04 September 2008

Science Education News

A couple of articles to share this week...

First of all, Dan over at the Principal Learner pointed out Stanford News' piece on how Using Everyday Language to Teach Science May Help Students Learn. Anyone who's taught science at any grade level knows that vocabulary can be a major barrier to conceptual learning---even in constructivist situations. The study reviewed here approaches science vocabulary in a similar fashion to learning a new language. Simpler terms are used first until the concepts are understood and this serves as scaffolding for the scientific vocabulary. There are some definite limitations to this particular piece of research, as pointed out in the article, and I'm not wild about all of the word choices made...but then, I'm not so sure that a fifth grader really needs to understand photosynthesis, either. What I do like, however, is that this study focused on kids actually using terminology---not just memorizing it. I think that's a move in the right direction.

Dan might be interested in this recent Education Week article on how Principals Are Seen As Key in Science Instruction. I suppose the argument might be made that such leadership is essential for all content areas, but the authors assert that it is especially important in science.

Most teachers in the early grades are generalists who are expected to cover all subjects, including science, despite typically having had relatively little grounding in it. Even science teachers in the upper grades may be more comfortable in one science course, such as biology, than another, like physics. Struggling teachers may need help from colleagues to plan science lessons, and prodding to spend time on the subject. Principals can carve out the time for that planning. They can also do the necessary prodding.

Yet taking on that role requires principals to acknowledge that they need help with science content, and in developing ideas for teaching it to students, Ms. Rosen said.

“It’s important for the principal to make it clear to people that you’re not always right, and you don’t always have all the answers,” she said during a break from one of the academy’s sessions. Her goal, she said, is that she and her teachers “begin sharing, going in the same direction, learning as a group.”

The article focuses on The Academy for Leadership in Science Instruction, something I blogged here nearly three years ago. There is a similar academy here in Washington now, but it has not been in place long enough for any solid results to be seen.

What I think all of this will eventually mean is that starting with intermediate grade levels, science really should be taught by specialists. If good instruction in this area requires such a significant commitment to planning, content knowledge, materials, and concept development, is it fair to assume that any one teacher can give it the same level of attention as reading, writing, and 'rithematic?

That's all the science news fit to blog for now. Drop me a link if you see something I should have a look at.


hschinske said...

I think one thing that might help a lot (and that could be done by non-specialists) is to have more of the regular reading curriculum be nonfiction, specifically science. Being more accustomed to reading for factual information would help students a *lot*: the skills are rather different than those needed to enjoy a story or poem.

The Science Goddess said...

I wholeheartedly agree---and would advocate for more practice with non-fiction writing, too.

Lightly Seasoned said...

Absolutely. In my district, we are great with literature and our kids tend to be wonderful writers, but we always show weaknesses in non-fiction on the state tests, which have very little fiction. We're trying to bring more in, but I suspect a systematic approach starting with the little guys is key.

hschinske said...

I'd like to add that any librarian knows that quite a few reluctant readers turn out to be happy to read if they get something they're interested in -- and often it turns out to be nonfiction. A lady I know complained bitterly that her son was looking for books about World War II and kept being handed books about brave Norwegian children outwitting Nazis, when what he wanted to read about was tanks. Some people don't WANT human interest, or at any rate not all the time.

The Science Goddess said...

I was amazed last year to find out that an elementary reading program was being held hostage. The "PTB" said that the school could have classroom sets of science and history anthologies to complement their reading program...if they brought their reading scores up first. I thought this was a completely backwards approach.