It has been a long-standing position of the FOSS developers/designers that it is not our role to tell teachers how to teach. But with more than three decades of experience and the benefits of academic research, we have come to recognize that there is a body of specialized pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) that is advisable to share with teachers. The specialized PCK and the specific science content knowledge are both critically important for delivering a first rate teaching/learning experience. These two categories of information are communicated to the teacher in the FOSS Investigations Guide in a number of carefully crafted ways, which collectively constitute the educative voice in the program.

The educative voice is like a personal assistant speaking privately in your ear while you are planning to teach or actively engaged in teaching. The educative information is not part of the lesson per se, but ancillary knowledge for delivering the lesson effectively. The educative lagniappes are presented in a number of predictable locations.

Front Matter: Information Preceding the Lesson Plans

  1. The first document in the Investigations Guide is the module Overview chapter. This chapter introduces the broad strokes of what the FOSS Program is, how it is organized, and how those elements work together to provide a coherent instructional resource for engaging students in a meaningful and rewarding adventure into the wonders of the natural world.
  2. The second document in the Investigations Guide is the Framework and NGSS Chapter. This chapter communicates the overall vision of a comprehensive elementary science education in the FOSS Conceptual Framework section. This chapter also includes a Background section—a condensed discussion of the science content covered in the module. The background discussion ranges across the subject matter terrain to be taught, but delves into the science content to a deeper level than the level to which you will engage students. Another important message embedded in this chapter is the critical idea that major science concepts, e.g., the atomic theory of matter, are complex, and instruction concerning them should be delivered incrementally; that is, there is a cognitively/instructionally appropriate progression concerning how these concepts should be developed thoughtfully and carefully over multiple years. The learning at each grade contributes ultimately to a fully formed concept by the time students have advanced through their elementary and middle school careers.

Here, too, is our exposé of the connections to the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts. Because the NGSS are not taught in the same manner as traditional standards, teachers need assistance learning how to meet the standards without engaging in specific, explicit instruction. It's tricky business, requiring a considerable amount of educative support along the way.

Pages from Framework and NGSS chapter (pages 40-41)

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The Framework and NGSS chapter includes a chart that summarizes the ways each investigation in a module addresses the three dimensions of the NGSS. The snapshot above shows the information for one investigation in the third-grade Motion and Matter Module.

Investigation Chapters

The investigation chapters (usually four in number) are the lesson vehicles. Each contains numerous educative elements. There is a section headed "Teaching Children about..." that provides discussions about possible stumbling places where students may exhibit well-documented misconceptions, and additional discussions about the opportunities for engaging students in the science and engineering practices and opportunities to expose examples of the crosscutting concepts. Also, the first few pages of the investigation chapter have a discussion of the science content for the teacher, subdivided into sections that discuss the specific content associated with each focus question in that investigation. Each investigation is subdivided into several parts. Each part is framed by a focus question which serves two main functions. First and foremost, the focus question defines what students are expected to learn as a result of instruction in that part. It is communicated as an intellectual challenge to students up front, and stands to alert the teacher of the objective of the lesson. In the latter regard it is an educative element. The focus question is a gentle voice reminding the teacher to attend assiduously so that students will be able to answer the question at the completion of instruction in the part.

The At a Glance chart (pages 118-119)

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The At a Glance chart in each investigation shows how the parts and sessions are integrated into a coherent instructional piece. The example above displays the plan for Investigation 2, Patterns of Motion, in the third-grade Motion and Matter Module. Students engage with specific practices as they investigate phenomena to answer the focus question for each part.

Sidebar information (pages 136-137)

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Sidebar information is provided in the curriculum flow at the point of instruction. In this example, on the left page you see the focus question in red, and on the right page you see an EL Note (for helping tailor instruction to English learners), a callout to the practice of planning and carrying out investigations, and an educative teaching note about what students may discover.

The wide yellow sidebar (margin) in the investigation chapter is where we offer a variety of helpful notes to teachers at the precise location in the lesson where they will be most useful. Sidebar notes indicate connections to the science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts, which along with the disciplinary core ideas (science content) constitute the three dimensions of the next generation approach to science teaching and learning. Additional sidebar-note educative whispers may suggest how and when to engage students in science talk incorporating academic vocabulary or a particularly appropriate ELA strategy, or may be a reminder that the actions happening here relate to something students did a few days ago, or may indicate that this action is a setup for something that is coming up in a day or two. These alerts help the teacher stay attuned to the larger scope of the current experience.

Other Dimensions of the FOSS Experience

The FOSS experience embraces multiple dimensions of the learning experience: discourse, outdoor extension, science note booking, reading, and assessment. In a fully actualized FOSS classroom, all of these elements are fully integrated into one seamless learning experience. Learning all the moves needed to conduct this symphony, requires support, and we have attempted to design in those supports as intuitively as possible with a quiet educative voice speaking just below the public address level.

It would be nearly impossible for me to point out every instance of educative support designed into the FOSS program, but it is definitely a worthy enterprise. I suggest that the most valuable way to discover all of the educative murmurs in FOSS is to adopt the program and mount an implementation that includes a professional learning community approach that permits all of the grade-level teachers to teach the same module at the same time and to have bimonthly meetings to share and compare classroom experiences. One of the Professional Learning Community (PLC) activities can be a type of Where's Waldo? activity—finding, comparing, and evaluating the host of educative inclusions branching off from the curriculum mainstream.