Every teacher can identify the signs of a disengaged student, seemingly uninterested in the topic at hand. This could be the result of a genuine disinterest, or the student may think the topic has no relevance to their life. They could be overwhelmed by too much information, or they may have misunderstood a concept and given up rather than asking for clarification. The child could also be preoccupied with trouble at home, a playground incident, or any number of other distractions.
Educators know that engaged students enjoy their learning experience and are more likely to learn in a meaningful way. Increasingly the research shows that engaging students by establishing connections between the curriculum and their observations about the world outside the classroom leads to better academic outcomes and better preparation for careers and their future daily lives.
Pedagogical Roots: A Seismic Shift
Pedagogically, there has been a strong shift toward teaching through these real-world connections, in the past century and particularly in recent decades. For teaching science, this approach is an intrinsic part of the 3D learning that is foundational to the NGSS, as well as the 5E instructional model on which STEMscopes is based. But that wasn’t always the case.
Rote memorization and repetition were the approach to learning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the sciences, and didactic instruction was the norm. Yet early 20th-century education reformers like Johann Friedrich Herbart and John Dewey argued that education should focus on students’ experience of the present rather than simply being a preparation for their future. Dewey further argued that schools should act as a microcosm of a functioning society: that is, the classroom should mirror the society students are being prepared for. We can see evidence of schools mirroring society in this way. For example, at a time when schools needed to prepare students to work in factories, students sat in rows, spoke only when given permission, and spent their time learning, practicing, and repeating skills. Even the more recent pedagogical work of Madeleine Hunter, used widely in the 1970s and 1980s, is a blueprint for this factory approach, being “a standard behavioral technique of direct instruction, and modified operant conditioning.” In contrast, today’s students need to be prepared for a much different society and workplace. They need to be problem-solvers, critical thinkers, innovators, and good teammates, regardless of their field.
Later research into how people best learn, particularly in the sciences, argued that children learn best through hands-on experiences with experiments, exploration of ideas, interpretation of what they observe, and their ability to relate scientific concepts to the real world. In the substantial Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS), which ran from 1962 to 1977, educator Herbert Thier and scientist Robert Karplus teamed up to develop a three-part learning cycle that emphasized the critical importance of engaging students at the beginning of a lesson by connecting it to their own experience or knowledge. Their life sciences curriculum was based on the principle that children learn best through hands-on experiences with experiments, exploration of ideas, interpretation of what they observe, and their ability to relate scientific concepts to the real world.
Rodger Bybee and his team at BSCS expanded the three-part learning cycle to the “5E” cycle that is the foundation for STEMscopes. Building on Karplus and Thier’s model, they added “Engagement” as the first stage in the cycle, reflecting new research on how children learn. The Engage stage of the cycle was intended to promote curiosity and elicit prior knowledge by making connections between past and present learning experiences, exposing prior conceptions, and organizing students’ thinking toward the learning outcomes of current activities. Mirroring the way science is conducted in the real world, the 5E approach is inquiry-based, uses a constructivist approach, and is built around hands-on learning. Like scientists, students use a scientific approach to explore a question that they are curious about, learning new concepts and skills within the context of what they already know or have observed in the real world.
The NGSS standards themselves are based on the work of the National Research Council, which published its findings in two seminal works, "How People Learn" and "How Children Learn."
A key idea from that research is that in order for learning to really ‘stick,’ students need continuous opportunities to engage in scientific thinking and practices and to gradually build their understanding of how new knowledge fits with what they already know.
But for the teacher, making the connection to what they already know is a challenge:
Learner-centered environments attempt to help students make connections between their previous knowledge and their current academic tasks. Parents are especially good at helping their children make connections. Teachers have a harder time because they do not share the life experiences of each of their students. Nevertheless, there are ways to systematically become familiar with each student’s special interests and strengths.
An aspect of this challenge is making phenomena and scientific investigation accessible and engaging to students of all types, taking into account cultural diversity, learning style, English language capacity, urban versus rural or suburban lifestyle, family income, among many other dimensions. Yet, as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine points out, “Each [student] brings a cultural background and experiences that could influence their responses and contributions to the activities in your classroom. These experiences can be resources for learning.”
The NGSS are based on three dimensions (hence the term 3-dimensional learning) that are incorporated into each standard:
- Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs)
- Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs)
- Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs)
All three are premised on the importance of connecting what is learned in the classroom with the scientific phenomena and practices used in the real world. For example, SEPs are the behaviors of scientists investigating and building models and theories about the natural world and the key set of engineering practices that engineers use as they design and build models and systems. Mirroring these practices in the classroom and exposing students to individuals using them in real-world careers to solve real-world problems puts the science into context, while preparing students for the requirements of future workplaces.
Similarly, one of the criteria for a DCI is that it must relate to the interests and life experiences of students or be connected to societal or personal concerns. The National Research Council, which promulgated the NGSS, comments, “Children are natural explorers and their observations and intuitions about the world around them are the foundation for science learning.” They envision an approach to science learning where all students are given “the chance to ‘do’ science for themselves in ways that harness their natural curiosity and understanding of the world around them.”
Meeting the Engagement Challenge in the Classroom
Clearly, the challenge of engaging children with real-world connection will vary with the grade level, the topic, and the flesh-and-blood students sitting in a particular classroom. Yet the fundamental approach is the same, regardless: as Rodger Bybee outlines, the role of each teacher is to present a situation, identify the instructional task, and set the rules and procedures for establishing the task in creating a relationship between new concepts and the students’ own experience and interests. Asking a question, defining a problem, showing a discrepant event, and acting out a problematic situation are all ways to engage students.”
How can this be done with the multiplicity of experiences in any one classroom? One way is to use the students’ familiarity with something outside the classroom. For example, one teacher uses coin problems, such as “Using only two kinds of coins, make $1.00 with 19 coins,” which enables children to draw on their familiarity with coins while applying mathematical principles. Another uses a multi-story building that has underground floors to help students visualize and work with negative numbers. Others work with food—pizza slices, for example, or the fair division of a number of goldfish crackers—while others might use sports phenomena—for example, the parabolic curve of a basketball throw.
Another approach is to work with phenomena inside the classroom that all students can observe. One example is learning the effects of different growing conditions on growing plants by planting seeds and then placing the pots in different parts of the classroom with different light levels and varying how much they are watered.
For older grades, another approach is to present a real-world problem that affects the students’ community, using news media, documentary video, and local professionals as resources, to create a real-world example of Problem-Based Learning. Students can explore the scientific issues behind the problem, its implications, and potential solutions, presenting their own proposals or debating the merits of others. This can be particularly effective when applied to engineering challenges of the past or the present.
Another way to connect science to real-world problems is to showcase the different careers and individual scientists who tackle them every day. This humanizes the practice of science, demonstrates how the scientific concepts are applied in daily work and problem-solving, and opens possibilities to students who might not have envisioned themselves in scientific careers.
Finally, perhaps the most powerful tool in eliciting student engagement and connection to the material is to get students talking about a puzzling phenomenon. This may require flexibility and an ability to facilitate discussion organically on the part of the teacher, as the discussion may go to unexpected places. But this can be the best way to assess student knowledge and misconceptions and help them make connections to what they already know or have observed outside the classroom.
Rodger Bybee comments, “Successful engagement results in students being puzzled by, and actively motivated in, the learning activity.” Engaging students by helping them connect scientific phenomena with their own experiences or observations of the real world is one powerful way to immerse them in the “doing” of science.