Practicing Science: What does it mean and how can we do it in the classroom?

Even though there are some aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2013) that I care for less (mainly the overly vague earth science performance expectations/disciplinary core ideas and their overemphasis on current hot-button topics), I am generally a supporter, especially of the idea that students should be engaged in the practices of sciences.  However, as I’ve listened to other folks extol the virtues of the NGSS over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the NGSS mean different things to different people.  The NGSS come to us in the form of a complex document, and it’s to be expected that people will tease out different points that resonate most with them.  But sometimes the differences are not only in emphasis, but in kind and meaning.  Not everyone sees the practices of science in the same way that I do.

I see that the purpose of practicing science is to learn how to do science, to understand how science has been done in the past, and to become able to connect the ideas derived through science to the underlying observations on which they are based.  However, there is a tendency among some people to see the practices of science as a teaching methodology, an approach to instruction that helps students understand and remember the concepts better.

This is not unlike the turn-of-interpretation that undermined the precursor to the NGSS, the National Science Education Standards (1996).  That document emphasized the importance of inquiry in the classroom, a goal not unlike the practices of science in the NGSS.  In 1996, I was a relatively new faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and had recently spent seven years doing postdoctoral research into the chemistry of magma.  The idea of learning science through doing science—inquiry—resonated with me.  One of my colleagues agreed with me, but then proceeded to explain his belief that inquiry helps students remember the ideas better because we all remember what we do better than what we are merely told.  I realized that his interpretation of ‘inquiry’ was that it was a hands-on, brains-on way of making the concepts more memorable—a teaching methodology.  Its purpose was to aid learning of the same ideas that he had taught previously, not to shift the focus of learning onto the sometimes-messy and confusing practice of science itself.

I think that there is some risk that the central new idea of the NGSS—the importance of the practices of science—will be ‘interpreted away’ in a similar fashion.

Here are a couple of questions to chew on:  What does it mean to do an investigation as a practice of science?  Does following a well-tested experiment from a lab book count as engaging students in the practice of science or are students merely copying the science that someone else has practiced for them?

These are not simple questions to answer.  Allowing students to pursue an investigation without any structured guidance will not likely go well (unless you allow them a few centuries, which is how long it’s taken scientists to figure things out).  On the other hand, if students have no room for scientifically-creative contribution, then it can be reasonably argued that they aren’t practicing science.

In real science practice, inventing the experiment and then figuring out what the results mean are the main challenges—quite different from following a recipe lab and then comparing results to the ‘right’ answer from the book.  How can we engage students in an investigation where they have meaningful input into the experimental design and learn how to interpret their results on the basis of the results themselves rather than by comparison to a teacher answer key?

One example of my efforts to do this is given in the teacher resources recently published at http://earthscienceissues.net/Fiction/Breaking_the_Ice_Teacher_Resourses.htm.  Check it out!

While you are there, you might also read the short story for the classroom on which the resources are based, found at http://earthscienceissues.net/fiction_for_the_classroom.

So, what are your thoughts?  What do you think it means to practice science, and how can we engage students in doing it? What activities have you developed or found to use?

Dr. C.

Russ Colson, coauthor of the NSTA Press book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky

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Invitation for Teachers and Others who have Ideas to Share about Teaching Science

Do you have thoughts you would like to share about teaching science as a practice rather than as a body of knowledge?  Is teaching students to do experiments more important than teaching them to explain theories?  Or, are there significant risks and problems with trying to do too much investigation in the classroom?  Please submit a short essay to Topics of Debate at Issues in Earth Science.  The essay should respond to a seed thesis, which I reproduce below (with which you can either agree, disagree, or take a different tack entirely).  If you would like to submit an essay for consideration, please check out the IES submission guidelines.

Seed Thesis for Science teacher:  conveyer of information or practitioner and mentor?’

by Russ Colson

In Learning to Read the Earth and Sky, published by NSTA Press, and in several recent articles in teacher journals, I argue passionately that science teaching should be more about engaging in science with students than in conveying information about science to them.  I am substantially invested in the idea.  And not me only.  One of my colleagues at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Jennifer Lepper, likes to say “I am not a content delivery mechanism.”

Science is something that we do, not something that we know, and students should learn how to do it, not simply accept and memorize the discoveries that others have made before them.  This is a philosophy espoused by multiple iterations of science standards, including the National Science Standards (1996) and the more recent Next Generation Science Standards (2013).

Yet, the idea of science teacher as conveyor of information persists, perhaps encouraged by the realization that many practices of science, like arguing from evidence and constructing models, cannot be done without a substantial knowledge of the science that has come before us.  We can’t simply throw students into the fog of an investigation, without constraint or guidance, and expect any meaningful understanding to emerge from a forty-five minute class period.  After all, most scientific discoveries took years, if not decades or centuries, to uncover.

Even so, for an investigation to arise from the students’ own questions, experimental designs, and interpretations, it simply can’t be pre-canned into a curriculum.  If it’s already set in stone in a curriculum, then any student contribution is simply a pretense. The goal of such an investigation becomes to ‘get the right answer” and not to interpret and understand observations.  I propose that an authentic investigation requires pursuit of unexpected questions and interpretation of unplanned results.  This in turn requires an engaged teacher who is a practitioner of science and can therefore act as mentor and guide as students work through their investigation.

However, the idea of teacher as scholar, practitioner, and mentor has some substantial cultural headwinds to work against.  There is an entrenched idea that teachers convey information in memorable ways, but are not themselves participants in investigation, and certainly not scholars.

What do you think?  Please feel free to disagree, or take a different tangent.

Dr. C.

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About Teacher’s Corner

Teacher’s Corner is a place to consider Earth Science topics of particular interest to teachers, like how to develop lab activities, or what’s going on in a student’s head when they ask a question, or how the new Next Generation Science Standards can be implemented in the classroom.

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  She develops almost all of her own activities and curricula, and is always eager to hear other people’s ideas!

Guest Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ teaches college geology and planetary science.  He established the Earth Science Teaching major at Minnesota State University Moorhead

Russ and Mary are coauthors of the NSTA Press book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky

This blog is hosted on http//earthscienceissues.net, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.

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