Differentiation & Scaffolding in Science Pedagogies

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~Albert Einstein

image from http://www.theheartlinknetwork.com/
image from http://www.theheartlinknetwork.com/

It is becoming increasingly accepted that children enter formal academic environments with a diverse range of prior knowledge, beliefs, skills, as well as cultural and linguistic resources for learning. Accordingly, from an early age children become adept at employing a variety of strategies in order to organize, interpret, and apply new information. Differentiation is a pedagogical approach that seeks to adapt instruction in order to be responsive to the diverse needs and abilities of all students. It requires that a teacher be flexible in the ways that she plans and implements learning experiences. It means moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ perspective on the content, curricular materials, methods of instruction, and the ways that progress toward learning is monitored or assessed. Differentiated instruction considers the diversity of learners to be the driving force behind planning and instruction, rather than an obstacle to academic success.

image from http://mechanicguide.info/
image from http://mechanicguide.info/

Scaffolding is a term used to describe a variety of techniques that are often employed within successful differentiated instructional approaches. Scaffolding reflects the principles behind Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, which he described as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86). Educators who scaffold instruction attempt to build on what students know and are able to do and extend their competencies by building supporting structures or scaffolds into learning activities. These supports can include engaging the student in the task, structuring activities such that steps are more easily managed, modeling, and more.

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

When considering the ways in which differentiation and scaffolding play out in the classroom, many of us educators  don’t typically think about altering the content, in other words, the ‘what’ that we teach. After all, all students are capable of academic success and (like it or not) all students are expected to demonstrate mastery of that content on the annual state standardized tests that are used to determine whether a school has met adequate yearly progress. Usually we do consider altering the process, the how learning experiences are planned and implemented, and the products, how progress toward learning is measured, in order to meet individual student needs.

There are many straightforward ways that teachers can build differentiation into their instructional practice. Quite often this manifests in terms of curricular materials being modified in terms of ‘high, medium, and low’ or ‘above, on, and below’ grade level.  This could mean three different reading passages on the same topic or featuring the same story that differ by Lexile level. It can also mean structuring some activities such that groups of students complete graphic organizers before they write, previewing vocabulary and/or creating vocabulary flash cards,  adjusting the length of assignments, etc.

A difficult yet poignant question, however, is to what extent does differentiated instruction authentically lead to differentiated learning. Are we truly seeking to be responsive to individual learning and helping each child to construct more sophisticated understandings, or are we simply moving from ‘one size fits all’ to ‘a few sizes fit most?’

image from united.com
image from united.com

Understandably, this is not an easy question to answer and, for many of us, merely considering the question requires a significant paradigm shift with regard to best practices for how people learn. Constructivist theories on knowledge and knowing assume that all knowledge is constructed from previous knowledge. Constructivist pedagogies, then, focus on accessing students’ pre-existing conceptions and helping them re-craft those ideas into deeper and more sophisticated understandings. When one thinks about the extensive diversity of experiences as well as the cultural and linguistic resources that contribute to a child’s pre-existing knowledge,  the thought of trying to tailor instruction and curricular materials to be responsive to individuals can seem overwhelming. Additionally, it seems reasonable to assume that those preconceptions are constantly being made and refashioned and it would be unrealistic for a teacher to attempt to create an instructional plan and separate materials for each and every student in her classroom.

Indeed, it is quite the conundrum.

The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offer strategies that may serve as solutions. UDL is an educational framework that is grounded on the supposition that the unique nature of cognitive development and learning requires flexible learning environments. The framework compels teachers to provide multiple means of representing information, a variety of different opportunities for students to communicate understandings, and numerous ways for students to engage with the tasks. According to UDL, differentiation means more than providing different versions of materials for different learners   It means planning instructional experiences with the intent to reduce as many barriers for learning as possible while optimizing opportunities for enrichment and support. 


To be truly responsive, the student must be at the center of the learning experience. This doesn’t mean that teachers must be hands-off, should never lecture or ‘tell’ the students anything.  In the teacher-student relationship, the teacher is the expert who, according to Vygotskian approach, places the scaffolds that help the student advance in her understandings. What it does mean, is that students’ ideas before and throughout a lesson must be transparent, accessible, accessed, and validated as not only tools, but elements of learning.

So, what does this look like in an actual classroom?

In fourth grade science in the state of Maryland, students are expected to “use scientific skills and processes to explain the composition, structure, and interactions of matter in order to support the predictability of structure and energy transformations” (mdk12.org, 2008).  One of the objectives within the indicator is to identify examples of matter. Differentiated approaches to this indicator that I had taken up in prior years involved providing the definition of matter (matter has properties that you can observe and measure, takes up space, has mass) and then giving students a variety of activities that allowed them to provide examples of matter and non matter on their own, classifying given examples, matching and sorting activities with vocabulary support, etc. 

Upon deeper reflection on this approach, it occurred to me that the differentiation and scaffolding that I was implementing focused primarily on building scientific literacy skills and only superficially addressed conceptual meaning-making on the concept of matter. I decided to try  a slightly different approach. I know that it is important for students to not only be able to identify factual information (such as the properties of matter and examples of matter), but that they are able to make sense of it in terms of their prior understandings of how the world works.  Each day I would begin by providing the definition of matter, writing it on the board, and, with the class, physically acting out what each meant. I was careful to explain these properties using appropriate scientific vocabulary as well as everyday language. For example, the property, ‘matter takes up space’ also may be described as ‘two objects with matter cannot be in the exact same place at the same time; in order for one object to be in the same place as another, it must bump another out of the way.’ I would also encourage the students to describe the definition of matter in their own words. This served to help me better monitor their understandings and also helped them to reflect on their own progress. It was my intention that interacting with the meaning of the word ‘matter’ in a variety of non-standardized ways would help students not only develop literacy skills but would allow them to engage more personally and more meaningfully with the abstract concepts behind the word. Differentiation in this case is at work in significant, though perhaps more inconspicuous ways.

Each day we would brainstorm examples as a class and I would challenge the students to conduct argument-based investigations to solve in flexible groups. The groups were structured such that each included students with different levels of linguistic proficiency, academic ability, and cultural resources. Challenges included developing evidence to support an argument for why someone would think that examples such as red, or love is matter as well as for why someone would think that such examples are not matter. Each group was then tasked with reconciling the two arguments to come up with the argument that they believe to be most reasonable.

I was careful to organize these discussions to be reflective of the UDL approach to differentiation such that the students have control over the ways in which they participate in the learning as well as the types of linguistic, cultural, and cognitive resources that they choose to employ. The content, in other words the evidence to support their arguments, arose from their own knowledge and experiences and was communicated  in their own words and evaluated in their own ways. I would provide scaffolding along the way by recording the arguments and evidence on the board as they developed-often by enlisting the help of the students to explain and rephrase the arguments and draw illustrations for each.

The unit culminated with an inquiry-based investigation into whether air is considered matter. Each group was charged with developing arguments to both support and challenge the idea that air was matter. Students had access to a variety of materials including straws, plastic grocery bags, string, balloons, in order to conduct their investigations. I believe it is important to view ‘experiments’ as tools for constructing evidence to support or challenge ideas as opposed to procedures to demonstrate a fact or phenomenon that a teacher, textbook, or other traditional source of academic authority has explained to be correct. Truly differentiated approaches to teaching and learning in science place as much of the control over experimentation in the hands of the students as possible. It thus becomes a tool for their learning that they are able to define and access according to their own learning needs. Therefore, rather than provide them the steps for an experiment that would

image from http://www.vcapcd.org/
image from http://www.vcapcd.org/

demonstrate that air possesses the properties of matter, I allowed them to devise the plans themselves.

Experiments subsequently included using straws to concentrate air that could ‘blow’ a pencil off the edge of a desk, weighing full balloons and comparing them to empty balloons, observing the effects of the air conditioning vent a variety of objects, and more.  These experiments exposed a considerable amount of students’ thinking about air, gases, wind, weather, water, and how they all are related. Again, for this unit to result in truly differentiated learning, it was important for the students to be able to make sense of air as matter in terms of their current ideas about related phenomena. I was responsive to their conceptions and facilitated discussions in order to help connect and organize their ideas.


In addition to expressing their progress toward learning in the form of discussion, students were given the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in writing (see example below). These written responses were structured such that rather than being required to transcribe a standardized answer to factual questions, the students were asked to provide their own arguments to support a position regarding air and matter. They were also asked to illustrate their arguments, providing yet another method for them to express their understandings. In this assignment, I am not evaluating the responses and illustrations for ‘correctness.’ Instead, I am intending to assess the students’ abilities to employ reasoning and critical thinking skills to describe their understanding of the phenomena of matter with respect, in this case, to air. I provided further scaffolding by requiring that the students use the properties of matter in their responses, however the properties were written and illustrated on the board for students to consult if necessary and they were encouraged to describe them in their own words. I was not assessing their ability to memorize the prosperities, but their ability to apply the concepts behind them toward understanding how we classify air. Similarly, I was not assessing their ability to express their ideas using particular grammatical structures or vocabulary. I am interested in the substance of their ideas and recognize that diverse learners will communicate conceptual understandings in diverse ways.

Note: If I were to teach this unit again, I would revise the instructions on the written assessment such that they were more accessible to a wider variety of students. I would shorten the length of the sentences and substitute some of the words for more common and simple synonyms (for example, drawing for the word illustration).
Note: If I were to teach this unit again, I would revise the instructions on the written assessment such that they were more accessible to a wider variety of students. I would shorten the length of the sentences and substitute some of the words for more common and simple synonyms (for example, drawing for the word illustration).

Differentiated instruction and scaffolding are critical to the creation of successful learning experiences. Incorporating differentiated instruction such that it leads to meaningful differentiated learning is a complex endeavor and I admit I struggle with finding ways to make differentiation meaningful with regard to developing conceptual understandings as well literacy skills. The approaches and strategies manifest in a variety of ways for an assortment of purposes but when used with integrity, they hold power in that they allow the teacher to recognize, legitimize, and respond to the diverse resources for learning that students bring with them to the classroom.


MDK12.org. (2008). Using the state curriculum: Science, grade 4. School Improvement in Maryland. Retrieved from
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

If STEM is the answer….

In The Case for STEM Education: Challenges and Opportunities, Rodger Bybee addresses the variations in conceptualizations of STEM that are held by stakeholders at different levels of education.  He points out that “the views individuals have of STEM education vary and are a function of their roles in the education system” (Bybee, 2013, p. 1).

case for sTEM ed

Bybee notes that visions of and purposes for STEM education are likely relfective of our personal experiences and values.

Some of us think about the potential for context-based STEM pedagogies to lead to more authentic, relevant learning experiences for children. Others may prioritize the need for students, particularly those from underrepresented populations,  to establish and maintain productive relationships with the disciplines of science, engineering, and math through the K-12 pipeline and onto college.  Some might consider STEM education reform to be the key to increasing student achievement on global benchmarks like PISA and will help increase America’s academic competitiveness. Still others might value high-quality STEM education for its potential to help America Rise Above the Gathering Storm by increasing the human capital in innovative science and engineering fields that is needed to ensure a bright economic future.

These are just a few of the goals for STEM that help shape our ideas of what STEM education is and it is likely that most of us have overlapping visions that bend and flex depending on context.

Though seemingly ubiquitous, STEM education reform is still in its early stages. I believe that it is crucial Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 11.15.18 AMfor all of us who are touched by education systems, parents, teachers, students, administrators, employers, policy makers,etc., to question and consider our evolving perspectives on STEM.

Bybee’s book has inspired me to reflect on my current ideas of and for STEM by considering the issue in the context of the following question:

    If STEM is the answer, what is the question?

I encourage all of you to do the same!


M.Ed. STEM ED Session 3: PHYSICS! September 3rd, 2013

EDCI 604: Learning and Teaching in the Physical Sciences

The third week in the M.Ed. Teacher Leadership in STEM program was devoted to our first session of Learning and Teaching in the Physical Sciences with Dr. Andy Elby.

Andy began by discussing the major ideas and learning objectives of the course. He also briefly shared how this Physics course will fit into the M.Ed. program as a whole, and discussed how grading would be done.

The Key Dropkey

We then jumped right into the first inquiry. In the “The Key Drop” inquiry, Andy places a random object on the floor, in this case, an eraser, to serve as a ‘target.’ He then produces a set of keys and tells the group that he would like to walk forward at a constant rate and drop the keys such that they will land on the target. The question he then poses to the group is: should he drop the keys before he reaches the target, when he is directly above the target, or after he has passed by the target.

Watch Andy present the first inquiry problem to the group: 

Andy further instructed the groups to come up with at least two good arguments for different answers.

The Arguments

NewtonMany of the groups focused on arguments to support releasing the keys before one reaches the target. The teachers claimed that even after the keys are released, they would continue moving forward at least a little. Andy pointed out that he understands why the keys are moving forward while he’s carrying them, but asked what would be making the keys go forward once he let go.

Several teachers responded, “nothing!” A few though offered responses in terms of part of Newton’s First Law of motion. One teacher said,  “An object in motion stays in motion…..unless acted on by an outside force, and the outside force is gravity.”

Andy responded by explaining that a general property of this class was to not simply restate rules (such as Newton’s laws) but to really seek out the explanations behind the rules. He pressed the teachers to really think about why, in this argument, would the keys keep moving forward once they were released. What was causing that ‘object in motion’ to ‘stay in motion?’ In response, one student said “…because there’s nothing that’s stopping it.”

Watch Andy’s response, “re-perspectiving a question:” 

The groups continued their discussions until arguments for each of the three possibilities had been created.

arguments before and overargument after

The Experiments

Andy then charged the teachers with designing and carrying out experiments to help support or refute the arguments that they had created. Carmen's Group hall

After a short while of experimenting with dropping various objects from varying heights, the group came back together to refine the parameters of the experiment. One group had noticed that even if the keys missed the target, they still seemed to continue to travel forward once released. The group also observed that the slope of the path that the keys took from the point of release to the floor became steeper the higher the drop point.

Watch: Andy Discussing refining the experiment: 

The teachers resumed their experiments. This time, some of the groups took video of the key drop. The videos were subsequently displayed on the screen for the group to watch frame-by-frame.


The videos helped the group quickly reach consensus that the keys did, indeed, seem to continue to travel forward after release. This, however, was not all there was to the explanation and Andy next tasked the group with coming up with explanations for HOW the keys traveled. There seemed to be three possibilities: 1) the keys would travel in a straight diagonal from the drop point to the floor, 2) the keys would travel forward in an arch, and 3) the keys would initially travel in an arch before dropping straight to the floor.

HOW do the keys move forward

The teachers were once again given the opportunity to discuss this new query in their small groups. Many of the arguments seemed to center on at what point gravity ‘won out’ over the forward motion and why.

The question of how the keys traveled on their journey to the floor would become part of this week’s homework assignment.

amy explains idea on board

The teachers have first been asked to design an experiment that would generate evidence to support one of the three arguments.

I’m looking forward to hearing how the ideas and arguments develop!

M.Ed. STEM ED Session 2, August 27th, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 11.15.18 AMThe second meeting of the M.Ed. Teacher Leadership: STEM ED group focused on making sense of STEM and STEM education. It was designed to build from the survey questions on STEM education that the teachers were asked to complete before the program began.

I started the session off with a brief review of the history of some of the major federal interventions that have influenced education in the STEM disciplines in the last century. The presentation culminated with Race to the Top, the 4.35 billion dollar grant competition issued by the Obama administration in 2009 to spur innovation in high-quality education reform. (Maryland was a recipient of a Race to the Top award, part of which was used to fund the creation of our master’s program!)

We then turned to a discussion about different conceptualizations of STEM and STEM education. The discussion was informed by the MSDE STEM Standards of Practice, the Maryland STEM brochure, and an article by Rodger W. Bybee titled Advancing STEM Education: A 2020 Vision

It has been my experience that quite often when educators discuss STEM education, they tend to do so in terms of lessons that simply incorporate content from more than one STEM discipline.  This is often referred to as the “siloed” approach to STEM education. As discussed in our group, even when content from multiple STEM subjects are included into a unit or lesson, this approach treats the disciplines as isolated subjects, or ‘silos.’ This contrasts with a more integrated approach to STEM that is reflected, for example,in the MSDE STEM Standards of Practice.    Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 2.58.20 PM

As it turns out,  many of the teachers seemed to embrace the transdiciplinary approach and, indeed, seemed to equate it synonymously with STEM education. The STEM survey asked the teachers to briefly describe what ‘STEM Education’ meant to them. While 22% of the responses mentioned the incorporation of multiple disciplines, over 43% of the responses noted integration as being important to STEM education. Integration was a common thread in this introductory discussion and I am looking forward to pressing the teachers for examples of meaningful disciplinary integration in future sessions.

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 3.35.08 PMWe soon turned the discussion toward challenges of implementing STEM into classroom practice. Bybee (2010) states, “[o]ne of the most significant challenges centers on introducing STEM-related issues such as energy efficiency, climate change, and hazard mitigation and developing the competencies to address the issues students  will confront as citizens” (p. 32) and proceeds to add health, natural resources, and frontiers of science, technology, engineering, and math to the list.  One teacher shared that she was confused as to why such issues would be challenging for the ‘advancement’ of STEM. I turned this question to the group. I asked them to talk about the nature of these topics and compare them to topics currently taught in the STEM disciplines in school. The teachers quickly noted that all of the issues in Bybee’s list were political (which I mused meant they had to do with people–human-centered problems are often at the heart of STEM education activities) and controversial.  One teacher further noted that for most of these topics, there is “no end result,” in other words, there isn’t a clearly defined (or testable) question for each and, likewise, there aren’t obvious, linear paths to finite answers. She further shared that this can be “scary for teachers to have to say ‘I don’t know where we’re going to end up.'”

August 27
A group of teachers discussing STEM education

I must admit I was excited that this point had been brought up. An engineer at the University of Maryland once shared that engineering as a discipline is unique in that problems are not always predefined, but rather develop as potential solutions are explored. I’ve often argued that integrating engineering into everyday classroom practice would thus require (or perhaps inspire?) an incredible paradigm shift for educators. It would mean moving away from pedagogies that privilege standardized representations of standardized understandings. It would mean authentically placing the students at the center and in control of their own learning. I believe that therein lies the most powerful potential for STEM education. MP900398793

Many teachers in the session seemed to echo this perspective. A fourth grade teacher added that lessons that center on topics without definitive answers are “where problem solving and critical thinking come in. [They] would motivate [the students] to find out more and to engage with the topic personally and more readily.” Many others agreed, noting that this is what ‘the real world’ is like. When one teacher noted that STEM teachers can still teach with the ‘end in mind,’ I agreed and suggested it might mean adjusting what we consider ‘the end’ and what ‘mastery’ looks like.  A first grade teacher took this even further by claiming that this is what it means to set children up to be 21st century learners who must face real-world problems for which there is no wrong answer. How they solve the problem is what’s important. The others agreed and the general consensus seemed to be that proficiency in STEM must look differently than proficiency in individual school content areas. These are absolutely critical topics for consideration with STEM education and I am looking forward to more opportunities to discuss them in more detail.

Teachers in the M.Ed. Leadership in STEM program discussing challenges to advancing STEM ed
Teachers in the M.Ed. Leadership in STEM program discussing challenges to advancing STEM ed

The teachers have been tasked this week with creating thoughtful posts for their blogs on the topic of STEM education. The posts should be informed by class readings and discussions, however the teachers are free to focus on any aspect of STEM education that is most provocative to them at this point. I can’t wait to read them!

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 5.05.24 PM

M.Ed. STEM ED Session 1, August 20th, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 10.24.23 PM

The M.Ed. Teacher LEadership: Special Studies in STEM Education, a partnership program between the University of Maryland and Montgomery County Public Schools, kicked off Tuesday evening with EDCI 614: Developing a Professional Portfolio. This course will serve as the foundation for the creation of a Professional Learning Network (PLN) for teaching and learning in STEM education. Each teacher in the program will establish an electronic portfolio in the form of a professional website/blog and maintain it throughout the program. The portfolio will serve as a PLN tool to help shape each teacher’s evolving knowledge, beliefs, and perspectives. It will be a collection of materials to highlight and illustrate teachers’ professional knowledge (content and pedagogical content), skills, and values and will be designed to represent a diverse and unique description of them as leaders in STEM education.

Twenty-three teachers from grades kindergarten through eighth grade attended the first class (one teacher, on maternity leave, was able to virtually attend via Skype!).  We began with introductions, a brief history of the development of the program, and a review of the syllabus.

Who we are:

Teaching ExperienceGrades we teach







The focus of this first session was breaking down and making sense of Professional Learning Networks (PLNs).  The teachers have been tasked with working in groups to create Prezi presentations to share information about what PLNs are, how they are used,  the advantages and drawbacks of them, and the potential impact of PLNs on teacher professional development.

Aside from the introduction in the first reading, Professional Learning Networks Taking Off (Flanigan, 2012), the teachers seemed to be relatively unfamiliar with the term. The group was accustomed, however, with Professional Learning Communities, and thus a portion of the conversations centered on examining the word, “Network,” to help make sense of PLNs.  The word,”community,” implies affiliation and collaboration, however several teachers noted that “network” goes even further and implies the use of technology while emphasizing the exchange of information.

I also asked the teachers to discuss tools and resources available for use in PLNs. Twitter was a popular topic, as well as Pinterest, which teachers shared they use to get ideas for classroom activities. One teacher shared that she uses LiveBinders to organize materials and create activity centers for her students. I’m looking forward to exploring these and other tools, particularly those that inform and enhance pedagogies as well as activities, as the semester continues.

The group seemed to agree that advantages of PLNs would include the extended ability to access information on one’s own time and an increased amount and variety of information. The most notable drawback, according to the teachers, is the ‘time-suck’ potential. In other words, the likelihood that a disproportionate amount of teachers’ time would be spent browsing the internet rather than productively using the information gained.

Professional blogs will be a key component of the PLN the teachers in this program and we devoted the second half of class to discussing the ins and outs of personal websites.  Jason Yip, a doctoral candidate in science education at the University of Maryland who is affiliated with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, joined us to talk about options, pros and cons.

Jason Yip visits EDCI 614. 9-20-13

The teachers in our program are encouraged to use the platform of their choice for their blogs. We’ve suggested WordPress, Blogger, and Edublogs, but there are many more options out there. The teachers have been asked to browse these and other platforms and set up their blogs before next Tuesday’s class.

Next week we will dive into discussions about visions of and for STEM education, including the impact of federal and local education policy on the STEM disciplines. Stay tuned…..

Learning, Science, Standards, and Education Reform

Education reform: who, what, why?

Education reform, particularly within the STEM disciplines, has been a national headline for several years.  Recently it seems that the newly developed Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards have become both a result of and an impetus for nationwide calls for rethinking the way we approach the education of our children. The nation is increasingly becoming divided, however, as to who should control the content of reform efforts and why.

The Constitution does not explicitly mention education. However, the Tenth Amendment does state that, “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Education, then, becomes one of the responsibilities reserved to the states. This means that the states have exclusive power over determining what is taught in public schools.


The “what” of teaching and learning is most often presented in the form of academic standards, the benchmarks for student achievement in subject disciplines. Academic standards are the performance expectations that outline what students should know and be able to do in each subject and serve as the foundation for curriculum and instruction. I have argued that, when developing academic standards, it is crucial to consider the influence that standards have over the disciplinary epistemologies (beliefs about knowledge and knowing) that the standards reflect as well as the pedagogies (practice of teaching) that they inspire. I primarily focus on science as an example, however it is important for standards in all content areas to be written such that they allow students to engage with knowledge in ways that are authentic to the nature of the disciplines as well as in ways that are consistent with theories and research on the developmental needs of students.

Unfortunately, one of the more significant challenges that states face when creating academic standards (whether the challenge is acknowledged or not) is a relative lack of access to the research and resources that contribute to productive learning in subject disciplines.

In this post I will explore a few of the learning theories (conceptual frameworks that work to explain how people acquire, modify, and reinforce information and ideas) that are embedded within the language of academic standards. I examine state-level standards using Nebraska as an example and compare them to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a framework developed on a national level.  I provide evidence that discrepancies between the two frameworks may be a result of disparate access to resources and argue that rather than threaten state sovereignty over matters of education, the NGSS can be a powerful tool to level the national academic playing field while raising the bar for achievement in science.

What do we know about how we learn?

MP900309173The most seminal and current understanding of how people learn indicates that even the youngest children are capable of complex cognitive processes.  Our current understanding of learning has evolved as a result of many decades of research and theory in the behavioral, psychological, and social sciences. In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget argued that cognition develops through phases as individuals actively engage with environmental stimuli. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky expanded on Piaget’s work and developed a theory of learning as a socio-cultural activity. Vygotsky was responsible for introducing the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) into the study of learning. This concept is used to describe the “distance” between what an individual can already do on her own and what she will eventually be able to do with support from one or more experts. In other words, children are not blank slates who simply absorb the information impressed upon them. They learn by incorporating new information and ideas into existing schema through interaction with others and with the environment*.

Progressivism, the student-centered movement for elementary and secondary education embraced the work of Piaget and Vygotsky. The movement, built on the work of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and most closely associated with John Dewey, embodied a vision for elementary and secondary education that focused on the belief that learning occurred primarily through experiences that allow students to access prior knowledge and apply it to the meaningful construction of new knowledge. The belief was that the classroom environment should reflect everyday life, and that the subjects explored by students should be presented in a way that integrated knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines, and that encouraged critical thinking and reasoning. Research and theory into how children learn have led experts to advocate for pedagogical strategies that allow students to be actively engaged in the construction and refinement of ideas. Teachers can be most effective if their instruction is responsive to the ideas and ways of thinking that students bring to the classroom and facilitate rather than dominate learning.

Unfortunately, the academic standards put forth by many state school boards do not reflect these theories of how children develop knowledge but rather are influenced more substantially by the behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories of the mid twentieth century. Behaviorist perspectives on learning explicitly limit considerations of learning to behavior that can be observed. The child is regarded as a passive vehicle that enters the classroom as a blank slate that may be shaped through conditioning responses to environmental stimuli. In the 1960’s cognitivist learning theories emerged in critical response to behaviorism. Cognitivists argue that in order to understand how humans process and retain information, internal mental processes must be considered in addition to overt behavior. Children learn by acquiring concepts and procedures. Essentially, according to both behaviorists and cognitivists, learning is something done to the student rather than by the student.

Both theories have proven quite appealing to educators because they allow for teaching to be systematically organized around measurable objectives that focus on behavioral skills and processes. These pedagogies privilege assessment focused on  what psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and Vygotsky classified as elementary mental functions which include basic memory, perception, and attention as opposed to higher mental functions like voluntary memory, logical reasoning, and complex problem solving. In science education this has led to many state curriculum standards being written such that they limit performance expectations to quantifiable objectives that emphasize the acquisition of vocabulary, the ‘scientific method,’ and the recitation of canonical facts in over conceptual and collaborative meaning making.  These theories imply that teacher behaviors can be related to student outcomes on standardized assessment tools in a ‘process equals product’ -type model.  Consequently, learning experiences in science class tend to be structured such that the teacher has tight rein over both the thematic and the participation structures of classroom interactions.  Student participation is limited to providing responses to prompts that are initiated, directed, and evaluated by the teacher. This organizational pattern reflects what Courtney B. Cazden (1988) in her seminal book, Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning,  referred to as the “default pattern” of student-teacher interaction that often results in an grossly asymmetrical structure in which the teacher contributes to two-thirds of talk time. When students are allowed to participate more actively in ‘hands-on’ activities, it usually means following a prescribed series of steps such that an experiment may illustrate a fact or phenomenon that the teacher/textbook/curriculum has established as a goal for learning. We can be satisfied that the students have ‘learned’ when they are able to represent mental functions via standardized, observable, and measurable behaviors. MP900398817

Nationwide Standards for a National Challenge


It’s no secret that our nation is currently experiencing an unprecedented flurry of interest and investment in education reform, particularly within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines.

Contributing to the widespread attention on our nations’ classrooms are reports from multiple sources in the last few decades that indicate that America’s public school systems are underserving their students on both a domestic and global scale.

How do ‘they’ know?  In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. NCLB promoted a nationwide accountability system based on standardized measurements of student achievement. Title 1 of NCLB, which is officially named “Improving The Academic Achievement Of The Disadvantaged,” incentivized state adoption of standards-based reform by providing guidelines for federal financial support mechanisms. According to the Center on Education Policy, however, nearly a decade after the inception of NCLB, over a third of our nation’s schools are failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) on state administered assessments.(*See sidebar below for more information on AYP & Title 1) 

Watch:George Bush discusses NCLB Remarks on No Child Left Behind

According the US department of Education’s website, Title I, is intended to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments” (US Department of Education, 2011).
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