Taking Science to School: NRC Recommendations for K-8 Science

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Publication date: 
20 December 2006

As reported in FYI #142, a new National Research Council report critiques current K-8 science education practices. “The emerging understanding of how children learn science in kindergarten through eighth grade paints a very different picture of the science learner than existed 20 or 30 years ago,” the report states. Yet too often, it finds that “the instructional and curricular approaches currently used in classrooms do not reflect this emerging understanding of children as competent learners who can engage in scientific tasks throughout their schooling. Instead, current approaches are often based on now outdated knowledge about cognitive development and misunderstanding of its implications concerning how to design instruction for young and novice learners.”

Based on the most recent research on learning and cognitive development, the report proposes a new framework for proficiency in science, based on four interwoven strands (see FYI #142). It then makes the following recommendations for reforming K-8 science education, including teacher professional development:


RECOMMENDATION 1: “Developers of standards, curriculum, and assessment should revise their frameworks to reflect new models of children’s thinking and take better advantage of children’s capabilities.”

RECOMMENDATION 2: “The next generation of standards and curricula at both the national and state levels should be structured to identify a few core ideas in a discipline and elaborate how those ideas can be cumulatively developed over grades K-8.”

RECOMMENDATION 3: “Developers of curricula and standards should present science as a process of building theories and models using evidence, checking them for internal consistency and coherence, and testing them empirically. Discussions of scientific methodology should be introduced in the context of pursuing specific questions and issues rather than as templates or invariant recipes.”

RECOMMENDATION 4: “Science instruction should provide opportunities for students to engage in all four strands of science proficiency.”

RECOMMENDATION 5: “State and local leaders in science education should provide teachers with models of classroom instruction that provide opportunities for interaction in the classroom, where students carry out investigations and talk and write about their observations of phenomena, their emerging understanding of scientific ideas, and ways to test them.”


RECOMMENDATION 6: “State and local school systems should ensure that all K-8 teachers experience sustained science-specific professional development in preparation and while in service. Professional development should be rooted in the science that teachers teach and should include opportunities to learn about science, about current research on how children learn science, and about how to teach science.”

RECOMMENDATION 7: “University-based science courses for teacher candidates and teachers’ ongoing opportunities to learn science in service should mirror the opportunities they will need to provide for their students, that is, incorporating practices in the four strands that constitute science proficiency and giving sustained attention to the core ideas in the discipline. The topics of study should be aligned with central topics in the K-8 curriculum.”

RECOMMENDATION 8: “Federal agencies that support professional development should require that the programs they fund incorporate models of instruction that combine the four strands of science proficiency, focus on core ideas in science, and enhance teachers’ science content knowledge, knowledge of how students learn science, and knowledge of how to teach science.”

The report identifies “Critical Areas for Research and Development” in the following areas: Learning Across the Four Strands; Identifying Core Ideas and Developing Learning Progressions; Curriculum and Instruction; Professional Development and Teacher Learning; Evaluation and Scale-Up; and Diversity and Equity.

Of Diversity and Equity, the committee “is unanimous in emphasizing the pressing need to understand the sources of inequity in science education and to identify strategies for eradicating these inequities.” It declares that “all students, regardless of background, have the capabilities needed to engage with and be successful in science.” However, “given the scope of this study and limited time, the committee was unable to undertake a thorough review” of this topic and generate conclusions or recommendations. Instead, the committee identifies this as one of the “critical areas for further research.”

As indicated in FYI #142, the entire 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 http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11625.html either as a prepublication copy, a pdf download, or downloaded by individual chapters.