A New Model of Science Curricula and Instruction

According to a synthesis of a large volume of classroom research, here’s what is happening in classrooms:

  • Science argument is rare in classrooms but central to science; teaching focuses on recall rather than model-based reasoning
  • Classroom norms (teachers and textbooks provide answers) are in tension with building scientific models from evidence
  • Curricula and standards are a mile wide and an inch deep
  • Layout of standards is based on grade level rather than science-concept relationships
  • Modules/kits are common but remain discrete and disconnected

How do these findings make you feel? A little uncomfortable? The reform effort associated with science education has been around for quite a while, but the traditional view of teaching is alive and well. In this article, we are going to examine science education from the what, when, and how perspectives and talk about resources that support a reform view of teaching and learning.


Have you ever questioned the scope and sequence you are responsible for teaching? For example, have you ever considered that maybe some science topics are not as important as others? As such, which then should be taught? When? And in what sort of sequence? Can we think in terms of our teaching assignment only and be maximally effective? We know that even if the science topics are being taught in the order prescribed by the district curriculum plan, students can still lack conceptual understanding and scientific habits of mind.

What if we stop teaching topics and instead identify a few core science concepts? The core concepts then are addressed at every grade level in increasingly sophisticated contexts (which might accommodate a variety of topics, but the topic focus does not supplant or overshadow the core concept it is meant to illustrate). Within these contexts students act as scientists — doing science, conversing about science, engaging in verbal and hands-on scientific inquiry, using logic, drawing conclusions, and deriving meaning and understanding.

Let’s consider:

  • Decreasing the number of topics presented, focusing rather on a few core concepts in science (the What)
  • Developing a research-based learning progression (the When)
  • Facilitating science proficiency so students acquire scientific habits of mind as well as process skills and content knowledge (the How)
Most of what we are covering comes from Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, a report from the National Research Council published in 2007. The entire report is available in PDF format and free for download. Although the text is not exactly easy reading, the foci of the report are important.

The charge to the study committee was…

  • What do we know about how children learn science?
  • What does this mean about how we should teach science?
  • What further research is needed?

The key findings were…

  • Students in grades K-8 can do more in science than is currently asked of them
  • Science standards and curricula contain too many topics and give them equal emphasis
  • Science classrooms typically provide few opportunities for students to engage in meaningful science
  • Good science teaching requires more than expert knowledge of science content

The commonly held view that young children are simplistic thinkers is outmoded, the report adds. Studies show that children think in surprisingly sophisticated ways. Yet much science education is based on old assumptions, and it focuses on what children cannot do instead of what they can. All children have basic reasoning skills, personal knowledge of the natural world, and curiosity that teachers can build on to achieve proficiency in science.

Students should have a wide variety of learning experiences in science classes, the committee said. Those experiences should include conducting investigations; sharing ideas with peers; talking and writing in specialized ways; and using mechanical, mathematical, and computer-based models. Science should be presented as a process of using evidence to build explanatory theories and models, and then checking how well the evidence supports them.

These are things that you probably already know intuitively and struggle with. For example, you know you ought to be providing more authentic opportunities for students to do science, but how? Where is the time? Where are the resources? How do we train students in the socially acceptable approaches to doing science collaboratively?


Another important outcome of the committee’s work was defining science proficiency. Students who understand science:

  • Know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world
  • Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations
  • Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge
  • Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse

The four strands are interwoven in learning. Advances in one strand support advances in the others. The strands emphasize the idea of “knowledge in use” – that is, students’ knowledge is not static and proficiency involves deploying knowledge and skills across all four strands. Students are more likely to advance in their understanding of science when classrooms provide learning opportunities that attend to all four strands. All K-8 education should offer students opportunities to engage in the four strands of science proficiency.

Being proficient in science means that students must both understand scientific ideas and demonstrate a firm grasp of scientific practices. The report emphasizes that doing science entails much more than reciting facts or being able to design experiments. In addition, the next generation of science standards and curricula at the national and state levels should be centered on a few core ideas and should expand on them each year, at increasing levels of complexity, across grades K-8. Today’s standards are still too broad, resulting in superficial coverage of science that fails to link concepts or develop them over successive grades, the report says. Teachers also need more opportunities to learn how to teach science as an integrated whole — and to diverse student populations.

The report emphasizes the need to remain mindful of the relatedness of the four strands; none is stand-alone, none is independent. An analogy: Newton’s laws of motion are discrete, but no real-world situation of motion exhibits only one of these laws exclusively. All are present and working in any situation of motion. After instruction in motion, we expect students to be able to describe motion in terms of all three laws, simultaneously.

So how can a classroom teacher teach in a way that does not compartmentalize the strands inappropriately? What are the implications for science teaching and learning? How do you imagine science teaching, learning, and assessment would change if the goal is to have students who are growing in their science proficiency?


Resources for the What

Among what-to-teach resources, here are the two biggies traditionally used – the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). Each has its strengths and weaknesses but still provides a good place to start. In the end, a decision about what to teach probably should be made by committee in consideration of the local district’s context and culture. Taking Science to School acknowledges there is not a finite list of “core concepts” to be covered, although the Benchmarks list might come closest.

Resources for the When

Once the core concepts have been identified, then the learning progression must be articulated. The AAAS Atlas of Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2001) and NSDL Science Literacy Maps resources are informative but not prescriptive. Again, the decision probably should be made by committee in consideration of the local district’s context and culture.

Resource for the How

Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms (National Academies Press, 2007) summarizes the findings from Taking Science to School and other research and builds detailed case studies to make the implications of the research clear, accessible, and stimulating for science educators. The case studies illustrate core concepts, learning progressions, and science proficiency; encompass the “what and when” in a holistic way, rather than compartmentalizing science content separate from process skills; and convey how teachers facilitate science proficiency. Discussion questions are provided for each chapter.

Most of the case studies are based on real classroom experiences and illustrate the complexities that teachers grapple with every day. They show how teachers select and design rigorous and engaging instructional tasks, manage classrooms, orchestrate productive discussions with culturally and linguistically diverse groups of students, and help students make their thinking visible using a variety of representational tools.

Ready, Set, Science! provides guidance on the what (core concepts), when (part of a learning progression), and how (attending to the four strands of science proficiency).

But what about “why,” as in Why should we change practice? All the resources we’ve mentioned here talk about the why. Research suggests that traditional teaching approaches produce, at best, short-term learning and often fail to bring about lasting, deep conceptual understanding or change. Let’s work on going from…

teacher-centered, passive, fact-based, competitive, fast-paced, broad . . .

to . . .

student-centered, active, discovery oriented, collaborative, facilitative, thorough and deep!

This article was written by Kimberly Lightle. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright June 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.


One thought on “A New Model of Science Curricula and Instruction

  1. from my view, I think science should be looked at from a “process” perspective and not as content.
    this is due to its dynamic nature. science knowledge cannot be explained explicitly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *