Scientific Science Teaching


The Fundamental Premise

The Standards

The Learning Goals of a Lesson Plan

Goal #1: Discovery of facts

Goal #2: Reflection and discussion

Goal #3: Discussion of students' ideas

Content-Specific Learning Goals

Making the Transition to "Scientific Science Teaching"

Resources to support the transition

A Guide to Lesson Plan Revision and Development




The Fundamental Premise

Science is not a matter of learning facts.  Nor is it a matter of learning "that scientists do experiments" and then we learn what they found out (and call this "facts").  Rather, it is a combination of several "domains:"

A. Actual facts--observations about the world we live in.  The sky is blue.  Things fall when we drop them.  There are seasons.  There are mountains, deserts, forests, grasslands.  There are living things, both plants and animals, in many different environments, but different environments tend to have different living things.

B. Analysis of actual facts, including both creative linking of different observations, and developing possible explanations for why and how the actual facts are the way they are.  Why is the sky blue? Why do things fall when we drop them? Why are there seasons?  Why are plants and animals distributed in different places the way they are?  How do these things happen?

C. Assembling the possible explanations into an understanding of how the world works--including testing alternative explanations in order to rule out those that can be shown to be incorrect; discovering new actual facts as understanding grows; developing possible explanations for these new actual facts, thereby expanding our overall understanding.

In practice, these three domains are deeply intertwined, and therefore nearly inseparable.  Domain C explains why.  Understanding grows with continued scientific investigation.  In developing explanations for how the world works, and in attempting to distinguish alternative explanations, scientists and engineers create new instruments that enable them to make new observations that were not possible before.  Nonetheless, in teaching science and in learning science, it is essential to understand what is "actual fact" (observation or measurement), and what is explanation of the facts (hypotheses, theories, etc).  It is also essential to understand the link between these two, and to understand this, students must engage in this type of reasoning themselves.


Authentic Scientific Thinking, as we will call this type of reasoning, need not be complex and (probably) need not be a part of every science lesson.  It must be frequent enough, however, that students develop proficiency in this type of reasoning, so that they can distinguish between facts and interpretations.  Such distinction is a fundamental part of science, but it is also a part of many other disciplines, and of many aspects of life outside of school.  It is probably easiest to learn this important skill in science, where the fundamental core of the discipline is interpreting facts (observations, measurements, data) to develop understanding (which we then call "scientific knowledge.")

Back to top

The Standards

The Standards identify details -- pieces of Scientific Knowledge.  Even if it were possible to teach all of them in the time available, it is unlikely that students will be able to put them together and discover the important Big Ideas.  However, if students learn the Big Ideas, then they will have an understanding into which they can fit those details that they encounter.


But, what are the Big Ideas?  Until the Standards are re-phrased to identify Big Ideas and their supporting details, it is helpful to group the Standards (or, more precisely, the individual Indicators for each Standard) by relationships among them.  One way to do this is as follows:

- For each Indicator, what are some examples that illustrate the concept?

- Which examples occur under several Indicators?  These are examples that would serve to teach multiple, related Indicators at the same time.

- Are there similar examples that might bring additional Indicators into this group?

This approach enables us to sort the Indicators into "teachable units," where a smaller number of lesson plans can address a larger number of Indicators.


The Indicators that have been grouped this way address a common Big Idea.  Indicators that do not fit into such groups may uniquely address their own Big Ideas, and may need to be taught separately.

Back to top

The Learning Goals of a Lesson Plan


Important as it is to articulate the Learning Goals of a lesson plan, we argue that it may be even more important to assure that the Learning Goals include the three domains of science identified above: the "actual facts" that need to be explained, the thinking skills involved in developing explanations, and the explanations themselves (the "scientific knowledge").  Many decades' experience indicates that it is relatively ineffective to teach these three domains separately.  A lesson on scientific reasoning does not transfer understanding to "scientific knowledge" when it addresses a topic divorced from scientific knowledge itself.  Therefore, we argue that the Learning Goals should always (if possible) include:


1. Discovery of actual facts (even if "discovery" means that the teacher or other resources provide the basic observations, measurements, photographs, or other data that will be used.)

2. Students' reflection on and discussion of those facts, wherein they develop ideas that would explain those facts.

3. Consideration of students' ideas, recognizing that there may be several different interpretations, and that the available information may or may not enable us to distinguish which is more likely.


Elaboration on these three points, to illustrate their value and the Learning Goals inherent in each:

Back to top

Goal #1: Discovery of facts.


Although interpretations may change as new data come to light, the basic data--the observations--remain true.  In the early grades, much of science teaching represents exposing students to relatively straightforward observations, such as the daily changes in shadows from the sun, or the characteristics of different environments in the world, or the fact that some things float and some sink.  In later grades, many of the observations depend on measurements from instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, or DNA-sequencing machines.


We use the term "discovery" not to imply that students should discover these things through open-ended investigations.  To reach the ultimate learning goals identified in the Standards, using examples that are particularly illustrative, it is necessary to guide the inquiries carefully.  Rather, by "discovery," we mean any process in which students come upon the necessary information.  In some instances, students' experiments or activities will provide the observations.  In other instances, students may discover the information by looking in books (particularly useful for photographs of unfamiliar animals and habitats.)  In other examples, the teacher may provide the information at strategic times in the lesson.


The important point is for students to acquire and work with authentic information from which they can learn the science content.  In the long-term goal of training our students to distinguish fact from interpretation, this is the identification of fact.

Back to top

Goal #2: Reflection and discussion.


In reaching the long-term goal of distinguishing fact from interpretation, students need experience.  By developing their own interpretations, they gain this experience first-hand.  They know their interpretations are interpretations, and they know that other students' interpretations are, too.


Students will also know that their interpretations are hypotheses (though they may not know the term), and are unlikely to be "the right answer." As students discuss alternative explanations that they and their classmates have developed, they will experience and ultimately learn the process of scientific thinking.  Scientists do not know "the answer" beforehand; rather, they develop possible answers through interpreting observations.


The overall learning goals are to:

* develop understanding of the scientific process as reasoning from data

* experience the Nature of Science as an investigative endeavor, in which "scientific knowledge" is an assembly of interpretations of facts.

* develop skill in teamwork, evaluating others' ideas respectfully and honestly

* develop confidence in expressing tentative ideas (more easily done with fellow students than in front of the entire class)

Back to top


Goal #3: Discussion of students' ideas.


In developing a lesson plan by starting with the Standards, we aim toward students learning specific scientific knowledge.  It is in this discussion that we reach this knowledge.  The initial observations--the facts--when interpreted according to current scientific understanding, lead to current scientific knowledge. 


Students' own ideas may or may not converge with current scientific understanding.  Different students' ideas may differ among themselves.  This is an important feature of science: alternative interpretations are almost always available, and must be considered.  There are several directions that this discussion can lead:


1. If students' interpretations are similar, and convergent with current understanding, it would be appropriate to summarize current understanding in appropriate scientific phrasing.  This serves to link students' untrained terminology to the terminology of the field.  It also serves to confirm, in students' minds, that their data-interpretation is useful and valid.


2. If students' interpretations differ from one another, there is an ideal opportunity to engage in "scientific discussion."  On what grounds do some students favor one interpretation, and on what grounds do other students favor other interpretations?  This is the core of scientific thinking--supporting interpretation with evidence, and communicating the logic to others.


2a. If some interpretations are actually not supported by the observations, it is necessary to make this clear, perhaps by a simple form of hypothesis testing.  "Hmmm...if that's so, then wouldn't we expect XXX to happen?"  This is an ideal opportunity to model the difference between dogmatic statements (this is right, that is wrong) and scientific reasoning (this is a good idea, but perhaps the evidence argues against it).


2b. If distinguishing between alternative interpretations requires additional information not yet available to the students, there is the opportunity to introduce that information.  If the new information is appropriate for their level of learning, students may be particularly ready to hear it, as it may resolve their uncertainty. 

2c. In some cases, it may be appropriate to say, "well, we just don't have enough data to distinguish these possibilities; we'll have to wait until we learn more to make a firm conclusion." This models science as it so often works in practice, and drives home the fact that conclusions are tentative, with the possibility that new information will require their modification.


Thus, depending on the science content, the sophistication of students' reasoning skills, and the relative importance of the concepts as gleaned from the Standards, there are several different routes that this discussion can follow.  Overall, however, the learning goals are the same, to learn:


* the specific content, or "scientific knowledge" indicated in the Standards, and around which the lesson was developed

* how the evidence (data / observations / measurements, etc) leads to this knowledge

* the fundamental "discourse of science," which is the discussion of alternative explanations and the articulation of evidence-based reasoning

* that everyone can do science, because everyone has the basic problem-solving skills required, as a characteristic of human nature (this point must be learned by  experience and success, not by being told in a lecture).

Back to top

Content-Specific Learning Goals


What we describe above represents a "context of presentation" that is necessary to align the learning of science with the processes that actually comprise the practice of science.  Consequently, we have not commented upon the specific learning goals associated with the specific science content.  Every lesson will, of course, be built around these content-specific learning goals.  Depending on the nature of the specific science content, and the complexity of learning it fully, there will naturally be variations in the relative emphasis of the several domains of science mentioned above. 


Given the nature of the "crowded curriculum," and the large amount of content identified in the Standards, questions naturally arise about whether a full inquiry-based lesson is feasible for every topic.  We argue that incorporating the basic outline described above need not require a greater time than a traditional lesson, depending upon how the lead-in and data-presentation are developed.  We also suspect--but have no data yet to confirm--that a moderate percentage of lessons that follow this pattern may be sufficient to achieve the necessary learning about science itself.  We also suspect that, as teachers become more accustomed to the approach described here, they will tend to modify an increasing number of their lessons to follow this method of teaching science as science.

Back to top

Making the Transition to "Scientific Science Teaching"


It is beyond question that teachers have plenty to do without reworking their courses completely.  Is it feasible to ask teachers to move from traditional science teaching to a pedagogy that involves students analyzing data to develop scientific understanding?  It is.


First, it must be recognized that this transition does not require a complete transformation of the entire course.  We should start with one topic, and see how it goes.  In general, teachers improve their courses through a process of "tinkering," in which they modify a portion of the course every year.  Make the transition to "scientific science teaching" by tinkering with one topic at a time.


In testing new pedagogical strategies, it is important to evaluate students' learning as they engage in the learning experience.  It is quite possible (as many of us who are making this transition can attest) that parts of a new lesson plan work fantastically well, but the overall unit seems no better than usual due to another part of the lesson plan.  Continuous evaluation of students' progress--embedded formative assessments--provide both good feedback (parts of the strategy are great) and informative feedback for further tinkering (some parts of the strategy weren't perfect).


It is also important to compare students' attitudes and learning experience with prior years' efforts using more traditional teaching methods.  In particular, ask how well students retain their learning over the course of several months.  It is our experience that initially, student learning appears roughly equal with this method compared to a more traditional method.  However, over a longer term of several months, students taught by more traditional methods tend to forget what they learned; those taught by the method discussed here tend to retain their learning.  They also so greater interest and engagement in the material.

Back to top

Resources to support the transition


One of the goals of the Institute is to develop a library of lesson plans that follow the "scientific science teaching" strategy.  Where such lesson plans are already accessible on the Web, we will provide links to them.  Where we can, we will develop lesson plans and post them to this library.  We will always be grateful for recommendations and contributions from our colleagues worldwide.  Please contact us to make such recommendations, and/or to critique what we have said here.


These pages themselves are offered in support of the transition to scientific science teaching.  In addition, we offer the following resources:


Library of lesson plans that present scientific knowledge in the context of scientific thinking and reasoning from data.

Research summaries supporting the recommendation to move to "scientific science teaching"

A discussion of the Nature of Science--a truly fundamental understanding of science that traditional teaching methods seem not to provide particularly effectively

Professional Development opportunities, to work together with other teachers on developing "scientific teaching" strategies, to address specific science content questions, and to earn course credit for continuing Certification. [availability depends upon external funding, so opportunities may vary]

Online Professional Development--essentially a means of linking teachers and scientists for one-on-one electronic communication, to establish conversations on topics of interest to teachers, whether concerning scientific content, pedagogy, or any other issues.  

An integration of the State Standards, beginning with a relatively simple listing of the Indicators in a table format, with Math, English, and Health Standards indicated where relationships exist; an ongoing effort is to group the Indicators according to the Big Ideas, integrate Science standards with Social Studies, and provide direct links from the Standards to appropriate lesson plans.

A guide to lesson plan revision.  Many traditional lesson plans can be revised fairly simply to mesh with our recommendations on Scientific Science Teaching.  We offer suggestions for such revisions, as well as for development of new lesson plans.

Discussion forum on Scientific Science Teaching, where teachers can discuss their successes, challenges, and the general wisdom of making this transition.

Letters.  It is often necessary to provide supporting documents for requests for Professional Development time, for introducing new pedagogical strategies into schools, for administrative support of pedagogical improvement efforts, etc.  We offer several prototypes that may be useful.

Back to top