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.

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:




Tuesday, June 15, 2010

After attending a lecture by Dr. John Medina last month I decided to buy and read his book “Brain Rules” where he talks about some of the things we know about the human brain and ways that it might inform what happens in the classroom. It is a great read. One of the points he makes is how those in the communication industry often use what we know about the brain to be more effective. What strikes me about this is, what is education if not communication! Why aren’t educators using more of what we know about effective communication and how the brain works in our day to day lives?

I then listened to the latest episode of “Lab Out Loud” which is a podcast by two science teachers sponsored by the NSTA. In this episode they interviewed Randy Olson the author of “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”. One of the things Randy talks about is how scientists are often bad communicators. There have also been discussions on the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” about why pseudo-science is popular and why scientists have trouble getting their message across.

What seems to come out from all these sources is that scientists and science educators seem to think that because they have data that people will just believe them. Unfortunately this is not the case. What we are learning is that facts alone won’t change a person’s mind about a topic, and the way that scientists and science educators often position themselves as the authority on a topic can turn people off even more.

So what can we do? First off science educators have to think of themselves as the front line in the battle for people’s hearts and minds. Science educators have a narrow opportunity with a captive audience to engage them in thinking about why science offers a view of the world that they should value and trust. To do this science educators need to change their own behaviors and attitudes. I have heard many science educators complain that they aren’t entertainers and should have to be. This is the wrong attitude. While educators don’t need to entertainers per se they do need to be engaging and expert communicators (and what else is good entertainment?) Randy Olson points out in his Lab Out Loud interview about attending an acting class and how that changed some of his communication ability. It is time for scientists and science educators to seek out some of the things that entertainers, advertisers, and communication majors know, connect that with what we know about the brain, and about effective instruction so that we engage our students in science and not shut them down about science.

To that end here are my next 10 simple things that you can do increase the engagement and therefore the achievement of students. All these strategies are based on good communication skills and what we know about how the brain works.


I was watching some videos of teachers the other day with a few other educators and one of them pointed out how some of the teachers seemed to plan the strategies they used very carefully and later on could explain why they picked that particular strategy while others, while maybe good teachers, couldn't explain why they did what they did. This gets to the idea of intentionality.

Teachers must be intentional about the strategies they use…
Many teachers do a great job without knowing why what they do is great and why it works well, but most teachers need to be intentional about the strategies they use.
Teachers should constantly be asking these questions.

• For this content, what is the best strategy?
• Why do I think it will work well (why does the strategy match the content and intended outcomes and what is the evidence (research base) to back that up)?
• How will I know it is working?
• What will I do if it is not working with every student?

You can’t be an evidence based teacher if you don’t know and use the research base about teaching strategies to drive your classroom.

Constantly evaluating what you are doing.

Being intentional means constantly evaluating how what you are doing is working. Are the students getting it? Is everyone with you? Is everyone engaged? Does everyone feel safe (positive feedback to every student is very important to creating a safe learning environment)? If not, how are you going to change what you are doing to get everyone back on track? (in live entertainment this is often known as reading your audience)


We know that feedback is one of the keys to learning. If we don’t get feedback how can we correct our mistakes? But people also need positive feedback. What are they doing right? Students will shut down if they think they can’t do something, so make sure you are giving plenty of positive feedback.


Have you ever been exercising or out for a walk and have an “aha” moment. A time when your brain clears and you think of an answer to a problem? Well our brains were designed for movement. According to Dr. John Medina, the ideal operating envelope for the brain is “To make decisions about survival, while moving, in an unstable environment”.

Create opportunities for students to move, according to Dr. Ken Wesson just standing up increases the glucose to the brain by 5%, walking 15% If you want to engage the brain, people need to move. So have kids stand up to change papers, stand up to get supplies, have standing discussions…

• Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity standing up
• Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables while standing
• In Jewish “Yeshivas,” the Bible is memorized standing and sometimes walking
• In Muslim “Madrassas” students memorize the entire Koran while rocking and reciting (from Dr. Ken Wesson)

Dr. Wesson also suggests replacing student chairs with fitness balls. Again the idea is to keep students moving.

Emotional Content

Our brains don’t pay attention to boring things, but they do pay attention to emotionally competent stimuli...
Every ten minutes or so the brain needs a hook that triggers an emotion (fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity…) The hook must be relevant to the class to be meaningful. (Dr. John Medina, Brain Rules) This could be a anecdote, A quick historical story... This is the creative side of being a good communicator and a good teacher.

Two minute paper

The two minute paper is a formative assessment tool and a way to engage students’ brains by taking advantage of a person’s own self interest and by having them make their learning relevant or attaching emotion to it. It was first described by Davis, Wood, & Wilson (1983), then popularized by Cross and Angelo (1988).
The method is simple. Have students write for one to two minutes based on a prompt.
Potential prompts (from Skip Downing “On Course”)

• Without looking at your notes, what was most memorable or stands out in your mind about today’s class?
• What was the most surprising and/or unexpected idea expressed in today’s discussion?
• Looking back at your notes, what would you say was the most stimulating idea discussed in today’s class?
• For you, what interesting questions remain unanswered about today’s topic?
• In your opinion, what was the most useful idea discussed in today’s class?
• During today’s class, what idea(s) struck you as things you could or should put into practice?
• What example or illustration cited in today’s class could you relate to the most?

• Would you agree or disagree with this statement: . . .? Why?
• What was the most persuasive or convincing argument (or counterargument) that you heard expressed in today’s discussion?
• Was there a position taken in today’s class that you strongly disagreed with, or found to be disturbing and unsettling?
• What idea expressed in today’s class strongly affected or influenced your personal opinions, viewpoints, or values?
• Analysis:
• What did you perceive to be the major purpose or objective of today’s class?
• What do you think was the most important point or central concept communicated during today’s presentation?
• Conceptual Connections:
• What relationship did you see between today’s topic and other topics previously covered in this course?
• What was discussed in class today that seemed to connect with what you are learning or have learned in other course(s)?

Make sure you give feedback (esp. positive feedback) to the students on their papers.


Get students to think about their own thinking. Here are some prompts for that. These could also be used for two minute papers.
What do you think?
Why do you think that?
What is your evidence?
How can you use it?

Other meta-cognition prompts from Dr. Ken Wesson

Before an activity:
• What do you know/think about this concept, idea or phenomenon?
• What would you like to know?
• How would you/we go about finding out?

During an activity (Metacognitive monitoring) :
• What is this (object or event) similar to? What does it remind you of? (Prior knowledge: Building bridges from what is known to what is new by deploying the appropriate metaphors).
• Are there other approaches to solving this problem/answering this question?
• Is there another way and/or a better way to answer this question?
• What is/was predictable here?
• If we changed one variable, what might be an alternative outcome?
• What other questions are beginning to surface? How can we answer them?

Following an activity (new understandings that support acquired knowledge):
• What did we investigate?
• What were we looking for?
• What did we do/see? How did we quantify or measure it?
• What did we learn? What conclusion(s) can we draw?
• Is there evidence to to support our conclusion(s)? (Scientific reasoning)
• What else do I already know that might support this new conclusion? (Synthesizing)
• What was most memorable/surprising about this investigation?
• What questions came up during our investigations? Were we able to answer them? What resources can we use to find answers?
• What do I/we still need to know in order for this concept to be clear?
• What other investigations could we conduct to discover more about this scientific phenomenon?
• What is the benefit of knowing what we have just learned?
• Create a short list of “what if” questions about the subject of your investigation.
• Can you proffer an answer to any of your “what if” questions?


Here is a new twist on a technique educators have been using for decades by Dr Ken Wesson. To the traditional KWL, add “How will you use it?” and “How would you prefer to learn it?”

What do you know?
What do you want to know?
What have you learned?
How will you use it?
How would prefer to learn it?

Processing time – Auto Ponder

During the class, or as students are leaving the classroom give them a problem without an answer, a riddle or question that is relevant to the topic at hand. Then let them put their brains on auto-ponder. You have probably experienced this effect when you wake up in the middle of night with the solution to a problem, or you remember someone’s name hours after you meet them (usually when you are moving...going for a walk or a run). Don’t make it an assignment, but do talk about it the next day with the class. This is an excellent way to start a class with a discussion, that is meaningful and may have an emotional content to it. Teachers need to take advantage of how the brain naturally works.

Stimulate the senses (Dr. Wesson and Dr. Medina)

Dr. Medina points out that “The learning link. Those in multisensory environments always do better than those in unisensory environments. They have more recall with better resolution that lasts longer, evident even 20 years later.” How might educators use this? We need to make sure that our classrooms are multisensory environments where students just hear about ideas, but they are exposed to pictures and movies, sounds, smells, and textures. Remember the more senses that are engaged the more robust the learning.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The brain, communication, and education

I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture about the brain, neuroscience, and education. It again struck me how brain unfriendly the classroom and much of our current education system is. The scientist giving the talk, Dr. John Medina, author of the book “Brain Rules” pointed out that one thing we do know about the brain is its operating envelope, it is “designed to solve problems related to survival in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion”. Could anything be further from many of our classrooms today!

So what can education learn from brain research. Unfortunately this is not a simple question. But there are several great researchers tackling this issue such as Marcia Tate and Eric Jensen. I think we can also add John Medina to that list. Unfortunately we don’t know nearly enough to really put many of the theories of brain research in action in the classroom, this is simply because the kinds of studies need to guide teachers are hard, expensive, and take a long time to carry out. For example an article was recently published in Psychological Science where a panel concluded that there wasn’t evidence support the learning styles hypothesis (that learners are primarily auditory, visual, or kinesthetic). It has since then mushroomed to the point where educators are saying research shows that we shouldn’t worry about learning styles. Really? Let’s look back at what the Psychological Science panel said, that there wasn’t evidence to support the hypothesis, not that the hypothesis was wrong, the learning styles hypothesis may be right or maybe wrong, we just don’t know, because doing the study that would prove it is really hard and expensive. This is the case with much of what we think we know about the brain and learning.

So what should educators do?

Go with what we do know. For example, regardless of what type learner a student might be, if one explanation of something doesn’t resonate or make sense to that student for some reason, we have to use a different way of explaining it to that student. This is sometimes called adaptive instruction and is a big piece of RtI (response to intervention). Simply put school and classroom practice must shift based on the needs of students. For this to be effective educators must constantly gather evidence on how their students are progressing toward mastery of a concept or skill. But beyond this, educators also need to know the early signals that students may be having problems, so that they can make informed instructional decisions and modify their day to day lessons to adapt to the needs of the students. This is the role of formative assessment, which plays a key role in evidence based science education.

We also know that the brain seems to have a working memory, but information in this memory is lost if not repeated in 2 hours. If the information is repeated within two hours it is recruited for long term storage. Think of the implications of this to the school schedule and for homework, how can schools use this notion of a 2 hour window to its advantage? Also it can take years for concepts (especially complex one) to be cemented into long term storage in such a way that it can be recalled and used accurately. Yet in education we often go over complex processes only once and expect students to master it.

We also know that the brain won’t pay attention to boring things for very long, and is particularly interested in how information connects to a storyline. A stimulus (be it in or out of the classroom) has less then 600 seconds to attract and keep the brains attention. If it fails to do so in that time, the brain will wander off on its own. We also know that brains working memory can only hold and work on 5 – 7 ideas at a time. Any more than this and the brain purges information without committing it to long term memory.

What all this means for education is that we need to rethink our information dense and brain unfriendly classrooms. We need to get our students moving and talking and thinking. We need to connect information into coherent story lines. We need to make sure that important information is repeated and students understand the themes that connect one content area with another. Most of all we need to recognize that learning and remembering things is an active process that specific rules, and for teachers to be successful they must follow those rules.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The role of assessment in Evidence Based Science Teaching

Research tells us that good assessment plays a key role in the teaching and learning process. But what kind of assessments should teachers be using? How can teachers be intentional and efficient about the use of assessment? How do teachers keep from being overwhelmed by assessment tasks?

For the purposes of this essay assessment is broadly defined as any intentional practice that allows the teacher to intentionally track the progress of students toward a defined learning outcome. It is important to give the definition of assessment here because the word is often given other meanings, such as, referring only to a standardized test, or state assessment, or very broadly defined when teachers grade everything that a student produces.

Many teachers get overwhelmed by the task load of grading student assessments, yet as we know assessment, and more importantly the feedback students get from teachers based on assessment is a key to learning. So how can we know that a student has learned while still keeping teachers sane?

The answer is that teachers need to be very thoughtful about what really constitutes evidence of student learning. When thinking about assessment, teachers should ask themselves, what evidence would show me how my students are progressing toward specific learning goals? This is where standards based report cards can be wonderful, but even if your school or district doesn’t use standards based report cards, a teacher should still be able to set up their own grade book in a way that it becomes a record of evidence for learning.

Science teachers are great at showing students different ways of capturing and presenting data to make it meaningful yet are often terrible at setting up their grade books to do the same thing. At worst many grade books are a mere record of how many students completed nightly homework assignments rather than a body of evidence that shows what a student does and does not understand. Many times this is even true of “standards based grade books”. Teachers should ask themselves this: Does my grade book reflect what my students know and are able to do? Does it allow me to see what my students’ strengths and weaknesses are? Can I use it to explain to parents what students do and do not understand?

For a grade book to be truly standards based and fit into a scheme of evidence based teaching it must go beyond just reorganizing the traditional grade book in different way, it must function different than the traditional grade book.

Now that the Colorado State Academic standards, as well as many of the national standards efforts, includes both content and skills at a grain size that you can collect evidence for, setting up this type of grade book should be much easier. It all comes down to: What are the content and skills that students should master? What evidence will tell you that they have mastered it? What are the steps it takes to get to mastery? What evidence would show you when a student has achieved those steps and is ready to move on?

So an evidence based, standards based grade book contains markers about a student’s progression toward mastery as well as indicators that a student has achieved mastery. This is very different from the traditional model where the grade book ranks how well a student did on individual assignments. In an evidence based, standards based system how well students do on individual assignments is secondary to charting a student’s progress toward mastery. While seeing how well a student completed individual assignments may provide some valuable information, it does not necessarily get at the goal of a class, for students to progress to mastery.

This kind of system also allows a teacher to be more selective in what they grade, making them more efficient. And this efficiency is not just what the teacher grades and put into the grade book, but also about the types of assignments that they give students, thus making their student’s more efficient. Students often complain about school or homework that they view as busy work. The reason students see it as busy work as they don’t know the purpose behind the work and where the work will lead. So even if it isn’t busy work to the teacher, it can still be perceived as busy work by students. If students know, instead, that when they have an assignment, it is part of a bigger, well thought out system, the less chance they will think that it is just busy work.

So what does kinds of assignments should kids spend their precious time doing and what types of assignments should teachers spend their precious time grading? Only those that provide evidence of a student’s progress toward mastery. This still encompasses a wide variety of assignments, but should free up both the teacher and student from unnecessary work, because all work should have meaning for both the student and teacher.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What makes a great science teacher?

Extensive research has shown that the number one factor influencing a student’s performance is the teacher. Great teachers can get students to grow on average a grade and half in one year while students in a weak teachers class may grow barely a half year. But what makes a great teacher? And for this blog, what makes a great a science teacher? Over my career I have read more and more on what makes a great teacher.

Coming from the classroom I thought that I had a handle on this. In my school we were encouraged to visit each others classrooms, I was a mentor teacher for our building, and a cooperating teacher for pre-service teachers. I enjoyed sharing my insights with others on what I thought made a good teacher. But the longer I was in the roles the more complex I realized the question really is. I thought I “knew” who the good teachers in my building were and who the “weaker” teachers were. But this was always a subjective analysis based on many factors such as did students from that teacher come prepared for my class, how did students talk about that teacher, how did admin treat that teacher, how those teachers behaved in staff meetings... But in reflection I had my biases and opinions of what made a great teacher, based a little on research, but mainly formed from my own anecdotal experiences.

You often hear teachers say “If you want to know what makes a great teacher, ask a teacher”. While there is some validity to this, not all teachers really know what makes a great teacher and all of them would have their own biases and anecdotal experiences. While asking teachers might be a good start to answering this question it is not the kind of sound scientific evidence that is really needed to inform policies, training programs, evaluations, and pay scales. Also, while a warm and gregarious personality might get a teacher’s colleagues and administration to like them and say great things about their teaching, if you don’t have a way of measuring the learning that is taking place in the class, how can really say if someone is a great teacher?

So what does science and research have to say about what makes a great science teacher? There seems to be two thoughts about great teachers. 1) They have an innate skill or ability that cannot be measured or taught. This to me is a depressing view because if great teaching is something that cannot be measured or taught, then there is nothing that can be done about weak teachers, other than convincing them to leave the profession. 2) Teaching is a science and with the right set of theoretical knowledge, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge anybody can teach.

As with most issue, the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes. In my career I have met first year teachers that I thought were great, right out of the gate and experienced teachers who I thought didn’t know how to teach despite their years doing it, as well as the reverse. I have witnessed new teachers who struggle their first couple of years grow to become incredible teachers and others that didn’t seem to grow at all. Recently the New York Times came out with an article Building a Better Teacher the article quotes Bill Gates as saying “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching” after a gates foundation initiative into what makes a great teacher. I disagree with this assessment.

Robert Marzano really got it right in his title The Art and Science of Teaching there is both an art and a science to it. If you take the insights of research from Marzano, along with the cognitive aspects of teaching from researchers such as Marcia Tate and Eric Jensen, sprinkle in the research that went into the “Classroom Instruction that Works” series, along with school district’s that have put research into what should go into a good teacher evaluation such as St Vrain Valley School District and Eagle County School District, a picture of what makes a great teacher starts to emerge.

To start with research shows the most important factor for a great science teacher is having a deep understanding of the content they are are going to teach. Dan Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer concluded in their 1996 study Evaluating the Effects of Teacher Degree Level on Education Performance “in mathematics and science, it is the teacher subject-specific knowledge that is the important factor in determining tenth-grade achievement.”

Beyond content knowledge what emerges from research is that good and great teachers engage students in a minds on way that goes far beyond just having manipulative and hands on experiences. Students in our best classrooms are following sets of strategies that engage the brain, many of which are described by Marzano in Classroom Instruction that Works and Tate in Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.

More than that research also shows great teachers ask themselves great questions about their students. One of the great contributions of the standards based teaching movement is the standards based teaching and learning cycle. In this cycle teachers are constantly asking the questions: What do students need to know, understand, and be able to do? How will we teach effectively to ensure that students learn? How we will know that students have learned? And what do we do when students don’t learn or reach proficiency before expectations?

The Building a Better Teacher article in the Times investigates Doug Lemov’s research into techniques of good teachers. Many of these techniques seem to stem from Marzano’s category of withitness. What makes Lemov’s research compelling to me is that withitness always seemed a little nebulous and Lemov’s taxonomy in Teach Like a Champion makes withitness something more concrete and something that can be taught.

In the coming weeks I will be expanding on this subject. Fortunately research is taking much of the mystery out of great teaching. While there will always be an art to teaching, science has much to tell us about what makes a great teacher, what techniques we should be looking for in doing teacher evaluation, and how to teach teachers to get better.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Guided Inquiry

Most science content standards are written to be neutral about pedagogy. The standards simply state the what, not the how for learning. The National Science Education Standards do go further with standards for science teaching and science assessment, but unfortunately these too often seem to be the least looked at portion of the standards. Many state standards don’t address the how of learning at all, only the what. The unfortunate result are standards that promote and encourage direct teaching of science material by the teacher instead of making sure student’s have a rich experience in science. The Revised Colorado Academic Standards attempted to bring the how of science teaching back into the state standards by embedding science process and 21st century skills into the standards, but even more importantly writing student outcomes that require active learning on the part of the student by having statements written at higher levels of blooms taxonomy.

This is where Guided Inquiry comes into play. To get a wide range of students to think at higher levels of blooms taxonomy classrooms will have to employ more of the strategies described in the National Science Education Standards such as guiding and facilitating learning and planning an inquiry based science class. Unfortunately too many people associate inquiry based learning and constructivist learning models as meaning that students have to figure everything out for themselves. While this does represent the extreme of inquiry and constructivist learning, like most other things in life, inquiry and constructivist based learning really represents a continuum from all direct instruction toward having students figure everything out for themselves.

Guided inquiry represents a wide range of this continuum. According to Kuhlthau, Manites, and Caspari in their book Guided Inquiry guided inquiry is built around six principles: Students learn by being actively engaged and reflecting upon their experiences; Children learn by building on what they already know; Children develop higher-order thinking through guidance at critical points in the learning process; Children have different ways and modes of learning; Children learn through social interaction with others, and; Children learn through instruction and experience in accord with their cognitive development. Unfortunately merely having content standards and the direct instruction model that they support doesn’t recognize many of these principles.

The good news at the new Colorado Academic Standards in Science supports these principles of student learning. For example the Colorado Academic Standards in Science represent a learning a progression, thus acknowledging that students need to build on what they already know. This is not to say that all teachers can assume that all their students come in having the proper background, but it does move toward a model where each teacher at each level isn’t expected to start over with the basics and teach it all. This learning progression also recognizes higher levels of cognitive development in the later grades.

As expressed earlier in this blog, the standards were designed to support the active engagement of students with wording such as “Students will develop, justify, and communicate an evidenced based scientific explanation of…” This wording, that students will develop, justify, and communicate, assumes active engagement of the students. But even beyond this the standards support reflection by the students through inquiry questions, for example “What are the most common forms of energy in our physical world?” Questions like this prompt and support student reflection of what they have learned.

The standards also support student collaboration. One of the things about learning we know from multiple sources including constructivist thought and studies of how the brain learns is that deep learning happens in a social setting. The more students talk, process, and problem solve with their peers the richer the learning is. The Revised Colorado standards support these kinds collaboration, for example “Share experimental data, and respectfully discuss conflicting results” or “Work in groups using the writing process to effectively communicate an understanding of the particle model of matter”.

While it is out of the scope of standards to specify when and where guidance should be provided to students to build higher order thinking, the Revised Colorado Standards support higher order thinking skills having students analyze, develop, and evaluate not just identify and know.

Of course there is a lot more to guided inquiry than I can write about in a blog, but there are many excellent resources, books and professional development opportunities, on guided inquiry for teachers who want to know more.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Evidence Based Science Education

A recent trend in medical field is evidence based medicine. While it might seem obvious to most of us that medicine should be evidence based, often times it is based more on what doctors have always done or gut reaction then on the latest science, or even worse alternative medicine is often based on nothing more than a crazy idea. What does this have to do with science education? Well as obvious as it may seem that science education should also be evidence based, that also is not always the case. Science teachers, like doctors, often teach the way they have always taught or based on their impression of the best way to teach rather than following the sciences of pedagogy, psychology, and neurology.

Psychology tells us that everyone falls into the traps set by our own brains. These traps include confirmation bias, finding patterns where none exist, and extrapolating conclusions from insufficient evidence. In understanding these brain traps can we avoid them, by gathering evidence through the use of science. That is one of the powers of science, it can light the way out of the traps and show us what really is. Unfortunately it is very easy for teachers to fall in these traps. Thinking that their teaching methodology is effective because they want to be effective, ineffective teachers and teachers using ineffective techniques often don’t even know that they are being ineffective because of confirmation bias, or extrapolating wrong conclusions from insufficient evidence.

So what do these fields of science tell us about teaching in general and science teaching in particular?

•That people learn science by doing science, not just studying science. People’s brains must be actively engaged from true learning and understanding to take place (this is why Socratic seminars are so powerful).

•That concentration centers and short term memory centers of the brain are only good for about 10 minutes and 3 or 5 facts before they are overloaded and people begin to tune out.

•People learn what is most important to them first and best, the rest of the details don’t stick in our brains, and those details may become distorted in our brains.

•Our brains work by making connections between what we already know and we are learning. Students are not blank slates coming into a classroom. Even Preschoolers already have a notion of how the world works.

•It is hard to break the cognitive dissonance often created by science. Science is not intuitive, and as a species we are programmed to trust our previous experience and intuition more than what someone tells us.

•Our brains still work on problems even when we are not thinking about them (have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with the answer to some question from the previous day? Or remembered someone’s name hours after you were talking with them and could remember their name, and you were even thinking about them anymore?) This is the processing time our brains need to make connections and solve problems. This processing time takes days to occur for a new idea or concept.

All this helps point a way forward for a better education system. One where students are engaged, given processing time, and not bored by brain unfriendly activities, such as worksheets or overly long lectures with too many facts than someone can possibly remember. A classroom where the cognitive dissonance is recognized and talked about so that students can connect new learning to existing neural pathways. This is science based science education.

In medicine being science based isn’t just about the clinical practice, but also educating patents on their health and why you are doing what you are doing or suggesting treatment. In medicine the mind of the patent is a powerful ally or foe when it comes to treatment, think of the placebo effect.

Science Teaching is the same. Students don’t just need to know their science facts, but they need to know the data and stories behind those facts, again the fields of psychology and neurology light the way forward. In understanding that the human mind has evolved over countless generations to pay attention to what is most important (usually for survival) and to understand stories and as a powerful pattern finding organ we can use this to our advantage when teaching by playing to these strengths of the human mind, rather than its weaknesses.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Literacy Creep

An interesting discussion is happening at The Core Knowledge Blog about Literacy Creep. Check it out at http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2010/01/11/literacy-creep/

This is in no way an endorsement of Core Knowledge, but it is an interesting discussion.

After checking it out, I would love to hear what you think. Is Literacy Creep a problem? Does having to teach literacy get in your way of teaching science or does it enhance your science your classroom and your students ability to learn science?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Learning progressions

The standards movement in education has yet to fulfill its promise and potential of raising the achievement level for all students. Instead of being used as benchmarks to measure the progress of student s, the standards, and the assessments used to measure them, have too often been co-opted into a ranking system. Learning progressions, used well, can help change the conversation in classrooms to what strategies can we use so all students meet the standards.

Learning progressions defined a sequence of learning steps with in a specific topic. An example of a learning progression with infants is first sitting up, then pushing themselves up, then crawling, then walking, then running. Every big concept has a similar series of progressive steps that need to be mastered before going on to the next one. Within any subject area there are only a handful of big or important ideas that someone should know. The rest are just details about that idea. It can certainly be debated what those big ideas are, but once there is a consensus around those big ideas a progression can be made of the concepts and skills that a student needs to master in order to understand each big idea can be established. Students must build their concept of any of the big ideas over time starting with less sophisticated concepts and skills gradually getting more and more sophisticated with those ideas.

The power of learning progressions within a big idea is the tools it provides teachers for differentiation and intervention for all students. Often the topics being studied in science class have a set of prerequisite knowledge for students to be successful, without this background students struggle with the topics. Learning progressions provide powerful tools to teachers by prescribing pre-assessments for students. These pre-assessments should test range of learning progressions within a big idea, so that teachers know where individual students are on the continuum of learning within that big idea. Armed with data from the pre-assessment teachers can then tailor their lessons to meet the students where they are instead of expecting the students to all be ready to tackle that topic in the same way. These same pre-assessments also let students know where they are and where they are expected to go.

Similarly, defined learning progressions also point to intervention strategies when a student is struggling. Students struggling in science classrooms often don’t have the prerequisite knowledge for where the teacher is. By understanding the learning progression of big ideas teachers can more easily fill in the gaps in student knowledge using a deliberate plan action rather than randomly trying different things for that student.

Publications such as AAAS’s Atlas of Science Literacy provide the map needed to start using learning progressions in Standards, Curriculum planning, and Instruction.