By Joe Savrock, Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK – A recently released National Research Council (NRC) report presents a new framework to guide K-12 science education. The report, titled “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas,” calls for a shift in the way science is taught and learned in the United States.
Penn State faculty member Deborah C. Smith is an appointed member of the NRC committee that contributed to the report. The 18-member committee, which consists of experts in science education and scientists and engineers from a variety of disciplines, sees the need for significant improvements in how science is taught and learned in the U.S.
The framework builds on the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993), the 1996 NRC “National Science Education Standards,” the “Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress” and the “Science College Board Standards for College Success” (2009), as well as on years of research on teaching and learning science.
In an interview published last fall, Smith said the earlier standards “were a good start on identifying important scientific ideas and inquiry practices. Now that we have some perspective on those standards and how they’ve been used, and lots more research about students’ science learning, it was time to rethink a more up-to-date framework.”
In a recent webinar, offered jointly by the NRC and the National Science Teachers Association, presenters discussed the new framework’s three core dimensions — scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, disciplinary core ideas. The framework will serve as the foundation for new K-12 science education standards, developed and coordinated by the nonprofit educational organization Achieve Inc., in collaboration with a small group of states who will adopt them for state science standards.
“The new framework is designed to help students gradually deepen their knowledge of core ideas in four disciplinary areas as a coherent developmental progression over multiple years of school, rather than the acquisition of shallow disconnected knowledge of many topics,” said Smith. The framework specifies core ideas in life sciences; physical sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology and the applications of science that the committee recommends all students should understand by the time they finish high school. In each of these areas, the report provides progressions of initial to more sophisticated understandings of core ideas across the K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grade bands, given what is known from research.
The committee also strongly emphasizes seeing science and engineering as a set of practices (for example, engaging students in planning and carrying out investigations, in developing and using models, and in using argumentation from evidence to make claims) rather than a single, linear “method.” The authors describe developmental progressions in students’ uses of these practices and in their understandings of how they contribute to making scientific and engineering knowledge.
In addition, the framework identifies seven crosscutting concepts, such as “cause and effect” and “stability and change,” that have explanatory value across much of science and engineering. According to the report, these concepts should be taught in the context of core ideas from the disciplines of science, with teachers and students using a common language for them across disciplines, so that students understand how the same concept is relevant in many fields. Crosscutting concepts, says the report, should be woven into science and engineering as students progress from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Given the years of research on science teaching and learning, both in classrooms and elsewhere, we have a much clearer vision of children’s amazing capacities for authentic participation and understanding in science and engineering, when given appropriate environments that encourage and support them,” said Smith, assistant professor of science education. Her own research has revealed how kindergartners, in a classroom in which these practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts were embedded, can develop scientific discourses and practices, use evidence from their investigations to make claims, evaluate competing explanations, and design tests to resolve conflicts.
The impact of the framework is likely to be far-reaching, and not only in developing new national and state science standards. The committee also strongly states that issues of equity and diversity in access to and support within excellent opportunities to learn science and engineering are paramount in making sure that all K-12 students can learn. In addition, the design of K-12 science and engineering curricula that engage students in the three dimensions will be an immediate challenge. Similarly, the committee emphasizes that the development of authentic performance assessments (some examples of which are given in the report), perhaps shared in consortia across states, will be a critical factor in implementing the framework’s vision. The report reviews the status of current research on such curricula and assessments. It also provides recommendations for needed research in several areas, including teacher education as well as professional development with boards of education, administrators, and teachers.
“For example, our Penn State science teacher education programs already embed much of what the framework recommends, because our faculty are deeply involved in policy, research, and work with teachers on many of these issues,” Smith said. “There are great opportunities for collaborative research and development here in Pennsylvania.”
Smith is collaborating with Tyrone (Pa.) Elementary School to explore how teachers and children can create the kinds of science and engineering learning opportunities recommended in the report.