Creating a New Understanding of Science Education

By Discovery Education

A teacher surmises that educators need to rethink science instruction to help stoke students' curiosity and prepare them to use their knowledge 

By Ted Willard, Discovery Education

At some stage in every teacher’s life, they reach a point when they feel like they should write a letter of apology to the students they taught early in their career, and I am no different. I can remember how, in my first few years teaching physics in North Carolina, I tried to help my students understand Newton’s laws. Not knowing any better way to do things, I would stand at the front of the room and tell kids what each of Newton’s laws was and then provide examples that would show the kids that what I was telling them was accurate. Students just had to sit there and passively listen to me.  Students would often be able to repeat back what I had said in class or on a test, but they didn’t show a deep conceptual understanding.

At the time, I was brand new to teaching, and had not yet mastered the skills to elevate and present Newton’s concepts in a way that would make them both accessible and interesting to my students. I didn’t give students the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that my students’ eyes glazed over in boredom and disinterest, and that’s why I feel I should send them letters of apology. I know now that I had not yet cracked the code that all good teachers eventually crack: the one that helps them connect students to their inherent curiosity about the natural world around them.

Now more than ever, as education leaders, we need to help every teacher learn to crack that code and connect students to their inner curiosity about scientific ideas.  Recently, Discovery Education launched a new initiative called Keeping You Connected to Curiosity, which is designed to help educators bring curiosity in science alive for students everywhere.  While initiatives like this are incredibly helpful—especially in a world where science is sometimes ignored to disastrous consequences—we need to rethink science and science instruction so that our students grow to be both curious about the sciences and prepared to use their knowledge to improve our world. 

I propose the following five statements as the education communities’ basis for a new understanding of science education:

  1. All students can learn science.  

Science isn’t just for some students; it is for all students. For much of history, science was the realm of a few privileged students who were considered the best and the brightest. Science education groomed only these select students for careers in science and engineering, skewing what society saw and thought of scientists. All too often, these judgements had more to do with students’ race, gender, and class than they did with students’ readiness to learn.  

A closer look at the history of science shows that all students can meaningfully engage in science, if they are given the opportunity to do so. The key is to ensure that science instruction is both equitable and accessible. In an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, we must seek high levels of participation in the learning—and the eventual doing—of science, from all parts of society.  

  1. Students learn best in science when they are making sense of phenomena that are relevant to them.  

Science education has long focused on explaining ideas to students. While seemingly obvious, this default practice has had some negative consequences. For most students, this led to cramming those ideas into their short-term memory and regurgitating them on a test. Research has shown that, for most students, this does not result in long-term building of the knowledge and processes of science. In the last two decades, much more effective strategies have been developed.  

The key is a shift from having students focus on learning about a topic to figuring out how or why a phenomenon takes place. With the phenomenon in focus, ignite investigative curiosity to build long-term, accretive understanding. As long as students consider the phenomenon to be relevant, the process of making sense of that phenomenon can drive student learning. Students engage in the Science and Engineering Practices foundational to those of actual scientists, while developing a solid understanding of Disciplinary Core Ideas and Crosscutting Concepts because they need them to make sense of the phenomenon. In short, make science stick with students by making it relevant.

  1. Science learning is essential for students’ success in life, and for the well-being of society.  

We live in a world where science and technology have huge effects on our individual lives, and society more broadly. People regularly face questions that require an understanding of science, from personal issues such as data privacy and gene therapy to global threats such as pandemics and climate change.  

Students need a strong science education to aid them in their personal lives, their careers, and their roles as citizens. In addition, given the rate of advances in science, it is now no longer sufficient to leave high school simply knowing a set of scientific principles. In our ever-changing world, students need to graduate with a set of intellectual tools that allow them to be lifelong learners and solution seekers.  

  1. Science is both a body of knowledge and a process for generating new knowledge.  

For decades, science textbooks have treated science purely as a body of knowledge, their pages filled with descriptions of what scientists have figured out about the world—and often little else. There have also been attempts in science education to focus purely on the process of inquiry. Yet, neither of these approaches alone addresses the full richness of science.  

In the last decade, science education has embraced the idea of science having multiple dimensions. In their work, scientists engage in multiple sets of practices, such as asking questions, analyzing data, and constructing explanations. In the process of doing so, they develop new understandings about the world. Some of those ideas fit neatly into the disciplines of physical science, life science, as well as Earth and space science. Other ideas cut across multiple disciplines.

To turn the students of today into the solution-seekers of tomorrow, science education needs to cultivate student learning of both the knowledge and the processes in ways that span disciplines and drive interaction.

  1. Student learning in science builds over time.  

Like most good things, science learning takes time. What students learn at any given time should build upon what they have learned earlier in their education and provide a foundation for what they will learn later. Good instruction takes advantage of the “funds of knowledge” that students have. Instruction should be carefully sequenced according to learning progressions so that students can acquire new learning in manageable pieces. This need for progressions applies not only to Disciplinary Core Ideas, but also to Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts.  

If the education community can join together to accept these statements as our new, shared, understanding of science education, I believe we will fundamentally reposition science as we know it. Gone will be the days of glazed eyes at the mention of Newton’s Laws.  Instead, our classrooms will be full of bright-eyed students leaning forward in their seats, connected to their inner curiosity and ready to create a better, safer world.  

Ted Willard is Discovery Education’s Senior Science Content Expert. A former classroom teacher, Ted is now a nationally recognized Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional learning authority.  Prior to joining Discovery Education, Ted served as the Assistant Executive Director at the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA).

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.

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two girls conducting science experiment