Since 2013, 40 states (including Washington D.C.) have adopted standards informed by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and/or A Framework for K-12 Science Education (Framework). These standards were developed based on years of research into not only what content students need to become informed, science-literate citizens, but also research into how students learn science best.
At EdReports, we recognize that this big shift in science standards must be accompanied by high-quality, aligned instructional materials to support teachers in the classroom. This is why we spent the past year reviewing middle school science programs and evaluating how well-designed these materials are for the innovations of the NGSS and components in the Framework such as the “three dimensions” and “phenomena-driven instruction”.
We put together a short guide to accompany our science reports highlighting three ways to identify if you’re using high-quality science materials in your classroom.
3 Features of High-Quality Science Materials
1. “Phenomena don’t have to be phenomenal” but they should be intentional.
Phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe that students can explain or predict with their knowledge of science. Tides, sunrise, leaves changing color, and the way dew collects on grass are just a few of the many examples of phenomena.
Phenomena-driven instruction can transform classrooms into places where students’ curiosity and wonder are the foundation for learning, where building knowledge is centered around understanding the natural and man-made world around them, and where kids are honing the investigative skills of scientists that can benefit them no matter what path they ultimately choose.
But what separates average instructional materials from great ones is that the best materials are purposeful when presenting phenomena. They connect the phenomena students are exploring to the core science ideas and concepts students need to learn.
Chemical reactions often make impressive phenomena, but students need to be able to explain what caused the color to change, or what caused a gas to be released, or how the number and types of atoms were conserved during the reaction. Without opportunities to collect data or analyze information about the reaction to build these explanations, the reaction serves as nothing more than something interesting to see.
It’s easy to pick out all sorts of engaging phenomena to wow students, but if phenomena are only used to capture student attention, taught in isolation, or are irrelevant to students’ experience, we’re missing a huge opportunity.
Instead, these questions are at their best when students investigate them as a way to engage in science and engineering practices or to identify larger patterns and connections on their way to a deeper understanding of science content. In short, the content students must master should always guide the choice of phenomena, not the other way around.
2. Students have opportunities to do the thinking, questioning, designing, and discovering for themselves
The phenomena we choose matters, but so does the way students engage with those phenomena. We must be wary of materials that do the work of students for them, explaining phenomena too readily or presenting content as a series of facts and terms for students to memorize.
For example, we should shy away from content that simply shows students a video of an eclipse to generate interest then immediately follow this video with text that describes how an eclipse occurs. Instead, students should have opportunities to generate their own questions and ideas about the cause of an eclipse, and then engage in opportunities to model or test their own ideas as they make sense of this phenomenon.
Quality materials provide common entry points and opportunities for students to ask their own questions, collect their own evidence, and construct their own explanations connected to science content.
What’s more, well-designed materials offer structures that support kids in thinking like scientists: in identifying patterns so that they can understand cause and effect relationships, in digging deeper into systems and models to test ideas or develop explanations based on the data they’ve collected and the knowledge they’ve been building.
The research shows that students are most likely to excel when they are engaging in science rather than just learning about it. The best materials support teachers in creating classrooms where students are not simply passive recipients of facts, but active participants in constructing their own knowledge.
3. Learning objectives are meaningful and connected to the standards
As educators, we all understand that the lessons and units we’re teaching students have bigger learning goals attached to them: goals for the day, goals for the week, goals for year. The materials you’re using should display that same level of understanding and connection to those larger learning goals, and the standards students and teachers will ultimately be held accountable to.
In examining science materials, it’s a good idea to take a look at how the learning objectives are presented to both the teacher and the student. It should be clear how each objective relates not only to the performance expectations but to the larger standards for a particular grade-level or grade band. Assessments play a role here as well: how students are evaluated must be directly connected to what the materials present and the knowledge kids are spending their time building.
Teachers and students will be in a much better position if materials are clear about how each learning objective is connected to the bigger picture. Programs can offer many different pathways for meeting the standards, but those paths should be evident to the ones guiding and participating in the learning.
The Support Teachers and Students Deserve
We know that instructional materials are not the silver bullet. But we also know that materials can make a difference in what and how students learn. Teachers who will be inspiring the next generation of science leaders deserve the support of great content that provides exciting, intentional opportunities for kids to explore the natural and man-made world and develop a deep understanding of how it works.
I believe that only through working together can we ensure all students have access to science education that will prepare them to be citizens who can make informed decisions and leaders who can work together to discover and develop solutions to our most urgent challenges.