US Elementary Education


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It seems that the emphasis on building core skills in US public schools has a cost.  Schools have committed themselves hard to making reading and basic math an area of competency which means they have doubled up on intense instruction. Seems like a good idea. But….

What have they dropped?  Recess, art, music, science, and social studies.

Does that matter? I’d like to focus on science. and the naswer is OF COURSE IT MATTERS. It’s a well documented fact that many students pick an area of interest in early elementary school which they pursue for a lifetime in one form or another.  If students only get a rudimentary exposure to science, there will be less interest and career pursuit of science.

How to get more students studying science and more teachers teaching elementary science? I’d suggest that what they need is a really good science program such as  Science4Us.  A Finalist for a 2014 DAA  Whole Curriculum Package for Science, it focuses on the earliest grades:


Middle and High School Science

I’m diverging from my series on coding to do a quick review of what a middle school science program looks like. I’m basing this on the Time4Learning Program which is well described on their website:

Middle School Online Science Courses: Overall it’s very impressive use of interactive multimedia. The courses are, while amusing, indepth and not watered down. They have references to labs but I haven’t really figured out how that’s handled.

  • Earth/Space Middle School Homeschool Science Course:  Middle school earth and space science teaches students about Earth’s structure, geologic processes, plate tectonics, oceans and the water cycle, Earth’s atmosphere, weather and climate, our solar system, stars, and galaxies. Students also investigate how the motions of the sun, the moon, and Earth create days, seasons, years, eclipses, phases of the moon, and tides.
  • Homeschool MIddle School Life Science Online Program : Life Science includes materials covering the characteristics of living things, plant and animal cell structures, the characteristics of unicellular and multicellular life, genetics, classification of organisms, the structure and function of human cells tissues organs and organ systems, and the structure and function of plants. 
  • Homeschool Secular Physical Science Online Course: Physical Science includes materials covering chemistry and physics, including physical and chemical changes, atoms and elements, mixtures and solutions, the periodic table, states of matter, motion, gravity, density and buoyancy, energy, heat, the properties of waves, and light.
  • Middle School Homeschool Inquiry-based Nature Of Science – The Science of Nature materials are supplemental, recommended for use alongside the Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth/Space Science courses. It will be included when parents register for any middle school science course. Nature of science teaches students how to safely and correctly use scientific equipment, take measurements, conduct experiments and investigations, collect and analyze data, draw conclusions, evaluate evidence, and present their work to others.

Next week, I’ll look at their high school program….

Where does computer programming and science start?

I’ve seen lots of recent games which claim to be teaching programming and computer skills.  I’d like to see a more indepth analysis of them.

For instance, KODABLE. It’s a cute iPad app which is a series of puzzles. The answer to the puzzles is to give a set of instructions to the game on how to proceed. It starts about a half step away from telling it what to do since the instructions are entered slightly differently and sooner than if you you were just navigating.  And the need for complexity and conditions around the instructions slowly grows.  The instructions are primarily icons, there’s no semantics. (BTW, I played in a few months ago so I could be confusing it with another which is one reason that I’m not linking across at this point until I recheck it). The game is aimed at the first half of elementary school. Does this type of game help students develop logic and a feel for the programming process? It seems like it should or at least could.  Anyone know of any studies one way or the other? 

I think hopscotch is in the same vein. 
I’m asking because I’m about to start a study to see what my online homeschool program should do about teaching programming to students and we’d like to have solutions for K-12 or at least:elementary, middle and high school.

Programming an Elevator

I took a software programming course in college. Actually, I took three or four.  One was a statistics course where we programmed in SAS. In another course that I can’t seem to remember, we coded in FORTRAN. But my major programming logic course used APL.  BTW, this was a long time ago.

I was thinking about a basic programming problem since my Mom started asking me this past weekend how an elevator knows where to go next.  So, for your amusement and my brain training, I’ll try to create the logic for a 5 story building with a single elevator….

Set up variables such as number of floors = 5, other floors are n, commands are gotowards (which includes close elevator do, start going), directions U & D

If “nothing else”, go to Floor 0, open door, wait
If on floor n and if “nothing else” and if someone walks into elevator and clicks on a button for floor n, close door and gotowards floor n. 

If heading towards floor n, and a call button on a floor between starting floor and n is pressed, and if its the same direction the elevator is heading. and if the floor hasn’t been past, stop at floor with call button pressed and let on visitor.  

If a button is pressed that has already been past or is NOT in the direction that the …


Durn this is hard and there’s no semantics or structure to my analysis.  I’ll go walk the dogs, go for a run, and try again later.  Great puzzle for me….

Teaching coding should be standard in every high school

There is a great deal of interest in improving STEM education in this country.  

For this post, I will just focus on the question of teaching software programming, aka coding. I do it because I’m particularly passionate about that and if that’s on the table. I tend to rant.  In fact, before I put it aside, hear me out.  I can’t believe that we still require calculus and two years of algebra for good colleges but don’t require programming.  Look, if a measure of a useful education is whether a course enhances your understanding of the world and creates knowledge or skills that you will use in the future. Or the measure is whether it creates a perspective that will stay with you. In any case, I’ve worked now for 35 years and I’ve never thought about or used any of my quadratic algebra or precalculus or algebra.  However, many many times every day I wonder about how something is programmed or should be programmed. A good coding course will, for many people, teach a lot more mental discipline and precision of thought and abstract reasoning than those math courses and it teaches useful skills and creates an appreciation for the world around us. 


Leslie University Blogs about VocabularySpellingCity

Three facShinas 9-26-13ulty members at Leslie University keep 


a blog called the Digital Toolbox: Valerie Harlow Shinas, Leah Van Vaerenewyck,  and Barbara Steckel.    
They wrote a Leslie 

BarbaraU blog post about VocabularySpellingCity which was developed by the same team that developed Science4Us.  In fact, VocabularySpellingCity didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in 2012-13 since the team was focused on Science4Us.  However, they are now moving back and users can expect more significant functionality and aesthetic updates in the year ahead on the VocabularyCity site.

Their blog post reviews the basic functionality and cites many of the correlations.

(Note to self. On next visit, be sure to introduce them to Sciefus, our Science Character)

The 5E Instructional Model

Here’s a little more aobut the 5E Instructional Model used by Science4Us and which is so popular with so many schools. The BSCS Instructional Model is associated most often with Taylor Bybee and his colleagues. There is a BSCS organization in Colorado Springs whose mission is: “To transform science teaching and learning through research and development that strengthens learning environments and inspires a global community of scientifically literate citizen”

The BSCS website ( quoted from ) provides an academic viewpoint on the BSCS 5E Instructional Model:

Findings related to the BSCS 5E Instructional Model:

  • The BSCS 5E Instructional Model is grounded in sound educational theory, has a growing base of research to support its effectiveness, and has had a significant impact on science education.
  • The most noticeable void in the literature is research exploring how the 5E approach helps students develop an understanding of the nature of science, and practical and teamwork skills.
  • These conclusions indicate the need to conduct further research comparing the effect of the 5E Instructional Model on mastery of subject matter, scientific reasoning, and interest and attitudes with other modes of instruction.
  • Continued work is expected to lead to refinement of the model based on research on learning.

What the BSCS 5E Instructional Model is/does:

  • The five phases of the BSCS 5E Instructional Model are designed to facilitate the process of conceptual change.
  • The use of this model brings coherence to different teaching strategies, provides connections among educational activities, and helps science teachers make decisions about interactions with students.
  • Each phase of the model and a short phrase to indicate its purpose from a student perspective are:
    • Engagement – students’ prior knowledge accessed and interest engaged in the phenomenon
    • Exploration – students participate in an activity that facilitates conceptual change
    • Explanation – students generate an explanation of the phenomenon
    • Elaboration – students’ understanding of the phenomenon challenged and deepened through new experiences
    • Evaluation – students assess their understanding of the phenomenon


Learning: Explicit Instruction V Constructionism: The Great Debate

WARNING – This is not meant to be a sophisticated academic presentation. There will be no references and I won’t quote any formal definitions. It is an effort to explain in plain English a fundamental debate about education. It’s also an effort to clarify my own thoughts and so I will simplify.  Please feel free to help advance my understanding. PS. I’m giving myself 15 minutes to compose the entire piece.

I have heard many people claim that teachers lecturing students is a central part of education. At the end of the day, the teachers know and understand, and through explicit instruction, they can explain a lot of materials to students.  This is one view of education.  This information can also be supplied to students through reading.

In the other corner, there are the constructionists who point out that information is not so important and that education is about building skills and students need to learn by exploration. They need to be curious and to construct their new understandings which need to be attached to previous skills and knowledge to have any chance of becoming a meaningful part of their educational progress. For many skills, this is obviously true. Nobody has ever learned to ride a bike though explicit instruction. Or how to write properly. Or how to talk persuasively or be a good conversationalist. Reading too is primarily a question of reading practice.

But of course, while I say “primarily,” the fact is that some good timely coaching (ie explicit instruction) really helps in any and all of the above. So the answer about learning is that it needs to be judicious blend of instruction and hands-on effort.

Hence, so many different instructional models.  We just built the Science4Us program using the 5E Instructional Model adapted for online use and by primary students.  Each of the modules  (there might be 28. As I said, I’m writing this without any research) has a section for Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate/enhance, and Evaluate.  My understanding is that it’s an effective way to ensure that teachers blend these two educational approaches, explicit instruction and constructionism.

There are lots of other blends. For instance, a teacher leading a class can start by asking questions in such a way that students engage prior knowledge and begin to explore ideas on their own. Good speakers can start a sentence and pause in such a way, or ask a rhetorical question in such a way, that students actually “construct” and “investigate” on their own within the context of a teacher actually lecturing.  A student who has written a draft of a paper can be shown generally how a  run-on or poorly structured sentence can be properly structured or split into two. Then, the student can use this knowledge and use it revise his or her own writing.  These are just a few of the many ways that effective teachers blend instruction with practice and constructionist learning.

Yet, at the end of the day, I feel that this is not a kumbaya situation in which everyone agrees that there is a happy blend of the two techniques which all reasonable people can agree on.  While everyone agrees that there is some blend needed but in practice, I hear most educators placing themselves into one of these two camps.  They either believe in explicit instruction as the foundation of the framework.  Or they believe in constructionism as the framework with instruction fit into that framework.

Now, your part. What do you think?

What is a Science Education?

There’s a surprising amount of debate through the years on this, much of which was rehashed as the groups developed the NGSS, the Next Generation Science Standards.

Traditionally, a science education was defined in terms of what you know. The more current definition of a science education splits half in terms of content knowledge and have in terms of science skills or “habits of mind.”  The new standards dramatically reduce the list of facts that students were supposed to know in favor of larger big ideas and skills that students should have mastered.  There is also a tendency to focus on including engineering, career information, and cross curricular skill building

To quote the NGSS doc directly:

The National Research Council’s (NRC) Framework describes a vision of what it means to be proficient in science; it rests on a view of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge. It presents three dimensions that will be combined to form each standard:

Dimension 1: Practices:  The practices describe behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world and the key set of engineering practices that engineers use as they design and build models and systems

Dimension 2: Crosscutting Concepts:  Crosscutting concepts have application across all domains of science.

Dimension 3: Disciplinary Core IdeasDisciplinary core ideas have the power to focus K–12 science curriculum, instruction and assessments on the most important aspects of science.