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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Science Instruction for young gifted students in elementary school

By Benjamin Hebebrand, Quest Academy

Science instruction at the elementary school level has remained in many cases traditional. In the chapter on science instruction of the National Association of Gifted Children publication entitled Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education, the following issues are identified as factors in contributing to the notion that elementary science instruction is merely basic, unimaginative, and not conducive to personality traits of youngsters showing tendencies of scientists.

Cheryll M. Adams and Rebecca L. Pierce, both affiliated with the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at Ball State University, list the following factors:

·         Exclusive use of textbook-based science programs
·         Over-reliance on “lecture” as instructional strategy
·         Lack of a “real-world” focus (i.e. how can a teacher relate the scientific concept to the everyday world of an elementary school student)
·         Lack of supplies, equipment, and resources (most elementary schools do not feature a science lab for the youngest students)

Additionally, recent U.S. educational policy, specifically the No Child Left Behind Act, had elementary school teachers focusing the vast majority of their instructional time on mathematics and reading skills that were tested on statewide standardized tests. But recent advances in Common Core Science standards and especially the Next Generation Science Standards offer potential to improve science instruction at the elementary school setting.

How do we recognize young students who show potential in science? Adams, who researches giftedness in science, has identified the following personality traits of scientists, few if any of which lend themselves to traditional science instruction. These traits are a) risk-taker; b) autonomous; c) unconventional; d) original; e) persistent; f) looks at unusual details; g) independent; h) playful; i) rational; j) dislikes ambiguity; k) interest in art/humanities; l) energetic; m) broad aptitude; n) curious; o) intellectual courage; p) daring. Howard Gardner, best known for his work on multiple intelligences, refers to a naturalist intelligence, best described as students being able to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment.

Adams and Pierce point to little research showing any evidence about the effectiveness of science instruction geared at gifted or high ability students (according to the authors, the last 25 years have merely produced one book and 139 articles investigating science instruction for gifted students at any K-12 school level with the majority of those articles focusing on computer science). In the research uncovered as related to gifted students aged 5 to 11, it is suggested that if teachers want to challenge young students in science, “teachers do not necessarily need to look towards the amount of work that is done, but rather to the cognitive demands that it makes upon the children.” As such, teachers are wise to pursue scientific investigations, open-ended questions, and problem-solving. One other recommendation found in the research is that schools (un)cover scientific topics in depth rather than “the mile-wide inch-deep approach currently in place.”

There has been some research on the effectiveness of after-school or extra-curricular instruction in the area of science. “Results indicate that students prefer inquiry-based science activities and would welcome these activities in the classroom.”

Adams concludes the following items as essential in elementary science programs that are geared toward nurturing science talent:

1.       Children are exposed to science often throughout the week.
2.       Classrooms contain a rich collection of books, manipulatives, and both natural and man-made science artifacts.
3.       Children have opportunity to read books with a science focus.
4.       Science investigations are inquiry-based, student-centered, and open-ended.
5.       The teacher has advanced knowledge of science topics taught at the particular grade level.