Good Science Education Depends on Actually Doing Science

A blog post from Jeff Winokur, a professor at Wheelock College, recently caught my eye because he addresses many of the issues that concern us here at NCTL. His post is actually a response to a piece in the Huffington Post that questions the value of the Common Core for science education.  After first correcting the record about Common Core actually being standards only in literacy/reading and mathematics, he goes on to explain that science done without much depth is not the fault of the standards.  In fact, he argues that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer a strong framework for “mak[ing] clear that students must learn science in the context of doing science—by engaging in scientific and engineering practices such as questioning, investigating, designing solutions, constructing explanations, and arguing based on evidence.”
The problem, he suggests, is not that educators don’t have quality content to work with, but rather that they do not have the opportunity to engage their students with that content.  He cites data from the Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education which found that in primary grades, language arts and math classes accounted for a total of 143 minutes of the school day on average, while students had science class for an average of just 19 minutes of that same day. In later elementary grades, the combined total time for the two most tested subjects (ELA and math) still were a solid 144 minutes, but the time for science class rose to a very modest 24 minutes on average. He then goes on to describe the most common response to this insufficiency in formal science education:
To compensate for this imbalance, schools often convene some sort of science fair to encourage students to do science outside of school and present it to the school community. In these cases the science fairs too often stand in for—as opposed to complement—the science instruction necessary to allow all or most elementary students to have a clear idea of how to go about doing an independent project. If students are receiving so little instruction in science, how do they know what to do? We all know the answer to that question. Some teachers have been known to joke that the grades for many science fair projects should be given to parents, not students. Of course, this only works for those students who have someone to help them.
A further problem is that elementary teachers, in particular, are not, as a rule, well-prepared to teach science. Professor Winokur cites the same 2012 report that found 81 percent of teachers responding that they were adequately trained to teach language arts, but less than half as many (39%) feeling prepared to teach science.
A sad situation, to be sure, not only for individual students, but for the prospects for our nation. It is just much less likely that our nation will produce the scientists and innovators of the future if students don’t get robust experiences as children. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As NCTL reported in our 2011 report, Strengthening Science Education, schools that have an expanded day actually do have the chance to provide their students with science classes rich with the kind of deep investigation and analysis imagined by NGSS. They can also build in quality learning and training experiences for the teachers. As we described, the profiled expanded-time schools:
… have demonstrated that additional time can bring about marked change in students’ science experiences and proficiency. The schools are also offering teachers more support to use science time effectively—through meaningful, professional development, solid instructional leadership, innovative partnerships, high-quality assessments, and curricula that meet individual students’ needs.
Having more time is far from a guarantee that better science education will take root in schools; educators still need to commit themselves to generating these opportunities. But it is a certainty that there can be no good science education without having sufficient time to engage in the kinds of activities and thinking that are at the core of learning science and the scientific method.