Friday, April 24, 2015

Scientific Practices: A Big Shift in Our New Standards

Kentucky's new science standards bring a giant shift toward science and engineering practices.  Eight  major practices are to be applied across physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Those practices aren't an alternative to content knowledge: students will still need to read, write, study, and thing about scientific insights developed over centuries and those emerging now from current research.

Instead, the practices demand that the content knowledge move off of the textbook page (out of the lecture notes, beyond the PowerPoint slides) and into active thinking and work.  Each page of the standards begins with statements that "students who demonstrate understanding can" do specific things.  As illustrations, the middle school standards say call for students to be able to "undertake a design project to construct, test, and modify a device that either releases or absorbs thermal energy by chemical processes" and "analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem."

For student learning, that will require a big realignment to focus on puzzling through big issues and practical applications and building increasingly skilled use of each practice.  For example, with Practice 1 (asking questions), students may start with open-ended puzzling about phenomena they've observed, but then they'll need to learn to move smoothly into focusing their inquiries on testable questions. For Practice 3 (planning and carrying out investigations), those questions will need to be framed in terms of variables and controls.  The standards also provide progressions from grade to grade, so that students develop expertise over the years--but even the youngest are involved in regular, lively work to develop rich insight into the natural world.

In turn, for the community at large, this shift in science expectations creates a new puzzle: what kind of evidence will show us that students are developing those practices?  It seems hard, probably impossible, for machine-scored tests to give us real insight.  If we want to know how students are doing, we may indeed need to find innovative ways to check on this deeper learning.  To succeed, we may have to take on very active roles in defining problems (Practice 1), designing solutions (Practice 6), and making arguments from evidence (Practice 7).

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