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Teach Less to Teach More

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 12, 2007 | Observations by Larry

There is tension in U.S. elementary science education. The tension is created by the disconnect between learning expectations described in standards and the reality of what can be effectively taught in classrooms. With limited time allotted to science, this leaves teachers and curriculum planners in a quandary: do we make decisions based on quantity or quality? Or, in other words, do we value coverage or depth of engagement?

First, a couple of comments on standards. I favor standards. They have the potential to give structure, coherence, and focus to K–12 science instruction and to provide concise descriptions of the core scientific knowledge and thinking abilities we expect of our students throughout their academic careers. In practice, however, many state standards fail to fulfill these functions. They miss the mark in two areas: 1) they are too broad in scope, and 2) the cognitive load implied by many standards is inappropriately high for the corresponding grade. This latter is frequently justified as rigor. In reality, it is a misrepresentation of good science for children.

Back to the tension between coverage and depth. If a school responds to the call for comprehensive coverage of standards, in all likelihood science instruction will move from topic to topic rapidly, surveying large amounts of content briefly. This approach necessarily results in presenting science as a descriptive subject, emphasizing the learning of facts. This kind of science teaching has been characterized as teaching answers to science questions rather than teaching science that answers questions. The bits of memorized knowledge tend to be unconnected conceptually, producing what has been referred to as inert knowledge.

If, on the other hand, the school decides to pursue science in depth, instruction dwells much longer on each topic, allowing time for experimentation, discourse, and reflection in the interest of durable concept development. Conceptual learning involves orders of thinking beyond memorization: comparison, logical analysis, inference, and modeling. As a result, the march across the content terrain slows down. At the end of the year the curriculum will not, in all probability, have embraced the full extent of the standards.

How should we deal with these divergent clarion calls? Which should command our attention? At this time we know quite a bit about teaching science to elementary school children. From carefully crafted surveys and rigorous research evidence we know that students are more motivated to learn, perform better on achievement tests, and are more likely to continue science studies when they are involved in coherent activelearning curricula. And from informal observation of students in classrooms and anecdotal reports from experienced active-science teachers, we know that students love to learn science by doing science, and teachers relish the culture of inquiry that develops in the classroom.

In FOSS our position is clear: teach less in order to teach more. Teaching less means choosing fewer topics for students to study; teaching more means doing science investigations, writing about science, engaging in scientific discourse, and creating a culture of inquiry. We dedicate our undivided attention to science engagement that involves the whole child in meaningful encounters with objects, organisms, systems, and principles that constitute and govern the natural world. Without the least hint of regret we continue to promote a philosophy and instructional design that we know is right for students.

If we are to transform science education in this country to value conceptual learning, we need to advocate for a new vision of standards and assessment. It seems unlikely that we will move away from comprehensive science standards anytime soon. We will continue to prescribe too much. A change that could be implemented more easily would be to accept that students could receive an excellent science education by studying a subset of the standards in greater depth. This would allow local districts to decide which standards best meet the needs of their students and focus on those. By declaring in advance what will be taught, the state could tailor the district’s assessment on those concepts. This approach would require a revised set of criteria for achievement, one that deemphasizes comprehensive coverage of all of the standards and values deeper understanding of fewer standards, as well as knowledge of the particular characteristics of the scientific enterprise and the habits of mind that pervade scientific inquiry.