One of the highlights of Northeastern University researcher Dr. Tracy L. Waters’ review of fourth and fifth grade science classrooms using the KnowAtom curriculum is a shift in both teaching methods and belief in what students can achieve together. Dr. Waters evaluated classrooms using Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) led by teachers who had been teaching the KnowAtom curriculum for at least two years and who ranged in teaching experience from 2 to 25 years.
According to KnowAtom co-founder Francis Vigeant, the hands-on science curriculum is designed to shift the cognitive-load in the student learning process from teachers onto students. By giving students a more hands-on leadership role in their own learning process, KnowAtom puts teachers in the position of coach and facilitator, rather than lecturer. Students are given more flexibility to discover and learn concepts on their own. In Waters’ study, teachers reported a shift in their own understanding of the different processes, practices, and ‘correct answers’ that can result from collaborative science investigation.
This ‘release of responsibility’ was one of the hardest things to achieve in the change to next generation science instruction, the study’s teachers reported. Each acknowledged spending less time lecturing in front of the classroom, in some instances reporting that 60% of time pre-KnowAtom had been spent that way. Teachers also said that giving students a greater voice resulted in more engagement and cooperative learning. Administrators acknowledged major changes in teaching practices as well, reporting that “the biggest change… seen in the teachers is with letting go and moving the control over to the students, allowing students to struggle just enough, and then coaching them toward understanding.”
One of the ways teachers gave students a stronger leadership role in the classroom was engaging them in Socratic seminars. By engaging students in reflective discussions of their own understanding of key concepts, the KnowAtom curriculum helps strengthen 21st century career skills, including critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. In addition, students accomplish more reading and writing in the science classroom, use vocabulary words in context, and model concepts in real life situations, rather than just memorization and recall.
One fourth grade teacher shared that she uses prompts called sentence frames provided by KnowAtom like “I’m wondering” or “I’m also thinking” to help spur student discussion when it stalls. Using the Socratic method also helped her students “learn to wait their turn” as they actively participated in classroom debates. Teachers who admitted they had been fearful at the start of using the new curriculum, especially of giving students more responsibility, reported feeling amazed and astonished at how much the students accomplished together, including thinking of ways to solve problems that the teacher would never have considered.
Another study participant engaged in KnowAtom's science professional development and shared her method for encouraging active student participation in classroom discussions. This teacher chose half of the students for an inner circle and half situated outside in a larger circle. The students selected for the inner circle came prepared to report on specific topics, with the outer circle prepared to ask questions. Together, the students led the discussion, generated active dialogue and investigation into core concepts, and discovered new ways of thinking about concepts together.
Implementing the KnowAtom curriculum also resulted in more collaboration with colleagues, according to one study participant. This teacher reported reaching out to literacy colleagues for help improving her own instructional methods on teaching nonfiction texts. Introducing reading and writing activities into her science classroom was not something she had trained for or experienced before implementing KnowAtom. After implementing it, she shared “KnowAtom has wonderful books, great vocabulary, really good investigations, excellent open-response questions, helping [students] prepare for their writing. It definitely has the science, technology, engineering, and math. It just covers everything.”