To the Point: Experts draft new national science education framework

October 06, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- The National Research Council's Committee on Conceptual Framework for K-12 Science has been working to reconceptualize the nation's science education standards. The new framework's impact likely will be far-reaching.

The College of Education's Deborah Smith, assistant professor of science education, is an appointed member of the committee. With its final report expected soon, Smith discussed potential implications of the new framework, considerations undertaken in its creation, and the research foundations upon which it is based.

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What is the substantial difference between the framework your committee is developing and the previous science standards published in the National Science Education Standards in 1996 and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy in 1993?

Deb Smith: The new conceptual framework is based on both research in classrooms and clinical research with K-12 students. Researchers are trying to find out especially what students understand about key science ideas as they develop across the grade levels, known as learning progressions. There was a little attention to that in the earlier standards -- mostly guesses based on initial research on children's scientific thinking and classroom interventions.

The research available now is based on systematic research with students, both in assessments of their thinking about science and in classroom research with new curricula and teaching strategies -- looking at children's ideas and how they develop -- and then going into classrooms and designing curriculum and teaching strategies to see whether -- if you intervene, if you provide really good inquiry-based, classroom-community kinds of inquiry -- what could develop. We don’t really know what could develop because there hasn't been a fully implemented, K-12 science education system in place and active, especially with elementary schools, for some time.

In elementary schools, we know that science is kind of last on the list, and there's lots of research to show this especially with the implications of No Child Left Behind, and the emphasis on reading and mathematics. This new conceptual framework really is an attempt to help teachers, curriculum developers and assessment developers get a picture of what could happen, and encourage them to take really seriously the idea that young children can learn science from the get go, and that they are very interested and very capable of learning science.

Why is this happening, and why is this happening now?

Smith: The earlier science education standards date from the 1990s. We have 15 years more of research on science and science education now. So, we are using that research to inform the new conceptual framework, and there will need to be continuing updates and reviews in the future.

There has been some criticism of the earlier science standards, too. People felt there were too many of them for teachers and curriculum developers and state standards developers to reasonably address in classrooms, given the time available. They were kind of piecemeal, across the grades. We needed to be clearer what the big ideas were.

The earlier standards could be read as treating every idea with equal value. With this conceptual framework, we're focusing on the most important concepts and practices in science and engineering. The National Research Council's report Taking Science to School focused on four strands of scientific proficiency that students should develop in every grade. These include generating and evaluating evidence and explanations; understanding, interpreting and using scientific explanations; engaging in scientific discourses and practices; and understanding how scientific knowledge is generated and validated. These are embedded in every scientific and engineering conceptual content area.

Four ideas ... but "science" is a big, broad topic. How do you identify that core for the K-12 context?

Smith: We have wonderful design teams made up of experts in the sciences and engineering, and in research on students' development of those ideas. There's a design team for life science, for physical science, for earth and space science, and for engineering. And they went off and used all the previous standards, looked at the existing research, the recent College Board Advanced Placement work, the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Progamme for International Science Achievement work, and they developed a set of the core ideas in each of those fields and presented them to the committee. Then, the conceptual framework committee, of course, had to review, discuss and reach consensus around those, using the wide expertise on the committee, but those teams really did lots of the legwork on identifying those.

This new framework seems a little like a new beginning. What are its potential implications?

Smith: I would say it's definitely building on the earlier standards, which were a good start on identifying important scientific ideas and inquiry practices. When we first developed national science standards, there was a wide range of state science standards, and so a wide range of what children were learning. Now that we have some perspective on those standards and how they've been used, and lots more research about students' science learning, it was time to re-think a more up-to-date framework.

But this new framework does reflect a turn in the research toward this more socio-cultural view of science. That's because of the research we've had on scientists and how they do their work, and our learning about the role of scientific discourses and practices in generating new scientific knowledge, and the development of increasingly sophisticated tools for collecting and analyzing data. That research shows how important the role of the scientific community is in generating and validating new knowledge. These are aspects of science that previously were not well known, so they have implications for what we do with children in classroom science.

So there's much, much more of a focus on the creation of a community of knowledge builders in the classroom. Teachers engage kids in central questions in science and their own developing questions, the design of investigations, the selection of tools and representations, and the sense making of evidence-based explanations, within the classroom community.

The children's development of the explanations is very much scaffolded and supported by teachers and the kinds of activities, questions and discussions that you have in the classroom. I would say that's probably one big turn, and then we have a lot more research on children’s ideas and classroom research and what's possible, so we're trying to incorporate that.

It certainly doesn't seem like there's a one-word answer to this ... who is this new framework for: teacher, administrators, the public?

Smith: No, it's not a single answer because, number one, it's for the people who are going to make the standards. We're writing the conceptual framework, but then it's going to go to Achieve, and their teams of experts will develop the standards based on the conceptual framework. The standards they develop will include descriptions of performance expectations so that people really understand what is it that we think kids should be able to do, in terms of discourses and practices within a community of knowers, if they understand this key scientific idea.

So it's for them, but it's also for people who are writing curriculum in science education, who are trying to figure out when do we teach this big idea and how. There is a lot of research now that we didn't have before about what young children can understand, and so there's a lot of interest in developing curriculum for the younger grades and seeing what's possible, if children have opportunities to develop understandings throughout their K-12 science education.

It's very important for those who develop assessments of children's science understanding. We need better assessments that reveal how children use scientific concepts, discourses and practices in different situations, rather than the fact recall assessments we have often used in schools, districts and states. If we have better understanding of how children can use science in their daily lives, then we can adjust our teaching, curriculum and standards to meet their needs.

It's for state Boards of Education and their state science education standards. It's for organizations like the Council of Chief State School Officers and other administrative and policy groups. It's in collaboration with NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, so its impact, we hope, will be wide in a number of areas.

Earlier you used the term "learning progressions." What are learning progressions, and how are they associated with these core concepts?

Smith: Learning progressions research describes how children build successively more sophisticated versions of the same big idea in science across the K-12 years. As children investigate the big idea, e.g., the molecular nature of matter, through teachers' use of research-based instructional practices and their own investigations, they build on earlier knowledge, both from personal and school experiences, and come to deeper and more sophisticated understanding. That could be about theories like the molecular nature of matter, or about scientific knowledge building.

For example, the molecular nature of matter is a really important idea in physical science. There is a lot of research at different grade levels about what kids think, and what difficulties they have in understanding the ideas around the molecular nature of matter, mostly in upper elementary into grade 12. So people have been looking at that research and saying we don't really know what's possible, because kids rarely get the kinds of opportunities to deeply understand that theory and its importance.

Researchers may sometimes only talk to kids in second grade and fifth grade and eighth grade, or whatever, but we don't have the longitudinal research that would follow children from kindergarten to 12th grade, through a carefully designed and research-based progression of ideas. So, for example, we may know what children in fifth grade can do with ecosystems, given a particular intervention, but we don't know what's possible with a really good science curriculum and really good science teaching, for all the big ideas in science, across students' learning in K-12.

If the research is missing, for example, at kindergarten or second grade or whatever, then let's do the research. Let's find out what the kids' ideas are and look at the level of complexity and sophistication they can develop and how they grow those ideas across schooling.

You can imagine in K-2 that you would start with something that's not the full-blown theory of the molecular nature of matter, but it might be more about properties of matter and their uses in materials. There are strands that connect across the grades, so that kids at lower grades can start to put together the building blocks they will need to deeply understand that theory. And if they continue to have opportunities to build deep understanding of the concepts needed, as they move up grade level after grade level, they can really get an understanding of the concepts in a more and more sophisticated way, so that by high school, kids can really understand the theory and its uses and implications for all of science.

The idea is to get those levels laid out for big ideas in science, and then do the curriculum development and classroom research to say, "Okay, so if kids think this in first grade, if we had a really good unit and really good teaching in second grade, I wonder how their ideas might change."

The idea is not to push development way down and say, "Let's do the molecular nature of matter in kindergarten," which would be harmful, but it's to say, "With the right support, how could kids engage in the kinds of activities, discourses, practices, investigations and thinking that would help them move along, and move along ... and move along?"

The draft framework has been released. What's in the draft?

Smith: There are introductory chapters explaining the National Research Council's charge to the committee, explaining the focus and boundaries of our work, the approach we've taken and the reasons for a new conceptual framework. Also, it has all the hypothesized learning progression tables. We do have some research on some learning progressions, but we don't have a lot of the classroom research that needs to be validated empirically. So based on the research that we have, there are proposed K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 concepts and practices that we want people to look at and say, "Is this the right stuff?" -- based on your own expertise, whether as teachers, scientists, educational researchers or other backgrounds.

There are people all around the country and focus groups with many of the major players in science education like the National Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, the biological, chemical, physical, geosciences and engineering societies, and teacher associations like the NSTA and so forth. There is a good and wide selection of people who are going to put their eyes on it.

You are putting up the intellectual piñata and taking a whack at it.

Smith: We are. We are. And it needs to be whacked at, so we get this iteration right -- knowing that there will always be a need to revise and update the conceptual framework and standards.

What happens next with this process?

Smith: Well, the draft report is out. Then we got the feedback in. The staff at the National Research Council on our committee made sense of that, categorized the feedback and figured out what we should consider next. And they brought it to the committee meeting in September.

And the committee will then listen to the evidence from all the feedback, think about it and discuss it. For example, what are the changes that have been recommended? Do we think they are valid reasons, and, if so, what changes do we need to make? Then there's another meeting in October, which, if everything goes well, will be to approve the final report so that it can go out to the NRC reviewers. There will be a rigorous internal NRC review with a set of reviewers whose expertise mirrors that of the committee. Then, the draft will be revised again, in response to those reviews. Then it will go out for publication and to Achieve, for development of the science standards.

  • Deborah C. Smith

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010