Category Archives: Science Instruction

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.

Three Tips for Throwing a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for Your Students.

I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?

That’s HUGE, y’all.

While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.

What does that mean for educators?

If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses.  And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.

Want some help pulling some plans together?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW:  It won’t come as any surprise  that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.

There’s two hitches here.  First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe.  Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.

Viewers aren’t terrible expensive.  You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order.  But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.

You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website.  And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.

Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations:  Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills.  Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.

Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period.  Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.

Here’s the observation sheet that I’ll be asking my students to fill out.

Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party:  One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events!  That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.

Take solar eclipses for an example:  People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it!  Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.

Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures.  They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.

Why not teach kids about that mythology?  Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.

And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day?  Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies?  YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.

And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.

How much fun would THAT be?!

They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!

Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together. 

#truth

 

Tool Review: Blendspace by TES Teach

One of the challenges of teaching science to sixth graders is that many of the most common lab procedures and processes are new to them.  Everything from identifying constants and variables to using lab equipment properly can lead to a slew of questions and slow groups to a steady crawl.

That’s why I started tinkering with Blendspace — a digital tool that makes it possible for users to create a landing page filled with content that users can consume.  I figured that if I could point students to one site that could answer all of their questions, lab time would be more manageable for me and more productive for my kids.

Need to see a sample of Blendspace in action?  Check out this one, covering important information for a lab we are currently completing:

http://bit.ly/6sciptlab

Each tile on the Blendspace represents a piece of content that will help students to successfully complete their lab.  Students can work through the space in order from beginning to end by hitting the “Play” button at the top of the screen OR they can click on the icons in the bottom right hand corner of each tile to explore individual resources answering specific questions.

Creating my Blendspace was a breeze.

After planning out all the content that I thought my students would need in order to successfully complete our lab, I sat behind my cell phone camera to record and upload my videos directly to YouTube.  Adding those same videos to Blendspace tiles was a one-click process.  The other content — links to online tutorials or videos, links to individual Google Docs, text-based slides sharing directions and/or information — were just as easy to add.

Putting this Blendspace together — recording videos, organizing content, adding tiles, making a short link with Bitly — probably took about 90 minutes from start to finish.  That’s TOTALLY worth it if it helps students to answer their own questions during our labs AND if I plan to use the same lab in future years.  Better yet, my Blendspace will help other teachers on my learning team who are teaching the same lab — saving everyone a ton of time and energy.

I see potential in Blendspace because it’s a tool that solves a specific problem for me.

Providing students with recorded directions and organized sets of materials for every lab promotes independence and frees me up to interact more meaningfully with the kids in my classroom.

Whaddya’ think?

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Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review: Screencastify

Tool Review:  Google Expeditions

Tool Review: Edpuzzle

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.

#truDATchat

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Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

Update: Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Reading with Students

Last week, I shared a plan here on the Radical to introduce students to high interest nonfiction reading using Remind — a service that allows teachers to send updates to students and parents by text, email or app.  If I could send out links to really cool science current events once a day, I reckoned, I might just succeed in my quixotic quest to make nonfiction cool to middle schoolers.

While I’ve only been sending links for a week now, I’m pretty sure that my plan is going to be successful.  Here are five reasons why:

43 families have signed up to receive messages:  I’ve got a team of 100 students this year.  That means almost half of our team showed an interest in receiving cool science content for no other reason than cool science content can be fun to read.  For me, that’s 43 opportunities every single day to turn students on to a genre of reading that they may otherwise have ignored.

Parents and students are signing up together:  It might just be a function of Remind’s requirement that kids under 13 submit a parent’s email address when signing up, but there are several parent/student pairs in my Remind audience.  That has HUGE potential to facilitate conversations about science content at home.  If “hey, did you see that article Mr. Ferriter sent out today?” becomes a more common phrase in the homes of my students, then everybody wins.

Parents are taking advantage of opportunities to enjoy science with their students:  One of the most popular current events that I sent out this week was about the Perseid Meteor Shower that happened on Wednesday and Thursday.  I encouraged my subscribers to take advantage of this chance to see one of nature’s coolest phenomena.  Two kids came in and told me that they’d set alarms for midnight, gotten up in the middle of the night with their moms and dads, laid picnic blankets down in the back yard, and watched the skies together for a while.  How awesome is THAT?

Conversations about the current events I’m sharing are becoming more and more common at school:  One of my favorite parts of my efforts is that putting the SAME high interest content in front of my kids is starting to stimulate interesting conversations at school.  Every single day, I’ve had kids approach me with questions and reactions to the article that I shared — and as soon as the conversation gets started, other students join in.  When was the last time that impromptu thought groups around science content broke out in your hallways?

I’m stealing minutes from my students:  I decided early on that I was going to send out my daily current event during times when I KNOW my students are sitting on busses, stuck in the carpool line, or waiting for class to start at the beginning of the day.  My hunch was that kids would be more likely to read the articles I was sending if they arrived when my kids had “nothing better” to do.

That hunch turned out to be a good one.

My proof?  A student named Lanie came up to me early in the week and said, “Your plan worked, Mr. Ferriter.  I was bored in the car this morning and then my phone buzzed.  It was your article.  I read it.”That’s important, y’all:  If we can turn some of the time that kids spend behind screens into time that they spend wrestling with interesting ideas, we tap into the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky described way back in 2010.

The best part of this entire project is that it hasn’t required ANY additional time and energy from me.  I already read interesting science current events on a daily basis AND scheduling messages through Remind is a two-tap process through my cell phone or web browser.  There’s a TON of extra value in those two taps, that’s for sure.

Once we get further into the school year, I’ll survey my students and families about our project to capture their reactions.  I’ll share those findings here.

#sofarSOgood

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Related Radical Reads:

Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Content with Students

Teaching Nonfiction Reading Skills in Science Classrooms

Are You Looking to Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas?