A Framework for Science Education: Updates to K-12 Science Standards

Back when I was at the AAAS conference I mentioned one of the panels discussing a project being done by the National Research Council or NRC (a division of the National Academies) to update recommendations for K-12 science standards. The draft of this report was released last week, and the NRC panel is accepting comments from the public until August 2nd. I’ve written up my thoughts about the current draft below.

To start off, I admit I’m not very familiar with current standards, so after reading this report I also took a brief look at the standards of two states relevant to me, Washington and Colorado. While these were chosen fairly arbitrarily, they turned out to be good representatives of the changes the NRC is hoping will be implemented. Washington’s standards were revised last year, and have already incorporated many of the ideas that are being suggested in the new report. On the other hand Colorado’s standards had minor updates most recently in 2007, but are otherwise based on the previous recommendations that were put out in 1995. Seeing these standards after reading the new report and the Washington standards makes clear the need for changes. The Colorado standards are basically a list of various facts about different topics students are expected to know at different times through the course of their education. While these ideas are important aspects to learn, there is little attempt to form connections between the items or put things in context.

In the process of updating it’s recommendations, the NRC panel’s goal was to form the different aspects of science education into “a coherent vision”. One way it did this was by presenting the standards in terms of “Learning Progressions” which describe how later levels would build on the knowledge gained at earlier stages. While this may seem a somewhat superficial aspect of presentation and layout, it was very effective at describing how people are likely to learn these concepts. The Washington standards method of organizing all the different areas by age level was harder to follow and was was even more confusing in the introduction where it outlined the overall standards, but presented them in a reverse order – starting with the complex ideas expected in high school, and moving to the more rudimentary ideas expected from kindergarten and first grade.

The NRC organized it’s report around what it calls three dimensions:

1. Core Disciplinary Ideas – This is where the basic facts of science are described. This section overlaps with an equivalent section in Washington standards and with three of the five Colorado standards for Life Science, Physical Science and Earth and Space Science. However the updates try to avoid the tendency to have content be “a mile wide and an inch deep” as the report describes it. This is exemplified by the lists of concepts in the older Colorado standards, which reach almost 20 ideas for each of the three areas at the high school level, but give these ideas no context. Instead the new standards are organized into a few “Core Ideas” that are key to the different areas. While at first, these concepts seemed a little vague and undefined, when they are flushed out later in the report it seems clearer that very few concepts don’t fit in these categories and it can serve as a framework for learning new concepts both in school, as well as after people finish their formal education. While I might quibble over some of the details, as a starting point it seems reasonably effective.

In addition to the three areas in the Washington and Colorado standards, a unique aspect of the NRC recommendations is to include Engineering and Technology as an additional category of equal focus to the other areas. At first I was somewhat skeptical of this idea, and a little nervous that it could encourage the thinking of science in terms of it’s applications and undervalue basic science. However they seemed to have organized it in a way that I think actually can be effective at countering this attitude, by identifying how a scientific approach is modified for working within the kind of constraints needed for a particular application, while still requiring similar types of thinking. The bigger concern I have now is wondering how big of a shift in school curriculum would be required to include this content.

2. Cross-Cutting Elements – These are ideas are not specific to any particular branch of science, but instead applicable to all forms of science. These ideas were present in a  form in the older Colorado standards, but are much more developed in the newer Washington standards and the NRC recommendations. While the two newer sets of standards treat this category a little differently, I think the Washington standards did a better job than the NRC of presenting these ideas. The Washington standards kept the concept from the Core Ideas dimension of organizing standards under three umbrella ideas that it called Systems, Inquiry and Application. On the other hand a wider range of concepts is described by the NRC.  The Cross-Cutting Elements the NRC identified were:

  • Patterns, Similarity and Diversity
  • Cause and Effect: mechanism and prediction
  • Scale, Proportion and Quantity
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter: flow, cycles and conservation
  • Form and Function
  • Stability and Change
  • Science, Engineering, Technology and Society (which was broken down into further subcategories)

I see the value of these concepts, but the report was less clear in describing how they should be implemented, and by having so many concepts it gets away from the idea presented in dimension 1 of a few key ideas. The NRC report was somewhat lacking in it’s description of the progression of learning these concepts compared to the other two dimensions.

An additional aspect I thought might be of value is cross-cutting concepts that are less abstract, and more content based. There are several areas in the specifics of all the core ideas that could apply to additional fields, for example:

  • Use of energy by life connects the the Life and Physical Sciences,
  • How evolution has been affected by geologic events connecting Life and Earth Sciences
  • How the development of technology has been dependent on basic science, as well as leading to new opportunities for discovery.

I think some of these connecting Core Ideas could have been given a little more prominence to show how science isn’t several independent fields, but interconnected. Though looking at this now, I am thinking at least in some cases this may be more of how these elements should be implemented, rather than needing to be additional ideas to add.

3. Scientific and Engineering Practices – This area was given less explicit treatment in the Washington standards though generally fits within the Inquiry Cross-Cutting Element, but made up a significant part of the two Colorado standards not related to a specific discipline. However the nature of the practices seems to have shifted some in the newer report. The NRC report describes these practices as:

  • Asking Questions
  • Modeling
  • Devising Testable Hypotheses
  • Collecting, Analyzing and Interpreting Evidence
  • Constructing and Critiquing Arguments
  • Communicating and Interpreting Scientific and Technical Texts
  • Applying and Using Scientific Knowledge

Again, I got a little bogged down reading through the details of the different categories here, but I think it was more justified in this section, than in dimension 2. One thing I liked about the skill section was it emphasized skills beyond simple data collection and analysis, and drew attention to how the data is integrated into a larger picture and communicated to others. I’ve found these dimensions were generally missing from my K-12 science education, and often even in undergrad curriculum, so it was nice to see it given more prominence here.

An aspect that was good to see in the Washington standards was an explicit connection to the math standards, which were listed as footnotes where ever they might be relevant. While I understand the NRC report focused on the science side, seeing this in the Washington standards served as a good reminder for how connected math and science standards are likely to be when they are actually put into place.

While there were some areas that seemed to be incomplete or need more description (which is to be expected since this is still just a draft), in general I like the direction the new standards seem to be moving. I also think the framework of Core Ideas and Cross-Cutting Elements that was presented could be effective beyond just the K-12 science education, and could be useful for presenting college level course work as well.


One thought on “A Framework for Science Education: Updates to K-12 Science Standards

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Draft Science Education Standards Framework « Science for All

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