There are many competing demands on class time. Structures and strategies for integrating and prioritizing science can support this work:
1. Establish science as a priority.
2. Be flexible with schedules--reconsider "fidelity."
3. Be flexible with required reading.
4. Interdisciplinary units can equal effective learning.
5. Develop teachers.
6. Use time efficiently.
7. Do less testing.
8. Provide high-quality instructional materials and supplies.
1. Establish science as a priority. When professional development support only goes to math and reading, that’s what teachers will feel more comfortable doing. Ideally, which subjects are linked to accountability should not set our priorities, what we feel is best for children should determine our priorities. Science engages students, provides a real-world context that supports their retention of other concepts and skills, builds their ability to make informed decisions and judgments, and helps to build their identity as a "STEM person" before it's too late.
2. Be flexible with daily schedules--reconsider "fidelity." Teachers often say that they have to spend x number of minutes on math, reading and writing every day--following prescribed materials and guidelines from a canned program provided by the district. There isn't strong enough research evidence to narrowly use many instructional materials with “fidelity,” particularly when the cost is damaging teacher motivation and professionalism. Generally, fidelity studies are conducted in areas where variables are vastly different from your site: student populations are different, professional learning is different, teacher backgrounds are different, school structures are different, etc. These studies also sometimes use assessments that test fairly simple skills designed to match what was taught in the materials in the way it was taught--not necessarily in a way authentic to real-world thinking and skills. It's essential to ask how much these assessments truly reflect your district's vision for student learning. If you can build up quality evidence that a program is working, that is much stronger ground to stand on. An article from the Carnegie Foundation notes that results in fidelity studies “tell local actors nothing about whether it will work reliably in their specific context or what it might take to actually accomplish this.” Though a few years old now, an AERA published study found that proper research methods to determine fidelity were not effectively established.
3. Be flexible with required reading and writing. In some elementary science workshops, teachers have said that they wouldn’t be able to read the book Oil Spill during their reading time. They can only read the books required within their curriculum. Teaching science content by reading relevant, non-fiction books during reading frees up science time to not be more literacy, but to actually be used for hands-on science activities. Furthermore, students need multiple lenses for looking at and working with texts - one important lens is reading, analyzing and writing like a scientist.
4. Interdisciplinary units can equal effective learning Teachers report that they can no longer teach the large-scale, interdisciplinary units. The set math, literacy and writing curriculum did not allow for those types of connections. As these units go away, so goes a lot of the passion for learning and teaching. Students pick up on teachers' passions. A clear scope and sequence from K-12 is very important, but it can still allow for many paths to learning the content and gaining the skills. Teachers can readily use interesting phenomena in their communities to connect to student interest and their own passions, within the frame of a K-12 continuum of learning – a win-win situation.
5. Develop teachers. If teachers are uncomfortable teaching science, they won’t feel so bad about skipping it on occasion to do some extra mathematics or reading. Teachers need support in using and/or designing quality interdisciplinary units, particularly those that involve real-world problem solving. Teachers don’t need to be trained with the goal of having all the answers for students (impossible anyway). They just need to be comfortable saying, "I don’t know, let’s investigate that together," and then be able to structure those student explorations. Specialized training is necessary though, as effective work in science can be significantly different from math and ELA. Take writing, for example. The Wisconsin ELA standards emphasize elementary "opinion" writing, whereas science emphasizes argumentative writing using evidence. A recent article by Dr. Okhee Lee stresses how the language we use in describing student work is critical to consider.
6. Use time efficiently. Occasionally, time is not used effectively in transitions and in waiting for others to finish. When students finish work early, or there are a few minutes before the next transition, teachers sometimes have educational games and books for students. But, they could also have bins of exploration materials. Encouraging creative and unstructured exploration time to fill in time gaps benefits students of all ages. Materials in these baskets could include building-related toys, robotics, packaged STEM kits from curriculum companies, probeware, etc. Using these materials, however, doesn't equal STEM education; that requires authentic integration of those subject areas. There is a tendency toward allowing more student use of electronic devices during flex time, a decision which requires careful consideration.
7. Do less testing. Districts are realizing that testing practices can take up more instructional time than they should. If you’re not getting a real sense of student thinking and conceptual understanding from a test, it’s not something to spend extra time on. Within a framework of standards-based grading (which is fortunately the norm for most elementary schools), ongoing formative assessment is much more important than large-scale tests. Teachers should be using well thought out common assessments across a grade level and talking about results and subsequent action plans. Such a framework is much more effective than another round of standardized tests.
8. Provide high-quality instructional materials and supplies. Science materials really do not have to be expensive. Just going outside with a notebook can produce great science learning. Basic materials can be requested from parents, asked for as donations from local stores or businesses (parents/PTA could direct this collecting), or applied for through grants. Elementary teachers frequently do not have the expertise to develop their own science-based units or time to scour the web for high-quality lessons linked to their standards. Districts (or consortia of small districts) need science experts to support that type of work. Be cautious though; simply providing teachers with kits or instructional materials is not effective (and many such resources don't align to research-based science practices). Teachers need considerable time to learn and collaborate around using science materials innovatively and effectively.