Monday, February 25, 2013

Limiting Science Content in Children's Books

     Much thought has been committed toward how the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) might influence science education; publishers of fiction and nonfiction children's books and textbooks are equally concerned about the topic. Most projections are speculative, but some we can take to the bank. Education practitioners, publishers, and education leaders can expect to be limited by the content benchmarks espoused by the Framework for K-12 Science Education on which the NGSS are grounded.
     Students are expected to learn core ideas within each of the four major disciplines (i.e. physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and applications of science). The writers of the Framework subdivided these disciplinary core ideas by "gradeband endpoints." In other words, they described what students should know by particular grade levels--second grade, fifth grade, eight grade, and twelfth grade. To some extent, these are grounded in research-based learning progressions.
     For example, twelfth grade students studying the properties of matter within the physical sciences should know the basic subatomic components of atoms, how atoms interrelate through electrical forces, and their tendency toward arrangements that maximize stability. Rather than jumping from minimal knowledge of atoms to this higher level of understanding, students should progress by hopping across smaller content stepping stones beginning at the elementary level. The Framework establishes that by second grade students should know that matter exists and that large objects can be built from smaller objects; by fifth grade they are expected to know that matter can be divided into tiny components, too small to see; by eighth grade they should know that these invisible components are called atoms and that they combine with one another to form molecules. These progressions should help scaffold student understanding expected by the time they graduate high school.
     But learning progressions and gradeband endpoints will limit the content of children's books. Authors and publishers excited about introducing children to atoms (e.g. water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen) would not be expected to do so unless they are writing for middle school audiences. Those wanting to push the envelope by introducing fifth graders to these concepts may experience pushback from institutional consumers and curriculum developers. And this is only one example of the grade-level content designations established by the Framework and propounded in the NGSS.
     Recently, I took a closer look at the Molecularium Project which attempts to creatively engage young people in learning about atoms and molecules. Project developers created large format films, as well as an interesting and fun virtual theme park full of mini-games and other interactive learning activities. Although the project has been developed for audiences of "all ages," the fact of the matter is that if the NGSS are adopted their formal education audience becomes immediately limited to middle school students. On the one hand, having narrower audiences helps focus project design ideas, but on the other hand limits dissemination.
     My recommendation for children's book writers, publishers, and other science education resource developers is to take a look at the Framework, focusing particularly on the gradeband endpoints. Writers and publishers should then seek to develop books and resources that meet, but do not greatly surpass these grade level boundaries. Unfortunately, this will limit the content children will be exposed to, but will increase the likelihood that librarians and other resource acquirers consume these publications. For those authors, like myself, that believe particular children can be gently introduced to higher level concepts like atoms and DNA, we may have to hope someone is willing to take a risk, consider self-publishing, or learn to limit the content we introduce children to.


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