Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Effect of 20+ years of education reform

For at least the last 20 years the United States, like almost every other country in the world, has been pushing one type of education reform after another.  Most with little success (exceptions might include Finland and Singapore).  The two most recent of these include No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards. The question that any science based educator must then ask themselves is what is the effect of all this reform?

The evidence I have seen to date would seem to indicate that NCLB has had little effect either positive or negative on education in general. Most meaningful measures of achievement did not change significantly in the NCLB era, despite what we often see in the headlines based on think tank research studies.

Many think tanks in education forget that you base conclusions on evidence, instead they make the research fallacy of looking for evidence to back up their conclusion, thus, cherry picking the evidence. Therefore when I look at most studies on the impact of NCLB, Charter Schools, or other "education reforms" I usually can guess what the conclusion of the study is based on who published it. Not a sign of quality research and rigorous science based educational reform. 

As far CCSS goes, it looks to me to be the more of the same, well intentioned, but not necessarily a science based educational reform. NCLB is still law of the land, and the conservative vs liberal think tank battle continues with poorly designed research studies with cherry picked data. Worst of all appalling media coverage of what is really happening in our schools and the real issues faced by students and teachers. 

Luckily there are a few good places to go for quality research studies on science education such as the University of Colorado and the University of British Columbia as well as the What Works Clearing House and the National Research Council. Unfortunately these seem to be the last place the public, the media, and policy makers seem to look to for quality information.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Are textbooks obsolete?

In my first teaching job I was hired to teach physical science and biology to 9th and 10th graders at a rural/suburban high school in Colorado.  For curriculum, I was handed a textbook and teacher edition for each class.  My first year I tried to faithfully follow the textbook and the suggested learning practices in the book, although I quickly started to move away from this as I gained experience and was disappointed by the quality of these materials.  At this time, though, many teachers perceived their job as assigning a textbook reading to students, lecture about the topic the next day, evaluating how well the students understood the reading and lecture on a quiz or test, and then move on to the next topic. Even then this was not best practice as this is well after the work of Piaget, Madeline Hunter, Gardener, and Bloom it is what seemed to be the majority of practice.

Many teachers I knew at this time looked on the work of education researchers as information to memorized in education school before becoming teacher, but not as a basis for day to day lesson planning.  The lesson planning was already done for you by the textbook publisher.  Surely the textbook publishers were making best practice lesson plans and knew better than classroom teachers, so the thinking seemed to go.  This is before the first set of National Science Standards and the 5E model of science instruction and inquiry based science instruction did not seem to be in use much by my peers.  In addition my rural school at that time had one computer that could access the internet through a dial-up modem, and no one was really sure why you might want to go on to the internet anyway.

While excellent teachers have always focused more on the student and student learning through inquiry and authentic projects, many others focused on delivering the information as laid out in the teachers edition.  In the intervening years there has been shifts and growing understanding of best practices in education in general and science education in particular, along with the information revolution of the internet.  There seems to be a better understanding of student learning in science and more teachers putting these ideas into practice.  In addition the school my school now has hundreds of computers all with immediate high speed access to the internet.  One thing that seem to not have changed much is the science textbook and teacher edition.  If anything many textbooks seem to have gotten more confusing and harder for students to use and understand as publishers race to make them colorful, with more bolded words and full of pictures and charts.

In my first year I perceived my job as to deliver the curriculum as laid out in the teacher edition with just a little supplement from other sources and I couldn’t imagine my students not having a textbook.  Today I have a much different view, where most of the hard work for my classes is done before the students ever enter the classroom.  Carefully developing lessons that create a coherent storyline roughly following ideas of Madeline Hunter and the 5E model about science and development of essential skills.  It is looking for interesting and relevant activities that will support student learning.  Finding authentic articles on the topic of study for students to read.  Setting up projects and problems for students to engage in and solve while learning and applying knowledge and concepts.  And more…  One thing I hardly do now though is touch the teachers edition, and when I do I am usually very disappointed seeing activities or readings that aren’t very good and often confusing.

With the continued development and rise of excellent online resources such as CK12.org, PhET, Concord Consortium, HHMI, and many, many others, do textbooks still have a relevance and role in science education?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Wonderful Language of Science, beyond vocabulary and reading and writing across the curriculum.

For over two decades now we have heard about the importance of reading and writing across the curriculum; as if teachers of science and social studies, the arts and PE never had students reading and writing before the early 1990s. This renewed push for literacy led to schools establishing reading and writing “power standards” that all teachers were expected to show how they lessons were addressing.

The problem is that language is about more than reading and writing. What about speaking and listening? What about developing strategies for accessing and evaluating the validity of information? The way we approach and use language in various content areas is different. A student can’t just take the reading and thinking strategies they learn in a western literature class and apply them directly to reading science textbook or even an article in journal or newspaper. Science, as well as all other content areas, has its own specialized technical vocabulary, writing style, presentation style, and specific way of discoursing.

We know that science has its own language. Often it is a great way of expressing abstract ideas, at other times it is a concise way of expressing complex phenomena. Language is often the gate keeper of science. If you develop the language key you get to pass through gates and be a part of the order. And if you don’t develop the language, and develop it early and often on your own, you are forever an outsider looking in, not really understanding what is going on, forever banned to science illiteracy.

In essays and lectures Neils Bohr was constantly emphasizing the role played by language in science and in our understanding of nature. Scientific investigations, Bohr pointed out, are not exclusively formal, mathematical affairs for they also involve informal discussions in which key concepts are explored and understood. In Bohr's words, "We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down".

In many science classes teachers implicitly teach the language of science, simply because they use the language in their class or make certain requirements for written work. But because this language piece is implicit and not explicit, many students don't get the language of science. From my own anecdotal observation, and I don't know of any specific research that backs it up, many students struggle and fail in science, not because they struggle with the content, but because the content isn't accessible to them because the language of science gets in the way. It is almost like throwing a kid into a class in a foreign language that they have never heard or had any experience with and expecting them to grasp content in the class.

Unfortunately student struggles with the language of science is often overlooked, and most science teachers do not have any specialized training to help them teach the language of science. In my search for resources for science teachers in the language of science all of the resources can be boiled down to three simple aspects: reading a textbook (look at headings and bold words), writing a lab report (don’t use the first person), and vocabulary. As if this is all there is to the language of science. There is almost nothing out there to support teachers in teaching the discourse and informal discussions that lead to true understanding and insight that Niels Bohr was referring to.

Take for example the way many resources even simplify the idea of science vocabulary (the one area language that science teachers are most comfortable with). One resource states that scientific vocabulary is nothing more than a hodge podge of little words linked together, and if you know the little words you will understand the big words. While true for many words and terms, for many more this just isn’t the case. And even when it is the case the ideas expressed by the big words often have a deeper more nuanced meaning than just combining the little words. There are also resources that stress the importance of knowing Latin roots as the key to scientific literacy. Again if only it were that simple. While many scientific terms can be traced back to Latin, it is not enough to simply know the Latin roots to gain access to the wonderful language of science.

Let’s take a closer look at what we know about language in general and see how we might apply it to science in particular. To make things simple we can think about three important parts of language: Vocabulary, Grammar and conventions, and syntax. For all three of these science has some specific rules that students must learn. Again taking the example of vocabulary, we know that people don’t learn vocabulary by copying down words from a dictionary or glossary, and people don’t learn new vocabulary just because the word is bold in a text book. We also know the central and important role that vocabulary plays in learning and understanding. Going back to Neils Bohr, in reference to quantum mechanics, he said that we cannot understand and discuss a phenomena until we have common language to describe it. But to learn this language you have to actively use it in regular discourse.

Teachers must model and encourage active discourse of ideas and the use of scientific language in their class. The cognitive process of acquiring language, be it the specialized language of science or learning a new language is an active process not the passive filling of the empty vessel that would be so much easier.
So how are you going to be intentional about how the language of science is developed in your curriculum and instruction? What specific supports you can offer for students who struggle with this language piece? How will you make sure that students are actively discoursing about science? If we don’t go beyond reading and writing across the curriculum and start intentional planning for the language of science we will always condemn a set of students to scientific illiteracy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Project / Problem Based Education

I had the opportunity the other day visit the STEM lab school for Adams 12 five star school district. The school is based around science and engineering projects and problems driving student’s education. The projects students were doing were authentic and creative and the school also has impressive test scores. This seems like a great a model for implementing standards that have a renewed focus on areas such as critical thinking, collaboration, invention, as well as relevance, but what does the research say about project based learning.

First off, let’s investigate what project based learning is; Bransford and Stein in 1993 defined project based learning as a comprehensive instructional approach to engage students in sustained, cooperative investigations. The project based learning website PBL-online.org defines project based learning as “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.”

In 1994 Brown and Campione identified two essential components of projects: (1) A driving question or problem that serves to organize and drive activities. (2) A culminating product(s) that meaningfully addresses the driving question. Blumenfeld in 1991 went further in writing that project based learning students should pursue solutions to problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating ideas and findings, and creating artifacts (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

All of this points to students being actively engaged in a meaningful problem solving activities where they have to produce some sort of product. Projects can integrate multiple concepts and disciplines and therefore help students make connections between math, science, social studies, art, and reading, writing, and communicating. Brain research shows that the more meaningful and real life connections students can make the more robust the learning, the kinds of authentic connections that must be made through well throughout and well planned projects. Mo and Choi indeed found in 2003 that PBL was more effective than traditional instruction methods in terms of acquiring knowledge and motivation. Project based learning has also been found to increase student motivation and intellectual engagement (Blemenfield, 1991 and Pintrec and de Groot, 1990).

Project based education really focuses on the outcome and supporting students achieving that outcome. So, given all these positive points, why isn’t project based education more wide spread? After all, the idea has been around since Dewey (1933). Well, not all the research is positive for example, the study Factors Influencing College Science Success out of Harvard University did not find doing projects a good indicator of college success. Also, project based education can also be challenging. Therefore it has been found that supporting teachers and students is crucial. Also teachers need to appreciate the complex nature of guiding students through projects that might involve difficult and reflective work (Blumenfeld et al.,1991).

Many teachers also feel that they don’t have the time or freedom to do project based learning in the standards based world. Yet the heart standards based education is a focus on outcomes not inputs, which is just what project based education is all about. And with the increase focus of standards on 21st century skills and conceptual understanding, projects are an ideal tool for teachers to use, as good projects really focus on 21st century skills such as critical thinking and collaboration. In addition by integrating the arts, sciences, literacy, and social studies into one project teachers might find the tool they really need to ensure mastery of all students with all standards.

For more information on project based education:
Bradley-Levine, J., Berghoff, B., Seybold, J., Sever, R., Blackwell, S. & Smiley, A. (2010). What teachers and administrators "need to know" about project-based learning implementation. Paper presented at Annual Meetings of the American Educational Research Association. Denver, CO. April, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/teachers_and_administrators_need_to_know.

Bransford, J. D., & Stein, B. S. (1993). The IDEAL problem solver (2nd ed.). New York: Freeman.

Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26 (3 & 4), 369-398.

Bruner, J. (1962). On knowing: Essays for the left hand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uiversity Press.

Bredderman, T. (1983). Effects of activity-based elementary science on student outcomes: A quantitative synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 53, 499-518.
Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 229-272). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dewey, S. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. New Issue with Essay by Maxine Greene. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hmelo-Silver, C., Duncan, R., Chinn, C. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99-107. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/pbl_is_not_minimally_guided.

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1918). The project method. Teachers College Record, 19, 319-335).

Mo, K., & Choi, Y. (2003) Comparing Problem-based Learning with Traditional Instruction: Focus on High School Economics.

Sizer, T. R. (1984) Horace's compromise--the dilemma of the American high school : the first report from A study of American high schools, co-sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Commission on Educational Issues of the National Association of Independent Schools Boston : Houghton Mifflin.

Strobel, J. and van Barneveld, A. (2009) When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses, Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning volume 3, no. 1

Friday, October 22, 2010

RtI in Science

How do you make sure that you are meeting the needs of all students in your class? What do you do when you have students in your class there aren’t progressing as quickly as you would like or as fast as most of your students? Response to intervention (RtI) is an instructional model designed to help all learners in a class succeed.

As RtI gains more acceptance as a model of instruction many teachers are asking what this actually looks like in the classroom. Much of the focus for RtI so far has been in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. What about other content areas? Especially ones, like science and social studies, where the learning focus is more on concepts and content rather than skills?

The key to RtI is to make sure that the first tier in the RtI pyramid, the universal level, consists of a robust, standards based curriculum (one based on more than just a text book or program) that includes 21st century skills and good research based instructional practices that are intentionally aligned with the outcome that the teacher is looking for. Differentiated instruction is a critical component of universal instruction. All too often in schools, intervention programs have become the rule instead of the exception for instruction, essentially turning the RtI pyramid upside down. And often these intervention programs for reading, writing, and math take students away from core instruction in science, social studies, PE, and the arts.

If your school or district does not have a curriculum that is separate from your textbook or program, you might start asking administrators why and what you can help do about it. A great place to start thinking about how to write a curriculum is with books by Heidi Hayes Jacobs such as Curriculum 21 or Getting Results with Curriculum Maps both published by ASCD. Another source is the book Curriculum Leadership by Glatthorn, Boschee, and Whitehead. CDE is also working on a guide to curriculum that goes with revised standards that should be available winter of 2011.

It is also useful to understand the difference between accommodations and interventions. An accommodation provides a change in how a student accesses information and demonstrates learning. An intervention is usually direct instruction (from a teacher or para) that helps fill gaps in skills, knowledge or understanding.

Once you make sure that the universal level is strong, one can then start to think about accommodations and interventions. The first question about accommodations and interventions is when to start them. In the article Flagged for Success in the October 2010 edition of Educational Leadership, Robyn Jackson talks about how she set up an early warning system to catch kids who were struggling early. This type of early warning system seems essential for keeping students up with their classmates. Red flags might be getting below an 80% or a proficient score on a test or quiz, or an overall grade at or below 75% or partially proficient. Another red flag not to overlook is pre-assessment. Pre-assessments should be designed to let a teacher know if a student has the proper background knowledge to be successful for that unit or for the class. The point that Robyn makes is that your red flags need to be easy and obvious for the teacher so they can start their accommodations and intervention system early, not waiting until report card time, or until parent teacher conferences. Whatever you set as your red flags, when any student hits one, an intervention system should be started. If you find that more than 15-20% of your class requires interventions, however, it is likely time to reevaluate the universal instruction.

Accommodations and Interventions should start with the least intensive and work up from there. Examples of low intensity accommodations include a student check-in, that is before or after class having a one-on-one conversation with the student about what triggered the red flag and asking the student what you can do to help; having students self correct answers they got wrong on a test or quiz; or having them redo a portion of a paper. Another strategy is checking that students actually understand the vocabulary being used in class and in their readings, as Lawrence, White, and Snow point out in the article The Words Students Need (Educational Leadership, Oct. 2010). Just because a student reads the word in an article or book or copied the down the definition doesn’t mean they know the word and can use it.

If those first low intensity accommodations don’t seem to be getting the student up to where you want them to be you then move into more intensive interventions such as having a review packet ready for students to help them understand the material they aren’t getting. This packet needs to be thoughtfully put together though; remember the student didn’t understand it the first time, so giving them just more of the same won’t necessarily help. A review packet needs be different than the initial instruction with more support such as lower level readings on the same concept or more explicit, student friendly definitions of content specific vocabulary along with repeated exposure to that vocabulary; perhaps more pictures and a different way of explaining things. The packet might also help build proper background knowledge, since many students struggle because they don’t have the background in the topic to build on.

Even more intensive interventions might involve remediation sessions that are held during lunch or before or after school, a parent, teacher, student conference, and/or more scaffolded instruction.

RtI in the science classroom should be thought of as a way to give more students access to the richness of science concepts and to help more students be successful in science. This is a chance to have fewer students fail science or come to think that science is only for the smart kids. Done in a thoughtful manner, RtI should enhance primary instruction and not become an overwhelming burden for teachers.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The nature of teaching has changed

I recently was having a discussion with Dr. Kent Seidel an Associate Professor and Chair of the P-20 Leadership programs at the University of Denver. We were discussing how the job of teaching has changed over the last 10 or so years. It used to be the primary job of a teacher was to create a content based lesson, deliver that lesson to students, and check to the degree to which students had learned it.

A few trends have really changed this role. The first and biggest of these is the internet. My first year of teaching in the mid 90s our school had one internet connected computer hooked up to a dial up modem. By the year 2000 our school had over 100 internet connected computers with broadband connections. So by the year 2000, if I needed ideas about a lesson or activity, I now turned to the internet and the vast area of lessons and ideas that were there, and not just the activity tool box I had from my own experiences and education.

Another trend is in textbooks and materials. When I started teaching in the mid 90s the science textbook was primarily a reference book filled with factual information about science with just a few suggestions for hands on activities that students could do. I started to see a shift in what textbooks offered in the 90s first the It’s About Time’s publication of Active Physics. The textbook and teaching materials that went with it started to look more and more like a curriculum and lesson plans. I have seen this trend only increase with high quality, tested and vetted materials such Project Learning Tree and Project Wild, FOSS kits, and the SEPUP science program. With the rigor of thought and testing that goes into many of today’s materials teachers would be foolish not to use them.

Thanks to the internet and these new types of materials, no longer did I need to come up with my own inquiry based activities based on my prior knowledge, experience, PD, and research. Lesson planning became much more streamlined and a little less creative.

At the same time standards based education became much more prominent where teachers were asked to focus on what kids learned in a class, not what the teacher covered (focusing on outputs instead of inputs). Schools often had the mentality the students had the right to fail if they wanted to and this was not the teacher’s problem. But now the idea of assessment is much expanded. Now one must assess not just to see to what degree students learned what was taught, but assess the students learning progression along the way in order to adjust instruction to make sure that students are achieving mastery.

Time saved by the streamlining of coming up with high quality lessons and activities was replaced by tailoring these lessons and activities to individual students.
In the last decade we have also learned much more about how the brain works and how people really learn. The importance of making connections (to prior knowledge, to other content areas, to life outside school) in order for real learning to happen. We know the importance of processing time and sense making for the brain to make these connections.

On top of this we also layer 21st century skills and RtI and we can see the switch in the nature of teaching. Teaching is now about knowing your kids, knowing your content, having a pool of resources to draw on, then adapting the resources to where your students are and where you want to take them, and then make connections for kids, push their thinking, have them work collaboratively on problems related to a concept so they have to think creatively.

It is certainly a different view of teaching, but an evidence based science teaching approach wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Critical thinking in science education

Welcome to the 2010 – 2011 School Year. I hope this year to continue to bring you semi-regular updates around issues in science, science education, the revised Colorado Academic Standards in Science, and most specifically Evidence Based Science Teaching.

To start this school year I want to focus on critical thinking and the role of critical thinking in the science classroom. Colorado has identified critical thinking as one of the essential 21st century skills that all students in Colorado need in order to be competitive in the 21st century workplace.

The focus of education is changing. In the past a well educated person had a mind full of facts as well as the mental tools to pull those facts together in meaningful and unique ways, to draw connections and make conclusions. It seems that as the number of facts has risen exponentially and as knowledge that can be measured on a multiple choice standardized test took center stage, the number of facts to be memorized grew and the emphasis on developing students mental tools for doing meaningful and unique things with those facts diminished.

But in our information rich world, what is valued in the world education largely based on multiple choice tests (knowing the facts) and what is valued by society (being able to do meaningful and unique things with the facts) has diverged. An educated person is no longer one with a brain full of facts, because there are too many to memorize and because you can look them up in seconds on your phone. Instead the world needs people who can do things with the plethora of facts now available at their finger tips.

Critical thinking has always had a place in science education, unfortunately that place has been in what is often referred to as the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum is defined by Glatthorn in Curriculum Leadership (2009) as “those aspects of schooling, other than the intentional curriculum, that seem to produce changes in student values, perceptions, and behaviors.” In the revised Colorado Academic Standards critical thinking has moved from the hidden to curriculum up to the intentional curriculum. The realization is that we need to make 21st century skills, like critical thinking, more explicit and more intentional.

So why has Colorado chosen to bring critical thinking to the fore front and make it an explicit part of the Colorado Academic Standards? Tthe web site criticalthinking.org says it well, “much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.”

So what is critical thinking? Many definitions abound, but I like this one, again from criticalthinking.org
“A critical thinker:
• raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
• gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
• comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
• thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
• communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.”

That sounds exactly like good science education to me!

The revised Colorado Academic Standards in science get to this type of critical thinking by having students “ask testable questions” “gather, analyze, and interpret data” “develop communicate, and justify evidence based scientific explanations” and “Critically evaluate scientific claims made in popular media or by peers”. The challenge now is to make sure that curriculum and instruction in science now reflect these critical thinking pieces.

Critical thinking is also crucial in science because science is constantly under attack by those who don’t like or feel threatened by science. Critical thinking is crucial for citizens as well to make sure that they are not taken in by false claims made by those who wish to profit off of our fears and human nature with pseudo-science, such as alternative health folks, the anti-vaccine movement, young earth creationists, astrologers, and the like. Students also need critical thinking skills in science to make critical civic decisions about how to vote when candidates take standards on issues of science (like should creationism be taught in the schools or should homeopathic medicine receive Medicare/Medicaid money).

For students to really be able to think through these types of issues and avoid becoming victims they need to not only be able to look at data and come to well-reasoned conclusions, but they also need to recognize logical fallacies so they don’t fall victim to others faulty reasoning. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe provides a great resource for spotting logical fallacies (http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx) and identifies the top 20 that people often use in arguments. While these are not called out in the revised Colorado Science Standards, they could be explicitly called out in district curriculum so that these important thinking skills are also a part of the intentional curriculum of schools and not the hidden one.

A few great web resources about critical thinking: