It’s Elementary

Recently, The National Academies Press published Science Teachers’ Learning (NAP, 2015), a report on the current state of science teacher preparation, along with recommendations for approaching how and when teachers engage in professional development, and the necessary changes to education policy influencing those opportunities. I became aware of this new resource at the 2016 NSTA National Conference on Science Education in Nashville, Tennessee, when Dr. Julie Luft, a member of the committee that worked on the report, gave a presentation to a joint meeting of the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA) and the Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE). In her talk, Dr. Luft presented some sobering, but not surprising, statistics from the report: during a three year period, 41% of elementary teachers participated in no science related professional development (PD). And only 12% participated in the equivalent of one day of science related PD during the same three-year period. This is in stark contrast to the 18% of middle school, and 15% of high school teachers who did not engage in science related PD. 47% of middle school science teachers, and 57% of those in high school participated in at least one day of science PD per year during the same time.

Elementary teachers are particularly challenged compared to their secondary colleagues due in large part to their teaching multiple subjects, particularly math and language arts, which are emphasized due to their prominence in the high-stakes testing that has influenced education policies since the implementation of No Child Left Behind. As a result of these policies, studies cited in the NAP report indicate only 19% of K-2 classrooms, and 30% of those in grades 3-5 receive science instruction on a daily basis. When science is offered, it only accounts for an average of 19 minutes per day in grades K-3, compared to 54 minutes for math, and 89 minutes per day in language arts. Grade 4-6 classes show a slight increase to 24 minutes per day for science instruction. These short time spans for science results in learners making few connections between the instruction and developing a rudimentary understanding of basic scientific concepts. Even in classrooms where science takes a greater role, elementary teachers are generally unprepared to develop learning opportunities for their students, let alone implement them. While teaching basic scientific concepts requires a different skill set and knowledge base than that required for engaging in scientific research, few teacher preparation programs provide adequate opportunities for acquiring the relevant pedagogical content knowledge. Only 5% of elementary teachers majored in a science-related field, about the same as the 6% who took no college science courses.

As noted in previous Education Matters columns, from time to time I visit science methods classes in teacher preparation programs at local universities. I also have interacted with inservice elementary teachers during teacher resource fairs, and professional development workshops delivered at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. While many of the elementary teachers I come in contact with have a relatively sophisticated understanding of science, a large number of the early elementary teachers I have spoken with demonstrate the opposite. One first grade teacher in particular described how he incorporated the scientific method in activities, with students conducting controlled experiments. During our conversation, we discussed how the scientific method is a myth, and how there are a great many ways of doing science. Much of biology, as well as earth and space science do not conduct controlled experiments, and rely on observation, prediction, and modeling to arrive at conclusions. A more developmentally appropriate approach for engaging a first grader involves emphasizing questioning, and making observations to recognize and describe patterns. The ability to control variables is cognitively available for somewhat older learners.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NAP, 2011), and the subsequent Next Generation Science Standards (NAP, 2013), set the stage for significant changes in how teachers, including those at the elementary level, will approach their curricular and instructional decisions. Teacher preparation programs, as well as professional development providers (including the Astroteacher and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific) are in the process of redeveloping their offerings to reflect these changes. The emphasis on student engagement in the practices of science, and reasoning from evidence requires a better understanding on the part of implementing teachers of both the core ideas and concepts of science, and their application during active investigations through the use of the practices. The implication of the report, and efforts to fully implement the philosophy laid out in the Framework, is the dearth of science instruction in elementary grades must, and will increase. To accomplish this, the frequency and quality of teacher learning must also change.

Note: This post originally appeared as the Summer 2016 Education Matters column in the ASP published Mercury magazine.  The author serves as the Region F Director for the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA).

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