“5 E(z)” Guidelines for Designing Research-Informed Science Lesson Sequences
by Dr. Thomas O’Brien
Copyright 2012. All Rights Reserved. NSTA. Do not reproduce without express written permission from NSTA
Commercial textbooks, science activity books, and Internet resources offer elementary teachers a plethora of science activities that claim to be field-tested and “inquiry-based” (NSTA, 2004). Although far fewer activities meet all the S2EE2R criteria of being: Safe, Simple, Economical (time and money), Enjoyable, Effective, and Relevant (O’Brien, 2010), a number of quality elementary science methods books are available to assist teachers in “separating the wheat from the chaff” (e.g., Friedl & Yourst Koontz, 2005; Martin, 2011; Martin et al., 2005). Over-worked elementary teachers do not have to invest their limited time in creating, field-testing and revising their own science activities from scratch. A more appropriate target for individual teachers and/or school and district level teacher teams is to critically explore how to synergistically sequence a series of such activities into a “whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Well-designed science Curriculum-Instruction-Assessment is like a well-written book or book series (e.g., Harry Potter series) where each chapter (or book in the series) builds on and extends the previous one. High quality writing (and “intelligent” CIA sequences) draw the reader (or student) into an ever deepening and broadening world of understanding that both builds on and challenges their prior understandings. They also create a need-to-know that propels the reader (or student) onward by the power of intrinsic motivation (Banilower et al., 2010). Interestingly, this same kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop motivates scientists and engineers to keep pushing against the boundary of the known, exploring the endless frontier of new discoveries and inventions. And, not surprisingly, since “science is fundamentally a social enterprise…[T]he way that scientists operate in the real world is remarkably similar to how students operate in effective science classrooms (Michaels et al., 2008, pp.5-6).”
Planning, implementing and revising research-informed sequences of science lessons (i.e., integrated CIA mini-units) that support learning as a process of conceptual change and meaning-making require teachers to follow an analogous sequence of the very same scientific and engineering practices that are part of the desired student outcomes for K-6 science lessons. The following discussion integrates the Framework’s (NRC, 2011) Guiding Assumptions (Ch.2) and Dimension 1/Scientific & Engineering Practices (Ch.3), 2/Crosscutting Concepts (Ch.4) and 3/Disciplinary Core Concepts (Ch.5-7) and the 5E Teaching Cycle (Bybee et al., 2006). It does this by drawing an extended analogy between the work of scientists and engineers and the work of teachers in CIA planning, preparation and practice.
The 5E Teaching Cycle of Engage—Explore—Explain—Elaborate—Evaluate is an instructional model for designing a series of experientially rich lessons that are conceptually linked and developmentally sequenced to support the ongoing, progressive refinement in student understanding as it develops over time (Bybee, 2002). As such, it is especially effective in designing “mini-units” of five or more lessons where at least one lesson is devoted to each phase of the 5E. But, depending on the learning objectives and available time, adjacent phases can be combined into shorter time frames. The underlying logic of the 5E is that individual lessons only “make sense” in light of how they build on previous lessons and create the cognitive need and scaffolding for subsequent lessons. Both individual and the collective human understanding of science are built on (and in some cases reconstruct flaws in) the foundation of prior conceptions, including resistant-to-change misconceptions (Mintzes, Wandersee, & Novak, 1998). Similarly, “intelligent” CIA is designed around a cycle of learning experiences with diagnostic, formative and summative assessments embedded in an instructional sequence that is aligned with the curriculum objectives (NSTA 2001; O’Brien, 2011b, Appendix B).
Let’s consider then, five steps that teachers can use to better sequence science learning experiences and how these steps are analogous to science and engineering practices:
1. Both science and science teaching begin with asking a question (science) or defining a problem (engineering) that needs to be answered or solved about some observed phenomenon or system [e.g., “I wonder what, where, when, how or why…?” as linked to scientific and engineering Practice #1/p.3-6]. As such, “intelligent” K-6 Curriculum-Instruction-Assessment rests on the fact that like scientists and engineers, “Children are born investigators [who can] reason in sophisticated ways [that are] much greater than has long been assumed.” (Frameworks, Guiding Assumptions, p.2-1).
The Framework (NRC, 2011) frames the “problem” or challenge of K-12 science education as the development of students’ ability to use eight science & engineering practices [Dimension 1/ Ch.3] in order to gain an understanding of seven crosscutting concepts [Dimension 2/Ch.4] that provide the “big picture” framework for understanding a much larger, yet select set of disciplinary core ideas [Dimension 3]. In defining the latter, the Framework addresses two common deficiencies of conventional, textbook-based science curricula: (a) their “mile-wide, inch deep” scope versus a more limited, developmentally appropriate, focused set of “disciplinary core ideas” in the Physical (Ch.5), Life (Ch.6), and Earth & Space sciences (Ch.7) and (b) their failure to give sufficient attention to the recommendation that “classroom learning experiences in science need to connect with their [students] own interests and experiences” (pp.2-4) by including and integrating Engineering, Technology and Applications of Science (Ch.8) that “communicate relevance and salience” (pp.2-4).
Facilitating students understanding of these three dimensions of science education requires teachers to recognize that every scientific concept, principle or theory in their local district and/or state curriculum, was/is, an answer or solution to one or more real-world relevant questions or problems. “In order for problems to be effective for supporting learning, they must be meaningful both from the standpoint of the discipline and from the standpoints of the learner… if students fail to see the problem as meaningful, there is little chance that they will engage in the range of productive science practices that result in student learning” (Michaels et al., 2008, pp.127-128).
As such, intelligent CIA begins with plans to ENGAGE students with one or more FUNomena that activate their natural curiosity, focus their attention, and generate a “need-to-know” motivation related to the questions or problems that are raised (O’Brien, 2010). In contrast, conventional instruction begins with teacher and/or textbook-based “premature answers and solutions,” rather than with rich, “pregnant problems or questions” that have the potential to give birth to new and/or improved student understandings. Stating curricular objectives in the form of questions-to-be-answered leads teachers to consider a range of differentiated instructional strategies to engage students with the question(s) (Gregory & Hammerman, 2008). Minds-on, discrepant event-type demonstrations, simple hands-on activities with surprising outcomes, multimedia-based “invitations to inquiry,” and puzzle-like reading passages (e.g., specially-designed tradebooks such as Dan Sobel’s Encyclopedia Brown series and the Magic School Bus books that accompany the video/DVD episodes based on the original Joanna Cole’s series by Scholastic) – all serve the purpose of “raising questions” (O’Brien, 2010 & 2011a & b). Questions that the students generate from experiencing the FUNomena (with teacher prompting and assistance as needed) challenge them to activate relevant prior knowledge and consider whether they might need a “cognitive upgrade.” Student generated questions and ideas also provide a diagnostic assessment of their prior knowledge that is analogous to a second important aspect of scientific and engineering practices.
2. In framing researchable questions and planning EXPLORoratory investigations, scientists and engineers attempt to make explicit their prior conceptions and assumptions about a natural or engineered system. Given the “forever under re-construction,” adaptive nature of the human brain (Greene, this volume) and the fields of science and engineering, these prior conceptions contain a mix of valid conceptual models that need to be recovered and built on; misconceptions that need to be uncovered and displaced (e.g., Driver et al.,1994; Duit, 2009); and conceptual “holes” that need to be discovered and “filled”. While no individual or series of investigations can ever absolutely “prove” the validity of a given hypothesis, they can provide data that either supports or contradicts it. Investigations attempt to “test” and/or extend the limits of prior understanding (i.e., “theory-driven attacks on our comfort zones”) and are often motivated by puzzles, discrepant data or anomalies (i.e., things that “don’t seem to be working as they should”). Thus, “problem finding” is a desired goal and “miss-takes” are viewed as catalysts for further research. Scientists and engineers have a habit of mind that causes them to look critically and creatively at both unanswered questions and “unquestioned answers” about how things work. Their research is systematic with intentionally designed and articulated plans for data collection and analysis in light of a given hypothesis. But, their plans are also flexible and adaptive to new, unanticipated barriers or serendipitous occurrences (e.g., Pasteur’s “chance favors the prepared mind” idea).
Similarly, teachers bring to their curricular planning a set of tacit beliefs and assumptions about the nature of science, teaching and learning. Documents such as the Framework and the NGSS are designed to challenge teachers to consider the unquestioned answers of their prior beliefs and practices. For instance, a “common but limited approach to sequencing investigations has been to teach the content related to the investigation first, and afterward do the investigation in order to validate the content (Michaels et al., 2008, p.129). Laboratory “exercises” that follow (rather than “explorations” that precede) teacher and textbook-based explanations have been cited as a primary reason for the failure of laboratory-based learning to achieve its potential
(NSTA, 2007; Singer et al., 2006). Accordingly, the 5E Teaching Cycle intentionally places the EXPLORE phase immediately after the ENGAGE phase to continue the engage phase’s emphasis on “FUNomena first, facts follow/Wow and wonder before Words” (O’Brien, 2010 & 2011a & b). However, it is important to note that “students are not sent off on an unguided exploration of a phenomenon or question but are presented with intentionally sequenced and supported experiences framed in a sustained investigation of a central problem.” (Michaels et al., 2008, p.129). Simply having students “hands-on” does not guarantee “minds-on” cognitive processing.
Guided, inquiry-based investigations that ask students to Predict—Observe—Explain help insure that student Hands-On Explorations are FUNdaMENTAL in two senses of the word (O’Brien, 2011b, p.xviii). First, they involve both emotionally engaging “play” and “minds-on,” mentally engaging cognitive processing. Second, they develop students’ facility with using “fundamental” science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas (i.e., the three dimensions of the Frameworks). During the explore phase, the teacher plays the role of the “guide on the side” (not the “sage on the stage”) helping small cooperative learning groups of two–four students carry out hands-on activities (and/or computer-based simulations) and record and organize their observations. They also model and assess student lab skills (including safety: Kwan & Texley, 2002; NSTA, 2007) and actively monitor student learning with probing questions (without providing premature answers). Explore phase investigations are analogous to a farmer who “hoes” the ground to dislodge weeds and rocks (~activates and challenges misconceptions) and provides “fertilizer” (~experiential “grounding” of conceptual precursors) that readies the soil to support new “seeds” (~scientific concepts). They also lead the way to a third category of scientific and engineering practices.
3. Scientists and engineers regularly analyze and interpret data obtained from their investigations (often using mathematics and graphical organizers) and develop oral and written evidence-based arguments to construct defensible explanations (for science) and design practical, operational solutions (for engineering).
Similarly, students who have gained empirical evidence in the Engage and Explore phases are challenged in the EXPLAIN phase to develop, discuss and debate evidence-based explanations for the FUNomena they’ve experienced. During the explanation phase, teachers challenge the students to “make sense” of data gathered from the engage and explore phases. At least part of the “story hidden in the data” can be revealed by inviting students to make evidence-based arguments where they propose and critique both complementary and competing claims with an eye to collaboratively constructing the best ideas (rather than “winning an argument” in the traditional combative sense of the term). Teacher modeling and explicit instruction can be used to teach students strategies such as: restating what a peer has said to check for understanding; asking clarifying, analytical questions that probe the connections between claims and the evidence gathered (and allowing sufficient “wait time” for thoughtful answers); and piggy-backing off the ideas (and data) of peers (creative synthesis). Teaching students how to have productive conversations models what is expected in science and engineering as well as citizens participating in a democracy.
During the explain phase, teachers may introduce age-appropriate mathematics; individual and group readings from the textbook, tradebooks, science magazines, etc.; physical models and analogies that help make abstract ideas more concrete (Gilbert & Ireton, 2003; Harrison & Coll, 2008); and multimedia presentations and simulations that help bridge the gap between students original ideas and scientifically valid conceptions. The key is that the teacher helps students construct “sensible” (i.e., sense-based and logical) explanations versus over-relying on either the teacher or textbook as the source of the authoritative answer irrespective of the data collected. If the latter is necessary to “save the activity,” it is likely that either a poor activity was used or the concept being introduced is beyond the specific grade band of the students (K-2, 3-5 or 6-8). Of course, after productive student discussions based on the data has gone as far as possible, teachers will likely need to formally introduce scientific concepts, principles and terminology. But even during the “explain” phase, teachers’ activities are less about “indoctrinating or informing” students about “the right answer” and more about instructing and inspiring students’ to actively individually and collectively reconstruct their prior ideas in light of new, compelling empirical evidence. Learning science is a process of continual conceptual change based on evidence (NRC, 2007).
Equity and excellence are achieved as an outcome of teaching students the importance of respecting different views, playing devil’s advocates with their own ideas, and working collaboratively towards the “best” answers based on empirical evidence, logical argument and skeptical review (NRC, 1996). This ever-evolving “narrative of discovery” is very different from a “rhetoric of conclusions” approach to learning science. Inquiry-based, constructivist-oriented science instruction has the added benefit of accurately portraying “how we know what we know” in science. Thus, students learn through direct experience about the nature of science as a way of knowing that both shares similarities with and is different from other disciplines (NSTA, 2000).
More broadly, “Exemplary science education can offer a rich context for developing many 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and information literacy especially when instruction addresses the nature of science and promotes use of science practices. These skills not only contribute to the development of a well-prepared workforce of the future but also give individuals life skills that help them succeed.” (NSTA, 2011).
Students’ ability to engage in collaborative discussions about claims, evidence and reasoning also provides formative feedback that informs the teacher’s subsequent actions and may require modification of prior assumptions about students’ abilities and how to best serve their learning needs. Learning-to-read/reading-to-learn; learning-to-write/writing-to-learn; and drawing and graphical organizer-based activities (e.g., concept mapping and graphs) are especially powerful when students have a need to construct explanations for FUNomena they’ve experienced in the two previous phases. True “scientific literacy” requires explicit attention to students’ general ELA Literacy skills, science-specific literacy demands and the synergy between the two (for more background on the science-literacy connection, see: CITE ARTICLE in THIS Volume Cervetti & Pearson; AAAS 2010; Douglas et al., 2006; Saul, 2004; Thier, 2002). Learning to use the written and spoken “language of science” (including mathematics) is necessary (“every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson” Framework, p.3-20) – but not sufficient for learning science. The real power in science (and the real test of learning – Greene, this volume) comes when students can use their revised conceptions to accurately Predict—Observe—Explain new FUNomena related to those they’ve experienced in the first three phases of the 5E Teaching Cycle. This occurs in the next phase of the 5E Teaching Cycle.
4. The generalizability and power of scientists’ and engineers’ refined explanations and solutions are “put to the test” when they are applied to related, but seemingly different contexts. In contrast to popular misunderstanding about the nature of science, scientific theories are inherently parsimonious. That is, a limited set of broadly applicable theories, principles and laws are tightly interconnected to provide powerful explanatory and exploratory tools that account for the known and provide a “compass or GPS to lead us into previously uncharted waters” by triangulating from known points of reference.
Similarly, in the ELABORATION phase, teachers introduce students to new activities where students are challenged to apply what they’ve learned to a seemingly different context. Real-world applications and new challenge problems or tasks solidify and extend students’ understanding about broader implications of what they’ve learned and provide another opportunity for students to experience the “Eureka, I got it!” effect. At this point, all the previous activities should be brought together into a sensible “whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.” The formative assessment aspect of the elaboration phase provides additional cognitive scaffolding and lets both the students and teachers know whether the students are ready for the final summative evaluation phase.
5. The “final test” of the work of scientists and engineers occurs when their results are submitted for publication in journals or their product designs are submitted for patent review where peers judge the quality and originality of their work. Because of this public reporting requirement, future research and practice build upon and improve the past. Subsequent research may “fill-in missing pieces of the puzzle,” extend previous ideas into new applications (i.e., expand the field of view of the puzzle), or occasionally, require reconceptualization of what was thought to be “true,” that in the light of additional testing “isn’t so.” In any case, science and engineering are progressive human endeavors because their practitioners build on prior work (i.e., Isaac Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants”) and are subject to subsequent revision.
Summative assessment of student work in the fifth and final EVALUATION phase can take a variety of forms beyond conventional paper-and-paper tests. Individuals and/or teams of students can be asked to demonstrate their learning via a wide variety of means such as: constructing models, displays, graphic organizers, or artwork with linked oral presentations for their classmates; completing a related at-home experiment; and composing written reports to their teacher, letters to their parents or younger siblings or classes, or science songs or poems for posting on a real or virtual bulletin board. Regardless of the means, formal summative evaluation should inspire student interest in further scientific investigations and inform their teachers of their readiness to move forward to new topics. Thus, the end of one 5E Teaching Cycle is really the launching pad to the next one, just as the published work of scientists and engineers serves as a catalyst for further research.
The Frameworks and NGSS call for the development of learning progressions (NRC, 2007) that scaffold student understanding of scientific and engineering practices (Dimension 1), crosscutting concepts (Dimension 2) and disciplinary core concepts (Dimension 3) across the K-12 grades. The national Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (NGA & CCSSO, 2011) further challenge teachers, curriculum developers and textbook publishers to consider how to articulate and integrate these core disciplines with science (NSTA, 2002). This kind of horizontally integrated (i.e., across subjects at the same grade level) and vertically articulated (i.e., within subjects across grade levels), spiral curricular scope and sequence is beyond the time and ability of individual teachers (and most school districts) to develop. However, as more learning progressions are published, teachers and school districts will be challenged to field test and improve these ongoing works-in-progress. Again, teaching science effectively requires teachers and schools to “practice what they preach” with respect to engaging in scientific and engineering practices to inform their teaching of science and take their practice to progressively higher levels. Effective teachers use “lessons learned” from the design, implementation and evaluation of their integrated Curriculum-Instruction-Assessment units to not only enrich their students’ understanding, but also to expand their own science content and pedagogical content knowledge (Cochran, 1997). Furthermore, analogous to scientists, they exchange the “wisdom of practice” across professional collaborative networks that extend beyond the confines of their individual classrooms (or learning laboratories) and schools (NSTA, 2010).
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