What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Science

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This accessible resource offers practical strategies for increasing student achievement in science and fostering a school environment that supports the science curriculum. Assess your own science programs, and discover tools to evaluate teachers' preparedness for science instruction. With checklists, assessments, and reproducibles that you can share with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders, discover how to improve science instruction and sustain a strong science program.

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One Scientific Inquiry

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ONE

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY

Scientists share a set of attitudes and beliefs about the nature of our world and the means to investigate its secrets. For example, scientists presume that there are persistent patterns in the universe that can be identified through careful observation and systematic study. They also allow for change in scientific ideas and theories as new knowledge is discovered and new patterns are identified. Scientific knowledge is often described using the best fit theory, which states that one cohesive theory explains everything that is known about a topic and can be modified as new knowledge is obtained (Lederman & Lederman, 2004). For example, when new discoveries made it impossible to explain the movement of the planets with Earth in the center of the universe, Copernicus postulated that the planets circle the sun rather than the Earth.

According to Norman Lederman (1999), all students should know the following five tenets concerning the nature of science. Scientific knowledge is:

 

Two Science Curricula

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TWO

SCIENCE CURRICULA

Each U.S. state is responsible for determining the content that public school students are required to know. Some states’ standards are very specific and list the science concepts required at each grade level K–12. Other states follow the approach of the national science standards (NRC, 1996) and specify what students should know by the time they complete a certain group of grade levels. In elementary public school classrooms across the United States, content in life science, earth science, and physical science is usually taught in each grade level. Local education authorities (LEAs) usually decide how these science standards or objectives are taught. In contrast to the traditional school science topics of life science, earth science, and physical science, the U.S. National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) provide an expanded perspective of what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K–12 education (NRC, 1996). They are organized into eight categories:

 

Three Science Program Evaluation

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THREE

SCIENCE PROGRAM EVALUATION

As instructional leaders, principals are inundated with multiple tasks that frequently involve instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic—the areas commonly assessed through the use of high-stakes tests. The standards and accountability movement rarely tests the value of inquiry, creativity, and higher-order thinking skills, all of which are integral components of science learning. This often leads to science instruction becoming a low priority for teachers. This should not be the case in a 21st century school.

Natural connections exist between the science curriculum and reading, writing, and doing mathematics. Because scientists read, write, and converse about science, language arts is integral to its study. Scientists analyze data, perform calculations, and generate reports, and conversely, all of these elements are essential components of curricula in other subjects. Teachers need to capitalize on the interdisciplinary connections inherent in science and make a conscientious effort to integrate the teaching of science with other subject matters. Principal leadership in this area is critical. Help your teachers, and work with them to see these interdisciplinary connections. Provide them with the support and resources necessary to integrate science into all areas of the curriculum.

 

Four Inquiry-Based Learning

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FOUR

INQUIRY-BASED LEARNING

For students to build science connections, teachers must deliver instruction in a manner that helps learners construct their own knowledge by building connections among topics and across disciplines. An unconnected lesson that does not allow students to demonstrate or apply what they have learned is not an effective lesson. The role of an instructional leader is to identify the pedagogical techniques and strategies that are being employed through the use of observation, walkthroughs, and probing questions about the science that is being taught, and to collaboratively discuss them with teachers. The following questions can serve as a guide for principals to ascertain whether or not their teachers are teaching for deep understanding and application of knowledge:

• What is the objective of today’s lesson?

• How does it build on what you taught during the previous science lesson?

• How does it build on what you will teach during the next science lesson?

 

Five Assessment

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FIVE

ASSESSMENT

Assessments are needed to monitor student progress in understanding the material. In addition to assessing students, teachers can also use assessments to evaluate their own teaching. There are many forms of assessment beside tests, as we’ll explain in this chapter, and teachers should explore different types in order to best gauge understanding.

Assessment is a multistep process that should inform decision making at all levels. Systematic and ongoing data collection and interpretation serve as a guide to practice and policy decisions for effective education.

To begin the assessment process, you must identify the purposes for which data will be collected and the many ways in which they will be used. It is then necessary to specify the types of data to be collected, the ways they will be collected, and who will use them. The following are examples of (1) data use, (2) data collection, (3) data-collection methods, and (4) data users. These four components can be combined in numerous ways, leading to a decision based on that information. The variety of uses, users, methods, and data contributes to the complexity of the assessment process.

 

Six Professional Development

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SIX

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

For standards-based reform to work in science teaching and learning, teacher professional development needs to be sustainable, comprehensive, collaborative, and inquiry based. If possible, it should be embedded into the instructional day. It also needs to include a review of science concepts, particularly in the area of STEM, as well as methods to guide and assess student learning. Furthermore, it needs to address teachers’ fears and concerns about finding time to teach science and about their knowledge of the subject matter.

A main goal of professional development in science education is to strengthen teachers’ ability to design and teach effective, hands-on, inquiry-based lessons and create assessments that are authentic and multilayered. Since many teachers have never been exposed to scientific inquiry experiences, having them participate as learners in inquiry-based science provides them with the opportunity to understand learning from this perspective. In addition, the experience provides them with the opportunity to analyze their feelings as learners, discuss challenges from a teacher’s perspective, and increase their subject-matter knowledge. When modeling science teaching during staff development sessions, facilitators must continually pose the questions: What are we doing as teachers? Why?

 

Appendix A Reproducibles

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APPENDIX A

REPRODUCIBLES

The following reproducibles will greatly assist you as you move toward enhancing your school’s overall science program. They will serve as guides and foundational elements to improve instruction, evaluate curricular materials, comprehensively assess the program, and analyze the impact of professional development initiatives.

Evaluating Science Curricular Materials

This tool is designed to assist school administrators to collect information from teachers, parents, and other interested stakeholders on possible new science curricular materials. For each of the following statements, please indicate (1) the extent to which you think the new resource meets each criterion—not at all, somewhat, or definitely—and (2) the level at which current curricular materials that the school already possesses meet each criterion—rarely, somewhat, or mostly—by circling one of the three numbers on the right-hand side. Resources that receive the highest scores should be considered for adoption.

 

Appendix B Resources for Learning More

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APPENDIX B

RESOURCES FOR LEARNING MORE

Throughout What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Science, we’ve presented various strategies and ideas to assist your school in developing, sustaining, and constantly improving your overall science program. The following resources will provide principals with specific information that can be referenced or integrated immediately to begin the process of creating a more relevant, meaningful, interdisciplinary, and rigorous program.

Elementary School Resources

Chapter 2 introduced a variety of science kits that could be integrated into the curriculum and instruction. The following list provides specific details on kits appropriate for the elementary level and websites to discover more information.

Activities Integrating Mathematics and Science (AIMS)

www.aimsedu.org

AIMS is a collection of teacher books with integrated mathematics and science activities for grades K–9.

 

Appendix C State Professional Science Teacher Associations

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APPENDIX C

STATE PROFESSIONAL SCIENCE TEACHER ASSOCIATIONS

In addition to turning to the National Science Teachers Association for resources, teachers can use their state’s professional science teacher association. Table C.1 lists each state’s organization as well as its website.

Table C.1: State Professional Science Teacher Associations

 

Appendix D Science Content Standards for Inquiry

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APPENDIX D

SCIENCE CONTENT STANDARDS FOR INQUIRY

According to the NRC (1996), scientific inquiry is

the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. It also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (p. 23)

The following science content standards establish a foundation for promoting inquiry during the teaching and learning process.

Fundamental Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry

The following section lists specific strategies and ideas to establish a teaching and learning culture that promotes and supports inquiry-based science. Scientific inquiry should increase in complexity as students progress from grade levels.

Grades K–4

• Ask a question about objects, organisms, and events in the environment.

 

Appendix E Sample K–2 Science Activity: The Mystery Box

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APPENDIX E

SAMPLE K–2 SCIENCE ACTIVITY: THE MYSTERY BOX

Source: Michaels, Shouse, & Schweingruber, 2008, pp. 66–69. Adapted with permission from National Academies Press, Copyright 2008, National Academy of Sciences.

“Are you ready to run a Mystery Box investigation with me?” Ms. Winter asked as her twenty-two kindergartners gathered around her. The classroom erupted into cheers. “Look at all these different balloons that I brought in.” She pointed to two identical sets of balloons—each of a different color, and each with a different substance inside. There were three red balloons, and three green balloons. Inside one green and one red was water, another green and another red was ice, and inside another green and another red was just air. Each set was lined up in a row in front of a wooden chest a little bigger than a toaster. The box was latched shut with a heavy lock, and a key tied to a long ribbon was next to the box (see figure E.1).

Figure E.1: The Mystery Box.

 

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