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Science Culture Club

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 06, 2017 | Observations by Larry

In just about every state in this country, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been adopted explicitly, or insinuated implicitly, into the contemporary vision of science education. So, in fact, or at least in spirit, the NGSS provide the light illuminating the vision of classroom science for the whole country. So, I continue to ponder the elements of a coherent vision of action for the way forward.

The first part of my rumination process is determining what's new in this iteration of science standards. Traditionally, standards have described what to teach (the core ideas of science) with little regard for how it was taught. The influence of the National Research Council's A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012) and, by extension, the NGSS have brought fresh focus on not only what to teach, but how to teach as well. There is not really much that is new in the what to teach, but there is a lot to think about in the how to teach. The how to teach is not described explicitly in these documents, but the emphasis on the science and engineering practices implies plenty. This emphasis on practice proclaims in no uncertain terms that the expectation is that students will learn science by engaging in authentic learning experiences with important scientific phenomena, modeling the activities of scientists.

If I'm interpreting the words correctly and reading between the lines accurately, NGSS is saying students should engage their science studies in an active learning environment. First element of a vision of an NGSS classroom: active learning. For us at FOSS, that's the easy part to envision—students actively interacting with objects, organisms, and systems and learning about natural and human conceived phenomena. This is how FOSS has always worked—good old-fashioned hands-on activity. But that is really only the starting point; now the tricky bit emerges. For all time, the detractors of hands-on science have dismissed hands-on science as "just play." (That characterization is just plain wrong.) But the rest of the modern vision of science education concentrates on the instructional practices that make hands-on transcendent. And it is in this instructional space in which I have lately been interested or, more accurately, impassioned. There is an opportunity for a revolution in American education that may emanate from the experience in the science curriculum. Because in order to realize the vision of NGSS there will need to be a revolution in teaching and learning; not just in teaching, but even more importantly in learning. This suggests a significant transition from an emphasis on good teaching to a vigorous emphasis on good learning. High functioning classrooms have shared responsibility: the teacher is responsible for facilitating instruction; students are responsible for learning. Simple? Maybe yes/maybe no. Both sides of the responsibility equation are hard. If either party is poorly prepared or lacks the vigor—no results.

The instructor/learner interface is critically important. The goal of this engagement is to forge a culture of learning. The unfortunate fact is that a teacher cannot provide students with knowledge. Teacher can provide information in multitudes of forms—first-hand experience, video presentation, digital simulation, text, focused discussion, outdoor experience, etc. Acquisition of information is the foundation of learning, but acquisition of information does not rise to the level of knowledge. The goal is for students to transform information into knowledge, a much more complex cognitive activity. For generations we have valued the amount of information students have been able to accumulate and reproduce upon examination. Information is the raw material from which knowledge is constructed, not the complex cognitive products (knowledge) we should be valuing. I'll always remember a question/statement communicated to me by Dr. Richard Shavelson, a prominent assessment researcher at Stanford University. He said simply, "Why assess what we teach students, shouldn't we be assessing what they are able to do with what they have been taught?" In other words, what meaning are students able to make of the experiences (information) we provide them.

Responsibilities poster

The NGSS teacher needs to assume a new role: learning-space engineer. By learning-space, I'm not thinking of the physical terrain (although it does factor into the total concept of learning-space). The learning-space I am most interested is the psychosocial learning space—the intellectual culture in the classroom community. For this particular kind of ultra-productive intellectual community to establish and thrive requires the development of a culture of learning. This particular culture does not spring forth spontaneously for a variety of reasons. It must be introduced and nurtured carefully and reflectively. This can be particularly challenging with older (grade 4–8) students who have spent most of their academic careers in a competitive learning culture where very different behaviors and products are expected and rewarded. What are the characteristics of this learning-space classroom? Here is a bullet list of indicators, which is not exhaustive by any stretch, but a sampling. Bear in mind, each bullet is like a chapter heading in a book about learning space culture; each bullet could and should be elaborated with its own essay.

Following are my expectations for a learning space in an NGSS classroom.

  • The class has adopted a code of norms for responsible, civil, and intellectual engagement.
  • Students understand that one of their most valuable learning assets is shared thinking with peers.
  • Students readily share information and thinking during formal and informal sense-making activities.
  • Students understand that learning is hard work and they accept that they may progress through several stages of confusion and partial knowledge before "getting it."
  • Students use data to develop evidence to support ideas.
  • Students endeavor to communicate their emerging knowledge as effectively as possible.
  • Students accept (relish) formative assessment, recognizing it as valuable information contributing to their learning progress.
  • Students and teachers assume a growth mindset, in which the ability to continuously improve is communicated both implicitly and explicitly.
  • Students come to understand that learning is not "being right."
  • Students develop habits of mind that allow them to think productively about novel problems.

The learning space is a psychosocial condition in a classroom, a condition marked by a culture of collaboration and mutual support, organized to develop and advance scientific knowledge. The implicit prime directive of the NGSS is to transform classrooms into communities of young scientists and engineers. If you substitute the word "scientists" for "students" in the bullet points listed above, the statements hold true for the enterprise of professional science.

In the Framework and the NGSS, the explicit "what to teach" has been only subtly contoured and freshened, but the implicit "how to teach" is where the deep, challenging message resides. Fortunately, the FOSS program developers have been providing instructional resources in response to this challenging vision for decades. And the most recent reinvention of the program (FOSS Next Generation) has the potential to contribute to the process of creating a vision of your science curriculum going forward.