How do students learn science?

Social constructivism as a staple in the science classroom

Students Learn Science by Doing Science

Science involves both a vast wealth of domain-specific information in the physical, life, and earth science areas. Additionally, the study of science includes the practice of the methods by which scientists operate. This extends to experimentation, observations, questioning, inferring, and more.

Furtak et al., (2012) examined learning outcomes in science by constructing a framework to identify various facets of inquiry in analytical studies of classroom practices. Within this framework, they performed a statistical meta-analysis and found that when inquiry-based methods were present, they yielded a mean effect size of 0.50. Their framework delinated four categories for inquiry science instruction:

  • conceptual: the facts, principles, and theories
  • epistemic: understanding how scientific information has been gathered
  • procedural: practicing with the scientific methodologies such as observation, experimentation, etc.
  • social: communication and collaboration in the context of learning science
science: the study of the natural world and the universe in which it resides. This includes both the body of accumulated knowledge, as well as the processes by which such knowledge can be obtained.

Student- and teacher-guided inquiry activities showed positive outcomes for student learning in all four of the above inquiry categories. Teacher-guided inquiry had larger mean effect sizes than student-led open discovery. This underscores the importance of quality teachers in science classrooms. (Furtak, Seidel, Iverson, & Briggs, 2012)

The word inquiry within a wide educational framework can refer to stances of investigation that encompass ethnographic, narrative, and otherwise qualitative methods, as well as controlled quantitative studies. The word in this context is thus found in titles such as Inquiry as Stance (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009), Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design (Cresswell, John W. & Poth, Cheryl N., 2018), and Narrative Inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). As shown above, this is not how inquiry is generally used in the science classroom.

Inquiry, or inquiry-based instruction has meaning that stems on the conceptualization by John Dewey (1910). It has evolved since his early characterization of the process--where a teacher presents a puzzle and students investigate the answer. Investigative behaviors in the context of a science classroom have iterations and gradations, but there is an effort in the education community to move away from the word as a catch-all term and delineate the teaching methods and techniques that constitute science inquiry-based teaching. (Furtak, et al., 2012)

In one such theoretical study, Chinn & Malhotra (2002) made an in-depth comparison of activities that science teachers might categorize as inquiry, comparing them to what they termed authentic inquiry. The latter was defined as learning experiences that closely resemble the kind of work that real scientists do. Exploration, hands-on learning, lab activities, and observations all can fit a broad definition of inquiry and constructivist learning, but may fall short in that comparison to the work of real scientists. Genuine scientific behaviors reflect practices such as constructing a question, designing one’s own experiment, analyzing and presenting data. (Chinn & Malhotra, 2002)

Classroom Inquiry

Putting Theory into Practice

Practitioners, theorists, psychologists, and curriculum designers have grappled with the methodologies that produce persistent, long term changes in understanding and behavior that we might call “learning.” Science education research has largely agreed that the necessity for analysis, critical thinking, and application to new situations require learning beyond that which behavioristic models produce. (Ertmer & Newby, 2013) Cognitivism prompts students to recognize the learning structures that aid them to remember and use information. Neither of these models emphasize the construction of meaning based on the student’s own experiences. Several decades of science education research indicate that constructivist approaches provide authentic, thorough, and transferrable instruction. (Banilower, Cohen, Pasley, & Weiss, 2010).

As ideas have developed about what science instruction should look like in the United States and abroad, several pedagogical components informed the Framework for K-12 Science Education and later the Next Generation Science Standards. Three such components were delineated in the National Academies of Science book How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom. (Donovan, M. Suzanne & Bransford, John D., 2005) The first of these three pieces is the idea that students build understanding upon previous experiences and knowledge. The second consists of “learning with understanding” and that such is done with access to models and representations in context of rich facts. Students cannot be expected to recreate centuries of inquiry during any given school year. The third principle in How Students Learn emphasizes the importance of encouraging science students to ask questions in new and original ways. Students must learn how to question and use evidence to reason through answers. (Donovan, M. Suzanne & Bransford, John D., 2005, p. 426)

Learning in this way speaks to the core of constructivist learning theory. Constructivism occurs when students are able to build on prior knowledge and make meaning based on their previous experiences. John Staver asserts that practitioners should feel no qualms about recognizing and adopting the constructivist ways of sense-making. He also emphasized that social interactions and dialog play a big part in how students, and members of society as a whole, are able to take their preconceptions, which are often misconceptions, and decode and reformulate them in productive ways. (Staver, 1998) Along these lines, constructivism is often split into two realms, individual or cognitive constructivism and social constructivism. Cognitive constructivism has its roots in Piaget's work in which he describes the process that children build on prior knowledge to build understanding of phenomena. (Piaget, 1953) Social Constructivism also recognizes the importance of building knowledge on prior understandings. It leans on Vygotsky's work on the zone of proximal development and the struggle in which students engage. Critical to moving to the next level of understanding is the reliance on social interactions with teachers and peers. (Vygotskiĭ, 2012)

Classrooms that address a variety of learners and content also draw from other learning theories in situational ways. Behaviorism uses reinforcement to correct student performances. While techniques within behavioristic systems may help students recall and describe information, it falls short in providing the tools with which students infer and think critically. (Ertmer & Newby, 2013) Cognitivism emphasizes recognizing the processes involved in learning and retaining information. This may include allow instructors to include some of the higher level thinking and learning skills. Ertmer, et al further emphasize that learners benefit from being able to match and apply different types of learning strategies with real life situations. (2013)

Banilower, et al. synthesized ideas of science constructivism into five elements of quality science teaching, resonating with earlier works. In their publication, the Center on Instruction summarizes research findings in science teaching in five central areas: 1)motivation, 2)eliciting students prior knowledge, 3) intellectual engagement with relevant phenomena, 4) use of evidence to support claims, and 5) sense-making. (Banilower, Cohen, Pasley, & Weiss, 2010) The terminology and methods discussed are consistent with those subsequently outlined in the Framework for K-12 Science Education, which served as the foundation for the Next Generation Science Standards. (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012). Below is a list of instructional tools or practices that is compatible with each of the components Banilower identified. This table is from a project that I describe in further detail here.

MPIES and Instructional Practices