+ New Approach to Teaching: “Learning Progressions”

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A new approach to teaching called  “Learning Progressions” focuses on a teaching a big idea — for example, molecular theory — and offers dedicated instruction that fosters sustained and incremental learning over several years. 

The key is understanding how children think, and then — incrementally introducing more sophisticated ways of thinking. 

Contrast that with the traditional “six-week unit” model of science instruction — many disjointed topics being taught in short units at each grade level, with little continuity from year to year.

Patti Hartigan’s article in the July/August issue of Harvard Education Letter outlines this emerging approach, which has been studied by researchers like Leona Schauble and Richard Lehrer at Vanderbilt University.

Schauble and Lehrer have been studying learning progressions for more than a decade.  

The original groundwork was laid in two seminal National Research Council reports: How People Learn (2000) and Taking Science to School (2007). 

In addition, the American Association for the Advancement of Science developed the Atlas of Science Literacy for science instruction, which introduced the idea of teaching key science concepts over a number of years.

These so-called “atlas maps” chart learning goals in core science topics, beginning with goals for kindergarten and moving on through grade 12.

What is a “Learning Progression?”

Learning progressions are

…empirically grounded and testable hypotheses about students’ understanding and ability to use knowledge and skills in core school subjects grow and become more sophisticated over time with appropriate instruction

according to a report by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Columbia University Teachers College.

But learning progressions are not benchmarks.  They are descriptions of how children’s thinking evolves over time.  Taking Science to School defines it:

Learning progressions are descriptions of successively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic that can follow one another as children learn about and investigate a topic over a broad span of time.

Hartigan writes about Candace Chick, an elementary school teacher who is definitely not an expert in science.  “I have always been insecure about science,” she claims.

But she is thrilled with the progress her students — and she — have made in the investigation of molecular change.  They conducted hands-on experiments and watched computer simulations. 

These youngsters are not simply able to define terms like “condensation” and “evaporation.”  They enthusiastically discuss their thoughts.  They engage in polite argumentation that influences each others’ learning.  Chick says

Their knowledge isn’t “Oh, there is a puddle on the sidewalk and when the sun comes out it evaporates and goes magically into a cloud and then it comes down again when it rains.” 

They understand how those molecules start to move and bounce around like mad as they evaporate.  They really understand this in a way that they didn’t before.

Children learn concepts like weight, volume, and density in grades 3-5 in order to lay the foundation for later introduction to molecular theory. 

In third grade, students begin exploring materials.  They then move on to investigating weight and volume,  using — among other tools — density cubes and balance scales.  They compare the “felt weight” of cubes made of different materials and then proceed to measuring actual weight on balance scales.

Along the way, they ask questions, such as “Can two objects of the same size weigh different amounts?”  “Does a very tiny piece of clay have a weight?” 

This is called “productive talk” and is intended to lead to a deeper understanding.

Chick is working with a coach from The Inquiry Project, a partnership between teachers, TERC, and Tufts University.  Coaches help and encourage teachers as they lead productive class discussions. 

Students also receive four extra hours of science every week.  Says Chick

“They have started to understand that everything has weight and volume, which is a really big deal.  I never recall getting to a point where kids would be able to articulate this stuff.”

These progressions — sometimes called “trajectories” — must take into account what the youngest students know and how they think when they arrive at school.   

Little children are not blank slates; they are already little theorists with knowledge.  They have misperceptions about key science concepts.   Instruction must take that into account.

The field is in its infancy; researchers are far from having curricula, assessments and professional development tools ready to use nationwide.

But it seems clear, say researchers, that the current method of instruction is “a mile wide and an inch deep;” it is obviously insufficient.  Current methods produce students who can regurgitate facts or do equations, without understanding what those facts or equations really mean.

Says Charles Anderson, professor of teacher education at Michigan State, this is just “procedural display.”  Students learn, for example, to balance a chemical equation, but they don’t realize that balancing a chemical equation is really a way of saying that “atoms are not created or destroyed.”

Anderson has developed an environmental literacy curriculum for grades 4-12 that begins by acknowledging the notions that elementary students bring with them, building from there.

For example, the carbon cycle.  The goal is to shift from the students’ way of thinking (“force-dynamic reasoning“) to what he terms “scientific reasoning.”

“Force-dynamic reasoning,” typical in elementary school, views the world in terms of an “actor” (e.g. the tree) with a purpose (e.g. to grow).  In order to grow, it needs water, air, sunlight and soil.

But  “scientific” explanation will tell us that the tree uses the sun as an energy source to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose, which is the building block of the tree. 

According to Anderson

The scientific story is one of transformation of matter into energy.  If we are interested in preparing kids to think about carbon in our atmosphere and in our various environmental systems and how it effects global warming, we have to make the transition from force-dynamic reasoning to scientific reasoning, where they are thinking about matter and energy.

So the fourth-grade curriculum outlines a path toward that transition in thinking.  Students won’t be memorizing definitions of photosynthesis, for example, but actually transforming their thinking. 

They begin by watching time-lapse videos of plants growing.  Then they grow plants under different conditions — with and without water or light.  They measure results over time.  So they themselves ultimately determine that plants need water, air, light and soil to grow. 

The fourth-graders will then examine plants on a microscopic level, to learn about their cellular makeup.  This leads to an exploration of how plants make their own food, and where they store it.

By tending plants and watching them grow, students begin to view them not as “actors” but as part of an ecosystem.

Anderson and his colleagues are generating data on what works.  But they are clear that the true goal is for students to understand basic principles. 

“Facts alone,” he says, “are not enough.”

Relevant Websites: The Inquiry Project  (http://inquiryproject.terc.edu) ; Learning progressions report from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education can be found at  (http://www.cpre.org); Charles Anderson’s environmental literacy curriculum at Michigan State: http://edr1.educ.msu.edu/EnvironmentalLit/index.htm.

Source: Harvard Education Letter, July/August 2010. Patti Hartigan is a freelance journalist in Massachusetts.   Visit http://www.edletter.org where you can subscribe.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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