NRC Report Finds Much of Current K-8 Science Teaching Outdated

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Publication date: 
20 December 2006

A report on K-8 science education, released in September by a National Research Council committee, charges that most science instruction in schools today is based on outdated research of 30 to 40 years ago. It offers a framework for the next round of reforms, based on the latest understanding of how children learn and what they bring to the classroom, a narrowed focus on the main ideas in science, improved preparation and professional development for teachers, and better alignment across all aspects of the instructional system.

Faced with “the looming mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act that states assess science beginning in the 2006-2007 school year,” and the fact that “U.S. students fare poorly in comparison with students in other countries,” the Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade of the NRC’s Board on Science Education reviewed over a decade of reforms in science education and the latest research on learning and cognitive development. In the foreword, Board Chair and Physics Nobel Laureate Carl Weiman and Board Director Jean Moon write, “This report brings together research literatures from cognitive and developmental psychology, science education, and the history and philosophy of science to synthesize what is known about how children in grades K through 8 learn the ideas and practice of science. The resulting conclusions challenge the science education community, writ large, to examine some tenacious assumptions about children’s potential for learning about science and, as a result, the priority of science in elementary schools.”

The report acknowledges that even young children can think in sophisticated ways and that each brings an individual understanding of the natural world into the classroom. It argues that teachers face a false dichotomy between teaching content and teaching process skills, and that both should be replaced by four broad, intertwined “strands” of science proficiency. It calls for curriculum, instruction and assessment to be aligned, and focused on fewer, more central ideas in each discipline rather than “a mile wide and an inch deep.” To achieve successful instruction, it says that teachers, both pre- and in-service, need an adequate understanding of their subject matter, effective methods for teaching it, and familiarity with the most recent findings on how students learn. The report also identifies several critical areas for further research.

“The commonly held view that young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers is outmoded,” the report declares; “research shows that children’s thinking is surprisingly sophisticated. Yet much current science education is based on the old assumptions and so focuses on what children cannot do rather than what they can do.” It adds that “Development is not a kind of inevitable unfolding in which one simply waits until a child is cognitively ‘ready’ for abstract or theory-based forms of content.” Effective instruction, the report says, “capitalizes on the leverage points” and “addresses potential areas of misunderstanding.” It should entail “sequences of designed, strategic encounters between students and science. Any given unit of study may include episodes that are highly teacher directed as well as structured student-led activities.”

The committee summarizes its conclusions as follows:

“Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, much of which is implicit.

What children are capable of at a particular age is the result of a complex interplay among maturation, experience, and instruction. What is developmentally appropriate is not a simple function of age or grade, but rather is largely contingent on their prior opportunities to learn.

Students’ knowledge and experience play a critical role in their science learning, influencing all four strands of science understanding.

Race and ethnicity, language, culture, gender, and socioeconomic status are among the factors that influence the knowledge and experience children bring to the classroom.

Students learn science by actively engaging in the practices of science.

A range of instructional approaches is necessary as part of a full development of science proficiency.”

As a framework for curriculum and instruction, the report proposes the following four interrelated strands of proficiency.

“Students who are proficient in science:

1 know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world;
2. generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations;
3. understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and
4. participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.”

The report’s recommendations will be covered in FYI #143.

The report, “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” runs more than 200 pages. It can be purchased online from the National Academies Press at either as a prepublication copy or a pdf download, or it can be purchased and downloaded by individual chapters.