ERIC Identifier: ED425567
Publication Date: 1998-09-00
Author: VanTassel-Baska, Joyce
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Planning Science Programs for High Ability Learners. ERIC
What subject most intrigues young high ability learners? What subject is
still rated highly by middle school academically talented learners?
Interestingly, the answer is science even though it is taught less frequently
than any other subject prior to middle school. Clearly, we need to ensure that
appropriate curriculum is in place for such students from K-12. In a time of
curriculum reform and a national goal of becoming Number One in the world by the
year 2000, movement on this issue should be compelling to all educators.
SCIENCE REFORM RECOMMENDATIONS
Based on reports over the
past 12 years, it is clear that students have not been achieving well in science
(National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), advanced courses have
been poorly subscribed to or not offered by many secondary schools (National
Science Board, 1983; Bybee, 1993), and girls and minority students have been
dropping out of the science track as early as possible (Hilton, Hsia, Solorzano, & Benton, 1989). On the instructional side of science, it has become evident
that elementary teachers were not teaching science because they did not know the
content nor feel secure with it as a subject area (Rutherford & Ahlgren,
1989); little instructional time in elementary schools was devoted to science
(NAEP, 1988); and where science was taught, basal texts that emphasized reading
and canned experiments were preferred and used over active learning (Lockwood,
In order to address the problems of science teaching and learning, key
national groups including scientists and science educators collaborated on a set
of science concepts and processes deemed essential for K-12 learners to
understand and master (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1989). Other groups such as the
National Science Foundation, the National Academy of the Sciences, and the
National Science Teachers Association have responded through the development of
teacher enhancement programs and curriculum development recommendations. Project
2061 (1993) has published benchmarks of science literacy goals that concentrate
on a common core of learning. More recently, the National Research Council
(1996) has also published a set of national science standards. In this climate
of education reform, the role of exemplary curriculum becomes a primary
consideration in the attempt to improve both gifted and science education.
RESEARCH ON GIFTED LEARNERS IN SCIENCE
literature also contains many ideas for improving science education. The Third
International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which ranks the United States in
the top half of participating nations at grades 4 and 8, suggests that more
instructional time on experimental science activities would be useful, as would
a focus on correcting misconceptions in science learning (U.S. Department of
Moreover, opportunities for earlier access to advanced content need to be
available to gifted students in science. Cross and Coleman (1992) conducted a
survey of gifted high school students, finding that their major complaint about
science instruction was the frustration of being held back by the pace and
content of courses. In a 6-year study of middle school age gifted learners
taking biology, chemistry, or physics in a 3-week summer program, these younger
learners outperformed high school students taking these courses for a full
academic year (Lynch, 1992). Follow-up studies documented continued success in
science for these students, suggesting a need for academically advanced students
to start high school science level courses earlier and be able to master them in
less time. Evidence also suggests that advanced study in instructionally grouped
settings based on science aptitudes promotes more learning for all students
(Hacker & Rowe, 1993).
Data from several summer Governor's School programs in science have
demonstrated the positive impact of such programs on students' continuing with
the scientific enterprise in college (Enersen, 1994). The major impacts from the
experience appeared to center around the collaborative opportunities to work
with talented faculty and a highly able peer group. Such reports point to a
continued need to provide and structure collaborative opportunities for these
Recent work in using problem-based learning in teaching science to high
ability learners at the elementary level suggests the efficacy of the approach
in enhancing student and teacher motivation (VanTassel-Baska, Bass, Ries,
Poland, & Avery, 1998); in improving problem-finding abilities (Gallagher,
Stepien, & Rosenthal, 1992); and in promoting intra and interdisciplinary
learning (Stepien, Gallagher, & Workman, 1993). Recent studies have also
identified the materials that are most appropriate for use with high ability
students in elementary science programs (Johnson, Boyce, & VanTassel-Baska,
1995), citing those that provide a balance of content and process
considerations, including an emphasis on original student investigations,
concept development, and interdisciplinary applications. Other studies suggest
the importance of science mentors and more emphasis on laboratory-based science
as central tenets of providing high-end learning opportunities in science at all
WHAT SHOULD A SCIENCE CURRICULUM FOR GIFTED STUDENTS
At the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and
Mary, the past six years have been spent addressing issues of appropriate
science curriculum and instruction for high ability students as well as melding
those ideas to the template of curriculum reform for all students in science.
Consequently, the elements essential for high ability learners also have
saliency for other learners as well. The most important include the following
emphasis on learning concepts.
By restructuring science curriculum to emphasize those ideas deemed most
appropriate for students to know and grounded in the view of the disciplines
held by practicing scientists, we allow students to learn at deeper levels the
fundamental ideas central to understanding and doing science in the real world.
Concepts such as systems, change, reductionism, and scale all provide an
important scaffold for learning about the core ideas of science that do not
change, although the specific applications taught about them may.
emphasis on higher-level thinking.
Students need to learn about important science concepts and also to
manipulate those concepts in complex ways. Having students analyze the
relationship between real world problems, like an acid spill on the highway, and
the implications of that incident for understanding science and for seeing the
connections between science and society provides opportunities for both critical
and creative thinking within a problem-based episode.
emphasis on inquiry, especially problem-based learning.
The more that students can construct their understanding about science for
themselves, the better able they will be to encounter new situations and apply
appropriate scientific processes to them. Through guided questions by the
teacher, collaborative dialogue and discussion with peers, and individual
exploration of key questions, students can grow in the development of valuable
habits of mind found among scientists, such as skepticism, objectivity, and
curiosity (VanTassel-Baska, Gallagher, Bailey, & Sher, 1993).
emphasis on the use of technology as a learning tool.
The use of technology to teach science offers some exciting possibilities for
connecting students to real world opportunities. Access to the world of
scientific papers through CD-ROM databases offers new avenues for exploration.
Internet access provides teachers wonderful connections to well-constructed
units of study in science as well as ideas for teaching key concepts, and e-mail
allows students to communicate directly with scientists and other students
around the world on questions related to their research projects.
emphasis on learning the scientific process, using experimental design
One of the realities we have uncovered is how little students know about
experimental design and its related processes. Typically, basal texts will offer
canned experiments where students follow the steps to a preordained conclusion.
Rarely are they encouraged to design their own experiments. Such original work
in science would require them to read and discuss a particular topic of
interest, come up with a problem about that topic to be tested, and then follow
through in a reiterative fashion with appropriate procedures, further
discussion, a reanalysis of the problem, and communication of findings to a
WHAT CAN TEACHERS DO TO MAKE THESE REFORM EFFORTS
In order to ensure that science reform is successful,
administrators, teachers, and parents need to consider the following approaches
to help the reform effort succeed.
selection of modular materials rather than basals for classroom use.
There are excellent science materials available that will promote the
teaching described here (Johnson, Boyce, & VanTassel-Baska, 1995). However,
districts must be willing to use such materials rather than insisting on the
purchase of basals which do little to promote the desired kind of science
learning. Moreover, there are excellent supplementary materials also attuned to
the new science agenda that can augment any school science program.
training of teachers in content-based pedagogy.
If we wish to improve teaching and focus on student learning, then teachers
need help in teaching for understanding (Cohen, McLaughlin, & Talbert,
1993). In order to do that, we need to emphasize strategies and instructional
approaches in the context of content rather than separate from it. One good way
to approach such training is to use high-quality materials as the basis for the
training sessions to ensure the integration of content and pedagogy. Skills
needed then by teachers of high ability learners in science include strong
content knowledge and skills in teaching it, flexibility in classroom
management, and the capacity to question student understanding through
metacognitive and assessment techniques.
employment of curriculum monitoring processes in schools.
No matter what new emphasis schools wish to see implemented, there is a need
to ensure that the innovation has been implemented faithfully. Where that is not
happening, suitable measures may be employed to ensure that such change will
occur in the future. Research on staff development as well as effective teaching
demonstrates the need to provide systematic follow-up procedures to ensure
teacher action (Joyce & Showers, 1995). Whether such monitoring occurs
through peer coaching programs, supervisory procedures of the principal, or
curriculum specialists is not as important as the fact that it occurs at all.
Appropriate science curriculum that promotes
high quality learning is desirable for all learners. Access to such learning is
mandatory for students demonstrating a strong yearning for substantive and
challenging science curriculum in schools. Teachers and administrators alike
need to recognize that gifted learners must be challenged in their area of
greatest interest and potential expertise. The world can only benefit from
motivating the future Marie Curies, Booker T. Washingtons, and Michael Faradays.
CURRICULUM REFORM CLASSROOM INDICATORS
Do our classrooms
contain the following elements? Answer yes or no.
__Curriculum focuses on important concepts (e.g., systems, change, patterns,
__Curriculum emphasizes the research process within an integrated framework
(e.g., exploring a topic, planning how to study it and carrying out a study,
judging results, and reporting).
__Curriculum focuses on substantive content.
__Instruction is inquiry-oriented, using strategies like problem-based
learning and higher level questioning.
__Instruction is activity-based, engaging students in the doing aspect of
__Assessment of learning includes performance-based approaches such as use of
real-world problems for students to demonstrate understanding and transfer of
key ideas and processes.
__Assessment of learning includes a portfolio of student work including
individual logs, reports, and other work.
engage in planning and carrying out original research. (Teachers instruct
student in experimental design.)
__Students actively discuss real world problems and issues in relationship to
societal implications. (Teachers present issues and ask high level questions
__Students demonstrate thinking processes necessary for doing work in a given
discipline; e.g., inference, deductive reasoning, evaluation of arguments.
(Teachers ask higher level thinking questions in classroom discussion and
__Curriculum materials are appropriate for high ability learners in that they
reinforce Items 1-10 above.
__Curriculum materials promote student engagement in learning.
__Classroom instruction incorporates appropriate technology as a tool in
__Classroom instruction attends to individual differences in rate of
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