Education Without Silos!

This is the fourth blog in a series on the 5 Innovations of NGSS.  Read the others here.

I once had a student complain after I explained that they needed to cite their sources.  “This is not English class!” he proclaimed.  I politely requested that he refrained from speaking then, as he was using his vocabulary to construct sentences, which was clearly a skill he picked up in an English class.  It seems ridiculous to think that we could teach science in the absence of English Language Arts (ELA) and math.  Yet, the formal education system has constructed silos that we call subjects and licensed educators accordingly.  As this student demonstrates, the isolation of subject matters often creates an unnecessary separation in understanding.  The assumption that students will somehow be able to reassemble their isolated skill sets when they get out in the “real world,” does not hold true for all students.

Of course, many educators have found ways to integrate cross-curricular connections into their instruction.  In this fourth blog post in the series on the 5 innovation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we will explore how ELA and math are intentionally integrated into the standards, as well as how educators can take their instruction to a new level and tear down the silos!  The writers of the NGSS had an easier time purposefully offering standards that were fully integrated.  The Common Core Standards for ELA and math were already written and being implemented in classrooms when the NGSS were drafted.  This allowed the authors to ensure standards were developmentally appropriate across all grade levels.  It also provided opportunity for consistency in the academic vocabulary across the disciplines, helping students to better transfer their skill in different subjects.

When looking specifically at the connection to math we can clearly see mathematical concepts showing up in three of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs).  After students have conducted investigations they will need to apply mathematical skills to analyze and interpret their data.  This often includes tabulation, graphing, or even basic and complex statistical analysis.  Students might then engage in computational thinking when they seek out patterns and understand relationships between data points.  Measurements must often be used to derive additional information using formulas.  These formulas actually represent the third SEP, developing and using models.  These mathematical models allow students to support their explanations, predict phenomenon, analyze systems, or even solve engineering problems.

After students have engaged with mathematics in all of these ways they still need to make sense of what the numbers are telling them.  This is where the application of ELA skills come into play.  Here, students will use their raw data or derived values as evidence necessary to construct explanations of scientific phenomenon.  In the SEP constructing explanations and designing solutions, students must draw upon the evidence to support the claims that they are making.  Likewise, they must become adept at applying scientific reasoning to connect the evidence to the claim.  Supporting what you are saying is a basic element of communication.  As their understanding develops, students will evaluate the merit of competing scientific explanations or design solutions.  They should also construct their own arguments and engage in productive discourse to reach a consensus based upon the evidence that was presented.  While students engage in conducting scientific endeavors they must rely heavily on their ability to obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.  While also listed as an SEP, these activities are rooted in the foundations of ELA.

As educators, we need to help students to recognize how all of the skill sets developed in isolation can be applied in context to build understanding and address the challenges facing society.  Project-based-learning (PBL) offers one approach to infuse other disciplines into your science instruction.  Involving educators from the other disciplines in the planning and implementation can help to ensure that students are fully immersed within the project and engaging in true multi-disciplinary work.  In the elementary classroom, where teachers have more autonomy across disciplines, these projects can span the duration of the day and hold students’ excitement and motivation.  In the upper grades, take the time to have discussions with your colleagues to find ways to make the integration happen or at least find ways in which you can utilize the skills that they are honing in their other classes.  In the end, students will stop asking, “Why do I have to do this?” and start seeing the real value in their education as a whole.

Coming up next:  Engineering?  Isn’t that part of tech ed?