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Content Assistance vs Science Practice Guidance

If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Some say this old adage comes from Uganda, but many experts disagree. I, on the other hand, cannot stop thinking about wiggling worms and my father’s failed attempt to teach me to fish. In any case, this old saying is a great place to start when discussing why we, at Inq-ITS, focus on the science practices rather than the content standards.

Let’s take a quick walk through the history of the NGSS Science Practices and quite frankly, any state that is referring to Inquiry or the “Nature of Science”. Most recently, the Science Practices stem from the NRC’s “Framework for K-12 Eduction”. If we step back even further, we can look at James Conant’s work in the 1940’s and 50’s. Given the current state of confusion in and around the process of science, the writings of James Conant deserve our attention.

Conant says: “…The remedy does not lie in a greater dissemination of scientific information among nonscientists. Being well informed about science is not the same thing as understanding science, though the two propositions are not antithetical. What is needed is methods for importing some knowledge of the tactics and strategy of science to those who are not scientists” (Conant, 1951, page 4).

You can read more about the history of the Science Practices and James Conant’s work on the Next Generation Science Standards site.

It is imperative that we teach students how to conduct science. Students do not need to memorize the first 20 elements in the Periodic Table, but they need to understand a few key concepts about the scientific process.

  • We need to have a testable question/hypothesis and then we gather data to support or refute the hypothesis. As we gather more data, we may go back and support or refute a previous hypothesis. This process doesn’t alarm scientists, but rather, it is the norm. We need our students to have a working knowledge of that process of gathering data to support or refute a hypothesis and make a new claim.

  • One trial does not support a question/hypothesis and we must teach our students how to conduct investigations and gather data in order to support or refute their hypothesis and make a new claim.

I always liked to start off my school year with an airplane lab designed to teach the process of science while also reviewing measurement. I would encourage my students to add a staple or a paperclip to one version of their claim so they could test how the addition of weight would impact their plane. My students would overwhelmingly make a hypothesis suggesting that the addition of weight would result in a doomed flight. However, the addition of a paperclip actually provides stability and the plane would fly straight and much farther. Starting off in this manner allowed my students to become used to the idea that it is ok to refute your hypothesis and make a new claim.

Within the Inq-ITS system, we are scoring students according to their ability to make a testable hypothesis that is aligned with the goal. We do not expect students to have a correct understanding of the scientific relationships. Thus, when a student refutes a hypothesis and supports their new claim with evidence, they can get a perfect score with a hypothesis that was scientifically inaccurate. We must work to help all non-scientists to understand this process of gathering data and stating new claims. We know these practices transfer to more difficult topics and other science domains, but they are also critical thinking skills that will stay with our students far beyond graduation.


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