Seeking the Sasquatch of Elementary School Science
Education and business leaders, the press, and the president have all called for increased emphasis on STEM in K12 schools, and NGSS, the “Next Generation Science Standards” released in April are a response to those priorities (www.nextgenscience.org). The standards do an outstanding job of defining science and engineering for our time. However, the implementation challenges are greater than anticipated, and applying traditional staff development approaches to new standards is destined to fail, especially at the elementary school level, where the NGSS should succeed, but probably won’t.
For example, I recently asked student-teachers in my graduate-level math and science methods course at Pepperdine University what I thought was an innocent question: “What is science like in the elementary school where you teach?” One by one, the two-dozen students answered in a fashion I termed the “Sasquatch Phenomenon.” Whereas the future teachers knew that science education existed, like Bigfoot, in their assigned schools in southern California, they never encountered it personally. Their explanations included the following: “The science ‘specialist’ was on maternity leave.” “We lost the key to the science equipment.” “We planned science for Mondays, but it keeps getting pre-empted by holidays.” “There is no time in the day for anything besides language arts and math.” And “We’ll get to science after testing.” My “Sasquatch law” therefore states: “To improve science education in elementary schools, you first need to find evidence that it exists.”
Rethinking the Nature of Science
As an outspoken critic of universal curriculum standards, I concede that the NGSS are well-formulated and, in many ways, revolutionary. The standards redefine science for the 21st century, assert the critical role of engineering experiences to make sense of the world, and identify new content that should be taught. However, the most significant contribution of the new standards is rethinking the nature of science and creating conditions for children to “be” scientists rather than being told “about” science.
This transformation forms the trunk and root system of the science education tree, and the “bunch ‘o facts” are the leaves that will become compost unless we take serious action to place student inquiry, experimentation, creativity, and divergent thinking ahead of scope and sequence.
The scientific community responsible for the NGSS has implicitly endorsed constructivism, project-based learning, problem solving, real-world relevance, and epistemological pluralism that lie at the center of what we once called progressive education. This is particularly ironic, since NGSS is part of the Common Core standards initiative (www.corestandards.org), a movement based on homogeneity, correct answers and standardized testing. Schools will therefore endure destructive contradictions trying to “cover” the NGSS without making pedagogical practice dramatically more learner-centered, flexible, and meaningful. As pioneering computer visionary Alan Kay put it, at best, schools teach “science appreciation.”
Building, Designing, Tinkering and Inventing
In contrast, the NGSS demands that students be afforded continuous opportunities to actually engage in science K12. Classrooms need new materials and students need time to conduct experiments, engage in inquiry, construct long-term projects, build, design, tinker, and invent. And since educators have not been students in this century, they will need similar personal learning experiences through staff development. To do less is to violate the intent and the spirit of the next generation science standards. To do less is to add NGSS to our Sasquatch list.
Gary Stager is founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute (constructing
modernknowledge.com) and with Sylvia Martinez is co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (www.inventtolearn.com).