Science in the Elementary School Classroom—Post NCLB
by Lori A. Smolleck - September 07, 2007
No Child Left Behind has generated numerous discussions about the current status of elementary school science. As such, this commentary will discuss the impact NCLB may have on the teaching and learning of science in our elementary classrooms. In addition, the author argues that NCLB can be viewed as a catalyst for improving the quality of science education.
Over the years, I have been privileged to observe in many elementary classrooms. As a result, I have come to discover that in this world of high stakes testing resulting from the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the teaching and learning of elementary school science has become almost nonexistent within our elementary school classrooms. Given that the majority of testing pressures are mostly applied to reading and mathematics, schools have prioritized reading and math instruction over science instruction, and other content areas as well. In most schools, if I am lucky enough to see a science lesson being taught, it is usually taught at the very end of the day with whatever time may be left over before the school buses arrive. This time is consistently very minimal and typically does not reflect current reform efforts associated with science education. More often than not, I see students engaged in reading exercises that require rote memorization of terms and definitions that are isolated from the real life experiences of these children. Given that these exercises typically take place during a time when childrens attention has already dwindled and they are more focused on the arrival of the school buses that can be seen through the classroom window, the amount of learning that is actually taking place is minimal at best.
Although this picture seems to reflect the current status of elementary school science, I am left wondering what will happen to our science classrooms now that NCLB will require a standardized test in the areas of science beginning this year. Will schools see this as a way to improve the quality of science instruction in elementary classrooms? Will schools increase the amount of instructional time currently devoted to the teaching of science? Will the teaching of science become reacquainted with the way science is actually done? Personally, I believe that educators can choose to view this new assessment as a journey toward great improvement.
One starting point for improving the quality of science instruction is to begin utilizing current reform documents, including the state and national standards, which mandate the inclusion of inquiry-based teaching and learning practices. Inquiry-based teaching and learning practices require children to become independent learners. Through inquiry-based learning, children apply the elements of scientific inquiry by generating questions and designing investigations to discover answers. As such, children apply a variety of process skills such as, observing, classifying, predicting, inferring, identifying relationships, forming explanations, developing hypotheses, planning and implementing investigations, etc. Teaching science as inquiry can begin to remove current practices that focus on the memorization of knowledge rather than discovery of knowledge.
Although much research exists to prove the validity, as well as the academic benefits of inquiry in the science classroom, it has yet to become a prevalent feature within our elementary schools. This could be a result of the fact that most teachers have not had experience teaching or learning science as inquiry. Although this may be the case, planning for inquiry instruction is not a task that should be abandoned as hopeless. The notion of inquiry has existed for numerous years and dates back to the early 1900s with John Dewey. More recently however, the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996; 2000) outline what is involved with teaching science as inquiry. Inquiry engages children in investigating questions in an attempt to find answers. Along the way, children discover evidence to support or refute their ideas and/or claims, then compare what they have learned to what is already known about science. In the end, students share their results with their peers and evaluate their own discoveries in light of other student discoveries. Adjusting the science curriculum to including inquiry-based learning experiences will enable children to simultaneously learn the processes of sciences, as well as content knowledge associated with scientific skills, concepts and phenomena. Furthermore, by engaging in inquiry learning, children develop and refine their problem solving skills, as well as their critical thinking skills. These inquiry-based practices will begin to restore the innate curiosity and excitement that children naturally have toward science. Inevitably, this knowledge and excitement for learning science will translate into success on the state assessments.
Given the fact that mandatory testing for reading, math and science will be required, children will be expected to meet adequate yearly progress in each of these content areas. As such, adequate instructional time will need to be provided for each subject area. This reality will necessitate the restructuring of the elementary school day nationwide. Because inquiry-based teaching and learning requires a bit more time than is typically provided for science instruction, administrators will need to set aside more time for teachers to teach science during the school day. A logical place to begin this restructuring is to provide equal amounts of instructional time for science, reading and math. Due to the fact that the newly implemented science assessment will be administered beginning in grade four, waiting until middle school/junior high school to offer equal amounts of science instruction is much too lateit must begin in the early elementary years. This additional time for science instruction will not only allow our children to experience and succeed in science, but will also assist them in building knowledge that will be useful in other content areas as well. I am hopeful that the days of science only being taught during the final minutes of the school day will become a thing of the past.
Although planning for inquiry-based science will require a change in daily routines, and may require teachers to revisit their current teaching practices, inquiry in the classroom allows for both successful teachers and students. Furthermore, by employing inquiry-based teaching practices, teachers will encourage children to explore their curiosities in an attempt to find explanations for their questions, rather than require students to memorize lists of terms, definitions and formulas. Our school systems are doing our elementary children a disservice by not exposing them to the wonders of science. Science is all around us, and children are naturally inquisitive. Anyone who has spent time with a young child can tell you that a childs natural instinct is to question everything within the environment. What better way to encourage this inquisitiveness than allow them to participate in the processes of science as a means for uncovering the answers to their endless array of questions?
Inquiry has proven effects on academic achievement. If we allow more time for inquiry-based science instruction within our elementary schools, we are likely to meet the standards required by NCLB. By doing so, we may also begin to repair the disconnect that currently exists between the way science is actually done and the way science is being taught within our elementary school classrooms.
National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.