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The Impact of the Illinois Learning Standards in Science

 

After adopting higher standards in English Language Arts and math, Illinois adopted the Illinois Learning Standards in science. Like their counterparts in math and ELA, these standards also hold students to a higher bar. As a science teacher, I was both excited and nervous about the new standards. I was thrilled to see that the standards included concepts like engineering and emphasized both the understanding and application of content. It was also great to see that the standards incorporated both the Common Core Math and Language Arts standards. The inclusion of the math and ELA standards helped teachers recognize the interconnectedness between the content areas and encourage interdisciplinary teaching with science serving as a vehicle for the rich application of math and language arts. While there were obvious benefits of incorporating the standards, I was nervous about learning what the standards really meant and how to best implement them in my classroom.

Navigating the standards was challenging at first because they were written so differently from our previous standards. The new standards had different skills, content and practices, and required all students to conduct experiments. For example, students needed to be able to plan and carry out investigations, a skill which can facilitate their understanding of content and their awareness of mathematical concepts, such as patterns.

Implementing new standards, whether in science, math, or ELA, can seem overwhelming for teachers, so it is important to provide them with the time and training necessary to thoroughly read through and understand the standards. As I worked on learning the new standards, I began by reviewing where I was in my teaching practice. I examined the concepts I was teaching and how I was teaching them. I spent time during the summer in various workshops learning how to unpack the standards. I read supporting documents and debated the language of the standards with colleagues from around the state. We examined the framework for the standards and all of the supporting documentation multiple times. Five years later, I continue to review the standards and my understanding of them continues to grow as I become more comfortable with implementing them.

As my understanding and implementation of the standards has grown, I have noticed even more overlap between content areas. I have also noticed a difference in the type of learning that takes place in my classroom. My instruction is much more student-centered and focuses on the students being active participants in the learning process. I encourage my students to think critically about information, ask questions about what they are learning, and provide them with multiple opportunities to develop and conduct hands on experiments-all skills that are present in the math and ELA standards as well. This ensures that my students are interacting with science rather than just memorize facts. Implementing the new science learning standards has also provided for increased opportunities for the meaningful integration of math and language arts as students analyze their quantitative data and construct written claims to support their ideas.

One of my favorite science lessons was developed after a student questioned the validity of information from a textbook source. Based on the student’s question about the number of neurons in the brain, I found multiple scientific sources that detailed an approximate number of neurons and an explanation of how the researchers arrived at that number. I introduced the lesson by providing students with a model of a brain, made out of chocolate and sprinkles, and asked students to determine the number of sprinkles in the chocolate without touching the chocolate. After developing their own method of counting the “neurons”, each group of students read a different research article and then summarized it for their classmates. This lesson, based on student questions, required students to utilize math, reading comprehension, and scientific practices in order to better understand the practice of science.

The new science standards in Illinois set a much higher bar for science education in our state, requiring students to be active participants in their learning, which is a great benefit to our them. With their inclusion of math and language arts standards, the new science standards have also provided teachers and students with a meaningful way to practically apply language arts and math skills to provide a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to education. In order for new standards to be effective, teachers need to be provided with the necessary time and training to develop an understanding of the standards, as well as the autonomy to determine the best means through which to help students learn. This will lead to more productive learning environments for both students and teachers.

 

Jennifer Smith is a National Board-Certified Teacher in her fourteenth year of teaching. She currently teaches 8th grade science at Monticello Middle School where she is also the science club sponsor and makerspace supervisor. Jennifer was an Illinois Teacher of the Year finalist in 2014-15 as well as the STEM Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2016. She is a regional director for the Illinois Science Teacher Association and is a member of the National Science Teachers Association. In addition to teaching, Jennifer spends time on developing science curriculum and providing professional development at state and local workshops.