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On teaching science


Suggested standards for practice*

  • Teach sense-making strategies. Teach the uses and the limitations of  sense-making strategies including procedural display, practical reasoning, narrative reasoning, and model-based reasoning.
  • Relate experience, models & explanations. Distinguish and relate three types of knowledge claims that play essential roles in model-based reasoning: experiences, patterns in experiences (verbal and mathematical generalizations), and explanations (theories and models).
  • Model inquiry & application. Make connections among experiences, patterns, and explanations through the  fundamental practices of application and inquiry.
  • Model curiosity & rigor. Model and coach scientific habits: curiosity about one's environments on local and global scales and rigor in one's reasoning about human actions toward those environments.
  • Specific subject matter knowledge. Successful science teachers know and understand a substantial number of experiences, patterns, and models relevant to the topics that they teach.

Commentary on the standards*

We can distinguish between typical science teaching—the generally accepted patterns of practice that prevail in science classes both at the K-12 and undergraduate levels—and excellent science teaching—the patterns of practice followed by the best science teachers.  Table 1 below suggests some key contrasts between these two patterns of practice.

Table 1: Contrasts between Typical Science Teaching and Excellent Science Teaching

Standard/Problem of Practice Typical Science Teaching Excellent Science Teaching
Content: Knowing subject matters and how to teach them Procedural display or telling the story for some topics Telling the story, practical, AND model-based reasoning about experientially real examples
Working with students Students as recipients of science content Students as apprentices in scientific sense-making
Teaching strategies: Lesson sequences Lessons organized around storylines or available materials Lessons organized around model-based reasoning: Learning and inquiry cycles
Professional relationships: learning from others Reliance on imitating role models Ability to learn from many different mentors and colleagues
Learning from experience Superficial analysis and response to experience Curiosity and rigor in analyzing and responding to experience


Deep understanding of fundamental science

We take our central task to be defining and illustrating what it means to understand the topics on those lists—what Hogan and Fisherkeller would describe as compatible-elaborate understanding.  We seek to define what it means to understand any topic well enough to teach it effectively at the high school level.  Rather than mastery of advanced technical detail, this requires what we will call a deep understanding of fundamental science.  Key characteristics of a deep understanding of fundamental science include the following:


Sense-making strategies

Successful science teachers understand the uses and the limitations of different sense-making strategies and can use them appropriately in their interactions with the material world.  These strategies include:

  • Procedural display: Producing correct answers by following memorized procedures.  Successful science teachers avoid this strategy in their own reasoning and in their expectations for their students.
  • Practical reasoning (craft knowledge): Achieving practical results by reasoning that is action-oriented, person- and context-bound, tacit, integrated, and based on beliefs.  Successful science teachers use this strategy and engage their students in it while recognizing its limitations.
  • Narrative reasoning: Making sense of the world in terms of linked, linear sequences of events.  Successful science teachers create clear and engaging narrative explanations of systems and phenomena in the material world while recognizing their limitations.
  • Model-based reasoning: Developing and using explicit models or theories that account for phenomena within a domain of applicability.  Successful science teachers engage in model-based reasoning about the topics that they teach, recognizing both its limitations and its fundamental importance in scientific sense-making.


Distinguishing types of knowledge

Successful teachers can distinguish among three types of knowledge claims that play essential roles in model-based reasoning:

  • Experiences: Observations created through interactions with the objects, systems, and phenomena of the material world.  Scientific data are recorded experiences that meet criteria for accuracy and reproducibility.
  • Patterns in experience: Data displays such as charts and graphs; also verbal or mathematical expressions of patterns in experience such as generalizations and scientific laws.
  • Theories and models: Systematic explanations of patterns in experience or data that apply to all data in a domain and can be tested against new data.


Understanding and engaging in scientific practices: application and inquiry

 Successful teachers can make connections among experiences, patterns, and models through two fundamental types of scientific practices:

  • Application: Using scientific models to describe, explain, and predict experiences in their domains, and to design systems or strategies for controlling objects, systems, and phenomena in the material world.
  • Inquiry: Using arguments from evidence to find patterns in experience and create explanatory models.


Scientific habits of mind: curiosity and rigor.

Successful science teachers exhibit curiosity about their environments on local and global scales and rigor in their reasoning about our actions with respect to those environments.

Thus a deep understanding of a scientific idea such as photosynthesis or a topic such as Newton’s Laws includes all of the characteristics above.   When we say that science teaching requires a deep understanding of fundamental science, we mean that detailed knowledge of advanced topics and models—those not included in the K-12 curriculum—is less important than a deep understanding of the topics and models that are included in the K-12 curriculum.


Knowing experiences, patterns, and models

Successful teachers know and understand a substantial number of experiences, patterns, and models relevant to the topics that they teach.

Work cited

Hogan, K., and Fisherkeller, J. (1996) Representing students' thinking about nutrient cycling in ecosystems: Bidimensional coding of a complex topic. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33(9), 941-970.


*Excerpt from Teachers for a New Era, Teacher Knowledge Standards, Michigan State University, 2004.