Standards and Informal Science

Last Friday I was participating in a panel discussion about connecting informal science learning and classroom science–and the question of connecting informal science to standards came up. It’s a perfectly reasonable question. After all, teachers are expected to pay a great deal of attention to standards. But the question struck me as somehow missing the point — headed in the wrong direction. But I didn’t quite understand my response. What was so wrong about thinking about informal science in terms of standards? 

A little background might help set this question up. Before the panel discussion, there had been a lot of conversation about what informal science is and how teachers use it. The group came up with lots of ideas, including field trips to museums, bringing scientists and other guests into the classroom, after school clubs, and projects that get students out of the classroom and involved in project-based learning. Some felt that it was anything that was not included in the standard curriculum materials. There was more consensus about what informal science is supposed to do. In answer to the question, “Why do you use informal science with your classes?”, the most frequently selected response was, “Exposure to Real-World Science.” Another question put to the group was, “How to you use informal science?” Here the most frequent response was, “To Deepen Core Learning.”

Consistent with the audience’s interest in real-world science and deeper learning, the panelists focused primarily on projects that extended over a few weeks or more and that engaged students in some form of experiential learning. Cynthia Nye, a literacy specialist for schools in Old Orchard Beach, talked about a project where fourth graders mapped and created public information for a nature trail. Bill McWeeny, who teaches science and math in grades 5-8 at the Adams School, talked about his many years of working with students in an after school study of right whales. The students have named themselves the “Calvineers,” in honor of a very special right whale. They get out into the Gulf of Maine to see right whales, they keep up with the scientific literature on right whales, and, most importantly, they undertake their own research and present papers at professional conferences. (For more about Bill’s students’ work, click here.) The “Calvineers” are a case study in engaging students in real-world science and deep learning.

When it was my turn to give a five minute talk, I described the work that the Schoodic Institute has been doing since 2007 in collaboration with a number of scientists. We have worked with teachers, students, and scientists to study mercury in winter, mercury in different watersheds, regional variations in snowpack, nitrogen pulses associated with spring thaw, culverts as barriers, and more. I explained that different teachers used our programs in different ways, but for most teachers the programs provide a way to engage students in framing up their own questions, designing an approach to their own investigations, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting the results to an audience of adults who are interested in the questions the students are exploring.

After each panelist talked about his or her program, the moderator asked us some questions that emerged earlier in the evening. It was here that I encountered, “How can teachers align informal science with standards?” The panel offered a number of different answers. But it wasn’t the answers that concerned me. It was the question.

Tennis and Standards

Some years ago I used to play tennis. I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed it. I liked playing enough to join an athletic club where there were other people to play tennis with, a chance to play against other clubs, and a tennis pro on staff who helped members become better tennis players. We would spend Saturday mornings working on serves, or on forehand, or on volleying at the net. There were lots of drills and opportunities for the pro to see what you were doing right or wrong and to offer guidance. You might find that you were starting with your racquet too high, that you were not following through on your forehand, that your feet were in the wrong position, or something else.

In short, I learned that there are standards for playing tennis, along with rubrics that pros use to assess your performance against the standards. This is a good thing. By attending to the standards, coupled with lots of practice, I got better at returning fast serves. Sometimes I would make a one-on-one appointment with the pro in order to spend more time and get more feedback in order to get some aspect of my game closer to what the standards said I should be doing. And I made progress. I started out at a level of proficiency that pros call a “2.5,” moved up to a “3.0” and was closing on reaching “3.5” when we moved to where I now live in Maine, where getting to tennis courts involves too much driving.

But … and here is the important point … I didn’t do all of this in order to improve my performance against the standards and move from 2.5 to 3.0. I did it because I liked to play tennis. When I played in matches, I was definitely NOT thinking about the standards. In fact, thinking about my serve or forehand was often a good way to lose a match. What I was thinking about — I played a lot of doubles — was where the other team was weak and where they were strong, how they played together and whether they left holes that could be exploited, and how my partner was doing. Was she up today? High energy and high confidence? Or needing a boost? All of that was what made tennis fun. As for the standards, they helped me get better. They were a means, not an end.

To be sure, after a match we would be thinking about where we had trouble and what we needed to work on. We would go back to thinking about the standards to do that. That was fun too — practices and drills were great — but they were great because we liked to play tennis.

Getting a Chance to Actually Do Science

I would not be interested in just working on forehand and backhand without ever getting to play tennis. What would be the point?

The same is true for students who focus on the NGSS practices, DCIs, and cross-cutting concepts without getting a chance to really do science. What’s the point?

When the students are working with Bill McWeeny, they are thinking about right whales. They are thinking about Calvin, her calf, and other right whales. They are involved in thinking through the complicated issues associated with maintaining the health of a small population of enormous, slow-swimming, long-lived animals that fall prey to ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. To be sure, in working on these problems they are likely to learn about whale life cycles, whale physiology, population dynamics, food webs, marine ecosystems, the social issues associated with ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, and much more. But to make those things the point is to miss the point. The students are working on a hard, interesting problem in collaboration with others who are also thinking about the problem. It’s not about the standards, it is about the joy and satisfaction of engaging in such work.

When teachers say that they want to engage students in informal science in order to expose them to “real-world” science,” I think that something like this is probably what they are getting at.

Yes … But …

I think that maybe my problem with the question about standards was that it came up so quickly. As I recall, it was the second question put to the panel (I forget what the first one was).

People could have asked questions to find out more about the Calvineers. They could have asked more about the kinds of students that seem to benefit most from this kind of teaching and learning. So many things … but … boom … right away the focus was on standards.

I suppose this is a reflection of what education policy is doing to teachers. And … to be fair to them … at least some of them will probably have others who are asking THEM such questions. (But … still … is this REALLY the most important thing?)

So, okay, what about standards? What I see some teachers and informal science programs do is list all of the places where the informal activity might intersect with learning standards — kind of like the list that I began above for the Calvineers. They make the list and call it done. It would be kind of like noticing that, when I played tennis, I served, made forehand and backhand shots, and came to the net. So, you could check those boxes and say, “See?  Playing a real match involves using those standards.”

That would be true. But it would not mean that playing a real match does anything much to improve my serve, forehand, and so on. I think that the checkbox approach is kind of cynical and potentially damaging. In tennis, it would undervalue the real things that are exciting about actually playing in a match and would also understate the value of real, careful observation and coaching by a pro. In science teaching, it ignores what is actually exciting about working with others on a scientific problem and understates the value of well designed instruction, practice, and critique in things like formulating a question, analyzing data, making a coherent argument, and communicating clearly. Getting the fundamentals right does matter. Attending to standards, insofar as they point toward excellence, is a good thing; just not the main thing.

Again, maybe tennis provides some useful insight. While playing in a match, my doubles partner and I enjoyed each other’s company, the satisfaction of doing some things well (when we did them well), and the complete engagement in the game. But after the match we would talk (often over beer) and might note that one of us was putting a lot of short volleys into the net, double faulting too much, or something else. Given such the problem diagnosis, we’d go back to work with the pro, who would usually have some kind of drill to do or a change in technique that we might try. We separated the doing of the match from the work on acquiring and improving skills, being careful to not let the one interfere with the other.

Could we do the same with formal and informal science teaching? Let the informal science be about playing and enjoying the game, and reserve the focus on standards for the formal teaching, where students sharpen their science practices and acquire new disciplinary core ideas that they can put to use in their investigations?

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1 Response to Standards and Informal Science

  1. Thank you, Bill, this is a wonderful reflection and speaks to the heart of learning. For example, learning to visualize and describe a distribution vs. “playing” with data.


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