Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno

As California proceeds with implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a major point of contention is likely to be how to sequence science content in the middle-school grades.

Currently in California, the various middle school science topics are grouped together within grade levels roughly by discipline: earth science in 6th grade, life science in 7th grade, and physical science in 8th grade. The newly-adopted NGSS only describe what topics are to be covered in “middle school”, leaving individual states to decide how to sequence content in grades 6-8.

The traditional, discipline-based approach is common across the country and has served California well under our previous science standards. However, the state Board of Education has also approved an alternative, “integrated” approach which would expose students to a combination of earth, life, and physical sciences at each grade level. Under guidelines adopted in November, districts will be able to choose between implementing a traditional or integrated model in their schools.

The Board of Education is to be commended for not imposing the integrated model – favored by many officials but opposed by many teachers – on the state’s schools. Such an integrated approach is intuitively appealing, but does not stand up to scrutiny. It would therefore be a mistake for California’s districts to abandon the advantages of the traditional, discipline-based content sequence.

The primary rationale for integrating the sciences in middle school is that doing so will allow teachers to highlight – and therefore help students to understand – how even seemingly-unrelated scientific content can be unified by the “crosscutting concepts” and science “practices” emphasized by the NGSS.  So, for example, under the proposed integrated 7th grade standards, students would learn about both ecosystems and chemical reactions because both topics incorporate broad, scientific concepts like “cause and effect” and energy flows.

This logic ultimately fails. While it is true that even disparate-seeming scientific content can be unified by overarching scientific concepts, this would be the case for any arrangement of topics. The beauty of such crosscutting concepts in science is precisely that they are applicable across content areas. Highlighting and illustrating general, unifying principles in the science classroom is a worthwhile educational endeavor. There is no need, however, to arrange science content specifically to illuminate abstract science concepts or universal science practices; any arrangement will do.

Additionally, while the abstract interrelatedness of various scientific disciplines may seem obvious to most science educators, recognizing those relationships requires a relatively sophisticated understanding of each content area that many middle school students will lack. Ideally children would acquire such deep understandings of individual disciplines. The NGSS, however, discourage factual depth in individual content areas.

Moreover, scattering closely-related content across the different grade levels will likely make in-depth exploration of a discipline more difficult by requiring additional review in the later grades. For example, the approved integrated content arrangement introduces much of natural selection in 8th grade. A deep understanding of natural selection requires, among other things, considerable knowledge about heredity, but under the integrated model crucial information about heredity is introduced in 6th grade. This means that it may be two years or more since students learning about natural selection as 8th graders have thought about important aspects of heredity. This, in turn, makes it likely either that students will develop less-sophisticated understandings of natural selection, or that teachers will be required to dedicate substantial time to reviewing content from previous years.

While there is little reason to prefer an integrated approach to middle school science, there are many advantages to the traditional, discipline-based approach.

First, many teachers have strong preferences for teaching particular scientific content. I prefer teaching physical science and life science, for example, and actively dislike teaching most earth science. This preference is not entirely arbitrary: I know considerably more about the life and physical sciences than I do about the earth sciences, and have much more experience about how best to teach them. Requiring teachers to muddle through content they dislike or about which they are less knowledgeable is likely to be both unpleasant for them and less productive for students.

Second, it is important to remember that the “traditional”, “discipline-based” arrangement is already integrated. What we refer to as “8th grade physical science”, for instance, includes chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Those are three distinct scientific fields unified only loosely under the “physical science” label. At the same time, these physical science topics are related closely enough to allow typical middle school students to draw meaningful connections between them.

The previous 8th grade standards, like their sixth- and seventh-grade counterparts, also include more ambitious integration where appropriate. When 8th graders learn about chemistry, for instance, they also learn about the “chemistry of living systems,” which aligns neatly with other chemistry standards while allowing students to make connections to the life sciences.

In other words, the difference between the traditional and integrated models is not whether they are integrated per se, but how distantly related the integrated topics are. More traditional models can be usefully integrated without presupposing a level of expertise middle school students are unlikely to possess.

Given the virtues of the traditional, discipline-based approach to organizing science content in middle school, it is unlikely that a more heavily-integrated approach would be an improvement.

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher who worked in Oakland before relocating to Southern California. He also blogs at This Week in Education.


Filed under: Commentary, State Board of Education, STEM · Tags:

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  1. From Appendix K:

    “The NGSS are organized by grade level for kindergarten through grade five, but as grade banded expectations at the middle school (6–8) and high school (9–12) levels. This arrangement is due to the
    fact that standards at these levels are handled very differently in different states and because there is not conclusive research that identifies the ideal sequence for student learning.”

    This is exactly what I’ve been saying.

  2. Michael Wysession says:

    While this article points out the advantages of a traditional approach, it has omitted the major point of the integrated approach, which is that different performance expectations are appropriate for different grade levels. The NGSS were written keeping in mind available research on learning progressions. Some of the performance expectations (PEs) are more appropriate for 6th grade, some for 8th grade. Appendix K at the NGSS web site explains the rationale here (the “Conceptual Progressions Model.” This is a particular problem for the physical science PEs, many of which are written at a foundational level, aimed at 6th grade. The life science and Earth&space science PEs are generally written at a more advanced level (for both middle and high school), building upon the physical science foundation. So, if you were to teach middle school using a traditional curriculum approach (the “Science Domains Model” of the NGSS Appendix K), then you would teach physical science in 6th grade and either Earth&space science or life science in 7th or 8th grade.
    Another reason to do this is keeping in mind the NGSS high school curriculum, which mirrors middle school, with most of physical science preferentially taught in 9th grade, according to the Conceptual Progressions model.

    1. This may be a(nother) design flaw of the NGSS, but note that California has an issue here precisely because the NGSS team did *not* specify a specific progression. Whatever progression logic the NGSS implicitly assume, they apparently don’t think it rises to a level of significance that would dictate a particular progression through the middle school years.

      1. Michael Wysession says:

        Please read Appendix K. If you do, you will see that your statement is not true. It is also inappropriate for you to guess at the motivation of the National Academy of Science-based project behind the motivation of the NGSS. Appendix K clearly states the benefits of the Conceptual Progressions Model, but the NGSS, from the start, were not designed to be a curriculum. They are performance expectations. They are forming the basis of curricula, but were never intended to be a curriculum themselves. It was vital to respect state’s rights in the construction of K-12 educational curricula. Please read the National Research Council’s “Framework for K-12 Science Education” if you would like to better understand the motivations behind the NGSS.

  3. navigio says:

    My impression is that the intention of integration was not to impart the abstract connection between various topics rather it was because this is how people work in the real world and introducing integration would tend to make all the topics more relevant and thus interesting to students. Do you not think this happens? You did seem to say you recognize why some integration is important.

    1. The intention of integration is mostly described – in my experience – as about conceptual understanding. See, e.g., here:

      I do hear about the “real world” from time to time, but not anywhere near as frequently and in any case I’m not sure why they think that’s the way things work in the world. As far as I can tell, most science is done by specialists, and certainly the number of individuals who integrate in the real world across vary-distant disciplines is (relatively) small.

      It’s also not clear to me why we should think integrated standards would be inherently more interesting. The content is the same in either case.

      Integration can be worthwhile, but it shouldn’t be an end in itself.

      1. Michael Wysession says:

        As a university geophysics professor and research for more than 20 years, I would say that this assessment of how science is done is very incorrect, at least in the fields of Earth and space science. The majority of great advances are now being made in the areas between traditional disciplines, in a truly integrated way. For example, one of the fastest growing fields in Earth and space science is biochemistry. The name says it all. Another research area of rapid growth is in the areas of climate change, which incorporate radiation physics, heliophysics, atmospheric chemistry, biomass feedbacks, ocean and atmosphere circulation, etc. The rapid discoveries being made about how the climate system works are based upon and demand an integration across all of the sciences. It is therefore not only fitting, but a requirement that students learn to see science as an integrated endeavor that crosses the artificial boundaries placed there during the 19th century.

        1. These are all fair points, but I’d say a few things in response:

          1) While we can certainly cherry-pick examples of integrated-seeming science, it’s not at all obvious how much cutting-edge science is actually done in an “integrated” fashion.

          2) Even some of the examples of integrated science you cite (e.g., the climate sciences) may be better understood as *domain experts working together*, which is qualitatively different than individuals being “integrated science experts”.

          3) Observing how experts do things is overrated as a way of gaining insight into how novices best learn. Assuming that novices – e.g., children – are best served by being treated like experts is one of the dangers I explicitly warned about above.

          1. Michael Wysession says:

            Science is based on research an observations. Are your views on how science operates based upon research, or are they your own opinion? Can you point to publications that advocate a non-integrated and non-interdiciplinary mode of research? Can you point to published scientific research that you have done, in your own experience, that supports this? Or, can you point to research that shows that students perform poorly when exposed to the ideas of interdisciplinary science?

            My statements on the trends towards increased integrated and interdisciplinary are not based upon my own opinions. They are based upon a vast array of scientific literature based upon work done by and funded by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and other organizations, some of of which I have been a committee member or Chair. These pertain both to how science is done, and to how it is taught. I am happy to give you references. Your statement if very wrong. It is, in fact, very obvious much science is actually done in an integrated fashion.

            1. Whether – and how much – students would benefit from a further-integrated approach is, of course, an empirical question. However, I would argue that the burden is on those wanting to disrupt and forgo the benefits of the current arrangement to demonstrate that there is strong empirical evidence is behind them. I have yet to see it.