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March 5, 2021

Overcoming the Challenges of Teaching Science in Elementary School

Tch Next Gen Science Squad

Teaching in elementary school is a challenging task and educators are often confronted with many obstacles. One obstacle to overcome is carving out the time for science classes. With all of the subjects competing for young minds, it’s difficult to create a flexible schedule that can accommodate all the valuable information children need to master. Another potential hurdle is a feeling of uncertainty among teachers about science itself. I often hear teachers say, “I only took a few science classes. How can I teach science effectively and efficiently?”

There are ways to teach science well and manage time efficiently by counting on just a few resources. I find it’s easier to remember these resources if I organize them by theme: Teachers Helping Teachers, Teachers Helping Themselves, and Communities Helping Teachers.

Teachers Helping Teachers

I teach science in a K-6 elementary school. After trying different types of schedules over the years, our school is currently operating with a co-teaching approach. Co-teaching isn’t a new idea, but there are surprisingly few schools that utilize this approach. I’ve searched and found few resources specifically for science, but there are tested models out there.

Our model is still a work in progress, but so far this method of teaching has been appropriate and effective because it allows for real time collaboration, the mastery of material and student behavior, and a learning environment where teachers work together in the presence of students. Teacher collaboration and the bouncing of ideas back and forth demonstrates thinking and models the willingness of teachers to learn and adapt instruction based on student thinking and feedback.

As partners in teaching, make time to plan with colleagues often. Collaborative communication must be ongoing throughout the year to truly see the benefits. If you’re not sure where to start, check out this NEA-compiled list of suggestions for co-teaching entitled, “6 Steps to Successful Co-Teaching.”

Co-teaching also creates a fantastic, dynamic community for teachers to model their own learning based on the work of students and to help one another with difficult problems of practice. I’ve learned a great deal from other teachers. For example, a colleague came to the lab one day and was voraciously writing down scripts of student dialog, which inspired me to learn more about this approach to monitoring student learning and providing more specific, personalized feedback. Another colleague added mathematics formulas to connect a lesson that happened in the classroom to what was happening in the science lab. This inspired me to learn more about Common Core Mathematics and NGSS. In another instance, a colleague incorporated opinion writing into a writing assignment based on an ecosystems lesson in the lab.

When it comes to teaching, there is no doubt that two minds are better than one. The transfer of knowledge can extend beyond the siloed classroom as co-teaching creates an environment with more “minds” to solve the challenges of teaching. To learn more, watch teachers in Seattle, Washington share their successes with co-teaching and Teacher Collaboration…While Teaching!

Teachers Helping Themselves

When I reflect on my teaching practices and the life experiences that led me to become a science teacher, I’m reminded of a profession resembling education: nursing. Nurses, like educators, find a rhythm to their work. They connect with humanity and they understand that theories found in books don’t always match the realities of working with actual patients.

As educators we sometimes forget what it’s like to be a novice and to learn new things. I encourage you to read (or revisit) the Novice to Expert Theory, created by Dr. Patricia Benner. This theory found that nursing students become experts by gaining more skills through apprenticeships and concrete experiences. Co-teaching helps teachers with this same type of practical learning by creating an environment conducive to collaboration, in which continued learning is evidence of growth and tenacity — not inadequacy.

But what about our expectations of elementary students? How can students gain expertise in science when teachers feel that they may not have a solid science foundation? The answer is unclear, and hopefully districts will provide more quality professional development opportunities as we forge ahead with NGSS. However, I believe we can step aside at times and let students guide their own learning. Teachers can support student-driven learning by learning more about science themselves, with resources like the free, online courses curated by The California Academy of Science. And, don’t forget, there is much teachers can learn from their students.

Communities Helping Teachers

Support can also come from parents and the community. Parents can be powerful allies in boosting science learning at your school. I use technology tools like Remind to communicate with parents and families. At Open House and Back to School Night, I post a signup sheet for volunteers and guest speakers. These small acts create community and a feeling of ownership of the science learning at our school.

Don’t be afraid to ask for support from parents who have science and engineering degrees or those who work in a related field. Host a STEAM or STEM night at your school and invite parents and other guests from the community to share their expertise. If your school has a PTA, ask them to help and perhaps a new type of fundraiser for your science program will emerge. Visit local businesses and colleges or universities and engage community leaders in your classroom activities and curriculum. It truly takes a village to raise a child, so reach out.

Want to learn more? Follow me on Twitter: @pettaluma.


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