Science specialist Lacey Wieser offers advice for educators selecting new curriculum.
There are many reasons why learning about science in early childhood education is essential—and the COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted the importance of science in understanding the world around us. At its core, science provides the answers to many of the questions that young children ask. Right now, kids are asking questions about viruses and how to stay healthy which is a natural outcome of a child’s curiosity. As young children grow and explore their surroundings, the more they will learn about and develop an interest in science.
A quality science education has far-reaching benefits. Science helps children develop vital life-skills such as problem-solving, communication, and research. Science experiments aid literacy and language development through expanding vocabulary through written observations and processes. Science also teaches children not to take information for granted by helping them to separate fact from fiction.
These skills are the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and components in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (Framework). EdReports spent the past year reviewing K-5 science programs on how well-designed these materials are for the innovations of the standards such as the “three dimensions” and “phenomena-driven instruction.” These reports offer key information for educators to better understand the quality of available science programs to support districts while considering options.
To ensure that all students have access to strong science content we’ve put together six questions to consider as you begin your materials adoption process.
No matter what grades you are selecting for, one of the most important considerations when adopting any new science materials is whether or not the program is designed for the innovations in the NGSS and the Framework. These standards were created to inspire a love of science learning while students explore and investigate the world around them.
Quality materials to support these standards provide students with the opportunity to ask questions then truly make sense of what they are learning as opposed to the teacher giving them the questions and making sense of the learning for them. Materials designed for the three dimensions and phenomena-driven instruction also offer a space for students to analyze data, conduct experiments, or design models while making connections through crosscutting concepts to build their science skills and knowledge.
Most materials published within the past five years have some digital components available either in the core package or as an additional purchase. Regardless of format, all materials require support for teachers to ensure that the content is delivered well—this includes how to translate the content to an online experience.
When deciding whether or not the science materials you may adopt will support your district in a time of remote learning, there are several key points of consideration:
EdReports offers a detailed technology checklist to support districts in examining current materials or new materials you are adopting that can shed light on many of these questions.
One key difference we see between elementary science and middle school science is the amount of instructional time that’s allotted for each. In middle school, it’s safe to assume at least a 45 minute class period every day. For K-5, instructional time varies widely from district to district. Some schools offer daily science (30-45 minutes per day) while other schools offer it far less frequently (half an hour once a week) due to local priorities related to English language arts and math. With COVID-19 closures and remote learning implementation, time allotted for science might have been significantly impacted.
This range has big implications for which materials are adopted and how materials are used in the classroom. As you consider which materials are right for your district, factoring in local instructional time is key. How much instructional time is required by the program, and how does that amount of time compare to what is allocated in your district? Does the program provide options or suggestions for "required" activities that are essential for learning versus "optional" activities that could be dropped if instructional time is limited?
Elementary school is both exciting and challenging because students are learning foundations in multiple content areas, including math and literacy, as well as science. Materials designed for the NGSS are sensitive to these demands and often put in connections to college and career-ready ELA and mathematics standards (and EdReports actually looks for these connections as part of our review for usability).
However, standards-aligned programs are not all the same, and ELA and math materials (even those from the same publisher) are not necessarily created in conjunction with science ones. Therefore, it’s up to the educators selecting new materials to think through the compatibility of the curricula teachers are using in classrooms, especially in terms of sequence. Otherwise, there is the possibility that science materials may introduce a math (or ELA) skill before the math curriculum does.
Ultimately, even if the programs are not perfectly in sync, having at least a measure of congruence can be a big support to teachers and have a positive impact on implementation. Simply the awareness that conflicting content can arise is an important understanding for the student experience.
One of the biggest differences between K-5 and 6-8 NGSS standards is that elementary standards are written at the specific grade-level (e.g. skills that are explicit to kindergarten or first grade) versus grade-band (a block of skills that can be learned in any order throughout the middle school years). For middle school, states determine the order of students’ knowledge building and content. For example, Arkansas 7th graders might focus on understanding matter and chemical reactions while in Georgia these same topics are not addressed until 8th grade.
Grade-level specific standards create a number of challenges and considerations for districts. For example, the Framework might note that a specific learning should be mastered by the end of 2nd grade while the NGSS note that students should master the performance expectation within the designated school year.
This means the process and time allotted for mastering that specific learning can vary from curriculum to curriculum. It is important for districts to look at what the materials are actually having students do, particularly around whether there is scaffolding of the science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts within the year and from year to year. Understanding where your students are and your local priorities is key to making decisions that will speak to the needs of your kids and allow them to build a strong science foundation.
Districts must often make choices about new materials based on local priorities and available resources. We have encountered districts or schools who will adopt a science program but will teach modules or units in different orders because they have a limited number of materials. For example, in the first quarter of the year, materials are used in school A then, in the second quarter, the same materials go to school B.
This is a logical adaptation for districts that might not have the capacity and resources to provide materials to all students at the same time. However, it’s important to keep in mind that by reordering a program, you might be unintentionally breaking up the learning progressions (skills and knowledge increasing in sophistication) that the publisher has purposely designed into the materials without knowing what the implications will be for students. When selecting materials, districts will want to consider their situation, and depending on resources may need to consider programs that are more modular than sequenced.
Pursuing new science materials may not be top of mind right now as districts continue to adjust priorities due to unprecedented challenges. At the heart of rising to meet the difficulties of unfinished learning, as well as ensuring all teachers have the supports they need to succeed, is providing the resources that can make a difference. Whatever decisions lie ahead, adopting high-quality instructional materials and asking the right questions during the selection process can be key to building a strong foundation for students now and in the future.