Are Your Science Standards Producing Scientifically Literate Citizens?

Blogger’s Note:  This post is long and nerdy.  But it’s essential.  I double-dog dare you to read the entire thing. 

As many of you know, I’ve been working hard over the last several months (see here, here and here) to get to know my curriculum better by creating a digital portfolio full of short, standard-specific videos that I record a few times a week and post to the web.

The effort — inspired by Kyle Hamstra’s #hashtag180 work — has really been rewarding.  Not only am I creating content that many of my students dig viewing, I’m also creating instructionally centered content for our school’s social media feeds and creating a searchable archive of my instructional practices all while studying my standards in a more systematic way than ever before.

This week, I was teaching students about experimental design.  Specifically, we were talking about the role that dependent and independent variables play in creating reliable results and in drawing reliable conclusions.

But when I went to post my final videos to Twitter and hashtag them with the standards that those lessons represented, I discovered that the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for sixth grade science doesn’t articulate the core elements of good experimental design at all.

Instead, the standards make general reference to the importance of teaching experimental design in “seamless integration” with scientific content knowledge.

Now I know what you are thinking:  What’s the big deal, Bill?  So content is emphasized in your standards.  Sounds pretty typical for a science curriculum.  

Let me show you just how big a deal this is.  Start by checking out a few standards from the North Carolina Science Curriculum:

Recognize that all matter is made up of atoms and atoms of the same element are all alike, but are different from the atoms of other elements.

Explain the effect of heat on the motion of atoms through a description of what happens to particles during a change in phase.

Compare the physical properties of pure substances that areindependent of the amount of matter present including density, melting point, boiling point, and solubility to properties that are dependent on the amount of matter present to include volume, mass and weight.

Now, look at similar standards from the Next Generation Science Standards:

Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.

You see the difference, right?  

Every one of the Next Gen Science Standards REQUIRES students to engage in good experimental design.  In fact, the emphasis of the standard is on the process of science instead of the scientific content that kids are supposed to learn.

More importantly, the specific element of experimental design that students are supposed to learn is mentioned explicitly by name in each and every standard.  Students should be developing models and analyzing and interpreting data.  Is content important?  Sure.  But scientific and engineering practice is just as — if not more — important.

All kids in North Carolina are expected to do is “recognize,” “explain,” and “compare” — lower level thinking skills that have nothing to do with designing reliable experiments.

Now, think through the impact that one seemingly small difference has on the instructional choices of classroom teachers.

Teachers working in states that have adopted the Next Gen Science Standards know, without a doubt, that they need to be creating lessons that allow students to DO science.  Not only that, they know exactly which scientific process skills their kids are supposed to master unit by unit.  To successfully teach their standards, they have to do more than just deliver content.  They need to develop practicing scientists.

And principals working in states that have adopted the Next Gen Science Standards know, without a doubt, that for a teacher to be successful in the science classroom, they need to be doing more than just delivering content to kids.  Instead of observing science teachers through the lens of, “Are they teaching kids the right concepts?” they are observing science teachers through the lens of, “Are they teaching kids to act like practicing scientists?”

In North Carolina, on the other hand, science teachers are told to “seamlessly integrate” science process skills into their instruction, but they are left to figure out what those process skills are.  Worse yet, if they skip over the opening statement in their standards document — something I’m betting most teachers probably do — they would never see a single reference to experimental design or process skills.  Instead, they’d see a list of facts that they were supposed to teach their kids over the course of a school year.

And principals in North Carolina might have no real cause to question science teachers who spend most of their time delivering content instead of engaging students in experimentation.  After all, specific experimentation skills aren’t explicitly mentioned anywhere in the curriculum anyway.  If a principal has no background in science, they’d have no reason to question “content-first” pedagogy — and no way to support something different.

Which classroom do you want to have your kids in?

But here’s an even MORE IMPORTANT question:  Which classroom is going to result in scientifically literate citizens that can make sense of the research being used by politicians to make decisions that will have an impact on our planet for generations?

Take climate change, for example:  Our current president has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by China to hurt U.S. manufacturing efforts.  The current director of the EPA has argued that the science around the impact that carbon is having on our environment is unsettled.

Our current Energy Secretary thinks that the oceans — not humans — are the “primary control knob” of our planet’s increasingly rising temperatures.  Organizations funded by the oil industry are generating their own “research” calling climate change into question — and then systematically sending that research directly to K-12 science teachers in an attempt to influence the message being delivered to elementary, middle and high school students.

In the meantime, there are NO professional scientific organizations — groups representing practicing scientists — that doubt the impact that man is having on our planet’s increasing temperatures.

None.

Not one.

So someone’s lying, right?

Whether it is the political leaders currently making policy or the scientists generating research to document our changing planet, someone isn’t telling us the whole truth about the conclusions they are drawing or the positions that they are taking.

There’s simply no way that climate change can simultaneously be a hoax and a position supported by carefully conducted scientific research.

THAT’s why it’s so important that students in every school — regardless of state — learn about experimental design, y’all.

Even if they never become practicing scientists — and most of them won’t — the kids in your classrooms will be faced with a thousand moments where decisions that will affect their lives are made based on science.  Some of those decisions will be supported with reliable research and evidence-based conclusions.

Others won’t.

If our kids grow up in classrooms where they are learning about the characteristics of quality experiments, they will be better prepared to draw their own conclusions about those decisions because they will be able to identify research worth believing in and research worth questioning because of flawed experimental design.

If our kids grow up in classrooms where content is prioritized and the elements of good experimental design are left to chance because they are buried in the opening paragraphs of standards documents and identified only as “essential” and important for “seamless integration”, I’m not sure they will ever have the skills necessary to make literate judgments about the research being used to shape their lives.

Go take a look at your state’s science standards now.  They really are a helluva lot more important than you think.  

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Related Radical Reads:

When Did Teaching Science Become Political Bloodsport?

More on Teaching Science and Political Bloodsport.

Climate Deniers Sending Sketchy Science to Every K-12 Public School Teacher in America.

3 thoughts on “Are Your Science Standards Producing Scientifically Literate Citizens?

  1. aarondavis1

    Interesting post Bill. It has me thinking about the move in Australia for more science in the early years. There are a lot of teachers who are just asked to teach it without the necessary grounding. I wonder if the challenge lies not in the content, but rather in developing a rigor (if that is the right word) around the processes. I think a part of this is about being explicit about the processes, maybe?

    Reply
  2. Chris Jakicic

    Hey Bill, I read this all the way through because I always like your thinking and because you’ve given me something to think about for a breakout I’m doing at the Assessment and Grading Conference–a breakout on assessing reading. I want to get participants talking about disciplinary reading and your post really shows the connection between content area reading (what are the facts and information about a topic) and disciplinary reading (how would a scientist read this article and determine if the data is good and the conclusions valid). I’m sorry that your state didn’t adopt the NGSS because they are so much more aligned to the real work of scientists. P.S. I’m also excited to learn about the digit portfolio you’re putting together. You are amazing! Chris

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Chris,

      I’m always glad when you stop by! Makes me smile every time. More importantly, I believe in you — so if you see my thinking and find value in it, I’m convinced that I’m onto something.

      And yes — North Carolina is a backwards place right now. A few years ago, in rebellion against the “federal takeover of education,” we walked away from any set of standards that had any kind of national recognition as worthwhile and valuable. Instead, we’ve got the same standards we’ve had for over a decade.

      Want to know the political spin they put on that crap?

      “North Carolina Standards for North Carolina Students!”

      Wrap that in a bit of Red, White and Blue and you’ve got a political victory in this state. (And students who might never develop any kind of scientific literacy.)

      #sheesh

      Bill

      Reply

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