“Curriculum materials” refers to the resources designed to be used by teachers in classrooms to guide their instruction (Stein, Remillard, and Smith, 2007; also see Tyler, 1949, and Pinar et al., 1995, for foundational perspectives). Why is it important for teachers to have access to curriculum materials to use for preschool through elementary science and engineering? These educators—in contrast to their secondary counterparts—are typically responsible for the teaching of all academic subject areas. It is unreasonable to expect them to develop—from scratch—coherent, equitable science and engineering units that build toward the vision of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; National Research Council [NRC], 2012). Instead, teachers need high-quality starting places that they can use and adapt.
Curriculum materials are ubiquitous in classrooms and have long been recognized for their capacity to help to make change in the educational system (Ball and Cohen, 1996). Curriculum materials are limited, however, in how much change they can effect in the larger educational system. Curriculum materials in preschool through elementary grades are still “catching up” to be able to build toward the vision of the Framework (NRC, 2012) and to demonstrate genuine alignment with it and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013).1 For example, some curriculum materials continue to emphasize hands-on activity without supporting explanation and the development of explanations over time (e.g., Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013). Furthermore, because these materials may look different from how teachers were taught and how they have taught in the past, teachers need to have opportunities for teacher education and professional learning so they can learn how to use these materials effectively, as discussed in Chapter 8. System-level concerns that may limit the effects of curriculum materials include the complex political and technical aspects of implementation, discontinuous streams of reform, mismatches between the goals of the initiatives and assessments, and insufficient and inequitable material resources devoted to education and reform (Berliner, 2006; Kozol, 2005; Spillane, 2001).
Despite these concerns, curriculum materials also have great promise for supporting science and engineering learning in preschool through elementary, particularly as development and refinement continues. Indeed, curricular interventions are a potentially stronger lever for change than other approaches commonly adopted in the educational system (Whitehurst, 2009). At the most basic level, they can provide an entry point for subjects that many teachers of younger grades find challenging (Banilower et al., 2018; Davis, Petish, and Smithey, 2006). Building on that, teachers can use lesson and unit plans as something to start from and adapt for their own contexts (e.g., Arias et al., 2016; Bismack et al., 2014; Sullivan-Watts et al.,
1 The Framework and the NGSS do not include preschool/prekindergarten.
2013). Ideally, these materials provide recommendations for opportunities to learn (see Chapters 4, 5, and 6) that can work toward the vision of the Framework. Sometimes, these materials come with the physical resources that are needed to conduct first-hand, hands-on investigations or design challenges—physical resources that might be commonplace in a high school laboratory but can be hard to come by in a typical preschool or elementary classroom (e.g., Jones et al., 2012). Finally, these curricular materials sometimes support teacher learning as well as children’s learning, working as one approach to making change in instruction over time (Davis and Krajcik, 2005; Davis et al., 2017). These educative curriculum materials may also be used in conjunction with professional learning experiences, as research across grade bands suggests (Edelson et al., 2021; Short and Hirsh, 2020).
This chapter pulls together ideas from Chapters 4, 5, and 6 to yield design insight for curriculum materials that are based on what the literature says about learning environments, instructional practices, and integration of domains (see Box 7-1). Furthermore, research on curriculum and curriculum materials across grade levels shows that curriculum materials need to support teachers’ adaptation, including adaptation based on children’s thinking and interests (Broderick and Hong, 2020; Clements, 2007; Davis et al., 2017); identify, introduce, and integrate fundamental concepts and practices coherently and in a sensible order (Kesidou and Roseman, 2002; Schmidt, Wang, and McKnight, 2005); and be designed for equity (Confrey and Lachance, 2000). Building across these ideas, high-quality science and engineering curriculum materials (a) have evidence supporting their effectiveness, (b) build toward the vision of the Framework, and are (c) grounded in investigation and design, (d) coherent (build toward big ideas sensibly and connect across ideas and activity), (e) flexible and adaptable, and (f) equitable, including that they support teachers in being responsive to children’s ideas.
According to the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME+), 77 percent of elementary classrooms report using commercially published materials (Banilower et al., 2018). Nearly half of elementary science classes are using textbooks or modules that were published over a decade ago, meaning they predate or have not been reviewed for alignment with NGSS or the vision of the Framework (Plumley, 2019). Furthermore, although the use of these materials serves as the basis for the overall structure and content emphasis of their instructional units, teachers also often incorporate other materials to modify their lessons, including resources from subscription-based websites or individually created materials (Banilower et al., 2018; Doan and Lucero, 2021; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2020). Materials from sources such as Teachers Pay Teachers account for about 39 percent of the designated materials in elementary classrooms and are used weekly in about 49 percent of elementary classrooms (Plumley, 2019). Such idiosyncratic, one-off materials do not systematically meet the characteristics of
high-quality curriculum materials. These findings suggest that a majority of teachers are not currently using curriculum materials that reflect the guidance identified in Box 7-1; therefore, the focus in this chapter is on studies of more coherent curricular materials or programs. Box 7-2 provides an example of an effort that reflects some of the guidance presented in Box 7-1.
The sections that follow review the literature on preschool and then elementary curricular efforts.2 The chapter then turns to a review of the
2 Because selection of materials is largely an issue in the K–12 realm, the elementary section includes a treatment of districts’ selection of materials, and because of the nature of the evidentiary base, the elementary section also includes a discussion of the insufficiency of instructional materials for investigations and design challenges.
literature on preschool through elementary teachers’ use of and learning with curriculum materials. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of how curriculum materials can be used to work toward equity and justice in science and engineering education.
Early childhood researchers and practitioners have created multiple professional development programs and curricular resources that promote science teaching and learning in preschool classrooms and, more recently, programs and resources that promote engineering teaching and learning. Science curriculum efforts initially focused on specific content themes or on scientific method and inquiry; they highlighted science “inquiry skills” or “process skills” (rather than science practices and crosscutting ideas) as “skills that one could develop independently from content knowledge” (Larimore, 2020, p. 708). Recent curricular efforts have more closely aligned to current science frameworks. For example, Greenfield and colleagues (2017) have adapted the Framework for use in preschool classrooms. However, research that explores how science and engineering can be cohesively supported across preschool through elementary grades is needed.
Some of the curricular and professional development programs initially developed include The Young Scientists Series (Chalufour and Worth, 2003, 2004, 2005), Science Start! (French, 2004), and Preschool Pathways (PrePS) to Science (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; Gelman et al., 2009). These programs (which focus on science, not engineering) were developed based on strong theoretical foundations, emphasize the importance of integrating science throughout the day, and provide supports for teachers to integrate science with other domains. These programs, however, pre-date and do not always clearly align with current science frameworks, and research examining their impact on science teaching and learning has been limited. A study examining the promise of Science Start! reported significant gains in vocabulary (PPVT) in a (single group) study in Head Start classrooms and a small (experimental) study with three prekindergarten classrooms (French, 2004). Although it is known generally that there is often a relationship between science learning and language learning (as discussed in Chapter 6), less is known about how that relationship played out in this curriculum and whether this led to improvements in science learning.
When these programs were developed and evaluated, there were few instruments available for measuring science learning in preschool, although recent work has begun to fill that gap. Greenfield (see Clements et al., 2015; Greenfield, 2015, for a review) developed and field-tested equated English and Spanish adaptive science assessments. These two assessments (Lens on Science; Enfoque en Ciencia) were specifically designed to measure science learning throughout preschool, including core content, practices, and crosscutting concepts.
In recent years, additional science curricular programs have been designed and evaluated; these include My Teaching Partner-Math/Science (MTP-M/S; Whittaker et al., 2020), the interdisciplinary Connect4Learn-
ing (C4L) curriculum (Sarama et al., 2016), and the Next Generation Preschool Science/Science with Nico and Nor curricular program (Domínguez and Goldstein, 2020). These programs focus on science practices for the purpose of developing both conceptual understanding and an appreciation for how to do science. This focus helps align these programs with the kinds of characteristics highlighted in Box 7-1. Furthermore, this science-as-practice approach is a good match for preschool, where children’s curiosity about the natural world acts as a powerful catalyst for exploration of natural phenomena.
Most of these recent curriculum development efforts have included implementation studies and examinations of teacher and child outcomes. For instance, a randomized controlled trial conducted to examine the effects of the MTP-M/S intervention in 140 prekindergarten classrooms found that teachers who participated in the intervention exhibited higher quality and quantity of science instruction and that children in intervention classrooms outperformed children in comparison classrooms on a science assessment after 2 years of implementation (Whittaker et al., 2020). Similar findings are reported for Science with Nico and Nor: results from a randomized controlled study in 20 public preschool classrooms indicate the curriculum program, which included science curricular activities and digital media, was used appropriately, and that children in classrooms that implemented the program made significant improvements in science learning relative to children in comparison classrooms (Domínguez and Goldstein, 2020). A pilot study and a subsequent quasi-experimental study of the C4L curriculum, which promotes mathematics, science, literacy, and social-emotional learning, indicate that children exposed to the curriculum outperformed children in comparison classrooms in science, literacy, mathematics, and social-emotional vocabulary (Sarama et al., 2017).
Although findings on science learning are encouraging, reported effect sizes are small (e.g., the effect size for MTP-M/S was .20, and the Science with Nico and Nor intervention accounted for 5% of the overall variance in science learning). These findings highlight the need to identify child-level variables that contribute to children’s science learning, such as the experiences that young children engage in at home and other informal learning contexts (Domínguez and Goldstein, 2020). Overall, the evidence from these studies reflects a shift from research-based materials toward research-validated materials.
Complementing these examples in preschool science is an example of a preschool curriculum program focused on engineering: Wee Engineer, developed as part of the Engineering is Elementary curriculum series (Cunningham, Lachapelle, and Davis, 2018; see Box 7-2). Using a simplified three-step engineering design process, Explore-Create-Improve, Wee Engineer units provide prekindergarten educators and children with a
meaningful design context, a clear design challenge, simple materials to explore and use for design solutions, and connections to play. This new program does not yet have extensive evidence supporting its efficacy.
Although these efforts have attended to current science and engineering frameworks, they have not used the science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts in the NGSS specifically. All of them have attempted to align to the NGSS while also attending to preschool and prekindergarten standards, resulting in slightly different learning goals. Two recent programs that focus on both science and engineering have used a version of the Framework adapted for use in infant, toddler, and preschool classrooms (Greenfield, Alexander, and Frechette, 2017). One is a preschool program with dual language learners enrolled in a Head Start Program: RISE (Readiness through Integrated Science and Engineering) STE curriculum (McWayne et al., 2020). The other, the Early Science Initiative, is a new multisite project within the Educare Learning Network.
In recent decades, there has been an emphasis on hands-on learning and engagement with materials as supporting engagement and children’s “doing science” at the elementary level (NRC, 2007).3 The field has called this “hands on rather than minds on.” Until the release of the Framework in 2012, there had not, in general, been a focus on research-based learning progressions over long periods of time. In addition, the materials were built around assumptions that younger children could only engage in particular kinds of activities (e.g., observing, categorizing, describing) before others (e.g., explaining, designing investigations). The Framework’s emphasis on science and engineering practices, even with young children, pushes against this constraint-based and deficit-oriented approach. The Framework emphasizes sensemaking and puts forward coherent learning progressions starting in kindergarten. Thus, building on arguments originally put forward in Taking Science to School, the Framework pushes for changes in elementary science (and engineering) instruction and thus, curriculum materials.
The introduction of the Framework and subsequent adoption or adaptation of the NGSS by 44 states (see Chapter 2) have spurred the development of new curricular programs at the elementary level (e.g., Haas et al., 2021; Krajcik et al., 2021; Wright and Gotwals, 2017). Some of these elementary development efforts are working toward alignment with the Framework and the standards, and their vision; they are in some ways working toward the vision of learning environments put forward in Chapter 5. These programs
tend to be phenomenon and/or problem based; children in K–5 use phenomena and models in ways similar to how scientists do and solve design challenges in ways similar to how engineers do. These programs emphasize sensemaking. Using the science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts, children attempt to make sense of phenomena and develop solutions to problems; in this approach, teachers, instead of emphasizing facts and terminology, support children in that three-dimensional sensemaking process. Furthermore, these programs build on and allow responsiveness to children’s ideas. These programs emphasize relevance and authenticity (such as described in Chapter 5) and the importance of equitable and just learning experiences and outcomes for every child. The materials may provide support aimed directly at supporting teacher learning, as well (Davis et al., 2017). A final key characteristic, based on research across grade levels, is coherence, in which ideas connect to and build on one another (e.g., Kesidou and Roseman, 2002; Weiss et al., 2003). New elementary materials are being developed now to reflect these characteristics and the vision of the Framework. Some efforts take up guidance provided in the NGSS, as well, including support for equity, assessment, the nature of science, and addressing learning progressions, though issues of whose knowledge is included in curriculum materials are still in play. Developing such materials is challenging and these efforts will need to demonstrate useful impact on teachers and children. Box 7-3 illustrates an example of how the SOLID Start curriculum has attended to some of these issues.
District Selection of Materials
According to the 2018 NSSME+ Horizon report, 72 percent of elementary classes use instructional materials for science instruction that have been designated by the district, and of these classes, 67 percent of teachers report having textbooks designated for their elementary science instruction, 51 percent of teachers report having kits or modules designated, and 43 percent of teachers report having state, country, district, or diocese-developed units and lessons designated (Banilower et al., 2018). Additionally, roughly 30–40 percent of teachers reported that they used either textbooks, kits/modules or state, county, district, or diocese-developed units and lessons for science instruction at least once a week (Plumley, 2019).
Considering Characteristics of Materials
Materials take different approaches to content delineation. Most assume that there is a designated science (or engineering) time (which is aligned with the typical structure of the school day in most districts). Some are integrated, connecting science to other academic subject areas includ-
ing language arts, mathematics, or engineering. Curriculum materials also vary along other dimensions. Curricular programs can be comprehensive or supplemental. They can be kit based or not. Finally, they can be free and open source, or they can be commercially available. This section briefly explores the reasons schools or districts might choose materials with different combinations of these various characteristics.
Comprehensive materials cover the entire school year and typically are billed as addressing all of the relevant standards for a given grade level. Thus, teachers using comprehensive materials have access to lesson plans and unit plans for their instruction for the year—a boon for elementary teachers who are, as emphasized throughout this report, typically responsible for all academic subjects as well as other aspects of their children’s development. These materials also enhance the consistency of children’s experience over the elementary years.
Any materials, but particularly comprehensive materials, may be kit-based—a loose term that does not fully capture the complexity of obtaining materials for science and engineering instruction. Kit-based science (or engineering) curricular programs provide all or almost all of the physical resources that teachers need for engaging children in the lessons in the units, including both consumable and nonconsumable materials. This provision of materials is key in working toward the vision of the Framework, given the centrality of phenomena and design challenges and thus the importance of children engaging in first-hand investigations. Examples of comprehensive, kit-based materials include FOSS, Amplify, and Science and Technology Concepts (STC) (Banilower et al., 2018).
More than one-half of elementary teachers report having access to kits (Banilower et al., 2018), and research suggests that kits make the teaching of science feasible in the elementary grades. For example, a study conducted by Jones and colleagues (2012) explored teachers’ reported use of kits. In this large-scale study of 503 practicing elementary teachers in the United States, teachers who reported more use of kits also reported more use of innovative or reform-oriented practices such as having learners support claims with evidence, analyze data, and work in groups. This study is consistent with others that demonstrate the utility of kits for elementary science teaching (e.g., Nowicki et al., 2013). On the other hand, Slavin and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta-analysis and found minimal positive effects of kit use on children’s learning. Many teachers use kits and seem to appreciate how they make the teaching of science more feasible for them, and children are unlikely to learn science if teachers do not teach science.
In contrast to comprehensive materials, many materials, including some developed by research projects, are incomplete—that is, they do not include units that address all of the standards across a school year—and thus they
serve as de facto supplemental materials. The incomplete nature of these materials can be a challenge for districts, schools, and teachers. That said, the materials developed by research projects tend to be of high quality, and in particular, tend to work toward not just technical alignment with the standards but also alignment with the vision of the Framework for elementary grades. Examples of such materials include NextGen Storylines (aimed at developing tools to support teachers in developing sequences of lessons that unfold coherently around science practices for children; Reiser et al., 2021), Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning (aimed at upper elementary and integrating science, engineering, language arts, and mathematics; e.g., Easley, 2020; Fitzgerald, 2018; Krajcik et al., 2021; Miller, Severance, and Krajcik, 2021; see Box 6-1), SOLID Start (aimed at kindergarten and integrating science, engineering, and language arts; Wright and Gotwals, 2017; see Box 7-3), Lee’s NGSS-aligned curricular materials (aimed at upper elementary grades, integrating science and ELA, and emphasizing support for emergent multilingual learners; Haas et al., 2021), and Engineering is Elementary (Cunningham et al., 2020; see Box 7-2). Each of these materials is research based, and these materials have varying degrees of empirical evidence of efficacy, though in all cases, studies are ongoing.
Materials also may be free and open source, or commercially available. Clearly, free materials have an advantage for schools and districts, in that the budgetary impact of the materials is alleviated, leaving—perhaps—money to be allocated for physical investigation materials and/or professional development experiences for teachers. (It must be acknowledged, as well, that “free” materials still present substantial expenses for districts, in the form of professional learning sessions, kits, and resources; science funds still need to be budgeted for the curriculum to be taught as intended.) Another potential benefit of some open-source materials is that they are designed to allow teacher adaptation. Examples of research-based materials that are freely available include NextGen Storylines, Multiple Literacies for Project-Based Learning, and SOLID Start. OpenSciEd, which will begin development of elementary materials around the time of the publication of this report, is also built on the open-source model.
Materials vary in terms of how much evidence supports their efficacy and who generated that evidence (i.e., the developers or an outside party). Looking for evidence beyond what a commercial developer provides from in-house studies is key. Research-based materials typically provide evidence that goes beyond what most commercial publishers provide, such as evidence about teachers’ use and children’s learning.
Materials also vary in terms of their attention to issues of equity and justice. For example, the developers of the NextGen Storylines argue that providing their materials as open—educational resources that can be freely
downloaded allows them to be adapted for local contexts (Reiser et al., 2021)—an important characteristic for working toward equity. SOLID Start reflects several of the equity-oriented characteristics depicted in Box 7-1, including being anchored in contexts, providing multimodal opportunities for expression of children’s ideas, and using texts (through interactive read-alouds) for both explanation and identity work (Wright and Gotwals, 2017).
Additional Considerations for Review and Selection
Other criteria for considering and eventually selecting instructional materials include (1) support for children to develop coherent science explanations, (2) strategies for assessing learners’ progress and understanding (i.e., embedded formative assessment), (3) intentionally attending to the importance of language in science learning, and (4) support for teacher learning (NASEM, 2018b). Materials that support coherent explanations and solutions help children understand what they are working on and why, and more importantly, help teachers recognize the key moments that need to occur for the lesson to build toward the vision of the Framework (Reiser et al., 2021). Formative assessment-embedded materials allow children to share their understanding in multiple modalities, while providing guidance to teachers on ways to elicit and respond to children’s thinking (Fine and Furtak, 2020). Curriculum materials that attend to science and engineering and language integration recognize that language is actually a means to investigate phenomena, solve problems, and accomplish tasks in the classroom through various modalities—talk, text, and diagrams (Haas et al., 2021). This approach particularly supports the participation of emergent multilingual learners in robust science learning (Lee and Stephens, 2020; NASEM, 2018a). Lastly, educative materials (Davis et al., 2017) are designed to facilitate both student and teacher learning, afford multiple ways to adapt lessons to meet the range of learners’ and teachers’ needs, and may include features that help teachers see what an enacted lesson looks like, including the anticipated thinking and decision-making roles for teachers during a particular lesson.
District Review Processes
Districts have many criteria to consider and choices to make when deciding about curricular programs to adopt; at the same time, though, districts may have to make decisions about instructional materials under time pressure after only cursory reviews of textbooks or presentations of materials, with budgetary considerations determining the final choice (NASEM, 2018b). Relying on a robust review process is critical in deci-
sion making. EdReports,4 for example, conducts curricular reviews. At this time, it seems that even elementary materials designed with the NGSS in mind are not yet fully aligned with the vision of the Framework. The Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) rubric and its associated tools can be used to determine how well lessons and units are aligned to the NGSS and other state standards informed by the Framework, and to inform teachers’ own adaptations to the materials as well as informing designers’ ongoing development work. Other tools that help teachers and districts select materials to use as they implement the NGSS in their classrooms and schools include (1) the NGSS Lesson Screener, (2) Primary Evaluation of Essential Criteria (PEEC) for NGSS Instructional Materials Design, and (3) NextGen Toolkit for Instructional Materials Evaluation (NextGen TIME; adapted from an earlier tool, Next Generation Analyzing Instructional Materials, or NGSS AIM). Tools vary in their complexity and can be challenging for curriculum adoption committees to use; new resources are regularly being developed in part to support the tools’ ease of use.5
The NGSS Lesson Screener is used to analyze a single science lesson for alignment to the NGSS, where a lesson is defined as a learning sequence that might extend from one or two classes to one or two weeks. PEEC is a three-step evaluation tool for full programs, measuring how well materials are designed to support teaching to meet the goals of the Framework and the NGSS. PEEC incorporates the EQuIP rubric, and establishes whether materials for a given program involve (1) making sense of phenomena and designing solutions to problems; (2) 3D learning; (3) K–12 learning progressions; (4) connection to ELA and mathematics; and (5) reaching all students with all standards (NASEM, 2018b). NextGen TIME6 is a five-step tool that involves assessing the district’s readiness for the review process, identifying curricular programs to examine in depth, refining those choices by understanding the strengths and limitations of each program, piloting one or two options, and then planning the professional learning opportunities that would be needed for teachers as well as what adaptations may need to be made to better fit the context of the district.
States and districts may have their own curricular review processes, as well. For example, Louisiana’s instructional materials review process uses committees composed of Louisiana educators who evaluate materials
5 For example, see https://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/critical-features-instructional-materials-design-today’s-science-standards and https://www.wested.org/resources/toward-ngss-design-equip-guidance/.
6 NextGen TIME was developed collaboratively by Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), Achieve, Inc., and WestED. Next Gen AIM, a foundation for NextGen TIME, was developed collaboratively by BSCS, Achieve, Inc., and the K–12 Alliance.
based on a set of state-developed rubrics. The rubrics provide a structure for the educators to evaluate the quality of the curricular program and its alignment to the state’s standards. The reviews fall in three tiers, with the top tier indicating a program that has met all of the criteria on the rubric. After the evaluation process, publishers have the opportunity to respond to the evaluation before the evaluation is published. The state department of education publishes a compilation of the results of these evaluations, updated weekly. Districts can purchase top-tier materials under a state contract; lower-tier materials are not eligible for the state contract, but can be purchased and used. Other states use different (often less stringent) instructional materials review processes, or expect districts to take the lead entirely on instructional review.
Once materials have been adopted, the capacity for teacher adaptation is key. Teachers’ use of and adaptation of curriculum materials are addressed in more depth later. District and school leaders need to have a sense of how the curriculum materials should be used, including recognizing adaptation that is in keeping with the vision of the materials and understanding of the physical materials needed to engage children in first-hand investigation and design.
Insufficiency of Instructional Materials for Investigations and Design Challenges
Although having high-quality curriculum materials is key in supporting science and engineering for children, another factor also matters: the availability of the physical instructional resources one needs for conducting investigations and the facilities that make those investigations possible. For example, children may need hand lenses to support careful observation or balances that are accurate enough to capture small changes in mass; they also need consumable supplies (e.g., seeds, cups, batteries) that are used and must be replenished. Their classrooms need access to water, electricity, physical workspace, and other utilities and infrastructure to support their investigation and design work. Furthermore, some phenomena occur on scales that are too large, small, slow, or fast to be directly viewed, and so computer technology for access to videos or simulations may be needed. These critical resources and facilities are not always available for teachers. The committee did not find parallel systematic evidence on this issue for preschool settings; however, the NSSME+ report (Banilower et al., 2018) provides a window into elementary classrooms across the United States.
In terms of physical instructional resources, 80 percent of elementary classrooms have access to some kind of balance (e.g., a pan scale or digital scale). Most elementary classrooms do have access to electric outlets (93%)
and faucets and sinks (83%). These rooms are much less likely, however, to have laboratory tables (29%), and elementary seating arrangements can make conducting collaborative investigations a challenge in some settings. Most elementary schools have schoolwide wifi (98%) and laptop or tablet carts available (89%).
The funding available for equipment, consumable supplies, and software can signal how science is prioritized in elementary schools. The NSSME+ found that at the elementary level, the median amount that schools spent per pupil on science resources (specifically equipment, consumable supplies, and software) was $1.98—considerably lower than the $6.88/pupil spent at the high school level, and also much lower than the $6.45/pupil spent on math resources at the elementary level. These expenditures are inequitably distributed based on a number of factors: number of students on free and reduced-price lunch, school size, locality (urban/rural), and geographic region.7
Elementary teachers perceive the resources they have available for science as inadequate. When asked to comment on whether their access to resources is adequate, only 39 percent agreed with regard to equipment (e.g., thermometers, magnifying glasses); 38 percent with regard to facilities; 49 percent with regard to instructional technology (e.g., calculators, computers); and 30 percent with regard to consumable supplies (e.g., living organisms, batteries). Middle and high school science teachers are much more likely to rate their access to resources as adequate. Perhaps more saliently, elementary teachers are much more likely to rate their access to resources for mathematics as adequate, in comparison to science; the parallel figures for teachers’ perceived adequacy of their access to instructional technology, measurement tools, consumable supplies, and manipulatives, in elementary mathematics, range from 65 to 87 percent.
Overall, these findings show that science instruction is under-resourced and not highly prioritized in elementary classrooms, and that these concerns are exacerbated in under-resourced schools (Banilower et al., 2018).
Besides being an important resource for children’s learning, curriculum materials are a key lever for supporting teachers and their learning. Specifically, curriculum materials are an important form of support for preschool and elementary teachers of science (and, by extension, for teachers of engineering, although there is less research related to engineering), supporting multiple domains of teachers’ knowledge and practice. They can comple-
7 Currently available data from the NSSME+ Horizon report do not disaggregate these factors to elementary grades.
ment initial teacher education and ongoing professional learning, taken up in Chapter 8. In this section, some of the relevant scholarship is reviewed, drawing largely on a recent review of the literature on elementary and secondary science teachers’ use of curriculum materials (Davis, Janssen, and van Driel, 2016) and focusing on the findings from that review related to elementary teaching and learning, as well as on other scholarship exploring preschool teachers’ use of curriculum materials (e.g., Whittaker et al., 2020).
Ways Curriculum Materials Support Teachers
Although curriculum materials are typically thought of as a way to provide learning activities or, at most, to support teachers’ learning of subject-matter knowledge, in fact using curriculum materials also helps to build preschool through elementary teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge and their pedagogical design capacity (Beyer and Davis, 2012a, 2012b; Whittaker et al., 2016; 2020), as well as other aspects of their knowledge and practice (Davis and Krajcik, 2005; Davis et al., 2017). Preschool teachers have been found to effectively use science curricular materials that embed within-activity curricular supports, such as recommendations for language, teaching tips and adaptation ideas, and online supports such as brief video demonstrations of high-quality teacher–child interactions around science and mathematics (Whittaker et al., 2016). Elementary teachers can use curriculum materials effectively (e.g., Forbes, 2011; Forbes and Davis, 2010), including educative curriculum materials (e.g., Arias, Davis, and Palincsar, 2014; Bismack et al., 2014, 2015) or curriculum materials that are designed to support teacher learning as well as student learning. For example, teachers using educative curriculum materials can use them to support children in engaging in certain science practices (e.g., Arias, Davis, and Palincsar, 2014; Enfield, Smith, and Grueber, 2008) and to provide emergent multilingual learners with ambitious opportunities to learn (Cervetti, Kulikowich, and Bravo, 2015).
That said, preschool through elementary teachers may struggle with using curriculum materials to support sensemaking and engagement in science practices (e.g., Beyer and Davis, 2008; Biggers, Forbes, and Zangori, 2013; Bismack et al., 2014; 2015; Domínguez and Goldstein, 2020; Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013), including the kinds of proficiencies around investigation and design specified in Chapter 4. Studies in elementary school consistently show that beginning (preservice and early career) elementary teachers were able to use some aspects of their curriculum materials effectively but struggled to use or enhance existing supports for explanation, argumentation, and other science practices or to build new supports for sensemaking. Studies examining outcomes of preschool science curricula
report similar findings, with teachers successfully promoting engagement in observation and investigation, but less frequently facilitating discourse to promote explanation (e.g., Domínguez and Goldstein, 2020).
Furthermore, teachers may use curriculum materials in a way that aligns with their current practice, rather than pushing toward the reforms intended by and embedded within the materials (e.g., Davis, 2006; Schwarz et al., 2008). In addition, elementary teachers may recognize the positives of “opening up” the curriculum for scientific uncertainty, but also experience some tensions around doing so (Manz and Suárez, 2018).
Some research has explored how educative curriculum materials can support effective integration of science and literacy (Chapter 6). A study of educative features within science curriculum materials aimed at upper elementary grades looked at a range of educative features, including learning goals that outlined the conceptual focus of the reading, interactive reading guides, graphic aids to support teachers’ and children’s understanding of texts, and narratives that described how fictional teachers chose to support children during reading and discussions of readings (Arias, Palincsar, and Davis, 2015). Another pair of studies looked at the effects of modified trade books that connected the texts to the nature of science and provided discussion prompts (Brunner, 2019; Brunner and Abd-El-Khalick, 2020). Finally, another study explored educative features aimed at supporting teachers in integrating science and literacy with emergent multilingual learners; the features included science background information, instructional suggestions and rationales, and specific instructional strategies for supporting emergent multilingual learners (Cervetti, Kulikowich, and Bravo, 2015). Across these studies, the researchers found that teachers drew on the educative features and were able to incorporate some of the ideas and strategies suggested therein. Box 7-4 summarizes some of the strengths and limitations of how curriculum materials can support teachers.
The above discussion has focused on how educative curriculum materials could be designed to support teacher learning directly. In addition to this, teachers also learn through the combination of curriculum materials and professional learning experiences provided to schools adopting those curriculum materials (see Short and Hirsh, 2020). When a district adopts a curricular program, they typically are able to obtain professional development to support teachers in learning to use the program in their teaching. In these cases, the curriculum materials become, in essence, the phenomenon under investigation, and teachers explore them in multiple ways: as students, but also as teachers, sometimes examining children’s work and/or videos of enactment and sometimes engaging in practice-based rehearsals themselves (e.g., Lee et al., 2008; Roth et al., 2011; see NRC, 2015b, for a review).
Teachers’ Use and Adaptation of Curriculum Materials
Teachers use the same science curriculum materials in quite variable ways (e.g., Arias, Palincsar, and Davis, 2015; Arias et al., 2016; Bismack et al., 2015), suggesting that expecting “fidelity of implementation” (O’Donnell, 2008) is likely unrealistic. Furthermore, some scholarship suggests that enacting curriculum materials with “fidelity” may be unrelated to students’ science achievement gains (Lee, Penfield, and Maerten-Rivera, 2009), though the use of curriculum materials in general seems supportive of student learning (Lee et al., 2008). Generally, teachers adapt curriculum materials for their own use (Davis, Janssen, and van Driel, 2016; Stein, Remillard, and Smith, 2007), and fidelity to the vision of the curriculum may be a more appropriate goal (e.g., McNeill et al., 2018).
Preschool through elementary teachers need to engage in active and principled adaptation of any materials (e.g., Davis, 2006; Schwarz et al., 2008). Often, for example, materials need changing to better infuse opportunities for children’s sensemaking (rather than being told “the answer”), to meaningfully engage children in the science and engineering practices, to connect to local contexts, and to fit within one’s own classroom and with
one’s own learners. Teachers say they make changes to curriculum materials based on time constraints and the needs of their learners (Davis et al., 2017). Such curricular adaptation can be engaged solely by the classroom teacher, or it can involve co-design work in which researchers and teachers partner, often to make local connections and/or to shift the epistemic work of the materials (e.g., Manz and Suárez, 2018; McWayne et al., 2021; Stromholt and Bell, 2017).
What influences elementary teachers’ use of science curriculum materials? The teachers’ own knowledge and beliefs shape how they use the materials, as do characteristics of the materials themselves and the contexts in which they are being used. Table 7-1 summarizes some of these factors. The first of these factors, teachers’ understanding of the science practices, is related to their uptake of ideas from educative curriculum materials; teachers were (not surprisingly) more likely to incorporate practices that they understood better (e.g., Arias et al., 2016; Bismack et al., 2015; Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013). For example, given curriculum materials that offered opportunities for first-hand investigation and the development of mechanistic explanations, preservice teachers were more likely to emphasize hands-on data collection and the description of cause and effect relationships (i.e., what happened), but not the mechanisms underlying a phenomenon (the how or why)—which aligned with their understanding of evidence and explanation (Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013). Furthermore, beliefs—about what children can do (Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013), assessment or lesson design (Beyer and Davis, 2012b), or classroom management (Kelly and Staver, 2005)—have been found to be related to teachers’ decision making about how to enact curriculum materials. Teachers who do not believe that science practices should be assessed, for example, were unlikely to use or add opportunities for assessment of science practices (Beyer and Davis, 2012b). On the other hand, teachers who understood the value of personal relevance in lesson design could make appropriate changes to enhance this aspect (e.g., changing the lesson purpose from “keep a cotton ball dry” to “keep me dry when it’s raining”; Beyer and Davis, 2012b).
A second factor in teachers’ use of curriculum materials is the design of the materials themselves. Although there is variation in how teachers take up specific characteristics of the curriculum materials, some research suggests that teachers using kit-based curriculum materials were more likely to teach accurate content (Nowicki et al., 2013). How inquiry-oriented curriculum materials are tends also to predict how much a teacher is likely to engage children in scientific inquiry (or what might now be called science practice) (e.g., Beyer and Davis, 2012b; Forbes, 2013; Forbes and Davis, 2010; Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013). These studies consistently demonstrate the value of access to high-quality, coherent, practice-oriented curriculum
TABLE 7-1 Factors Shaping Teachers’ Adaptations of Curriculum Materials
|Factors||Examples of Results|
|Teachers’ Knowledge and Beliefs|
|Teachers’ understanding of the science practices||Stronger understanding of certain practices may lead teachers to include those practices.|
|Teachers’ beliefs (e.g., about learners’ capabilities, assessment, classroom management)||A belief that children cannot engage in sophisticated sensemaking may lead teachers to omit opportunities for sensemaking.|
|Perceptions of time constraints||Limited time may lead teachers to omit lesson segments.|
|Characteristics of the Curriculum Materials|
|Comprehensive or kit-based materials||May support teachers in teaching accurate science content; no clear effect on children’s learning.|
|Inquiry or practice orientation||Greater orientation toward science practice may lead to engaging children with the practices.|
|Specific educative features yield different effects||More situated educative features and features that support principled adaptation and engagement in sensemaking seem helpful.|
|Contexts of Curriculum Material Use|
|Classroom contexts (e.g., mentors) as supportive or not supportive of adaptation||Having mentor teachers who model the importance of principled adaptation of curriculum materials seems helpful.|
materials in elementary classrooms. That said, as Slavin and colleagues (2014) note, there are relatively few strong, large-scale studies of effects of elementary science curricular programs.
Furthermore, a close look at one dimension of this second factor reveals that specific types of educative features appear to have different effects on how teachers use the curriculum materials. For example, teachers with access to curriculum materials that incorporated narratives of how other educators used the materials themselves were likely to draw on the narratives frequently; other, less situated, but more explicit, educative features were used less often but were more likely to support teachers in learning specific educational principles of practice (Beyer and Davis, 2009). Educative features may support the how of engaging in science instruction—providing a clear, step-by-step roadmap—or the what—showing what this kind of instruction can look like (Drayton et al., 2020). With preschool teachers, online supports were used far less than other forms of support (Whittaker et al., 2016).
In general, preschool through elementary teachers seem to use educative features that are centrally situated within lessons—such as narratives, rubrics, and examples—more often than they use other, less situated elements (Arias et al., 2016; Bismack et al., 2015; Whittaker et al., 2016), though some teachers also found utility in content supports such as concept maps and content storylines (Arias et al., 2016). Which educative elements teachers take up seems related to the teachers’ purposes and instructional goals (which are idiosyncratic) as well as to the nature of the educative features themselves (Arias et al., 2016). That said, generally scholarship suggests benefits of incorporating educative features into curriculum materials for elementary science (Cervetti, Kulikowich, and Bravo, 2015; Enfield, Smith, and Grueber, 2008; Lin et al., 2012).
Recent work (Davis et al., 2017) has developed an empirically grounded set of design principles for educative curriculum materials. These design principles recommend using multiple forms of support, providing suggestions for productive adaptations of the materials, providing supports that are situated in teachers’ practice, incorporating educative features that can be applied directly as teaching tools, and—directly related to elementary science and engineering—focusing on supporting sensemaking and using instrumental science and engineering practices to incrementally work toward change in teachers’ practice.
A third factor in how elementary teachers use science curriculum materials is the classroom context. Much of this work has taken place with preservice elementary teachers. Preservice teachers may not adapt curriculum materials; some research suggests that it is relatively rare for preservice elementary teachers to see their mentor teachers making such adaptations (Beyer and Davis, 2012a), which can make preservice teachers unlikely to engage in curricular modification themselves. That said, when preservice teachers do perceive their field placements to be supportive of that modification, they may be in a better position to enact more reform-oriented instruction, by virtue of adapting curriculum materials toward that goal (Forbes, 2013).
In summary, this research shows an important role that curriculum materials—particularly those that are designed to support teacher learning as well as children’s learning—can play for teachers who are responsible for science and engineering with the younger grades.
Having curriculum materials available for preschool through elementary teachers provides an important support for them in increasing access to high-quality opportunities for science and engineering learning available for children (Approach #1). Furthermore, kits and the physical and/or
digital resources needed for science investigations and engineering design challenges serve a similar role—without the “stuff” needed for investigation and design, it is far more difficult for teachers to do that kind of work. Yet the NSSME+ report shows that some schools are less likely to have access to the range of physical resources, and these under-resourced schools are also likely to spend less, per pupil, on such materials (Banilower et al., 2018). Thus, learners in under-resourced schools are less likely to have the kinds of opportunities to learn science and engineering as compared to their counterparts in higher-resourced schools. Likewise, curriculum materials serve to support children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences; however, the committee did not find literature specific to adapting or differentiating science or engineering curriculum materials for preschool through elementary children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences, so this is an area for future research.
Curriculum materials and instructional resources can shape the emphasis on increased student achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering (Approach #2). For decades, textbooks reinforced the idea that science and engineering were realms of white men. A related concern is whose knowledge is represented in the materials. Although these are ongoing issues, curriculum materials now can be a way of highlighting the contributions of a wide range of scientists and engineers (e.g., Fitzgerald, 2018, 2020). In addition, educative curriculum materials may be able to support teachers in recognizing the capabilities of their learners, which could, in turn, allow the children to see themselves as people who do science and engineering (e.g., Arias et al., 2016).
Furthermore, curriculum materials can support expanding what counts as science and engineering (Approach #3). Educative features can support teachers in learning about how they can support emergent multilingual learners in science (Cervetti, Kulikowich, and Bravo, 2015; Lee et al., 2008). This support helps set up a learning environment in which multiple forms of expressing sensemaking are valued and supported. The Learning in Places Collaborative (2020) curriculum for the lower elementary grades provides an emergent example of how curriculum materials—involving culturally based learning experiences oriented toward sustainable decision making and using the outdoors to learn about socioecological systems—can expand what counts as science; such experiences may also support learning outside of the natural sciences (e.g., economics, ethics, civics).
Although the committee did not find many examples of preschool or elementary science or engineering curriculum materials that were explicitly aimed at seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements (Approach #4), several projects are working toward (a) orientation around local phenomena or designs with (b) educative support for teacher adaptation for using those local phenomena or designs (Haas et al., 2021; Reiser et al.,
2021; Stromholt and Bell, 2017). Teachers’ adaptations of such materials could focus on local justice issues. One example of curriculum designed explicitly toward seeing science as a part of justice movements is the collaborative work done around the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities (Housman et al, 2021).
Curriculum materials are not a panacea to the challenges of preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction, but cannot be discounted as a substantial influence on that instruction. High-quality curriculum materials have evidence supporting their effectiveness; support teachers in being responsive to children’s ideas; are coherent, flexible, adaptable, equitable, and grounded in investigation and design; and build toward the vision of the Framework. These materials can support teachers in developing learning environments that in turn support children’s sensemaking. Yet not all teachers have access to high-quality curriculum materials or to the physical materials needed for science and engineering teaching.
Newer curriculum development efforts emphasize using science and engineering practices as a way of developing conceptual understanding and making sense of the natural and designed worlds. These materials are often organized around phenomena and problems that are meaningful to children. States and districts engage in review processes to select curriculum materials to be used in local schools. Districts might more highly prioritize open-source materials (because they are free); materials that are comprehensive (covering the entirety of the grade bands) as opposed to incomplete programs for consistency of children’s experience; kits over standalone materials for teachers’ ease of use; and materials that are research based in their design and research supported in their efficacy for likelihood of success. Although new materials are being developed, the creation of materials that meet the design recommendations presented takes time and requires infrastructure.
Teachers learn from and with curriculum materials, and they adapt them to meet their needs. Curriculum materials can support teachers’ learning with regard to many dimensions of teachers’ work (e.g., supporting emergent multilingual learners); educative curriculum materials, in particular, are designed to support teachers’ learning and show positive effects. How teachers use and adapt curriculum materials depends on the teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, the characteristics of the materials themselves, and the contexts in which they are being used. The work of building toward the vision of the Framework in curriculum materials while deepening attention
to equity and justice is a significant challenge. The design of curriculum materials that specifically support the goal of teaching toward equity and justice in science and engineering in preschool and elementary settings is an area for further research and development and will require substantial investment of time and effort.
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