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Dis-covering Content

posted Aug 4, 2015, 7:18 PM by Mark Schober   [ updated Aug 4, 2015, 8:18 PM ]
One of the criticisms I hear of Modeling Instruction and other student-centered, inquiry-based teaching approaches is that they’re “slow” and they “don’t cover much content.” It’s true that I don’t “cover” all of the topics for any of the standardized tests. I’m also mindful that “cover” means “to hide or obscure from view”. I would prefer that my students use the tools and techniques of science as a means of dis-covering key science content.

It’s not that the instruction in my class is slowed down, it’s that my students are practicing and learning a lot of non-content skills, such as designing an experiment, interpreting and analyzing data, and defending their conclusions based on the evidence they have gathered. It’s important in Modeling Instruction to advertise these process skills as part of our daily objectives so that our students, parents, and administrators are cued into the intellectual richness at the heart of our classes.

The Next Generation Science Standards includes a list of science and engineering practices that are to be at the heart of STEM education. (I made up the colored chart based off of one made by an Arizona school.) These skills are far more important than memorizing the periodic table or doing plug-and-chug physics problems. The science and engineering practices are non-trivial, aspirational objectives that need to be put in reach for all of our students, and the genuine engagement in the scientific process will go a lot further towards turning kids on to science than another page of notes copied off of a Powerpoint presentation. As the breadth of scientific knowledge grows, it is essential that we equip our students to do science and to know how to learn science.

Teaching approaches that try to touch on every topic in the book do so at the expense of science process, much in the way that reading the Cliff’s Notes on Pride and Prejudice fills you in on plot and themes, but does little to get you excited about Austen’s gift for unveiling personality and motivation through narrative. Yes, students who have “covered” the book may be able to answer all of the multiple choice questions on a standardized science test, but do they know science as merely as a collection of facts and formulas, or as a creative human endeavor to understand the world? Will they be dutiful followers of directions as they enter the workforce, or will they be the innovative leaders who create, anticipate, and make a difference? The Next Generation Science Standards make it clear that students do need to be fluent in key science content, but there is nothing in the NGSS that pushes us to “cover” volumes of material at the expense of the practices.

So what are kids dis-covering in my class? Physics – yes, a bit less breadth than the standardized tests assess, but with enough depth that the students leave really knowing it. Additionally, my students have meaningfully engaged with the science and engineering practices and are working towards developing the really critical skills they need for success in the era of easy access to information. Keep that list of Science and Engineering Practices posted where you can refer to and plan from it frequently, and have fun helping your students to dis-cover science.