Positioning Students’ Perspectives at the Center in Developing and Teaching with Science Curriculum Materials

Submitted by Cadre-Admin on Tue, 11/26/2019 - 00:05

Brian Reiser, Professor of Learning Sciences, Northwestern University

Brian Reiser

These are exciting times for science education. Decades of research has led to the innovations reflected in the National Research Council’s  (2012) Framework for K-12 Science and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS 2013). These documents call for students to engage in science and engineering practices to build and use science ideas, rather than solely learning about the science others have done (Schwarz, Passmore, & Reiser, 2017). These reforms are taking hold. To date, 44 states (71% of U.S. students) have adopted NGSS or standards guided by the Framework.

But what does it mean to support students in figuring out the science through science and engineering practices? We view one shift as central —teaching approaches and instructional materials need to support coherence from the students’ perspective. If students are engaged in science as a practice then their science work should be meaningful to them. A classroom visitor should be able to walk over to a group of students and ask them What are you working on? and Why? Students should see how their science work addresses questions or problems their class has chosen to pursue, rather than answering “because that’s what it says to do on the worksheet” or “our teacher said we would need this for high school.”

However, most curriculum materials are organized with coherence from a disciplinary or expert perspective. The reason the class moves from one topic to another may be apparent to curriculum designers and teachers, yet this logic may not be apparent, convincing, or compelling for students. The teacher knows how learning about cells can address important biological questions; but for students, they are learning about cells because that’s the topic of the chapter in their textbook.

In contrast, teachers can present phenomena and problems designed to raise questions for students, work to cultivate those questions, and help the class figure out how to investigate them, building important science ideas in the process. This is a science storyline, where coherence is from the students’ perspective. Questions and problems motivate students’ science work. At each step, students make progress on their questions, adding to a developing explanation or designed solution. A storyline provides a coherent path toward building science ideas, piece by piece, anchored in students’ own questions.

Consider a middle school unit on sound developed to be coherent from a disciplinary perspective. It begins by introducing sound as a wave that travels through a medium, and then poses investigations to explore sound properties such as frequency and amplitude. The teacher could put a ringing timer in a bell jar, remove the air, and students discover that they can’t hear the ringing without the air. The experiment is clearly motivated for someone who already knows how sound works. But consider the lesson from the students’ perspective. Why are we putting a ringing object inside a jar with no air? Nothing in the prior conversation motivated students to explain this phenomenon. The teacher is essentially saying “trust me, this will be helpful, you’ll see why later.”

Suppose instead we start with an anchoring phenomenon in which students observe loud sounds making a window rattle (OpenSciEd 2019). While the result is not surprising to most students, they struggle to explain how this could work. The teacher pushes on students’ initial ideas — What is sound made of that could be strong enough to make the window rattle? How is it traveling? Her questions spark more questions from students. The teacher leads a question building activity, and students develop questions about what creates sound, how it travels, and what happens when sound reaches something that can detect it. Through a series of investigations students begin to see sound as occurring when vibrating matter pushes air, and wonder what would happen if there were no air when the sound is created. Then the teacher suggests she has a way to remove the air from a container, leading to the experiment with a ringing timer in a vacuum.

Teams of learning scientists and classroom teachers are developing, piloting, and investigating storylines like these in classrooms. Storylines have been successful in developing student questions that lead them to figure out the target important science ideas, where students feel like their learning is addressing their own questions. Studies are now underway to explore student learning and agency storyline curriculum contexts, and the teaching strategies that support this approach to sensemaking (e.g., Penuel & Reiser, 2018; Severance et al., 2016; Zivic et al., 2018).

Find out more about storyline materials, and download free storyline curriculum units:


OpenSciEd (2019). How can a sound make something move? Middle school science curriculum materials. https://www.openscied.org/8-2-sound-waves-download/

Penuel, W. R., & Reiser, B. J. (2018). Designing NGSS-designed curriculum materials. Paper commissioned for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report: “Science and engineering for grades 6-12: Investigation and design at the center.” https://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_189504.pdf

Schwarz, C. V., Passmore, C. M., & Reiser, B. J. (2017). Moving beyond “knowing” science to making sense of the world. In C. V. Schwarz, C. M. Passmore, & B. J. Reiser (Eds.), Helping students make sense of the world through next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 3-21). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Severance, S., Penuel, W. R., Sumner, T., & Leary, H. (2016). Organizing for teacher agency in curricular co-design. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 531-564. doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2016.1207541

Zivic, A., Reiser, B. J., Edwards, K. E., Novak, M., & McGill, T. A. W. (2018). Negotiating epistemic agency and target learning goals: Supporting coherence from the students’ perspective. In J. Kay & R. Lukin (Eds.), Rethinking learning in the digital age, 13th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (Vol. 1, pp. 25-32). London, UK: ISLS.


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.