Chapter 4 (RSS): Organizing Science Education Around Core Concepts

Please post your golden lines here (with page # and location, please), and share a little about why these lines spoke to you.


Hi all! I will definitely be looking very hard for the save button this time so that my comments will really appear. Sorry to my partner the other night who looked hard to find my post--alas, it was not there:(

So meanwhile, I went back to the book to find the golden line that I wrote about and found a different one that I like instead. It says that "Science learning can be very effective when it is grounded in a task that supports multiple predictions, explanations, or positions." I love when this happens in my classroom but it has been so long that we've been operating under a content oriented curriculum that I'm always a wreck when we go "off subject". If the process presented in RSS comes to pass, it will be freeing to many of us in middle school science. To work around a core concept and support it with activities and discussions will be more natural than the artificial version of our lessons that we have been preparing for years.

My worry however, is that the change to core concepts has to happen at the teacher prep/teacher education level or else the change will not happen. Veteran teachers will have to be open to the change but I think will see the validity because we have seen how our present focus doesn't engage students in a meaningful way. But it will be the new teachers who need to be prepared for this shift and realize that it won't be the same science as their school days experience. (pg 68 p3)

"Meaningful science learning takes time and learners need repeated, varied opportunities to encounter and grapple with ideas (page 85)." That's the golden line for me and I am thinking that the 10 Day Curriculum is a misnomer! Maybe it should be 10 week curriculum. There's so much to study within this unit. We've been working as a team and I am glad to be part of a team. The math has had many connections with what we've been doing.

You have addresses the exact golden line on page 63 that really hit home to me. In our district we have struggled as well with a cohesive K-8 program. Our curriculum is delivered in a very disjointed fashion. Rarely is there ever discussion, planing ad supporting across grade levels. It is more like don't use this book because I am going to use it! We have no idea what others are doing behind closed doors. Students always say "we never had this before".

...successively sophisticated ways of thinking about these ideas" (63)

This speaks to me- and informs my instruction and makes me wish for more collaboration with the teachers of the younger grades at our elementary school. The emphasis on linking instruction across time is so powerful. Our teams are always composed of teachers at the same level. Also- I know that at grade 7 and 8 I am at a certain waypoint for these students- betwixt and between the child and adult knowledge as they transition from concrete to abstract reasoning.

This paragraph definitely spoke to me, because it is true for Science as well as for ELA, which is the subject that I currently teach (pg 65):
"It is important to keep in mind that a learning progression is not a lock-step sequence. Different classrooms, and even different students within the same classroom, can follow different pathways in coming to understand core science concepts. There are many ways to learn that all matter is composed of atoms and molecules."

As our school is moving toward tracking students' learning through standards-based assessment, it's important for me as an educator to retrain the way that I plan, organize and record assessments. My lessons have always been centered around standards, and my assessments and final grades have been based on those standards and objectives as well; but they are not recorded and tracked to communicate which specific standards students have mastered time and again, and which standards still need work and practice. Moving away from "assignment assessment" and toward "mastery of standards assessment" is a process.

I also am struggling as a LEARNER in order to figure out ways to best assess students' mastery of standards. The hardest part for me with that is giving myself the same kind of patience that I offer to my students.

I must have been bored this summer, because I read ahead. Just kidding. I did find the book very interesting and it made me rethink several things about my own classroom. The line, "Science educators must work cooperatively to define long-term goals for students that take into account the reality that students need opportunities to learn over multiple years to deepen their understanding of scientific concepts." (pg. 60), is how what most curriculum stranding is supposed to be all about. But I have found that it doesn't happen that way. There are sections of the book that don't get taught, etc. Shifting to 'core concepts' would alleviate that problem for the most part. I know that in the elementary level it might still be difficult to accomplish because there is such a drive to concentrate on math and reading, that science and social studies get left behind or are severely under taught.

I like how the the book highlighted the limited scope of the NSES and benchmarks. That "they do not describe how an understanding of scientific concepts needs to be grounded in scientific practice." (pg. 62) That is why the section on using core concepts to build learning progressions was very useful. Now we just need to work on how to get the administration to see that the 'cost' of teaching science is not just in what you spend on books, you also have to factor in what is the end product you seek-scientifically literate citizens that have "meaningful science learning". (pg. 85) It's not about the breadth of what is taught, but the depth of understanding.

I too took to the beginning of the chapter. (Although I have to admit I skipped parts of the chapter....) The lines that struck me were: that those "overarching" ideas (Our parameters A,B, and C in Maine) are "NOT CLEARLY ROOTED IN SCIENCE". Hallelujah!! I worked with a geophysicist climate scientist this summer, and he kept bringing us back to key or core ideas that you had to understand to understand glacial movements, tectonic movement, air movement.... really basic principles you have to understand to get the more complex ideas. It seems to me that we throw so much junk into our Parameters for Essential Instruction that there is no essential instruction. The kids do not learn the key or core fundamental ideas that will help them understand the more complex ideas of weather, climate, evolution.... and on and on.. There are basic laws that control our universe. Are we teaching them? I think not.

And then I read on page 60 "The proposed use of core concepts and learning progressions still requires significant additional research and development on the part of science educators, scientists and education researchers" RED FLAG! RED FLAG! RED FLAG!!! This might be a rant, however, I am tired of implementing ideas that someone thought were good, only to find that there was no data to support them. In education, we need to stop implementing all the "this-sounds-great ideas" and stick to what research tells us works with student learning. If this idea does not have the research base to support it, we should not rush full throttle into it until there is data. Educational research needs to be supported with data!! (A key scientific idea)

That said, I do focus on key ideas... Atomic theory, Cell theory, and if only I could understand them, Newton's laws... (I must have some sort of physical science learning disability). Because I find myself returning to these ideas again and again with students.... So I make sure I teach them up front.

As far as a continuum k -8... Wouldn't that be nice?

The Golden Line that stood out for me appeared at the bottom of page 63............Because learning progressions extend over multiple years, they prompt educators to think about how topics are presented at each grade level so that they build on and support each other.

My feeling is that our district does not do this very well. The curriculum is delivered in a disjointed, choppy manner. Three distinct different areas of Science are taught at the middle level; 6th grade teaches earth science, 7th grade teaches life science and 8th grade teaches physical science. There is rarely any discussion across grade levels building on each others concepts and supporting each other. We have a small nucleus of teachers at one grade level that try very hard to do the same types of things but it doesn't go any further than that. Aside from disjointed curriculum, time is a huge factor over packing curriculum topics at each grade level. Having only taught Science for two years it seems that we expose students to many, many concepts but don't do any of them true justice. Vocabulary and concepts are extremely difficult and takes a very long time to grasp meaning and true understanding.

A couple of things "spoke" to me in chapter 4. First, I am new to science in public schools, and reading the classroom scenarios left me feeling a bit inadequate regarding my science background, although with classes from college and personal interest, I felt positive. So many times we've read about an inch deep, but the teacher background requires plenty of focus. This is difficult when I've changed subjects so frequently as needs have changed. Bottom line, I have lots of interest, potential, but need to light in subject matter to strengthen my expertise.

That being said, a limited number of key scientific concepts linked to progressive grades (pg 61) for the "long haul" sounds delightful. As I was teaching math today, patterns came up and we talked about different approaches to noticing patterns. One student answered, and when I asked for more and different ways the kids noticed patterns, one child got touchy and said, "We said the answer. Why are we still talking about this?" I think this very atmosphere and approach of "hit and run" would be changed by the rich discussions I prefer. When we talked about other students "elegant solutions", I think the kids enjoyed it, appreciated sharing their own methods of finding a solution,

When we do our science, I hope we will have lots of these conversations -although it never seems that we have enough time to just converse! The I-Club conversation (after school, no grades etc) is invaluable... and would be a lot of fun to have right in the classroom! In that scenario, he also talked about kids teaching families/community.... that's just what I hope we do regarding VS lessons. Joan Savage

My golden lines appeared late in the chapter on page 85: “Meaningful science learning takes time, and learners need repeated, varied opportunities to encounter and grapple with ideas.” This speaks to my interest in creating a curriculum that encourages students to develop personal meaning and understandings over a long period of time. I have always disliked the feeling of rushing through units just to ‘cover’ all the material. Instead I like to help students slowly develop skills and ideas concurrently, allowing ideas to grow with the development of content. My goal is to create science savvy citizens who will be able to grapple with science related information and decisions in the future using the skills and strategies I may have helped them develop in their educational development. Helping student’s learn and practice these learning skills and strategies should not be rushed, but carefully planned, nurtured, and encouraged. In our need to meet standards, collect data, and assess, assess, assess I am fearful we will lose sight of that educational goal. I am hopeful that administrators will not be forced to forget that most meaningful learning takes time and repeated opportunities.

I completely agree, and this is also what I was thinking when I posted my golden line. I too struggle with the feeling of, "am I going too slowly, too quickly, taking too long, etc." and often plan for a unit to take a week or two and then realize that a month has gone by. The brain research article that we read talks about the importance of practice so that the working area of the brain can really establish strong connections...sometimes the short bursts of time in the MS classroom also feels like a constraint. Antona

Well said! In all of my example and babble, this is what I wish I had said so very well!!! Joan

There were a couple of parts in this chapter that spoke to me... the passages about Learning Progressions and the section on Mr. Sohmer's Air Puppies. : ) First of all - the Learning Progressions. I really wish sometimes that I taught in a situation more like Waldorf schools where I could have the same students K - 8. I really enjoyed teaching elementary school, but have equally enjoyed teaching middle level students. I wish I could follow one group of students right from K-8 (and maybe even 12) in order to follow the brain development of each child and meet them where they are with the appropriate level of scientific thought. BUT, since I don't see that happening.... the part of this that really struck me as key in the classroom is a teacher's understanding of the entire progression of a core concept and then where their particular student body falls in relation to the core concept. Here is my Golden Line: p. 63 ..."Research indicates that one of the best ways for students to learn the core concepts of science is to learn successively more sophisticated ways of thinking about these ideas over multiple years. These are known as "learning progressions." Learning progresssions can extend all the way from preschool to twelfth grade and beyond- indeed, people can continue learning about core science concepts their whole lives. if mastery of a core concept in science is the ultimate educational destination, learning progessions are the routes that can be taken to reach that destination." What I really value about learning progressions are the philosophy of life long learner. We as teachers are still learning core concepts in science and I hope will continue to pursue more and more as we continue in our teaching careers.

The second golden line for me was just how inspiring Mr. Sohmer's I-Club was. He really put together a great example for demonstrating air pressure and the nature of gases. I just loved his Air Puppies. But even more, I was inspired to become a better teacher when I read how he inspired his students (most of whom struggled academically) to teach science themselves by writing some teaching texts! Wow! Here is my Golden Line on that section...p. 83 " These tasks motivated the students to take their thinking and their presentation of their ideas (in writing and orally) to a higher level. Sandra, one of the I-Club students, put it well when she said, "In school, they just give you a book. It's boring. But in the I-Club, we really get to explain things, down to the very core of the problem. That's why we did wo well in the science fair." That whole portion was both inspiring and challenging for me as a teacher (currently math only, but usually science/math). I want students to leave my classroom understanding math and science, having a desire to explain it to others and truly building foundations on their learning progressions that can be built upon throughout their lives.

After reading, I flipped back through to review what I underlined and sticky-noted, etc... and decided to post my golden line from the very first page I read. (Dangerous, I know! But, I really DID do my homework-lol!) On page 59," ...students need sustained opportunities to work with and build on the concepts that support these explanations and to understand the connections between concepts." This is the bottom line for me. We have to allow for meaningful learning opportunities for our students.

The time to make connections between concepts is essential to learning and it has to start right from the beginning, at kindergarten. We need to determine what's appropriate for each grade level and help students make connections between concepts. Some of the changes are as simple as the vocabulary we use, as Guy said in his post. And as I have said in my past life as a math mentor, there is nothing wrong with using the actual vocabulary word. If I had a nickel for every time I told a middle school student that there is no operation called "times"! UGH!

Along with teaching the appropriate vocabulary, we need to delve into the actual ideas/problems themselves. We can't just sit on the sidelines when teaching science. Science isn't a book. Science is the world, life, etc... (Yes, I know, I am "preaching to the choir"!) But again, right from the beginning, students must have the opportunity to experience science. It's not about right or wrong answers-it IS about the experience. The best learning happens when doing! I realize that many educators have a difficult time with the idea of handling those types of situations with students. However, there are ways around it. That's when we use not only the actual data from the activities that students are doing; but also, reflections, quick writes, scientists' notebooks, etc... to hold students accountable. But of course, it isn't always pretty. ;)
"See" you Thursday, Joelle

Great discussion so far here around p65. It seems like many people share agree with the observation that it's easy to send a "counterproductive message to students that science is about memorizing terms and definitions."

I see a parallel here with mathematics instruction - however, usually the problem in mathematics isn't with learning obscure vocabulary without understanding (although it can be!) - I see the problem being in students (and occasionally teachers) valuing "answers" over "solutions." One of the benefits I see in doing interdisciplinary work is that it makes the mathematics more pertinent - students can have the opportunity to identify problems, form questions, and discover how math can help interpret the data and be used as a tool to summarize and visualize it.

Sorry for butchering this quotation, but it seems pertinent. I believe it was Einstein who said something to the effect of "The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill." It's easy to focus on developing the math/experimental skills. Teaching students to identify, formulate, and express problems is something I find very difficult to do - in order to do a good job at it, I think the terms and definitions they learn need to be better grounded in experience.

Zack Brown

The golden line for me is on p. 59 "...unless those concepts connect to other related ideas, they will not build conceptual understanding in a meaningful way."

The day before I just had a conversation with my students about making connections between new knowledge and knowledge in our heads. If we do not first think about what we already know about a concept, then we do not have the connecting points for the new knowledge to stick to. It will just "bounce off our heads." We started this conversation, because some seemed insulted that I brought up the five senses when we began our unit of matter with the discussion of properties. We continued the discussion and they began to get it about building knowledge upon what we already know.

Another line that I liked was on p. 63 "A well-designed learning progression will include the essential underlying ideas and principles necessary to understand a core science concept. ...they prompt educators to think how topics are presented at each grade level so they build on and support each other."

I have struggled with this at my school to get a coherent science curriculum K-8. I teach 6-8, so I am able to coordinate these years, but it is very difficult to determine what others in my school are doing. As said in some other posts, this is a battle that is hard to continue. The lack of knowledge about what others teach for science also leads me to having many "holes" to fill at the middle school level because something was not taught at a lower level. The earlier knowledge has not been obtained and so I have to "back up" and start at a lower level than I thought I needed to.

In my district, we are trying to identify the most important topics in science learning. We have had some very spirited discussions but have more to do. We worry some about the test scores since they are so public. A process I will share more about as we continue.
Cindy Lambert

As I was reading through chapter 4 a line on page 65 drew my attention: "By not emphasizing technical terms in the early grades, the teacher avoids sending the counterproductive message to students that science is about memorizing terms and definitions for phenomena that they fundamentally don't understand." When I think about how I taught math in early grades I worked in the same manner, some words are just scary! Even with my 7th graders I carefully work with definitions so that they understand that in essence they're only words, not some unobtainable concept beyond their grasp. If this approach was worked from the younger grades on through I think that the kids working at the middle and high school levels would not feel so overwhelmed when they learn the technical names for things in their science classes. Too many students seem to perceive science as something that people with lab coats and glasses do in big labs with lots of knobs and buttons, and they don't think that they can understand science!

Funny description of scientists Guy! My students discussed this very thing and said science meant "big words". Ha! I do dwell on vocabulary a lot... I'm undecided about this being "good or bad"... I know it's sure helped in math when they get a direction and don't know what operation to do because they forgot the vocabulary! Joan

The first golden nugget that stuck out for me was on page 59, "unless those concepts connect to other related ideas, they will not build conceptual understanding in a meaningful way." The reason why this caught my attention is because it's so very true. It doesn't matter what subject you're talking about, students need to be able to make meaningful connections between what they already know and experiences they've had to the new information that being presented to them. Unless the student can make those connections, the new information will only slide by and won't stay with the student.

The next nugget found on page 65, "Different classrooms, and even different students within the same classroom, can follow different pathways in coming to understand core science concepts. There are many ways to learn..." connects to what I mentioned above. Because no two students in any given class will have had the same experiences and prior knowledge, they will make different connections. Also, no two students learn the same way, particularly if we consider Gardner's multiple intelligences, students who are gifted and talented or in special ed.

Page 64 speaks to me, because it says that benefits of learning progressions are that "They engage students with meaningful questions and investigations of the natural world." That is something that our area lacks. I am the science person and often kids only experience science every other month at best. I like how they discuss getting this material down to the kindergarten level and bringing concepts up through. SO much more could be done, and I admit that, for me, it has been so much easier to just take the kids where they are at than fight the good fight. That is something that I need to work on in the upcoming years. Working on changing the attitude of others in my building towards teaching science.

There were several passages that were poignant. “…Science teachers are identifying and promoting long-terms goals and connections related to core concepts, they must also define shorter term goals for students that involve more immediate understanding.” (61) “If mastery of a core concept in science is the ultimate educational destination, learning progressions are the routes that can be taken to reach that destination” (63)

We are not just educating for today, but for tomorrow as well, deciding where we need to go and how we are going to get there. Building on core concepts (learning progressions) is a great idea to develop understanding, but I wonder how much students will retain year after year, having seen how much is ‘lost’ just over a summer. How much will need to be revisited? Relearned?

I agree that an understanding of concepts is critical and that memorization is not the answer. But I wonder how best to achieve it? I use to have students for three years, and was able to understand them, how they interpreted, processed and learned information, and also how core concepts were taught and progressed. So ‘looping’ really helped in our science program. I could refer to particular activities or give a revised mini-activity to refresh their memories and then build on that. And I also knew how to introduce concepts that they would be addressing again next year, as I knew where they were headed – what to stress, etc. On the other hand, the next year I also knew areas that they may have struggled with so I could change how the next stage of the concept would need to be introduced. “Different classrooms, and even different students within the same classroom, can follow different pathways in coming to understand core science concepts.” (65)

The golden line mentioned by Gretchen (p.65) was also the one that captured my attention. I agree that people often mistake use of terminology with true concept attainment. However, I know that I have felt pressured to make sure the kids know the right words. The broad-brush, multiple choice questions by which our performance is measured go totally against the type of deep, useful learning that a system of learning progressions would support.

So, I found a different line that ties in with the same idea. "In current practice, (fill in your favorite core concept here) is often presented to students without careful attention to how their ideas develop through instruction or how to help them link science with their emergent ideas and relevant everyday experiences." (page 84).

I think this statement is true in a lot of instances. Teachers are frequently given text programs and other materials that are over stuffed with the content to be taught, but little guidance as to how to teach it most effectively. If students are not able to use their learning in meaningful ways and connect it to real life situations, no wonder many fail to find the value in it. While some new research and materials (I'm thinking of things like Page Keeley's assessment probes), are a good start at discovering student misconceptions, we have a long way to go in being intentional in how science is taught.

The line that spoke most poignantly to me was on p. 65 at the bottom of the first paragraph:

"By not emphasizing technical terms in the early grades, the teacher avoids sending the counterproductive message to students that science is about memorizing terms and definitions for phenomena that they fundamentally don't understand."

This caught my attention for two reasons.

One is that I often lament that, whenever I receive a new crop of 7th graders (I loop and thus do this every two years), I have to spend a depressing amount of time and effort reprogramming them to start valuing intellectual risk-taking over being "right". It takes work to overcome the belief, for example, that it is somehow mysteriously valuable to memorize vocabulary definitions verbatim when we introduce a new word, rather than simply trying to understand the meaning behind the word. This obsession kids seem to have developed with putting the correct information down in the correct place (say, on a worksheet, for example) must be surmounted to encourage students to think independently to interpret data and make their own inferences, a process which I consider essential in making sense of most challenging scientific concepts. I think it would be a radical improvement if the kids I teach demand understanding over regurgitation from day one in my classroom.

Another reason I really noticed this passage is in reaction to my own inclination as a parent to teach my kids fancy, show-offy vocabulary early, as if that somehow makes them smarter. No doubt, it's downright cute to hear a four-year-old tell you that she has a hypothesis about something, but at the same time, I observe my urge to encourage this and see a pushy, overachieving mom. Discussing some developmental milestones with a friend recently, she pointed out that the Waldorf Education philosophy is that preschoolers shouldn't be learning alphabets and numbers, at all; instead they should spend that energy on playing and being just kids. Not being a Steiner-follower myself, I nonetheless appreciate this perspective that, like the passage I selected, reminds us that kids have plenty of time to get the jargon down in the full course of their education. The important issue is whether parents and educators are helping them to build solid and healthy foundations to attach those fancy terms and definitions to, eventually.

Over and over, other teachers encountering the same problem I have. Kids coming to me expecting vocabulary tests. Students squirming uncomfortably if I ask them what they think. I also have students for two years, grades seven and eight. I could never tell it so well as smoore, who described many of the strategies I apply, now that I have all the 7th and 8th graders for science.

For my Golden Lines, I have copied the following:
"......the NSES and benchmarks do not identify the most important top-
ics in science learning....(and) we need
to ask ourselves questions that were not central to the development of the current
standards. What areas of study are critical for students’ future learning? Which
of these critical areas of scientific study can students explore in meaningful and
increasingly complex ways across the K-8 grade span and beyond? Which areas
of science can safely be deferred until high school or college?" page 62, CH 4.

How do I make an impact in my little sphere of influence? The first thing I did was persist in searching for practical, reliable ways to get away from text-based teaching. It led me to the hands-on curriculum I have now. There are big units based on broad themes and each one builds on central ideas from other units. I still have to 'teach to the test' because of the science MEA test, but I do that by having 10 minute discussions around released items as openers. Much as I hate to emphasize definitions over understanding, there are ways I can insert some of the science vocabulary items without taking my primary focus off understanding core concepts.

"Classroom debate and discussion make scientific
experiments more meaningful and informative." page 78, CH 4.

This one is powerful. It's important to take the time to uncover student ideas before going into a lab activity, and then to give all students opportunity to reflect on how their ideas have changed or been reinforced.