Sifting Through Standards: An Exploration of What & How We Want Kids To Come to Know In Science Class

I am sure that I am not alone in feeling as though over the last two decades, the Standards Movement has hit the world of education like a tidal wave.  These days standards-based education policies are extremely popular.  Many argue that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is responsible for shifting the accountability climate into high gear and with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 45 states, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) well on their way, the future of standards-based strategies seems pretty secure.

So, what is so important about standards? One of the primary purposes of school is to prepare children to productively participate in a globally competitive society and academic standards provide a means for organizing and focusing instruction in order to meet the complex, dynamic, and ever-changing demands of that preparation. They are often performance expectations that many stakeholders argue are designed to help increase the consistency, quality, and reliability of educational programs in order to promote student achievement. Recent initiatives like the Common Core and NGSS extend the purpose of standards to include the ability to internationally benchmark students, thereby monitoring the school system’s progress toward the creation of the ‘human capital’ required to ensure America’s competitive edge in the global market thrives.

I argue, though, that standards play an even more critical role in the educational experiences of children, one that is often overlooked. Standards typically explicitly outline what it is that students should know and be able to do, but encoded within standards are also the ontological messages regarding disciplinary subjects and what it means to learn within them. Standards convey perspectives about the very nature of a discipline, how knowledge is constructed, what it means to know, and what counts as knowledge in that discipline.  These messages, often surreptitiously hidden in the language of the essential questions, indicators, and objectives that accompany academic standards, can play pivotal roles in the relationships that students create with subject disciplines. They can influence the way students come to understand and perceive those disciplines, and the extent to which they choose to pursue new experiences, learning, and knowledge in them as the progress through their academic careers and beyond.

Unfortunately, in many districts, school has been incredibly effective at indoctrinating both teachers and students against the idea that there are multiple theories of knowledge and knowing, or epistemologies, that drive theories of teaching, or pedagogies.  Our current accountability climate seems to highly favor strategies that that allow for instruction to be organized around well-defined, measurable objectives and, as a result, many academic standards are written to reflect learning theories associated with behaviorism and/or cognitive psychology. As Ford and Forman (2010) explain, “[f]or behaviorists, the learning objectives [are] defined in terms of behavioral skills; for cognitive psychologists, they [are] defined in terms of mental structures (e.g., concepts or procedures)” (p. 2).  Pedagogies inspired by these theories often reflect the perspective that disciplinary knowledge is limited to canonical facts and that academic instruction allows for that knowledge to be ‘acquired’ by students.  Accountability measures often subsequently require that knowledge be demonstrated in standardized ways on formal assessments, reflecting the puzzling perspective that most (if not all) knowledge and understanding is standardizable.

Knowledge, however, is not built and transformed by arranging a series of facts on a page or choosing ‘the answer’ out of a line up of choices. In science as in many other disciplines, understandings of the way that the world works are complex, dynamic, and extend beyond isolated observations and concrete bits of information. Those understandings are built and rebuilt within and among communities of thinkers and there are many dimensions to the knowledge about any particular phenomenon in science, including knowledge of the thing, itself, its interaction with and influence over other things, the history of how knowledge has been constructed about the phenomenon, and much more.  Furthermore, children do not enter the science classroom as blank slates. Even the youngest of children bring experiences with thinking about, talking about, interacting with, and making sense of scientific phenomena to the classroom. As Bransford, Brown, and Cocking explain in their book How People Learn: Mind, Experience, and School, published by the National Academies Press in 2000, “[l]earning a topic does not begin from knowing nothing to learning that is based on entirely new information” (p.238). In order for students to progress from novice to expert ways of knowing, they must be given the opportunity not only to acquire concrete facts and observations, but also to make connections between them and apply them to new contexts. Learning is the result of communities of individuals being able to organize and reorganize existing schemas to incorporate new information. Standards that are presented in terms of measurable objectives often can distort the ways that teachers think about the concepts they teach and the ways learning develops as a result of their pedagogies.

Many state curriculum standards can be found online in their entirety and, for illustration, let’s explore a natural phenomenon as it is approached in science education in one of our public school systems.  “Weather” is an abstract notion. It is a concept that is formed and reformed through the construction and organization of ideas, observations, and theories. There is an infinite amount of knowledge that is incorporated into the concept of weather and deciding what it is students in each grade level should understand about weather as a result of their experiences in school is no small challenge. In it’s K-2 Core Science Curriculum framework, the state of Utah, for example, organizes instruction on weather within a standard titled “Earth and Space Science” (available online and retrieved from: This standard is defined as follows:

Standard 2 – Earth and Space Science: Students will gain an understanding of Earth and Space Science through the study of earth materials, celestial movement, and weather.

            The language of this standard seems to authentically position learning in space science as important for gaining understanding through the study of phenomena and I would argue that there is nothing philosophically problematic about it. The word ‘understanding’ suggests that students should be able to make sense of earth and space as a result of their experiences in class. Earth materials, celestial movement, and weather, though, are complicated concepts. Utah’s framework proceeds to offer a series of objectives and indicators that are intended to provide teachers with more specific guidance as to how the understanding described in this standard may be achieved in each grade level. It is within these objectives and indicators that epistemology and pedagogy may become a little muddled. Let’s look at one of the objectives and corresponding indicator presented in the Utah State Core Science Curriculum for first grade (pp. 9 and 16):

    • Objective 3: Compare and contrast seasonal weather changes.
      • Indicator 1:- Identify characteristics of the seasons of the year.
      • Indicator 2: Identify characteristics of weather, e.g., types of precipitation, sunny, windy, foggy, and cloudy.
      • Indicator 3: Observe and record weather information within each season.

This is what is often referred to as a performance objective. It includes the standardized and measurable expectations of what students should be able to do as opposed to what and how they should be able to understand a particular concept. The language of this objective and indicators suggest that, for first graders at least, the nature of the concept of weather is limited to characteristics of the seasons of the year and of weather. It further suggests that being able to articulate and record observations of weather changes will indicate that a student has satisfactorily met the standard of Earth and Space science in other words, that a student has learned. However, using the first indicator as example, being able to identify characteristics of seasons of the year is not meaningful without the ability to make connections between those characteristics and other patterns of phenomena. The indicator does not include what characteristics of the seasons of the year the students should be able to identify, and, perhaps more importantly, it does not explain why the ability to identify seasonal characteristics is important for conceptual understanding of weather.  Characteristics of the seasons, that it is warm in the summer in North America, for example, do not mean anything in isolation and do not automatically lead to conceptual understanding about the concept of seasons. There are other ideas that may come together into meaningful understanding of the concept including the idea that seasonal weather changes contribute to cyclical patterns within one of Earth’s many systems, that Earth’s position relative to the sun contributes to these changes, that ‘warm’ is a relative quality, that seasonal changes are experienced and described by different communities around the world in different ways, and so forth. There is nothing in this objective to indicate that students should be encouraged to engage in sense making around the phenomenon as professional scientists, or ‘expert knowers’ might. This increases the likelihood that when brought to life in classrooms, standardized articulation of factual information will be privileged over coherent conceptual understandings. (Please note that I am not suggesting that all teachers will take the standards up in this way, just that the objectives and indicators of many standards seem to present this path as that of least resistance. Also, I should point out that objectives such as these are not unique to Utah. I have been reading through quite a few frameworks for science education and have found that many (not all) states articulate their standards similarly to the one presented above.)

So why is this problematic? The distortion of epistemology through pedagogy could mean that students’ earliest experiences with science in school reflect accurate or inauthentic perspectives on the nature of the discipline and how people learn within it. This could impact students’ abilities and inclinations toward developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with science.  This global market today demands increasing need for schools to produce innovative citizens who can meaningfully contribute to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. That means it is more important than ever to ensure that students are experiencing these disciplines in school in ways that are both productive and authentic. So, then, what can we do about this? The answer likely isn’t that we toss out standards altogether. There is value in the consistency that standards provide. The challenge is in creating standards that reflect the integrity of learning, knowing, and doing within the discipline and learning objectives that are consistent with how people learn.  Academic standards for science education, then, should reflect the perspective that students can become consumers of the products of professional science by engaging with knowledge in the ways that scientists do. The dynamic nature of knowledge and ways of knowing and the myriad approaches to constructing and validating knowledge in the science disciplines makes this a formidable task.

In the coming days I will continue to analyze the language of state standards as well as the NGSS in order to compare the epistemic and pedagogic messages reflected therein. I am also curious about the process of developing standards and how states decide which resources should inform them….stay tuned!

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.
Ford, M.J. & Forman, E.A. (2006). Redefining disciplinary learning in classroom contexts. Review of Research in Education, 30. 1-32.

One thought on “Sifting Through Standards: An Exploration of What & How We Want Kids To Come to Know In Science Class

  1. I love your analysis of the implicit epistemology hiding in the seemingly innocuous Utah standard. The example brings up a phenomena in Standards documents I think I’ve noticed — but you can tell me if this plays out consistently. Sometimes in the preamble or in the high-level “headlines” (like Standard 2), there will be sophisticated sounding language — or even quite explicit declarations of allegiance to sense-making instead of rote memorization. But then, when diving into the trenches of the performance standards/objectives, the implicit epistemology is just like what you found in Utah’s weather.

    Here’s something I’m thinking about in light of your argument. Can a cognitive psych. perspective support the kinds of standards we want?

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