What would it look like for students to progressively develop science and engineering practices?

Over the last decade, we’ve all shifted our focus from inquiry skills to science and engineering practices (SEPs). We’ve seen the work of engaging students in SEPs explode in a good way. It’s becoming normal for students to use models to describe what’s going on or to use claim-evidence-reasoning structures to list evidence and make their reasoning visible.

So now we’re all talking about using SEPs. But have we really stopped thinking about them as inquiry skills – basically the same eight things students do every year K-12? Are we really treating SEPs like knowledge and skills students build over time – not just using and reusing again and again?

The idea of developing SEPs certainly hasn’t reached the same level of prominence as the idea of developing Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs). After all, with phenomenon- and problem-driven learning, it makes sense to sequence instruction related to students’ progressive understanding of DCIs and not SEPs or Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs). (Early in the development process of the Example Bundles at Achieve, we tried structuring bundles — and therefore instructional sequences — using CCCs. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work at all!)

Everyone expects students to increase their DCI understanding over time. Nobody thinks that third graders should be developing the same DCIs as seventh graders. High school students need to build on their prior knowledge that atoms recombine during chemical reactions to be able to create an in-depth understanding of changes of bond energies during chemical reactions.

young boy behind a birthday cake with sprinklesHowever, although science ideas used in instruction and materials become deeper and more complex over time, this is rarely true for SEPs. Far too often, the complexity of the SEPs we ask students to use is exactly the same every year.

Many lesson plans and instructional materials reintroduce modeling and constructing explanations at the beginning of each course, and then just ask students to apply those SEPs in their activities for the rest of the year. We very often see materials drop in SEPs like sprinkles on top of cake: colorful and exciting, but not an integral part of the recipe. One developer recently told me “we wait to add in SEPs until after we know which activities students will be doing.” SEPs are often tagged to activities instead of being intentionally designed in a progression, leaving student learning to chance.

After a decade of shifting to Framework-based teaching and learning, it is still rare to see instruction help students progressively develop their SEP understanding and abilities, building on the foundation from previous work, while they build understanding of disciplinary ideas.

What might this look like? I adapted a table from the recent publication Critical Features of Instructional Materials Design for Today’s Science Standards to see how students could develop an SEP element (elements are the bulleted SEPs, DCIs, and CCCs in the foundation boxes of the standards as well as in the NGSS appendices) throughout a hypothetical Grade 6 unit of instruction:

SEP progression during instruction

In this hypothetical Grade 6 instructional unit, students develop proficiency in an SEP element integrated into their instruction. Early in the unit, the SEP element is heavily scaffolded (e.g., through discussions and group work). Later, students are expected to use the SEP element more independently, with reduced scaffolding.

What do you think? When you design instruction for students, when do you decide which SEPs they will develop? How do you make sure students develop new SEP proficiencies rather than starting over with ones they’ve already learned?

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