How do we equitably accelerate learning in science?

After a long and distressing absence, students have been back in classrooms this fall across the country. We’re not back to business as usual, though. Schools and districts have been trying to figure out how to address students’ “unfinished learning” — the learning targets for a grade or course that students did not meet or address due in this case to pandemic disruptions (sometimes called “learning loss”). They mainly try to address this by “accelerating learning.” In some places, this has meant hiring extra tutors to help students catch up on missed content. In other places, teachers have been encouraged to move more quickly through the curriculum and to devote less instructional time to less prioritized content, or in the case of some grades, eliminating time for science altogether.

Young School Girl with maskHowever, we in the science community know that some of the “less prioritized content,” like time for students to analyze data and engage in scientific arguments with peers, isn’t optional if we really want students to learn. A focus solely on memorizing traditional “content” isn’t going to support students. The guidance from a recent publication from the National Research Council (NRC) is still applicable now:

“During a period of ongoing system disruptions” the focus is on “staying true to the vision of the Framework and the NGSS with rich three-dimensional learning experiences.”

These kinds of learning experiences engage students and help set them up for success in the future. It’s therefore not something we can give to some students but deny to other students. All students deserve to learn through three-dimensional learning driven by sensemaking, regardless of whether they need scaffolding or additional support to get to grade level-appropriate content.[1]

But what if we don’t have enough time to teach this way?

Rich, three-dimensional learning experiences can take more time than focusing just on discrete content or on skills in isolation, but the difference isn’t as clear as it might seem. For example, in states that use the NRC Framework as the basis for their standards, drilling vocabulary or definitions wouldn’t help students meet any of the standards. It might sound on the surface like students are learning when they’re using all the “right” terms, but without a deep understanding behind the terms, students won’t reach the learning goals. All the time in the world is not enough to reach a goal if we’re not moving forward!

In addition, when we focus instruction on figuring out phenomena or solving problems, we see another time-saving benefit. This kind of instruction can provide a context that allows “bundling,” or working on more than one learning goal at the same time. Students can build toward multiple standards at once if they’re engaged in real-world scenarios, and they’re also more likely to be fully engaged and to remember what they learned over the long term.

There’s more detail and illustrations of these and other strategies in Chapter 5 from Teaching K–12 Science and Engineering During a Crisis. I summarized some of the main points below:

We’re definitely not going to be able to make all of these shifts right away, but the more we move in this direction, the more we’ll support and engage all students in their own learning, helping them meet and exceed learning goals.

What about you? What are some of the strategies you used to support three-dimensional learning as students returned back to in-person classrooms?

[1] While it’s not a focus of this blog post, here’s a quick note related to remediation as an approach to address unfinished learning from Teaching K-12 Science and Engineering During a Crisis: However, a focus on remediation as the approach to addressing unfinished learning—either this year or in future years—is likely to exacerbate inequities. Instead, unfinished learning can be addressed by focusing instruction on grade level–appropriate content, along with careful and consistent monitoring of what each student needs to engage with that content”.

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