The Science Practices: A Primer
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 1.2 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.open-scied.org ). 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.
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?” ( www.nextgen-storylines.org ). 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.
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.
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.
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
- How is the shift toward science practices similar to and different from previous reforms in science education?
- How can shifting toward science practices support more equitable opportunities for all students in science?
- Think about the vignettes used in this chapter. How were students engaged in the science practices? How does that compare to previous science instruction?
- 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?
- How might you use the three groups of science practices in your school? Page 26 | Top of Article
- 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?