Posted by: Jamie | March 13, 2012

This is what it’s all about.

On Monday I went to a talk at SLAC entitled, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas.” (A tip of the hat to Dr. Brown for drawing my attention to it.) It was given by “theoretical physicist and SLAC Professor Emerita Helen Quinn.”

TL;DR version: There hasn’t been a big push for science education standards since the 1960s. Cognitive science has learned tons more about our brains and how we learn in the half-century since that time, and this framework sets forth a vision for updating primary and secondary science education in the United States.

To expand on that thesis, there is currently no set of common standards for science curricula in the U.S. There aren’t a lot of common standards at all, since curricula are defined at state and local levels. Something called the Common Core State Standards – a state-led initiative – exists to provide guidelines for English-language arts and math, but that initiative does not plan to set standards in any other subject areas at present. The explanation given in their FAQ is:

English-language arts and math were the first subjects chosen for the common core state standards because these two subjects are skills, upon which students build skill sets in other subject areas. They are also the subjects most frequently assessed for accountability purposes.

I hope I don’t have to explain why, in the 21st century, science – the process and the core knowledge realms – also qualifies as a skill upon which students should be building.

So yay! Now we have a framework – a vision – for how to take the first steps in building a stronger, more coherent approach to science education. You can read the entire 400-page framework online for free, or buy a paperback copy for $39.95. The next step will be for states to develop curricula based on this framework. 26 states, including some that might surprise you, such as Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have already signed on with an intent to do so (whether they can get their respective legislatures to sign off on those curricula…). So there is fairly widespread interest in a framework like this.

The framework’s goals include:

  • Making science education more coherent, more about what science is and does than about random facts.
  • Providing a contextual framework for the facts that are taught.
  • Supporting engagement in the process of science.

I indistinctly remember the one day of chemistry class in my sophomore year where we were sat down to learn about The Scientific Method. One day. All the other days were about other subjects. Turns out this is pretty common. For the most part, the process of science and the facts science has uncovered are taught in a completely separate way. This new framework proposes “three dimensions of what to know” and argues that every science lesson should be three-dimensional. (Dr. Quinn notes, these three dimensions are not orthogonal.)

  1. Science and Engineering Practices
  2. Crosscutting Concepts
  3. Disciplinary Core Ideas

Physicists know that a fundamental step in solving any problem is defining your coordinate system. Without it, you’d be completely lost. You’d have to re-figure which way you’re facing at every step. In the current educational framework, students are often lost. The facts that are delivered to them lack a coordinate system to help them put each new element they learn in a context that relates it to things they’ve learned before.

These three dimensions – this coordinate system – simply define what is meant by “inquiry” when we talk about “inquiry-based learning.” Currently, there is a lot of doing but not so much thinking and analyzing. By considering all three dimensions every time a lesson plan is constructed, we can move forward from “doing stuff” to “doing stuff, thinking about it, analyzing it, understanding it.”

I think that’s enough for one post. I’ve got two more pages of notes, so I’ll follow this up with another one in a couple of days.

UPDATE: part two.

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