Middle school physical, life and Earth/space science: three separate courses or integrated?

Paul Bruno, a California middle school science teacher and blogger for the Fordham Institute and This Week in Education, addresses two issues in a post on his own blog that is getting national attention.

One issue is that Bruno opposes adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards and prefers California’s present benchmark-heavy standards.  On that, he and I disagree.

But Bruno also addresses the issue of teaching integrated science in middle school rather than three distinct one-year courses in physical, life and Earth/space science.  He says California is going the integrated route, and he says this is a bad idea.

Whether to teach integrated science in middle school is a debate we had on Florida’s science standards committee back in 2007-2008.  At the time, I bought the argument for integrated middle school science.  But my experience with my own son’s middle school science courses – which were integrated – convinced me that separate courses are better.  In particular, the physical science pieces of my son’s courses were “condensed” to only a few weeks, and he learned nothing on the middle school benchmarks about forces, motion and energy that I had written myself.

Here is the relevant section of Paul Bruno’s post, which is a letter he wrote to the California Board of Education:

I recently attended a forum discussion on the Next Generation Science Standards at South Pasadena Middle School sponsored by the California Science Teachers Association. There we discussed the proposed “integrated” middle school science standards, which combine earth, life, and physical science standards in grades 6-8:

http://www.cde.ca.gov/pd/ca/sc/ngssintrod.asp

We were fortunate to have a panel of experts – including a number of participants involved in drafting the proposed progression – present to answer our questions.

Unfortunately, the rationales being offered for “integrating” the sciences across middle school are not persuasive. The current organization of the standards – in which the content at each grade level is organized more-or-less around a discipline (e.g., life science) has many virtues. The proposed integrated pacing sacrifices most of those strengths for little benefit.

Many teachers – perhaps most – have specialized to some degree or another in teaching particular scientific content. (In my case, life science and physical science. I have no experience teaching most earth science.) To the extent that teacher knowledge, experience, and expertise matter, it is unwise to shuffle the science disciplines across the grade levels, forcing teachers to teach content with which they are less familiar.

Additionally, many teachers have strong preferences for particular scientific disciplines. Those preferences are likely to align with the “traditional” discipline-based arrangement that we currently use in middle school. They are unlikely to align with the proposed, “integrated” arrangement, in which the content within each grade level is not organized by interrelatedness or similarity (except at an extremely abstract level).

These realities mean that integrated middle school content standards – such as those proposed – will frustrate teachers and limit their effectiveness. And to what end?

I have seen two broad rationales offered for the proposed integration. First, it is argued that the proposed arrangement “spirals” elegantly across the grade levels. Second, it is argued that the content within each grade level is unified by underlying (or overarching) ”scientific practices” and “cross-cutting concepts”. Neither of these is persuasive.

First, it is true that in many cases the progression of the content across the grade levels is elegant. It makes sense, for example, for students to progress from cells to ecosystems to natural selection over the course of their middle school life science studies. Other arrangements may also be coherent and intuitive, but the proposed progression is a wise one.

What is doubtful is that that progression is best experienced intermittently over the course of three years rather than with a sustained focus on life science over a single year. In fact, to whatever extent the proposed progression makes sense over the middle school years, it makes more sense within a single year.

Separating the components of, say, life science by twelve months or more only makes it harder to draw connections between them. Realistically, drawing meaningful connections will require substantial review of previous years’ content, especially since students will not have sustained their study of the material for very long in the earlier grades as they bounced between the various “integrated” content areas.

The second defense of integrated middle school standards is the argument that connections are, in fact, possible between disparate content areas because while they lack content relatedness they are unified by crosscutting concepts and scientific practices.

This defense is similarly implausible. While the proposed integrated standards can be “connected” by concepts and practices, such connections are possible – in theory – between any scientific concepts. The beauty of these concepts and practices – such as the importance of notions of ”cause and effect” in scientific reasoning – is precisely their generality; any arrangement of content will provide opportunities to illustrate them. Since the traditional progression – in which content is organized by discipline within each grade level – allows for illustrations of concepts and practices, there are no advantages to integration to justify its aforementioned costs.

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