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Learning That Lasts: Chapter 3: Creating Scientists and Historians

How can great teaching prepare students for the professional world of scientists and historians?

Deeper instructional practices in Science and Social Studies ask teachers to think about the big picture of their content in order to determine what big ideas are important for students to learn. These big ideas frame the curriculum, giving shape to engaging case studies, authentic fieldwork, and compelling tasks.

In Chapter 3 of Learning that Lasts, we explore classrooms where students survey the surface of a content area and also take a deep dive in science or social studies to investigate one issue, one place, or one scientific phenomenon. The deep dive inspires students to remember their learning beyond the end-of-course test and fosters a lifetime of curiosity, questioning, and arguing with evidence.

Students need experience solving problems the way scientists and historians do—by experimenting in the laboratory or investigating in the field; gathering, evaluating, and interpreting data, constructing explanations and arguments; and communicating information. from Chapter 3, Learning that Lasts

Learning Targets

  1. I can explain how to organize  science and social studies curriculum around rigorous standards and big ideas.
  2. I can describe content-area instructional strategies that engage and empower students.
  3. I can connect content-area projects to disciplinary ways of thinking that prepare students to do real-world science and social studies.

Review and Try it: Bundling Standards to Match Big Ideas

As Harvard Professor David Perkins reminds us, “Big ideas and disciplinary frameworks are what allow students to make sense of the facts they encounter” (p. 123 of Learning That Lasts). For science and social studies teachers, this means it’s important to identify the standards in their disciplines that, when bundled together, drive the big ideas home to students. We encourage teachers to organized their curriculum around big ideas that will allow them to both survey the landscape of the discipline AND slow down to dive deep into a narrow topic.

Review the table below that shows how big ideas are related to specific standards, topics, and learning targets. Then make your own table and try to bundle your own standards to match a big idea that you want students to remember beyond the end-of-course test. As you work to connect the standards, big ideas, and learning targets, consider the following questions:

  • Which standards are my biggest priorities because they hold the enduring concepts students will need to know for tests and beyond?
  • What is the essential learning I want students to hold on to for years to come?
  • What learning targets along the way will give students an opportunity to grapple with the big ideas and construct their own understanding?

Read and Apply: Scientific and Historical Ways of Thinking

The “In Practice” section of Chapter 3 in Learning that Lasts explains specific, evidence-based ways that scientists and historians think about the world and their subject matter. By focusing on these ways of thinking, teachers can create lessons and assessments that teach students to think and act like scientists and historians.  

Review the instructional strategies for each “way of thinking” below. Then select 1-2 ways of thinking and consider how you will embed these new ways of thinking into your unit or lesson plans.

Asking Questions:

  • Frame a case study with questions
  • Give students opportunities to grapple with complex, strategic questions
  • Insist that students support their answers with evidence in writing and discussion
  • Prepare text-dependent questions in advance to support literacy instruction

Analyzing Data:

  • Provide authentic data sets as “texts”
  • Challenge students to interpret data and to recognize when data are valid, reliable and significant, and when they are not
  • Analyze the limitations of data
  • Encourage students to ask new questions based on data
  • Team with a mathematics teacher to catalogue, calculate, organize, and present data provided by the content area topic

Conducting Research:

  • Identify research that really needs to be done, and that connects to required academic standards
  • Invite professional researchers and scientists to lead students
  • Establish teams of students with clear roles, responsibilities, and accountability
  • Evaluate research procedures for validity and reliability
  • Use professional formats for reporting research

Designing, Critiquing, and Revising:

  • Establish a culture of growth in which “success is sweet, but mistakes are good food”
  • Identify real problems in your community that need fixing
  • Establish teams with clear roles, responsibilities, and accountability
  • Teach critique workshops and peer feedback protocols

Communicating Through Models:

  • Teach lessons that invite students to think by analogy and to use words and pictures to describe natural or historical phenomena
  • Teach students to compare and contrast parts of a system, to analyze cause and effect relationships, and to evaluate what makes things work or not work
  • Identify the criteria for a “good” model by critiquing functionality, authenticity, and detail
  • Evaluate the limitations of a model
  • Use a model to generate data, predict results, or test a system’s reliability

Generalizing and Drawing Conclusions:

  • Guide students through a structured process of inferring from data—questioning the experts and drawing their own conclusions
  • Provide opportunities for students to read, think, talk, and write about contemporary and controversial issues in science and social studies
  • Teach the history of scientific and historical “truth,” demonstrating how theories have shifted over time as evidence has unfolded or been re-examined
  • Create opportunities for students to defend their thinking before authentic stakeholders

Watch: Using Primary Sources to Challenge and Engage Students

Scientists and historians are precise and critical readers of primary sources. They ask questions as the read: What happened? What does this data mean? Who cares about this information? Why was it written this way and who was this document written for? Chapter 3 of Learning That Lasts describes how teachers can also use primary documents with students to help them understand and appreciate varied perspectives in history and interpretations of scientific data.

Watch the videos Analyzing Perspectives through Primary Sources, Part 1 and Analyzing Perspectives through Primary Sources, Part 2. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  • How does close reading enable these students to understand perspectives different from their own?
  • How do the reading lessons enable students to construct strong evidence-based arguments?

Read and Watch: Doing School in the Real World

Students benefit greatly from real-world investigations outside of the classroom or in the company of experts who come into the classroom to work with them. Fieldwork, as differentiated from a field trip, is an opportunity for students to apply their learning in an authentic way and learn the tools of the discipline. While fieldwork can sometimes be messy, it teaches students the problem-solving process, as students are actively engaged as researchers in gathering information or data that they will use back in the classroom. Similarly, experts can be invited into the classroom to teach about a topic, work alongside students to make sense of their collected data, or give feedback at a critical moment in the journey toward creating a high quality product.  

Read the case study about Eric Beck’s biology students on pp. 136-139 of Learning That Lasts then watch the video: Thinking and Speaking Like Scientists through a Science Talk. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. How do students use their own research to support their speaking like scientists?
  2. How does the teacher’s focusing question push students to connect their learning to the real world?

Watch: Developing tasks that are challenging, engaging and empowering

Scientists and historians work collaboratively. They are constantly debating ideas, reading further, giving feedback and writing about what they learn. In order to engage and empower students to see their own work as purposeful and valuable beyond the classroom, the task we give them should be similar to one that scientists and social scientists in the real world perform.

Watch the videos Scaffolding Research‐Based Claims with Sixth Graders, Part 1: Making Research‐Based Claims and Scaffolding Research‐Based Claims with Sixth Graders, Part 2: Staying on Track and on Target to see how a task engages students in doing the work of historians. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. What evidence do you see that students are engaged in a challenging and complex task?
  2. How are students acting as historians?

Dig Deeper

What’s Hard about Teaching Science:  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.

Hot Button Topics: Learn how to cultivate productive discussions about challenging topics in your classroom by using norms and protocols that make it safe for students to argue with evidence

Helping Students Read and Think Like Scientists: Scientists are continuously reading and writing within their field. Read to learn how you can embed these practices into your own classroom.

Science and Social Studies Projects Featured at Models of Excellence: The Center for High-Quality Student Work  Explore science and social studies projects on the Models of Excellence website.

In the Classroom, Facts Still Matter: Why Teaching Students to Use Evidence is More Important Than Ever: This article from Teachers College Record makes the case for preparing students to become citizen scholars who are capable and confident in using credible evidence from text.


For Teachers…

  1. What obstacles are you facing in making decisions about where to go deep, and where to ‘survey’ the field? Collaborate with a colleague to identify promising case studies that fit your schedule and explore big ideas.
  2. How can you enhance your case study with fieldwork, meeting with experts, gathering data, and an authentic assessment?
  3. How are you supporting and engaging students with primary and secondary source materials? If you are not using them yet, how might you embed more texts into your curriculum?

For School Leaders…

  1. What are the structures and supports to help teachers to unpack the big ideas of their disciplines and align them to required standards and assessments?
  2. How can you design the daily schedule to allow for fieldwork, experts and extended time for assessments/projects?
  3. What supports are in place for teachers to find and use primary and secondary sources (other than textbooks)?