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Developing Science Skills
by Catherine Valentino
A Needs Assessment

As a teacher and curriculum director, I've always been amazed at how long it takes to make even minor adjustments in what we teach and how we teach it. It doesn't surprise me, therefore, to find the following paragraph about the best way to teach science in a popular "schoolroom guide" for elementary teachers published in 1877:

The method that should be pursued is that known as the objective method. This presents two distinct, though intimately related departments: perceptive teaching, in which the object, as an acorn, an egg, a leaf or a piece of coal is directly presented to the pupil's senses; and conceptive teaching in which impressions previously received are recalled, arranged and utilized. . . . Definitions should be very sparingly introduced, and never in the first stages of a subject. If given at all, they should sum up knowledge already attained. . . . The vital element, that which gives it a living interest to the pupil, is the discovery or learning of new facts, or the gaining of new ideas about the objects under consideration.1

As a science author writing a teacher's guide 118 years later, I couldn't agree more. What concerns me is this—as modern educators, we agree in theory that the objective method, what we now call discovery learning, is the most effective way for children to acquire the skills and concepts necessary to become scientifically literate adults. However, in many classrooms we are still struggling to build a discovery-based science curriculum.

There is an urgency today that makes acquiring science skills even more important now than they were in 1877. Benchmarks for Science Literacy emphasizes the importance of skills development in preparing students to "make their way in the real world, a world in which problems abound—in the home, in the workplace, in the community and on the planet." 2 In this technological age, knowing how to acquire and evaluate information and how to use it to understand and solve problems is a prerequisite for most jobs our students will have as adults.3

Defining the Skills

The first step in implementing a skills-based approach to science instruction begins by carefully defining what we would like children to be able to do. DiscoveryWorks organizes science skills into three separate groups: Process Skills, Reasoning Skills, and Critical Thinking Skills. These groups correspond to three distinct types of cognitive skills. Process skills are used to gather information about the world. Reasoning skills help children make sense of the information they gather by fostering an open mind, curiosity, logic, and a data-based approach to understanding the world. Critical thinking skills require students to apply information in new situations and in solving problems.

Observing Determining the properties of an object or event by using the senses
Classifying Grouping objects or events according to their properties
Measuring/Using Numbers Skills include:

  • Describing quantitatively using appropriate units of measurement
  • Estimating
  • Recording quantitative data
  • Space or time relationships

Communicating Using written and spoken words, graphs, tables, diagrams, and other information presentations, including those that are technology based
Inferring Drawing a conclusion about a specific event based on observations and data; may include cause and effect relationships
Predicting Anticipating consequences of a new or changed situation using past experiences and observation
Collecting, Recording, and Interpreting Data Manipulating data, either collected by self or by others, in order to make meaningful information and then finding patterns in that information that lead to making inferences, predictions and hypotheses
Identifying and Controlling Variables Identifying the variables in a situation; selecting variables to be manipulated and held constant
Defining Operationally Defining terms within the context of one's own experiences; stating a definition in terms of "what you do" and "what you observe"
Making Hypotheses Proposing an explanation based on observations
Experimenting Investigating, manipulating materials, and testing hypotheses to determine a result
Making and Using Models Representing the "real world" using a physical or mental model in order to understand the larger process or phenomenon

Analyzing Studying something to identify constituent elements or relationships among elements
Synthesizing Using deductive reasoning to pull together key elements
Evaluating Reviewing and responding critically to materials, procedures, or ideas, and judging them by purposes, standards, or other criteria
Applying Using ideas, processes, or skills in new situations
Generating Ideas Expressing thoughts that reveal originality, speculation, imagination, a personal perspective, flexibility in thinking, invention or creativity
Expressing Ideas Presenting ideas clearly and in logical order while using language that is apporpriate for the audience and occasion
Solving Problems Using critical thinking skills to find solutions

Strategies for Change

Recognizing the importance of developing science skills in elementary school and carefully defining and organizing those skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for implementing change. A major stumbling block is our focus on teaching science skills in isolation from their real world applications. A wide body of research suggests that learning to solve problems in a variety of contexts fosters the development of a general problem-solving ability that can be transferred to new contexts. Without practice in applying science skills in real problem-solving situations, transfer is unlikely to happen.2 The following newspaper article and discussion illustrates how these skills can be developed.

Imagine that you and your students are on the playground when Nicole's coat suddenly disappears into the sky. How could you turn that event into a memorable science experience for your class? The first step is recognizing the learning potential in such natural events. The second is knowing how to take advantage of the event and turn it into an opportunity for practicing science skills. The final step requires students to think about, discuss, and modify the ways they identified and solved the problem. To help teachers create an environment in which students make connections between learning science skills in school and applying them in daily life, DiscoveryWorks emphasizes the following key teaching strategies.

Motivate! Look for current events that excite children and adults. An extensive survey I completed over the last seven years suggests that the following events are winners: discrepant events or science "magic" such as the wind picking up Nicole's coat, danger and disasters, science fiction, world records, and sensational demonstrations such as chemical changes.

Model Scientific Curiosity Bring in newspaper or TV news articles to stimulate discussion. Share them with your students, and tell them what you find exciting or interesting. Ask questions aloud and encourage your students to ask their own.

Reinforce Scientific Thinking Make a "Question Collection" and periodically choose a question to initiate a science exploration or activity. Publish a student Science Quest Newsletter with answers researched by the class.

Assess Science Skills There's an old educator's saying that says "if you don't assess it, you won't get it." Help them understand what the different kinds of science skills are and the important role they will play in their future.

If we accomplish these goals we will be well on the way to meeting the challenge articulated in the opening paragraph of Benchmarks for Science Literacy. The terms and circumstance of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human life span.

Longing to Know and Understand The desire to probe, find information, and seek explanation
Questioning of Scientific Assumptions The tendency to hold open for further verification presented assumptions, encounters, and ideas
Search for Data and Its Meaning The propensity to collect information and to analyze it in context
Demand for Verification The inclination to repeat and replicate findings and studies
Respect for Logic The inclination to move from assumption to testing and data collection to conclusions
Consideration of Premises The tendency to put into context the reason for a particular point of view
Consideration of Consequences The tendency to put into perspective the results of a particular point of view
Respect for Historical The inclination to understand and learn from earlier ideas, studies, and events

Catherine Valentino, Author-in-Residence for Houghton Mifflin Company, is a DiscoveryWorks author.
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