3 ways to improve science literacy

Through progressions, practices, and phenomena, science literacy can be boosted through a coherent curriculum

While teachers often experience the same year or course again and again, students and their families can really see how students change over the years in school. Families can see that what students learn each year builds on what has come before.

But for that to happen efficiently and effectively, the curriculum must be designed so that it builds coherently. Learning progressions help educators see a student’s advancement.

A learning progression is an articulation of the steps a student might go through as they work toward mastery of a process or concept. As the Framework for K-12 Science Education points out, “If mastery of a core idea in a science discipline is the ultimate educational destination, then well-designed learning progressions provide a map of the routes that can be taken to reach that destination.”

In other words, if a progression is successfully followed, what kids learn in first grade should set the stage for what they learn later in elementary school, what students learn in middle school should build upon what they learn in elementary school, and so on.

Unfortunately, our system isn’t always coherent. Therefore, it’s essential that we find ways to make science instruction more coherent. Here are three tips for improving science literacy:

1. Progressions

Ideas should never be learned in isolation. This is where The NSTA Atlas of the Three Dimensions comes in. Think of it as a user-friendly guide to understanding how ideas build on one other and relate to each other over a K-12 education. The 62 maps in the NSTA Atlas organize all the elements from the standards on a particular topic (e.g., modeling, patterns, or definitions of energy) on a single page. The elements from grades K-2 are at the bottom of the page, and those from grades 9-12 are at the top. Arrows connect elements to indicate how ideas in a particular topic build on each other and how elements in different topics connect to one another.

In addition to making connections between elements for a particular topic in different grade bands, it’s equally important to make connections between different topics in the same grade span.

2. Practices

Learning depends much more on what students do than on what teachers do. Students learn by asking questions, carrying out investigations, analyzing data, and constructing explanations. One of the major innovations of the Framework was taking general ideas about inquiry in science and articulating eight practices.

While all these practices are essential for student learning, three have traditionally been missing from K-12 science classrooms. All too often, even when students are engaged in hands-on activities, they aren’t then expected to develop models, engage in evidence-based arguments, and construct explanations of the data they have collected during their investigations.

Just as students’ understanding of core ideas should grow as they move from K to 12, their ability to engage in practices should become more sophisticated as they go. The Atlas has progressions of the practices, and teachers can use those progressions to ensure students continually improve their ability to engage in the practices.

3. Phenomena

As important as progressions and practices are, students will not engage in practices to build any progression unless they have a reason to do so. No matter how good teachers’ explanations have been, many students can have trouble mastering the subject. There is a need for a major shift in science instruction where students do the sensemaking for themselves.

Presenting phenomena can help students make sense of the world. In this approach, students are shown an engaging phenomenon and asked to figure out why it takes place. Students’ curiosity about the phenomenon drives them to ask questions. As they seek answers to those questions, students conduct investigations to collect evidence that they can use to support claims in their explanations. The process of figuring out the phenomena leads them to construct their own understanding of the core ideas in a way that helps them learn it deeply.

It’s essential for teachers to share phenomena that really engages students. Here, technology can be extremely useful. High-quality digital content has the unique ability to transport students to places they cannot otherwise visit or experience. With digital content, students can witness the birth of a star or a cell subdividing. A new world of phenomena-based instruction can be blown wide open with digital resources, and I encourage my fellow educators to explore how they can integrate digital resources into their classroom practice.

Marrying the phenomena-based approach with technology can get students activated to ask, and answer, questions in the world around them. By focusing on progressions, practices, and phenomena, teachers can make sure that students stay on a path that will lead them to scientific literacy and lifelong success.

eSchool Media Contributors