Making Time for Science Education

describe the image There’s a lot of buzz around the Common Core everywhere you turn.  Inevitably, associated with that buzz is some confusion about what the Common Core is and what it is trying to do. Some people champion it for holding students to higher academic standards; others vilify it as yet another intrusion by the federal government.  An example of this confusion is illustrated by Alan Singer’s recent post in Huff Post, “The 3 rd Grade Science Fair: A Common Core Conundrum.” I was very happy to see Mr. Singer challenge the purpose of elementary science fairs in this piece and by doing so placing much-needed focus on elementary science instruction. While I happen to agree with a number of his points, he has conflated elementary science fairs with the Common Core. I would like to try to separate the issues from my perspective as an elementary science educator.The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is NOT a set of new science standards. The CCSS’ full title for the English Language Arts portion is The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. A mouthful to be sure, but the important distinction for our purposes is that the CCSS is describing the literacy skills—in speaking/listening, writing, and reading—and understandings students should have in order to participate fully in science. There is a separate document that outlines what K-12 students should know and be able to do in science: the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This is a more recent document—the final version of this document arrived in April of 2013, and states are all looking at it to determine whether or not to adopt it. Mr. Singer correctly states that “…the Common Core does not detail what students should actually know about content…,” certainly in science. But the NGSS does detail what students should know about science. For background about what informs the NGSS I would suggest people read the National Research Council report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education .

“The Next Generation Science Standards, however, make clear that students must learn science in the context of doing science—by engaging in scientific and engineering practices such as questioning, investigating, designing solutions, constructing explanations, and arguing based on evidence—as discussed in the NRC’s Framework.”

Mr. Singer describes his pride as a grandfather watching his grandchildren at their elementary school science fair. But the deeper he dug, the more he realized the flaws in what he was observing. He described it as “…science without the science,” and  “…a beautifully done Common Core presentation of academic vocabulary with little context or understanding.” I suspect Mr. Singer has not attended many elementary science fairs, because most of them I’ve attended over 30+ years might be described similarly, save for the words “Common Core.” My point being that we cannot blame the Common Core for a long history of science fairs “…without the science” since they were the norm before the Common Core even existed. This stems (pun intended) from a lack of understanding of elementary science, not the Common Core itself.

One issue is that little time is spent on science in elementary classrooms as compared to reading and math. The Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education from Horizon Research, Inc., states that in grades K-3, reading/language arts and math combined for a total of 143 minutes of the school day on average, while science accounted for 19 minutes of that same day. In grades 4-6 the combined total time for reading/language arts remained steady at 144 minutes, and the time for science increased to 24 minutes on average. To compensate for this imbalance, schools often convene some sort of science fair to encourage students to do science outside of school and present it to the school community. In these cases the science fairs too often stand in for—as opposed to complement—the science instruction necessary to allow all or most elementary students to have a clear idea of how to go about doing an independent project. If students are receiving so little instruction in science, how do they know what to do? We all know the answer to that question. Some teachers have been known to joke that the grades for many science fair projects should be given to parents, not students. Of course, this only works for those students who have someone to help them.

“The  Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education  from Horizon Research, Inc., states that in grades K-3, reading/language arts and math combined for a total of 143 minutes of the school day on average, while science accounted for 19 minutes of that same day.”

For some teachers it is a relief not to have to teach much science because it is not something they feel they know how to do very well. The same Horizon report referenced earlier found that 81% of elementary teachers felt “very well prepared” to teach reading/language arts, while 39% felt “very well prepared” to teach science. There is less classroom time available for science, and when there is time, teachers don’t feel adequately prepared. This is not a combination for successful elementary science instruction!

In fairness to Mr. Singer, the Common Core does present a potential problem for science, although it is not about the quality of science fairs. Reading /Language Arts dominates the elementary day. The Common Core’s increased attention to informational reading and writing suggests a possible use of literacy time in service of science learning. Here is where elementary teachers, those who use the Common Core as a guide for science as well as literacy, will possibly mistake the reading about science for the doing of science. The Next Generation Science Standards however make clear that students must learn science in the context of doing science—by engaging in scientific and engineering practices such as questioning, investigating, designing solutions, constructing explanations, and arguing based on evidence—as discussed in the NRC’s Framework. Elementary students are generally interested, willing, and able to engage in these practices, but the adults in their charge need to understand their importance. Many people talk about how important science and engineering are for today’s students, but few seem to recognize that It will be no simple task to prepare elementary teachers to deliver science instruction that includes these practices if minimal time is made available in the elementary day and such little attention is paid to making teachers feel well-prepared to teach science.

I thank Mr. Singer for writing about elementary science instruction! Whether or not elementary students will begin to think like scientists as Mr. Singer implies will depend on the teachers and administrators’ interpretation of the Common Core, where it intersects with NGSS and where it does not. It is up to all of us to advocate for more and better science in elementary schools, but we can only do so if we are informed about what that entails. Science fairs as the one described by Mr. Singer are indeed a symptom of how poorly elementary science teaching and learning is understood, but the Common Core is hardly the culprit.

Jeff Winokur is an early childhood and elementary science specialist. At Wheelock, he works with schools and districts to develop their capacity to improve the teaching of science to children. This has included serving as consultant to many schools in the Boston Public Schools as well as to Boston’s science department. As an instructor in education at Wheelock, he teaches both undergraduate and graduate-level courses in teaching science to children. Winokur’s work in science education includes having been a co-author of The Essentials of Science and Literacy (2009), and Science and Literacy: A Natural Fit (2009), and co-host of the video professional development series for educators, Looking at Learning… Again (1997) produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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