The Science Practices: A Primer

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The Instructional Leader's Guide to Implementing K-8 Science Practices
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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Pages: 18
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The Science Practices: A Primer

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Ms. Chavez is a principal in an urban elementary school. Currently, her school is focused on disciplinary literacy, and she told her teachers she was interested in observing lessons in content areas such as science. Ms. Chavez observes a kindergarten classroom where the teacher, Ms. Brown, is introducing a new science unit. Ms. Brown says to her class, “We are starting a new unit on forces and motion. A force is a push or a pull. When you use a larger force, like a larger push, an object will go farther.” She writes the definition of the word force on a piece of chart paper. Then she adds—and explains—two drawings to the paper: one with a person giving a big push to a ball rolling a far distance and a second with a person giving a small push to a ball rolling a short distance.

Ms. Brown then tells her students, “We are all going to do an experiment to see how this works—how larger forces make things, like a ball, move farther.” She passes out a straw and pingpong ball to each student and then holds up her same supplies. She puts the ping-pong ball on the floor and says she will blow as hard as she can in the straw to make the ball move. She explains Page 10  |  Top of Articleshe is using a large force and then counts the number of floor tiles the ball moved: five tiles. She then has all students try the experiment independently. After students complete the trial, she has them raise their hands according to how many tiles the ball moved. For example, she asks, “How many of you moved the ball five tiles? Raise your hand.” She records on a second piece of chart paper that 11 students’ balls moved five tiles. She continues recording responses for all students, gathering data from the entire class.

Then she repeats the demonstration by blowing through the straw softly. This time, her ball moves only one tile. After students complete the same experiment, she again asks them to raise their hands to show how many tiles the ball moved. At the end of the class, she returns to her original chart paper and reads the definition again: “A force is a push or a pull. When you use a larger force, like a larger push, an object will go farther.” Finally, she asks one student to share how the experiment was similar to the two pictures posted of a person pushing a ball.

After the classroom observation, Ms. Chavez reflects on the science lesson. She is excited to see science in a kindergarten classroom because she knows it is important to engage kids with science at a really young age. She is also pleased that the lesson was hands-on and that Ms. Brown used both text and images to illustrate the science ideas in multiple modalities. However, Ms. Chavez feels like there was something missing from the lesson. She knows the new science standards in her state include a focus on the science practices, so she wonders if they were represented in Ms. Brown’s lesson. And if so, which ones? During her observation, she also noticed that some students were quiet and did not appear interested in the experimental procedure. She wonders if there might be a different way to engage these students in group discussions and in “doing” the science.

In this chapter, we introduce the science practices. We begin by discussing recent shifts in science standards and describing the science Page 11  |  Top of Articlepractices. Next, we describe how grouping the science practices can serve as a tool to analyze curriculum and classroom instruction. We use concrete examples from K–8 science classrooms to illustrate these groups of science practices. At the end of the chapter, we offer practical tips and return to Ms. Chavez’s concerns to discuss how to shift classroom instruction to align with the science practices.

Theorizing the Science Practices: Figuring Out the Natural World

What Are the Science Practices?

The science practices are the language, tools, ways of knowing, and social interactions that scientists (and students) use as they construct, evaluate, and communicate science ideas. This view of science as practice originally stemmed from the variety of activities in which scientists engage, including specialized ways of reasoning, talking, and making sense of the world around them (Lehrer & Schauble, 2006 ). Focusing on the science practices offers a different vision of classroom instruction—a vision that moves beyond “learning about” science (i.e., memorizing facts) to “figuring out” the natural world using these different ways of reasoning and communicating (Schwarz, Passmore, & Reiser, 2017 ).

Specifically, A Framework for K–12 Science Education (the Framework; National Research Council, 2012 ) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013 ) include eight science practices (see Figure 1.1 ). Later in this chapter and throughout this book, we will include examples of each of these science practices to illustrate what they look like in classrooms. As a set, though, you can see that each practice includes actions or activities students should engage in as they build and use science ideas. This is a more student-directed and collaborative vision of science than some previous traditional approaches.

Each science standard in the NGSS includes both a science practice and a disciplinary core idea (i.e., science idea) because the two work together synergistically as students make sense of the world around them. Science instruction should not focus on only one science idea (e.g., understanding that a force is a push or a pull or describing the characteristics of a scientific model); rather, it should include the science practice Page 12  |  Top of Articleand science idea working together. For example, one of the 4th grade NGSS standards states, “Develop a model to describe that light reflect-ing from objects and entering the eye allows objects to be seen” (4-PS42). The science practice in this standard is the second one listed in Figure 1.1 : Developing and Using Models. The disciplinary core idea—or science idea—focuses on light reflecting off a surface and entering an eye to see an object. A science classroom targeting this standard should have students develop their own models about how they see objects as they build stronger understandings of light reflecting and eyesight.

FIGURE 1.1: Eight Science Practices FIGURE 1.1: Eight Science Practices

Figure 1.2 includes specific definitions for each of the eight science practices. It is important to note that a number of these practices align with the disciplinary practices in English Language Arts and Mathematics contained in the Common Core State Standards (Cheuk, 2013 ). For example, Engaging in Argument from Evidence is a practice that is found across the disciplines. Connecting and building on these commonalities in other disciplines can help teachers and students in this important work. However, it is also important to keep in mind differences across the disciplines. For example, what counts as evidence in a science argument (e.g., data from observations and measurements) is different from evidence in English language arts (e.g., a quote from a text). Another example is that Developing and Using Models in science focuses on a representation that predicts or explains the natural world, which is different from other disciplines where the word model can be used to refer to an exemplar or demonstration.

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FIGURE 1.2: Definitions of the Eight Science Practices FIGURE 1.2: Definitions of the Eight Science Practices

Two of the science practices include distinct language in relation to engineering, which we did not include in our definitions in Figure 1.2 . Practice 1 includes “defining problems,” and Practice 6 includes “designing solutions.” These practices ask students to learn about not only the natural world but also the humanmade or engineered world around them. These engineering practices highlight the type of work that engineers do as they try to solve problems (Cunningham, 2017 ). Page 14  |  Top of ArticleThese engineering practices are related to the science practices, but they also include some distinct features and are not the focus of this book. If you’re interested, there are other curricula (Engineering Is Elementary, 2011 ) and resources (Cunningham, 2017 ) focused on the distinct aspects of engineering and the designed world.

Science Practices and Equity

Including the science practices in classroom instruction can support an equity vision of science instruction in which each student is known, heard, and supported with access and opportunities for learning. Realizing the potential of the emphasis on science practices in recent standards “is particularly important in relation to students of color, students who speak first languages other than English, and students from low-income communities who, despite numerous waves of reform, have had limited access to high-quality, meaningful opportunities to learn in science” (Bang, Brown, Calabrese Barton, Rosebery, & Warren, 2017, p. 33 ). To support all students in science, we need to move away from traditional science instruction, which does not adequately address equity issues.

An emphasis on science practices can expand the sensemaking practices typically valued in classrooms as well as leverage the resources and interests students bring to their science classrooms. Research has shown that students from historically underserved communities can experience science class as disconnected from their lives and experiences (Bang et al., 2017 ). In a classroom focused on the science practices, instruction begins with students asking questions and investigating phenomena; it does not start with preteaching vocabulary or following prescribed steps in a science procedure. Furthermore, it engages students in a rich repertoire of practices such as arguing from evidence, constructing models, and communicating ideas. This opens more opportunities for students. As the Framework argues, “The actual doing of science or engineering can also pique students’ curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate their continued study” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 42 ). Students can see science as a practice in which they have an opportunity to engage rather than as a set of predetermined facts or procedures they have to follow.

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This work can start with students’ direct experiences and empower them to use their own language and voice as they make sense of the world around them (Brown, 2019 ). As we discuss throughout this book, science begins with students asking questions about the natural world and the phenomena they experience in their science classrooms. By starting with this shared experience and with students’ own questions, all students can feel more connected to and interested in science. In addition, when teachers attend to what students say and do in these spaces, they can build stronger relationships with their students (Bang et al., 2017 ). This focus on science practices can support the creation of more equitable and culturally responsive classroom environments in which more students see themselves as “science people” and build rich science ideas about the natural world. Consequently, a focus on the science practices supports more equitable classroom instruction.

Grouping the Science Practices into Investigating, Sensemaking, and Critiquing

At first, eight distinct practices can feel overwhelming, but they are not independent. Rather, they overlap and work together to support a new vision of science instruction in which students actively figure out the world around them (Bell, Bricker, Tzou, Lee, & Van Horne, 2012 ). To highlight this overlap and offer an entry point into the science practices, we cluster the practices into three groups. Figure 1.3 illustrates these groups of science practices and how they work together to support sci-entific sensemaking (McNeill, Katsh-Singer, & Pelletier, 2015 ).

In Figure 1.3 , we see that the overarching goal of science is to make sense of the natural world. Scientists and students do this by engaging in investigating practices, which result in the collection of data (i.e., observations or measurements). After collecting the data, they then engage in sensemaking practices, which result in the development of explanations or models. Once they have initial explanations or models, they use critiquing practices to compare and evaluate competing explanations and models, which helps determine the strongest explanation or model and identify remaining gaps or questions that need further exploration.

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FIGURE 1.3: Three Groups of Science Practices: Investigating, Sensemaking, and Critiquing FIGURE 1.3: Three Groups of Science Practices: Investigating, Sensemaking, and Critiquing

Figure 1.4 illustrates one way to organize the science practices according to these three groups: investigating, sensemaking, and critiquing. We acknowledge that there is no one right way to group the science practices. For example, a practice such as modeling could be placed in more than one group, depending on if the model is used to support students in asking questions or developing explanations of their data. However, these three groups can be productive conversation starters for initially exploring the science practices that are or are not occurring in K–8 science classrooms. Furthermore, they can be used to analyze curriculum or classroom instruction and help identify areas that need greater focus in a classroom, school, or district.

FIGURE 1.4: Science Practices Organized into Three Groups FIGURE 1.4: Science Practices Organized into Three Groups Source: A version of this figure appeared in “Assessing Science Practices: Moving Your Class Along a Continuum,” by K. L. McNeill, R. Katsh-Singer, and P. Pelletier, 2015, Science Scope, 39(4), p. 23. Copyright 2015 by NSTA. Source: A version of this figure appeared in “Assessing Science Practices: Moving Your Class Along a Continuum,” by K. L. McNeill, R. Katsh-Singer, and P. Pelletier, 2015, Science Scope, 39(4), p. 23. Copyright 2015 by NSTA.

The ILSP team used these three groups as part of a research study in which 26 K–8 principals were interviewed about the science instruction in their schools (McNeill, Lowenhaupt, & Katsh-Singer, 2018 ). As part of the interview, principals were asked to describe good science instruction they had observed in their schools, and the team coded their responses based on the three groups of science practices.

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In the results, 77 percent of principals discussed investigating practices, 38 percent discussed sensemaking practices, and 12 percent discussed critiquing practices. The percentages add up to more than 100 percent because some principals’ descriptions included more than one group and were coded for all the groups in their descriptions. In this example, we see less attention being paid to sensemaking and critiquing practices, which suggests that these areas might be important foci for future professional learning or curriculum selection for the K–8 schools included in this sample.

The following vignettes are taken from K–8 classrooms to illustrate the three different groups of science practices. We selected examples across different grades and science ideas to illustrate what a focus on science practices looks like in schools across time and science topics.

Investigating Practices, Grade 8: Asking Questions and Collecting Data About Why a Speaker Vibrates

The investigating practices focus on asking questions and investigating phenomena in the natural world. A phenomenon is an observable event that students can experience in some visual, auditory, or tactile way (Lowell & McNeill, 2019 ). It can include a firsthand experience, such as putting a bath bomb in water, or it can include a secondhand experience, such as watching a video of a volcanic eruption. Experiencing a phenomenon helps students engage in the three investigating practices (Asking Questions, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking), which in turn help students produce data they will continue to make sense of through the other science practices.

The following vignette is from Mr. Oliver’s 8th grade class. Mr. Oliver is currently teaching a middle school science unit called “How can a magnet move another object without touching it?” (from ). This vignette illustrates his students’ engagement in Asking Questions and Planning and Carrying Out Investigations as they build an understanding of magnetic forces and how they are affected by different factors, such as the type of material used for the magnet or the number of turns of wire in an electromagnet.

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The unit begins with students observing a slow-motion video of a speaker as it plays music. Then students dissect speakers to explore their inner workings. Mr. Oliver uses these experiences to ask his students what questions they have—as well as what ideas they have to investigate those questions. First, he begins with questions. He asks each student to write down a couple questions they have on sticky notes about their observations. He then asks the class to share their questions out loud and adds them to a Driving Question Board (DQB) on a large piece of chart paper at the front of the room.

Mr. Oliver calls on one student, Landon, who reads his question: “Why is there a coil of wire in the speaker?” Tiffany says that she has a related question and shares, “Does it matter what type of metal the coil of wire is made of?” Mario adds that he also asked about the coil. He asks, “Does the number of coils matter in terms of how loud the speaker is?” Mr. Oliver comments that he loves these questions about the coil and it sounds like students want to investigate it as a class. Another student, Danika, agrees the coil is important, but she thinks it needs to be near the magnet to make the speaker work. Danika then reads her question: “Can the coil in the speaker make noise on its own or does it need a magnet?” The class continues sharing their questions and then works together to group them into different areas, such as investigating the coil and magnet.

The next day, Mr. Oliver gathers the students around the DQB, and they revisit their questions about the coil and magnet. He says that today he wants students to plan and carry out their own investigations in small groups to find out more about magnets and coils and how they interact with each other. He shows students a table that includes different materials they could use for their investigations (e.g., magnets, different types of wire, batteries, a compass). He then provides students with a graphic organizer to help them pick one question to investigate and think about what experimental variable they want to change, what they would control, and how they would measure the outcome. Each small group then gets to work selecting a question and planning their investigation.

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In this vignette, we see Mr. Oliver provide students with experiences with a phenomenon (a speaker) to help them generate questions that can be answered through evidence. Furthermore, he uses different instructional strategies (revisiting the DQB, showing materials, having students work in groups, and providing a graphic organizer) to support students in designing an investigation that will provide data they can use to help explain how a speaker works.

Sensemaking Practices, Grade 5: Figuring Out Where Plants Get the Matter They Need to Grow

The sensemaking practices focus on making sense of data about phenomena by looking for patterns and relations to develop explanations and models. These practices encourage students to build and apply science ideas as they explain how and why phenomena occur. The sense making practices include three science practices: Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, and Constructing Explanations.

The following vignette highlights these practices. In this example, Ms. Butler is teaching a Next Generation Science Storyline curriculum titled “Why do dead things disappear over time?” ( ). This 5th grade unit begins with students watching a time-lapse video of a dead animal over time, which results in students generating many questions. Specifically, this vignette is from about halfway through a unit in which students are focused on plants and figuring out where plants get the matter they need to grow.

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At the beginning of this science unit, Ms. Butler’s 5th grade students had a variety of ideas about where plants get the matter they need to grow. They had previously learned in 2nd grade that matter comprises everything around them—it is anything that has mass and takes up space. But the students still have questions about whether some things are matter (Is light matter? Is air matter?), and they are unsure about what helps plants grow. The students’ initial ideas about where plants might get the matter they need to grow include light, air, water, and soil. Ms. Butler uses Page 20  |  Top of Articlestudents’ questions to drive a series of investigations in which students collect data that demonstrate air and water are required for plant growth, whereas soil is not. They also collect data that show light is needed—but is not matter because light does not have mass. Finally, Ms. Butler wants to support her students in making sense of the data they collected and write a scientific explanation.

Ms. Butler shows her students two photos of an oak tree from in front of their school. One is from 20 years ago when the tree was small, and the other was taken the day before. She tells students she wants them to use the data they have been gathering in their science notebooks about where plants get matter they need to grow and write an explanation that addresses the following question: How has the oak tree in front of our school gotten so much larger over the last 20 years?

She then projects an explanation and explains that it is not very strong. It states, “The oak tree is a lot bigger because a lot of time has passed and the soil went into the tree and made it larger.” She asks students to turn to a partner and critique this explanation. How could it be stronger? What should they include in their own explanations? After these partner discussions, Ms. Butler brings the class back together and asks students to share their ideas, which she records on a piece of chart paper. As a class, the students generate the following points:

  1. Explain how the oak tree gets bigger.
  2. Use evidence from our investigations.
  3. Use science ideas we have learned about plants: Water and air are matter plants need to grow. Soil is not needed for growth. Light is not matter, but it is still necessary to grow.

After generating the list, Ms. Butler asks students to write their individual explanations.

In this vignette, we see Ms. Butler focus on one of the sensemaking practices—Constructing Explanations. She knows her students Page 21  |  Top of Articleused investigating practices over the previous couple of weeks to collect a significant amount of data related to plant growth. Now she wants them to dig into and make sense of that information. She also wants to make sure her students connect the investigations they’ve done in class to plants outside the classroom. To support them in this work, she uses an example of a weak explanation and partner talk to help students think about what they learned and the goals for the science writing. She also uses a class-created list as a visual reminder for students to use as they construct and evaluate their own explanations.

Critiquing Practices, Grade 2: Arguing About Why the Shape of the Coast Has Changed

The critiquing practices emphasize that students need to compare, contrast, and evaluate competing explanations and models as they make sense of the world around them. Critique is a hallmark of scientific practice, but it has traditionally been absent from K–12 science instruction (Osborne, 2010 ). The critiquing practices include Engaging in Argument from Evidence and Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.

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Ms. Mitta’s 2nd grade class is in the middle of a science unit focused on processes that shape Earth. She began the unit with videos and pictures of a locally relevant phenomenon for her students: images of coastal erosion showing land falling into the ocean. After her students generate a variety of questions, they collect data (e.g., using stream tables, using straws and sand, going on a field trip to observe the coast) and develop models to show how the coast is changing—and why. Her students draw their models in small groups during class. In reviewing the models, she realizes students have included different causes for the coastal change: water, wind, humans, or some combination thereof.

The next day, Ms. Mitta displays students’ models at the front of the room. She explains that scientists often have multiple models, and they must consider the strengths and weaknesses of Page 22  |  Top of Articlethe models to then revise and strengthen them. She tells the class they are going to engage in argument using evidence to discuss the different models. She shows a poster with five sentence starters on it:

  • My claim for what caused the change in the coast is …
  • My evidence is …
  • I think my evidence supports my claim because …
  • I agree because …
  • I disagree because …

She then has students sit in a circle so they are facing one another and starts the discussion. Ms. Mitta is impressed with her students’ thoughtful ideas and how they use the models and evidence from their investigations to support their claims. By the end of the discussion, the class agrees that both water and wind cause erosion on the coast, and they use evidence from their stream table and straw investigations. Nevertheless, they have a lot of questions about the role and impact of humans in the process. Therefore, they decide they need to gather more evidence to decide whether humans should be in their model.

In this vignette, we see Ms. Mitta supporting her 2nd grade students in the critiquing practices. Specifically, she focuses on Engaging in Argument from Evidence and Communicating Information.

This vignette highlights that even early elementary students can engage in rich argumentation using evidence. Ms. Mitta included several instructional strategies to support her students in this work. For example, she organized the models so students could visually see there were differ-ences across them in terms of the cause of the phenomenon. Then she provided students with sentence starters and purposefully arranged her classroom so students could see one another, the sentence starters, and the grouping of the models. Using different strategies can help create a classroom culture in which students can compare and critique different claims using evidence.

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A Few Practical Tips

Familiarize Yourself with the Three Groups

In this chapter, we presented the recent shift in science education to focus on science practices, introduced the eight science practices, and provided three groups to reflect on those practices. We suggest using Figure 1.3 (p. 16) to think about the role of phenomena in the natural world, data, and explanations/models in relation to classroom science. The overarching goal of recent reform efforts is to shift K–12 science instruction from “learning about” science facts or terms to “figuring out” phenomena in the natural world. The science practices engage students in this critical work as students obtain data, construct explanations and models, and critique those explanations and models as they build and apply richer understandings of science ideas. We suggest familiarizing yourself with the three groups of science practices—investigating, sensemaking, and critiquing—as an entry point into this work. Initially, thinking about these three groups can be less overwhelming than considering all eight, and it can highlight the key goals across all science practices.

Use the Three Groups to Analyze Curriculum and Instruction

After familiarizing yourself with the three groups, you can then use the groups to critically look at the science instruction and curriculum in your school. Are there instructional activities or lessons focused on all three groups? Are some groups more prevalent than others across the curriculum or grade bands? For example, our research found that principals observed more instruction focused on the investigating practices than on the sensemaking or critiquing practices (McNeill et al., 2018 ). Discovering patterns such as this in your school’s instruction or curriculum may suggest important areas of work for future professional learning opportunities.

Focus on One Group at a Time as Part of Professional Learning

Exploring all eight science practices at once in professional learning can be overwhelming for teachers. One strategy, after briefly introducing all eight science practices and the three groups, is to focus on one group Page 24  |  Top of Articleat a time. Doing so can allow teachers to dig in and develop a richer understanding of each set of practices. Furthermore, it provides time for teachers to try out instructional strategies for each group and reflect with peers on the strengths and weaknesses of their approach and on what they are observing with their students. For example, a school could decide to focus on sensemaking practices because this is an area that has received little attention in the past and because some teachers found it was difficult for their students. This common focus can allow teachers to compare students’ explanations and models across grades and discuss how different instructional strategies can be customized for the students in their school. (See Chapter 6 for more detailed recommendations about professional development.)

Returning to Ms. Chavez

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After observing and reflecting on the kindergarten science lesson, Ms. Chavez decides to meet and talk with Ms. Brown. During their conversation, Ms. Chavez tells Ms. Brown she is excited to see science in her classroom and loves that she is engaging her students in this work. She then asks Ms. Brown what she feels the purpose or goal of the lesson was. Ms. Brown responds that it targets a science standard focused on planning and investigating to compare the effects of different strengths of pushes or pulls on the movement of an object (NGSS, K-PS2-1). She originally thought the lesson was aligned with that goal, but she indicates that she is also not completely satisfied with the science lesson. She feels her students can do more, and she is concerned that some of her students did not seem as engaged as she had hoped they would be.

Ms. Chavez shares Figure 1.4 (p. 16) with Ms. Brown, and the two discuss which of the three groups of science practices the lesson targeted. They both feel like it included a focus on the investigating practices but that the current design limited student choice and thinking. Ms. Brown suggests that next time she could use a short video of something the students were familiar with that Page 25  |  Top of Articleincluded motion, such as part of a soccer game or kids playing on a playground. She could use that phenomenon to encourage students to generate their own questions and then have students work in groups to select a question to investigate. She could provide each group with a bag of materials (e.g., ping-pong ball, golf ball, rubber band, straw), which they could then use to design an investigation to explore the question.

Furthermore, instead of telling students at the start of the lesson that the larger the force or push, the farther an object would go, Ms. Brown could instead ask students to come to their own conclusions based on their data. She wants the lesson to be less about her giving the science ideas to her students and more about them actively figuring out those ideas together.

Discussion Questions


  1. How is the shift toward science practices similar to and different from previous reforms in science education?
  2. How can shifting toward science practices support more equitable opportunities for all students in science?
  3. Think about the vignettes used in this chapter. How were students engaged in the science practices? How does that compare to previous science instruction?


  1. How familiar are stakeholders in your school (teachers, parents) or district (administrators) with the recent shifts in science education toward science practices? What opportunities and challenges do you envision for supporting this shift?
  2. How might you use the three groups of science practices in your school? Page 26  |  Top of Article
  3. It can be overwhelming to focus on all eight science practices at once. If you were to select one group of science practices (investigating, sensemaking, or critiquing) to be the focus of professional development for your teachers, which would you select? Why?

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8465100008