Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Classroom Compass
Volume 2 Number 1
Fall 1995


Science and Mathematics For All

Ms. Wilson found a way to help her students connect science to their lives. Years from now, many of them will still link their understanding of evaporation to their experiments with the watering can and the conversations that ensued. Understanding the whys and hows of that event helped the children build skills that will support them all their lives. There is little doubt that the future will be filled with science and mathematics. Rapid advances in computer technology, the infusion of complex mathematics in economics, and the influence of science on health and medicine are but a few examples from today's society. Once thought by some to be the realm of an intellectual elite, science and mathematics are part of everyone's life. Students' success as adults will be influenced by their ability to observe, interpret, and understand their surroundings. Education's challenge is to instill the underlying concepts of science and mathematics in all students so they can construct their own foundations and continue to learn throughout their lives.

Make It Real
To begin to build that lifelong foundation, students must view science and mathematics with interest and enthusiasm. Teachers can nurture intellectual excitement by linking classroom activities with real life. While some learners work well with abstract ideas, for most of us understanding is enhanced when it is linked to a familiar experience. While many textbooks and instructional activities provide interesting theoretical suggestions, taking those theories and applying them to student experiences can test a teacher's ingenuity. Trips to the grocery store, a bicycle or rollerblade ride, making and spending money, or exploring the shapes of homes, local businesses and the school building-all have potential for mathematics questions. The environment within and outside the classroom (local streams and geologic formations, pet behavior, observations of the sun or the moon) can help convey the immediacy of science. A "star party" is a great way to engage students in observation and exploration of the night sky. If your school is connected to the Internet, hook into a meteorological site that provides reports of weather patterns across the country or around the world. Many excellent instructional materials pose questions and suggest activities that can be tied to the local environment. Build your lessons around them with a thought of how familiar and immediate they will be to your students.

Questions Uncover Understanding
How do we know what students are learning? How do we know what they bring to the classroom? What are their thoughts and theories? Finding the right questions and the ways to ask them is the essence of the art of teaching. The structure of a teacher's questions determines the pace of a lesson, the direction inquiry will take, and the balance of autonomy between the teacher and students. Questions that probe for further explanations help students construct and articulate their understanding. They also help the teacher grasp what they understand. Ask how ideas fit with the observable evidence. Have they had other experiences that support their ideas? Do others have alternative experiences or alternative ideas? Conversations should occur among students, as well as with the teacher. Student-based questions-questions they pose in discussions or to the teacher-provide insight to their understanding. Give them enough thinking time, "wait time," to reflect and gather a response. Students who can explain their ideas may be able to present a concept in a new and more understandable way, for themselves and their classmates. Small groups focused on a particular question can offer a safe environment for discussion and problem solving. A classroom with a level of comfort about ideas, reflection, and disagreement encourages curiosity and inquiry. Permission to speculate and contribute is one way of opening the inquiry of science and mathematics to all. Knowing Willie was probably not the water culprit, Ms. Wilson supported the students' exploration into his nocturnal habits. Without the permission to explore their ideas, the class would not have progressed to the next steps of looking at evidence, rethinking, and gathering new evidence. Everyone can benefit from the class's collective experiences and understandings of the world around them.

What to Teach?
One of the challenges of teaching mathematics and science is the breadth of subject matter. How can educators accommodate the call for "Less Is More" and adequately address the content of the disciplines? The authors of Benchmarks for Science Literacy state: "The common core of learning in science, mathematics, and technology should center on science literacy, not on an understanding of each of the separate disciplines." The authors note that learning experiences must include connections among science, mathematics, and technology, as well as the arts, humanities, and vocational subjects. As an example, younger children can understand the relation between heart rate and exercise if they are given the time to explore. Drawing pictures of the heart or memorizing the names of the heart's chambers will not provide such depth or experience. The connections that link their learning to larger themes such as living systems (how hearts work inside living bodies), social issues (the effects of air pollution or smoking), or health (the influence of diet and exercise on the heart) are the beginning of real science literacy. Mary Alice's questions about the disappearing water could lead the class to an examination of weather patterns, energy and matter, or the importance of measurement in scientific inquiry. Ms. Wilson could choose any one of these avenues (but not all three!) to provide a larger picture for understanding evaporation. The definition of evaporation, while probably one outcome of the examination, is but a piece of the puzzle.

Equity in the Classroom
By using her questioning skills, giving the children's imagination free rein in the early stages of theorizing, and focusing their activity on one investigation, Ms. Wilson set the stage for scientific inquiry. The experiment, as it extended over time, gave the students the chance to reflect and discuss their ideas. Each child was encouraged to contribute, to bring individual theories, observations, and conclusions to the problem. By taking each child's response seriously and letting the students design the experiments to explore the problem, Ms. Wilson demonstrated respect for diverse backgrounds and experiences while acknowledging their different levels and abilities. Our classrooms are filled with diversity. They challenge teachers who are striving to introduce all students to the excitement and power science and mathematics can bring. The Curriculum Standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) say it well:

"'s society expects schools to insure that all students have an opportunity to become mathematically literate, are capable of extending their learning, have an equal opportunity to learn, and become informed citizens capable of understanding issues in a technological society. As society changes, so must its schools."

Ms. Wilson's story presents the basics of equity in its evenhanded acceptance of the children's ideas. Specific questions of ensuring participation ("How do I get more girls in the computer lab?" "How do I design activities that include my physically handicapped youngster?" "What about the wide range of abilities in my class?") are addressed in many publications from many different organizations. See the reading list, Equity in Science and Mathematics Education, for further ideas.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy by Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Published by the Oxford University Press, 1993.

Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Published by NCTM, 1989.

National Science Education Standards by the National Research Council (NRC). Published by National Academy Press, 1995 (projected).

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