CSTA Classroom Science

All Means ALL

My colleagues and I have been working with a lot of teachers who are in the early stages of NGSS implementation. Once instruction begins to shift, there are some fascinating student reactions. Students typically become highly engaged very quickly and enjoy the shifts they are experiencing. Given enough time, although students will admit to feeling empowered, some show frustration upon realizing the onus of the learning is on them. This is often because a classroom that is student-centered, phenomenon-based, and three-dimensional flips the student experience 180° and students aren’t always comfortable with or understand what’s expected of them.

There’s one group of students that just might struggle the most, I’m going to call them the insiders. The insiders have figured out school. These students know how to make you light up by saying just the right vocabulary word. They are good listeners that catch all of your insider tips and hang on to your every last word. Insiders can anticipate an assumed direction even if it’s not written on the test. Astonishing memorizers. This can be a hard shift for some insiders because it may be novel to experience academic challenge. It’s really different to have a teacher not “tell” everything but instead encourage students to investigate, ask questions, and expect students to record their understanding and be confident in the knowledge they are producing.

Then there’s another group of students, I’m going to call them the outsiders. There are many different kinds of outsiders but the important thing to remember is that something about them is different from the insiders.

I’m an outsider. Did I ever tell you that before?

Growing up, I simply didn’t thrive in most educational settings. A leftie forced to write with a right-handed tilt, smearing my EraserMate ink, constrained by binder rings. A number transposer and over thinker on multiple choice tests. A different social and economic reality from the vast majority of my peers. A person who struggles to process the endless stream of VERBAL swirling around at a million miles per hour. An insightful, but slower processor. I’m actually really surprised I landed in college and made it out the other end. Some of the other outsiders I knew didn’t make it. I’m even more surprised I picked science which seemed to be the epitome of insider education. It was the Mt. Everest I had to conquer… my Mom tried to talk me out of it a bunch of times. Fortunately, though, being an outsider, I learned to persevere through challenges.

Going back to an education setting couldn’t have been further from my mind until I met a truly remarkable educator early in my career. She showed me that the outsiders had a profound capacity for learning and provided meaningful contributions to science. Inspired by her, I decided that science education was for me. I actually had to fill out an outsider petition to get back into the system. I distinctly remember one day, in my secondary science methods course, when we all had to line up according to some sort of “intelligence” and I was the only one left standing alone on one side of the room far away from my peers clumped together on the other. For me, it was pretty obvious that I was an outsider although the others didn’t really seem to notice, as by then I figured out the system enough that I could masquerade as an insider.

I’ve now come to understand that the old education system I grew up in favored the opposite of me. It was designed to find the best insiders. The cream of the crop. They would be the ones that would beat the Soviets, conquer space and weapons, and dominate the business world in the tallest of skyscrapers. In fact, so many of us have been so programmed by this that we’ve lost sight of the cultural value of science, that it’s not about a body of facts to be memorized, but is instead a social endeavor with a specific and narrow set of rules that seeks to explain the world around us.

The world around us, by the way, is changing rapidly. Many of the questions being asked in science today are more complex than ever before. Different kinds of innovation and skills are needed that can only be gained by leveraging both insiders and outsiders. Old premises, that fly in the face of what we now understand about how students learn and the real value that diverse learners bring to educational experiences, are being seriously challenged.

This has prompted universities to change. It may be slow going, but it’s happening. Those of us who work with masters and postdoctoral students are witnessing first-hand changes in the way instruction is approached at the university level. This is having a lingering effect when some enter into full-time faculty positions, their teaching now grounded in pedagogy that was absent in my days as a college student. It’s rubbing off on established science faculty too. In fact, we have worked with professors who now build a conceptual flow to help outline a course, who routinely build in small group discussion time into large lecture hall classes, who are even participating in a book study on the recently released, How People Learn II.

We are recognizing the need to understand and value science as a process and way of thinking that explains our world. The only way to accomplish this is to provide students with first-hand experience in doing it – not just reading about it. And the doing it isn’t just confirmational. It’s critical for students to have regular opportunities to grapple with messy uncurated data, traverse the edge of uncertainty and confidence of conclusions based on empirical evidence, model complex relationships between components of a system, and engage in discourse on the tentative nature of knowledge but also that science produces a collective body of knowledge we can be confident in. It’s not just the graduate and postdoctoral students of the world who should be privy to this.

Adjusting to changing times, K-12 classrooms are changing too. Enter: NGSS. The shifts called for in the NGSS are intentional to provide the tangible experience of doing science to build a body of scientific knowledge in our students. It leverages the fact that all humans are scientists and have the capability to observe, wonder, engage in sensemaking, and generate knowledge. All means ALL. That very essence makes it a game changer.

As this transition begins to take place in classrooms, of course, it can set the stage for creating confusion and even frustration among the insiders and outsiders as the clear boundaries that once defined them now dissolve.

We are very lucky to learn from other teachers who have discovered that there are numerous benefits to teaching with the NGSS. There is great motivating power in connecting students with first-hand experiences of understanding what science is and how it works. There are reasonable solutions to challenges students may experience as shifting takes place. With expectations of increased discourse and sensemaking, these solutions come in the form of teachers offering appropriate supports. This includes the power of attending to positive class culture, encouraging growth by providing supports along the way (such as discussion scaffolds and norms, utilization of notebooks, being clear about expectations up front by providing rubrics), making science locally and culturally relevant for students, knowing the type of question to ask when a student gets stuck, being mindful to not create barriers to learning in the classroom, and calling a parent the day any gain is made by a student who has been struggling with the transition. There are even more specific strategies to be utilized when supporting students that receive special education services. All of this can help students and move their understanding and comfort forward.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is really believe that ALL students can learn. Be empathetic to the old insiders adjusting to what feels like having the rug pulled out from under them. Be sure to explicitly welcome the old outsiders in. Be inclusive. Put students in positions where each can see value in the unique learner frame that each brings to the table and that such collaboration allows for more complex work and learning to happen. The world needs all bright minds working together. It’s up to us to make sure there are no more insiders and outsiders, but instead, a diverse and innovative community of science thinkers in our science classrooms.



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Jill Grace

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director at the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd and President of CSTA (2017-2019).

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