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EL Education's Anne Vilen Discusses Challenges Faced by Science Teachers and How to Address Them

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    Alexis Margolin

Anne Vilen, EL Education writer and school coach, responds to Larry Ferlazzo's question, "What do science teachers view as their biggest challenges and how can they best respond to them?" in Ed Week's Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo.

Ask science teachers what their biggest challenge is and invariably they’ll say something like, “I have too much to cover. My standards include four disciplines of science and there’s no telling which miniscule facts are going to be on the end-of-course test. The only way to cover it all is to plow through the textbook with lectures and throw in a cookbook lab now and then so that students don’t fall asleep.” 

The problem with this approach, of course, is that many students drift off when the teacher’s voice drones on, and even among those who learn best from listening, only some will retain factoids long enough to regurgitate them on the test. In the end, none will finish the course having truly experienced what it means to be a scientist. 

Our solution to this dilemma is a surface and dive approach. Students, especially those who have less scientific background, need the big picture view provided by a well-charted cruise across the open ocean of “content.” But the “deep-dive” experience fostered by slowing down and investigating one issue, one place, or one scientific phenomenon is what students will remember beyond the tests and what will foster a lifetime of curiosity, questioning, and arguing with evidence. 

First, cover the surface
State science standards that cherry-pick from physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering often feel to both teachers and students like being dropped into the deep end. With your head just an inch above the waves, it’s hard to see where you are going or how to get there. To make the minutia more manageable and more meaningful, many new standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards, bundle facts and explanations around core ideas that give coherence to the disciplines. These big ideas help students make sense of seemingly isolated or esoteric facts. 

Covering the big ideas through lectures or reading can be punctuated with engaging discussion protocols and other instructional techniques that help students go deeper into the material. Well crafted notecatchers, close reading lessons for scientific text, science notebooks, protocols like the chalk talk or interactive word walls, and student-engaged assessment techniques are ways to put students at the helm, steering their own learning even as they skim across a great deal of content. 

Second, pause and dive deep
Preparing to be college and career-ready scientists (as opposed to just learning some science), however, takes more than even a carefully plotted voyage across the surface. “Students need experience solving problems the way that scientists do, by experimenting in the laboratory, gathering evaluating and interpreting data; constructing explanations and arguments; and communicating information” (Berger, Woodfin, and Vilen, 2016)[1]. Knowing when to stop the boat and dive deep is a strategic and important instructional decision. 

When 10th grade biology teacher Eric Levine from the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts, was considering a way to enliven and illuminate the broad topic of genetics, he decided to take his students on a deep dive into the science of disease-resistant bacteria. Students paused within the big frame of genetics and natural selection to spend four weeks investigating the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their own school. Then they used information from articles they read and discussed, as well as data they’d collected themselves, to construct scientific arguments about a solution to the problem. You can see Levine’s students thinking and speaking like scientists as they present their evidence and their arguments in a seminar-like science talk.

Interestingly, the three guiding questions that form the prompts for Levine’s students’ science talk parallel a cover-the-surface-then-dive-deep progression: 

  1. Is antibiotic resistance a global threat? 
  2. What do our own data tell us about the problem? 
  3. What can scientists, politicians, and the public do about it? What do the experts say? What does our own data say about a solution? 

Students talk first about what they know from reading background information, describing the global threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Then they dive deep into what they can prove from their own experiments and data. And finally, they resurface, data in hand, to synthesize their conclusions and offer solutions. This iterative process is what scientists do over and over again throughout their professional lives--identifying problems, reading the literature, investigating empirically, and then adding their evidence and perspective to the scientific debate. 

Levine’s students put those same habits and skills into practice. 

  • They reviewed the literature to understand the problem and contextualize research in a broader field 
  • They designed valid data collection methods 
  • They compared, analyzed, and evaluated data for reliability 
  • They drew inferences and conclusions 
  • They supported their claims with evidence to a broader community 

Levine’s study is a great example of how a deep dive into a narrow topic that illuminates big ideas integrates both the content standards of science and the process standards--the habits of scientific thinking and the skills required to “do” science. While state tests often privilege the content standards, the process standards are the currency of college- and -career readiness. Because the surface information was anchored by the deep dive, students persevered with challenging genetic concepts (e.g., “horizontal gene transfer”), mastered scientific vocabulary, (e.g., “validity and reliability”), and conducted original research. 

Students like these who think, speak, and act like scientists are much more likely to one day become scientists and scientifically literate citizens. Toward that goal, it’s worthwhile to chart a new course in your science scope and sequence, pausing strategically as you cover content to dive into a narrow investigation, so that students can experience the fascinating depths of science. 

[1] Berger, R., Woodfin, L., and Vilen, A. (2016). Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.