How best to integrate content and practices in science

Paul Bruno

Most people agree that a well-rounded science education must provide students with both content knowledge and facility with the practices of scientific inquiry. That is why both facts and skills should be clearly represented in the science standards adopted by states.

As the Fordham Institute demonstrated in its evaluation of the final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, however, by giving “undue prominence” to scientific skills and practices, the NGSS ultimately underemphasize content knowledge. As a result, the NGSS are an inadequate guide for science teachers—like me—who need to know what is expected of our students and us.

What form, then, should practices take in science standards? There may be numerous ways of integrating practices into standards documents, but as a science teacher I appreciate in them at least two qualities.

First, clearly and specifically articulate the practices in which students should be able to engage.

This may seem obvious, but even the skills-heavy NGSS often fall short in this regard.

For example, the NGSS’s middle school “waves and electromagnetic radiation” standards require that students “[d]evelop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.” This does sound vaguely scientific, but since it is unclear what would make an adequate model—or even what is meant by “model” —this provides little practical guidance for teachers.

In contrast, consider California’s “Investigation and Experimentation” standards for sixth graders, which demand that students “[c]onstruct appropriate graphs from data and develop qualitative statements about the relationships between variables.” Though this standard could be even clearer, it does specify two types of models—graphs and qualitative statements—and gives guidance as to their expected use (viz., illuminating the “relationships between variables.”)

This is the kind of guidance teachers need to align their daily planning and instruction with the standards their students must master.

Second, keep the skills standards and content standards distinct and separate in the standards document.

This is the general approach taken in California’s science standards, in which each grade level incorporates a set of “investigation and experimentation” standards in addition to the content standards. South Carolina does something similar, going so far as to set each subset of standards within a grade level or course—including the most general “scientific inquiry” standards—on its own page. (Many skills and practices are also integrated into the content standards themselves when appropriate.)

This format has two virtues for science teachers. First, it is efficient in terms of space, and this makes the standards more readable and navigable. Second, because the practice standards are not tied specifically to individual content standards, they remain general and flexible such that they can be more easily applied to many of the content standards over the course of a year.

Given that skills and knowledge are closely linked in practice, it may be counterintuitive to separate the practice standards from the content standards. Keep in mind, however, that well-selected practice standards will be relevant across a variety of content standards within the same course. Pairing each practice standard with every complementary content standard would therefore be redundant. At the same time, pairing each practice standard with only one or two selected content standards would be arbitrary and would unnecessarily constrain teachers’ uses of those practice standards in their classrooms.

Of course, many existing state standards currently articulate scientific practice standards, and many people worry that teachers today nevertheless underemphasize practices in favor of content. I’m personally skeptical that this is the case, but if you accept that premise, it may be tempting to try to more closely integrate the knowledge and practices standards by explicitly joining them together into “hybrid” standards.

Indeed, this is what the NGSS writers did with their “performance standards,” which call for students to learn do such things as “[u]se mathematical representations to describe a simple model for waves that includes how the amplitude of a wave is related to the energy in a wave.” This requirement combines a scientific practice (using mathematical representations) with a content standard (the characteristics of waves).

The instinct to more closely integrate knowledge and practice standards, while understandable, is misguided. If teachers are, in fact, underemphasizing scientific practices, this probably has more to do with how students are assessed than with how the standards are constructed. Assessments at every level, then, are likely to provide more leverage to change the classroom balance between skills and knowledge than are attempts to reword the standards.

In general, when designing standards, it is essential to consider how the final document will be used. As a guide for teachers and a set of expectations for students, a good standards document will be specific, coherent, and clear. This is as true for skills and practices standards as it is for content standards.

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher who worked in Oakland, California, before moving to Southern California. He blogs at This Week In Education.

Related Articles