Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Balance of Science Learning

A shared article in a recent issue of Science discusses the concept of science learning progressions: a continuum of really big ideas in science on which students focus their entire K-12 educational journey.
The domains of science learning

The authors postulate that science learning encompasses three domains: content (knowledge), practice (skills), and epistemology (thinking). I envision a Venn diagram wherein these three domains are represented as overlapping circles (see figure). If we were to represent the relative importance/emphasis of each domain in both our curriculum and school cultures by the size of its circle, I judge the content circle would be the largest and the epistemology circle would be the smallest. If we wish to have the domain circles all the same size—at all grade levels—what we would have to change about our curricula and our school cultures? (Put that on your staff meeting agenda!)

Attempts to expand the size of the epistemology circle would, in my opinion, engender fear, anxiety, and resistance because of myriad entrenched institutional and cultural barriers in our school systems. State tests ask (require) students to regurgitate content; teachers continue to emphasize content; students/parents/teachers are conditioned to seek only the "right answer;" students/parents/teachers resist critical thinking and problem-solving because it's too hard; progress monitoring systems spit out grades and scores ad nauseum... the list of barriers is endless.

I wish that our epistemology circle was much larger: "the process of science" vs. "the scientific method," open inquiry, problem-based learning, teachers and students as scholars, etc. To create a "culture of epistemology" (if we choose to do so) requires a massive and deliberate shift in thinking among adults, especially if we expect to see deeper thinking within our students. Otherwise, our inertia will probably continue steering us down the content pathway.

We do great things in our classrooms, but have we achieved balance among these three science learning domains?

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