How Should Science Content Be Organized Across Grade Levels?

In California middle schools students currently learn “earth science” in 6th grade, “life science” in 7th grade, and “physical science” in 8th grade.

California’s proposed adoption plan for the Next Generation Science Standards rearranges that sequence in some peculiar ways. Under the proposal, for example, rather than 8th graders being taught a combination of physics, chemistry, and astronomy – i.e., “physical science” – they will still receive some physics and astronomy, but they will also learn about heredity, genetics, and environmental science.

It’s not obvious what would justify that rearrangement. Under the existing state standards, the content at each grade level isn’t perfectly unified – 8th graders don’t really need to have learned the chemistry to appreciate the astronomy, say – but the earth/life/physical organization is very intuitive. It also results in each grade level’s content having a fair number of connections that can be appreciated by students operating at the middle school level.

This middle school science teacher makes an additional point:

 How are teachers with Single Subject credentials going to be adequately prepared to teach these integrated standards at the middle school level? I have a CA Single Subject Physical Science credential and have been teaching 8th grade physical science for 25 years. I have no expertise in teaching gene mutation, natural selection or geologic time scale and yet those are standards I will be expected to teach in 8th grade science. In looking at the 7th grade standards, teachers with biology/life science credentials will be expected to teach molecular models, states of matter, chemical reactions, law of conservation of mass and plate tectonics. So teachers with Single Subject credentials are supposed to be able to teach content outside their discipline (for half or two-thirds of the school year) at a high enough level so that students can analyze, evaluate, experiment and construct models? This makes no sense to me.

Now, it’s possible to overstate this. The fact is that many science teachers – myself included – already teach multiple science courses.1 As a cell biology major my physics and chemistry coursework went well beyond anything 8th graders need to know about those topics. And teachers are perfectly smart enough to catch up on any of the science middle school students are expected to learn.2

Nevertheless, randomly shuffling the content across the grade levels just makes specialization that much harder. Veteran teachers will find it a little harder to apply the lessons of their past teaching in non-integrated courses and all teachers will be a bit less likely to be totally comfortable with the content to which they are assigned.

And most teachers prefer teaching particular content and so will find “integrated” courses less desirable to teach.3

These aren’t enormous costs, but what’s the point of incurring them?

  1. I’ve taught both life and physical science, as well as a computer science elective. []
  2. This would start to get tougher at the high school level, but HS science classes will probably retain their subject matter coherence anyway. []
  3. I think earth science is for the most part excruciatingly boring and so avoid teaching it like the plague. []
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  1. Posted July 23, 2013 at 1:10 PM | Permalink

    Interesting post! I am not quite sure what to make of California’s proposed arrangement for 8th grade either. Best I can tell, it is a hybrid of the “Conceptual Progressions” model from Appendix K ( with the existing “Physical Science” focus at that grade level. I know you’re not a fan of the NGSS appendices but they do have useful information sometimes :). In any case, it’s probably not the arrangement I’d pick.

    I’m sorry to hear that you find Earth Science so boring, although before I taught it I actually felt the same way. There’s no doubt that it can easily turn into memorizing rock and mineral types and other such minutia if you don’t make a concerted effort to focus on the big ideas, and I think unfortunately most people haven’t experienced good Earth Science education in the US.

    I’m sure this wouldn’t be true for all teachers, but I grew to appreciate the subject much more as I had to dive deeper into it in order to teach it. I also was fortunate to have some really good PD and resources to help support me. So given appropriate support for teachers, I’d argue that this could be a wonderful opportunity for professional growth. But, making that a systemic requirement rather than a personal choice is probably not the best route to go :).

    • Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:32 PM | Permalink

      To my eye, the “conceptual progression” in Appendix K looks like it mostly retains the common-sense physical/life/earth science categorization, albeit in a different order than the current CA standards. Their “revised” MS course progression looks a little more like what they were going on in CA, but (characteristically for the appendices) it’s difficult to discern specifically what the rationale is for shuffling the sciences together that way.

      I don’t think my disinterest in things like erosion is based on too-superficial an understanding of the material. Erosion is, after all, almost the paradigm case for things that are excruciatingly boring. My view is that it’s no coincidence that the most interesting CA 6th grade standards are attempted tie-ins to the life and physical sciences in 7th and 8th grade.

      But in any case, as you say, regardless of the merits of the content, forcing teachers to teach arbitrarily-selected fragments from each field is probably not the ideal way to accomplish things.

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