Should we expect K–2 students to revise models, iterate solutions, and define criteria and constraints?

I wasn’t ready for the transformation I was about to witness when I stepped into my kindergarten classroom my first year as a teacher. How will these students who know so little about the world around them — including even the difference between a letter and a number — start to read, add, and engage with science knowledge and practice by the end of the year?

I was amazed by the intensity of their curiosity and thirst to make sense of things. That’s why, years later, this excerpt from A Framework for K–12 Science Education really resonated with me:

“Children entering kindergarten have surprisingly sophisticated ways of thinking about the world… In fact, the capacity of young children—from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels—to reason in sophisticated ways is much greater than has long been assumed. Although they may lack deep knowledge and extensive experience, they often engage in a wide range of subtle and complex reasoning about the world.”

Kids in early elementary can engage in science and engineering to make sense of the world around them and solve problems, and we need to give them the opportunity to do it. That doesn’t just mean the very practical issue of instructional time during the day to do so — although that’s a critical piece.*

Time for teaching science is often tight in part because many elementary educators are also responsible for teaching all content areas. For this reason, curricular materials that provide guidance for age-appropriate and coherent learning are a critical resource for K–2 classrooms.

Such materials can help give students the opportunity to learn developmentally appropriate elements from each dimension in the context of exploring phenomena and solving problems. Luckily for teachers and curricular developers, the Framework and the NGSS clearly define these learning targets for students in grades K–2.

This careful design approach for K–2 materials can build solid foundations for learning in later grades. The learning progressions defined by the Framework and the NGSS describe how a student’s understanding of an idea or practice matures over time and provide a map to create developmentally appropriate and increasingly sophisticated learning.

In our work, we’ve often seen two challenges for designing K–2 science instructional materials. The first is an oversimplification of what it means to be “doing science” — merely asking students to categorize or observe things. As I found out in my classroom, 5-year-olds are constantly making sense of the world around them and are capable of much more.

On the other hand, some materials ask kindergarten students to revise models, iterate solutions, and define criteria and constraints, practices defined as learning targets in later grades. Our early learners, however, need adequate time and support to build the foundations for those practices before being required to engage in them: understanding what models are and how they are developed so they can later revise models, learning how to solve problems and compare solutions so they can later iterate solutions, and learning how to define problems and gather information about them so they can later define criteria and constraints.

High-quality materials that ensure students engage in grade-appropriate learning can prevent us from either expecting too little or too much from our curious little tikes.

You can see what the NGSS defined as K–2 learning targets and how learning progresses in the Appendices for Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts.

For more about what it looks like for students to progressively develop science and engineering practices, check out this blog post.

*In my case and so many others, 30 minutes of science was squeezed in right before lunch, meaning we only got about 15 minutes of time to really focus.

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