As the new New York State science standards begin to be rolled out this summer and into the next school year there are a few things that I hope for as it happens. Before I begin though, I should let you know a little more about how I see effective science instruction happening.
It is my belief that knowledge is active and is transmitted best through the continuity and interaction of direct experience. This is a belief that influences daily my mission and philosophy surrounding my role as science teacher; a role that has allowed me to fulfill a fundamental responsibility that all teachers share: to encourage the mastery of critical inquiry and a lifelong inquiry into the nature of our world and the culture around us.
Direct experience and active participation are the most effective modes through which knowledge can be shared and are inherent in gaining mastery in science. I am a proponent of experiential education, learning through experimentation and allowing students the time to find evidence which supports the lessons they are being given. Extra time spent in the field, around a lab table or hovering over a microscope can never be considered time wasted. It is these experiences that engage and encourage students to pursue the sciences. Students rarely recall the results of an exam or memorizing the locations of muscles but how many remember looking down on the open abdomen of a fetal pig, regardless of feeling squeamish or excited. These are the experiences that grow the number of scientists counted in the world, and encourage students to develop their factual understanding of a scientific field.
I want to be clear that all scientific fields have basic principles which must be understood in order to achieve what can be considered a basic scientific literacy. Remaining standards focused within the context of an experiential education allows for the balance necessary for students to find success. It is in the learning and understanding of these basic principles and standards of scientific literacy that critical thinking and experiential learning can be emphasized.
Understanding where I come from and what I believe, one might expect that I find little room for content curricular standards in my foundational beliefs. Which is of course patently false. However, I do believe that when we lose time for inquiry to rote memorization of “facts” that standards can be harmful. What I argue for is a sense of depth in content standards rather than a sense of breadth. It is true that there are key components of science that I believe individuals should understand in order to be fully realized members of our society. I just do not think there are really that many.
Consider for a moment, The Science Students Need To Know, an article written by James Trefil and Wanda O’Brien-Trefil, in the September 2009 issue of Educational Leadership. Within the article the authors highlight the framework they have developed, what they call, “A superstructure for the edifice of science.” They go on to proclaim that, “If students have this framework in place, they will be scientifically literate.” Imagine for a moment the number of standards and facts that would go into creating such a framework, the amount that students must need to know. It must be in the hundreds. It is quite the contrary however, as it consists of only 18 key ideas, for ALL OF SCIENCE, that would create a scientifically literate member of society. These are my kind of authors.
What is key to me is the process students go through in order to develop their understanding of these key 18 ideas. It should be a process that focuses on the nature of science and science practices. It should focus on allowing students to develop their own understanding through the gathering of empirical evidence and support of claims. Students should argue, critique, and communicate. In short, they should behave like scientists. Which brings me to THE POINT. It is my hope that the new New York State standards begin to reflect this. I am optimistic as these new standards are based on the NGSS which incorporate some of these ideas explicitly. As I begin to investigate these new New York State standards I will be sure to let you know what I find.