We frequently hear statements like this: "We teach earth science in 6th grade." While assertions of this nature are now so common and entrenched in the educational tradition as to avoid question by most educators, that shouldn’t be the case. Because again, what happens if a student wasn't there for 6th grade? What if a student was there but they had some home issues or personal issues? In a one-and-done unit, that student has missed their chance to experience this entire facet of science learning, and indeed, of our world.
Or what if the 6th grade teacher normally responsible for teaching that earth science unit goes on maternity leave? That means when those students get to 8th grade, their understanding of rocks and minerals and earth science is the result of a long-term substitute. That’s not good. But beyond that, there are a lot of reasons not to do things the way that they have been done, because these approaches have directly produced many of the issues that the Next Generation Science Standards are trying to solve.
The real problem is that science has often played 3rd tier to ELA and to math, but this is backwards thinking. Science and engineering are actually fantastic platforms for deeper ELA and math skills, and for applying both subjects in the real world. If you want students to be able to engage in technical writing and communicate with precision, you need a context and venue for that.
The sad truth, though, is that our classrooms aren’t currently set up to meet NGSS expectations. When a school sets aside 5% or 15% of their budget and spends it all on ELA and math workbooks and nothing on science, that creates a situation in which it cannot be properly taught. When districts give $100 to each teacher to buy whatever they want for a year’s worth of science, the result is the same. You're not going to get anywhere. Unfortunately, under these new standards, these problems are going to be thrown into sharp relief. We’re going to see a new low.
Because here’s the bottom line: downloadable reference resources, reading from textbooks or learning through “physical manipulation” (which is often nothing more than hands-on play) are all very shallow ways to teach science. This isn’t to offend anyone, and the teachers here at KnowAtom have been guilty of this ourselves in years past; when you don't know any better or when the standards don't require anything different, then what really is the difference between having students walk around and listen for sounds versus planning an investigation and actually gathering data that's relevant to the idea? It might be hard to tell.
Now, however, the new standards are in place, and we need to take a different approach. We need to look differently at challenges such as budgeting or the way we form IEPs. Teachers need to be truly dissatisfied with taking their own money using their own time in finding materials, and trying to make it work.