With a greater focus on rigor and depth over breadth, the Common Core State Standards have transformed what gets taught in this great nation’s schools. In Race to the Top states, nowadays you can not attend a professional development workshop, conference, or webinar without coming across the terms, “literacy,” “fluency,” “next generation assessments,” or “Annual Professional Performance Review.” Unfortunately, such an important yet at times myopic focus has its casualties. Have we “Thrown the baby out with the bath water,” particularly when it comes to inquiry-based elementary science?
In a former life I served as a District Science Coordinator, working closely with all teachers of science, particularly elementary teachers who sometimes saw science as threatening and bothersome. Threatening due to a lack of content knowledge by the teacher, and bothersome for the required preparation of materials and subsequent cleanup following science laboratory activities. For some of our teachers, other than the traditional butterfly metamorphosis unit or beans in the ziplock bag taped to the glass windows, science was something you had students read or write about with books. These problems are only being exacerbated in some Race to the Top states today.
With a laser-like focus on literacy and the high stakes nature of assessments and teacher Annual Professional Performance Reviews, I am fearful scientific inquiry is going the way of the dodo bird. At the expense of having children analyze, inquire, and design, we are instead having students closely read text, write from multiple sources, develop mathematical fluency, and ready themselves for next generation assessments. I’m a big-time fan of the common core instructional shifts, and teachers can and must practice them regularly, but not completely at the expense of inquiry-based science. Fortunately, there are some outstanding resources available to maintain fidelity to the common core shifts while honoring children’s naturally inquiring minds about the scientific world.
Back to my former work as a Science Director, to address the threatening and bothersome aspects of elementary science instruction, our district adopted the National Resources Council’s Science and Technology for Children (STC) Program. The constructive, literacy-embedded nature of STC kits ensured students the opportunity to analyze, inquire and design experiments while also developing their reading, writing, and speaking skills. Teachers had a nicely contained set of plastic boxes containing all necessary materials and equipment (For our students, kit arrival day was like Santa Claus coming down the chimney. They were so excited!). Most importantly, each teacher got a fully articulated teacher’s guide along with a full day of professional development on how to use the kit. Remarkably, within three years, our K-6 teachers were doing three kits a year (Each kit had 16 lessons) and a service through BOCES that replenished all materials!
There are other kit programs out there for educators to use. A colleague recently told me about the Engineering is Elementary Program that embeds engineering and technology into engaging elementary science activities. I’ve also heard good things about the Full Option Science System (FOSS) curriculum and Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) kits. There are others as well. The point is our children deserve the chance to learn and study the natural and physical world through activity, and though a balanced approach to literature and informational text has added science content to the elementary classroom, children still need to act and play the role of scientist. Children learn in so many ways when left to their own devices to study scientific phenomena, whether it be forces (wind, elastic, gravitational) that propel a Lego sports car or factors that promote growth of Wisconsin Fast Plants. So, though I’m thankful you teach science through reading and writing, please be sure students have weekly opportunities for scientific inquiry. You won’t be disappointed with the results.