My View: What a 21st-century science classroom should look like
July 9th, 2012
04:10 PM ET

My View: What a 21st-century science classroom should look like

Courtesy From the Partnership for 21st Century SkillsBy Tim Magner, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Tim Magner is the executive director of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a national organization that advocates for 21st-century readiness for every student. He has had an extensive career in education, serving most recently as the vice president of Keystone for KC Distance Learning (KCDL) as well as the director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education.

(CNN) – Whether it’s technology, the global economy or the changing nature of work itself, we are tasked with preparing our children for success in college, career and citizenship in a world that looks very different from the one we grew up in.  I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with P21’s members, partners and leadership states to help educators embed key 21st-century skills – like the four Cs of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking – into the educational experiences of all children.

Our children need these 21st-century skills not simply because employers are looking for them (they are), or because they are essential for success in college (they are), or because other nations are also recognizing this skills gap (they are), but because we want our children to not just survive in this new millennium, but to truly thrive. 

21st-century readiness – having the knowledge and skills to pursue further education, compete in the global economy and contribute to society – demands much more of all of our students, and our education system must change to meet these demands. Recognizing this fundamental shift, the ongoing Common Core State Standards initiatives are embedding these skills into the new standards frameworks.

This is what makes the recently released Next Generation Science Standards from the National Research Council particularly exciting, because they recognize these important shifts and make wise suggestions to integrate deep-content knowledge with the skills to apply that knowledge. 

The science standards explore a range of active approaches to learning, from asking questions and defining problems to using models, carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, designing solutions and using evidence.  These practices are not only essential science skills, but also form the core elements of the critical thinking and problem solving skills of P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning.

The standards also highlight the importance of communicating information as a scientific practice, and they recognize the importance of teamwork and collaboration by including collaboration and collaborative inquiry and investigation, beginning in kindergarten.

Where I wish the standards were stronger is in creativity and innovation.  Much of our economic success over the past century has been because of breakthroughs in science and technology. I hope that as these standards are implemented, science educators will work hard to infuse them with opportunities for students to see science as a creative endeavor. Science class could become a chance to invent the next generation of medicines, electronics or the myriad other innovations we will need to feed, clothe, power and empower our planet. 

Ideally, these standards will help redefine the science classroom and science experience for the 21st century. I’d like to see science classrooms look more like the spaces created by the Community Science Workshop Network. In these models, students are free to explore and experiment with a wide range of materials – discovering not just science facts, but science joy. If our children are excited by science, rather than frightened by it, our ability to encourage more of them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM fields – would be immeasurably enhanced.

The new Next Generation Science Standards can and should be implemented with an emphasis on creativity. Combined with the “flipped classroom” model – where technology delivers information at home so face-to-face time in school can be focused on actual creating, making and doing – science educators have the opportunity to transform the spaces where science happens and redefine the school-based science experience.  Classroom discussions, hands-on experimentation and collaborative explorations can become the norm for all children.

And it comes not a moment too soon.  We are facing increasingly complex problems in the world around us – from pressures on our food and water, to environmental challenges, to ever more complex engineering problems, to the basic health needs of growing populations.  In these very real challenges, there are plenty of opportunities for creative scientific exploration that connects the classroom to the outside world.

The 21st-century classroom should be a place where students get to start exploring their world, discovering their passion, applying what they know and beginning to experience the impact they can have.  I’m optimistic that in the hands of talented science educators, conceptual shifts like those in the science standards will make these aspirations a reality for many more of our nation’s students.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim Magner.

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Filed under: Common Core • Curriculum • education • Practice • STEM
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Terry

    I am a science teacher and it is defeating to have so many people bashing my profession. It is hard not to take this personally. First, I have an excellant science background–I majored in chemistry with many extra courses in biology, physics and microbiology. I love science and I want to impart my passion for science to my students. I work much harder than people in any other profession; usually putting in 4-6 hours of unpaid work each day. I also contribute between $3000-$4000 of my own money so that my students have supplies to complete work in school like pencils, notebokes, markers, highlighters, erasers, scissors etc that should be, but is not, supplied by parents. I also buy the majority of my lab supplies out of my own pocket because of budget cuts because I can't imagine conducting a science class without a wide variety of hands-on experiences. I am not the exception. Every science teacher I know has a similar story. I am sure there are teachers that attempt to impart information about science by reading from the book but that is not common any more. I would love to have my students do their background learning using technology at home but only 30% of my students have internet access at home. If I send a reading or writing assignment home, less than half complete it even though they understand that the knowledge is necessary to do the next, really cool investigation. I have a library of primary source, grade appropriate science materials purchased out of my pocket. We collaborate, design, analyze, synthesize, discuss, question, and experiment every day. I give mini-lessons on critical information in less than ten minutes because students don't learn from talking, they learn from doing. We, as teachers, get that. Now give us the resources we need to do it.

    July 11, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Kent

      Great Job Terry. . .Thank you for telling the reality from a teacher's perspective. I along with you teach science & Math and I too feel that as teachers across the country that we are under attack despite our best efforts to educate. Best wishes.

      July 22, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  2. Toni

    Yes, the 21st century science class and lab should look like that, I only foresee this happening if all stakeholders work together and teachers are held accountable for this. The first step would be to retrain or start anew with science teachers. Second, require students to be proficient and or advanced on sceince state mandated test. At the present Arkansas has not required this. Until more emphasis is place on the importance of science and its related fields we will continue to lag far behind other countries.

    July 11, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  3. mrcolemanmgs

    The Project Zero group have identified a list of 8 "cultural forces" tha operate in a classroom. Included on this list is expectation. Mr.Magner's article suggests a change in expectation by curriculum designers where they are looking to develop scientists rather than students who study science (a big difference). The issue of classroom realities and behaviour comes back to the same thing; expectation of poor behaviour seems like a management issue rather than a learning one. From afar, it seems as though the new design is setting the platform for the development of scientists, it needs staff to be disposed to see it as an opportunity to do that.

    July 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  4. Taxed

    Mr. Magner is living in an educational fantasy world – students won't be "discovering their passion" because the classrooms are too crowded with unruly students, and in many areas are from such awful home environments that the so-called parents send their children to school as daycare, not education. The U.S. ranks among the lowest for countries whose students are tested in math and science ability and there's good reason for the results – we've allowed our schools to be profit centers for administrators and a breeding ground for bad teachers. Sorry, but the real world will dictate what the 21st century classroom will look like – until we're ready to deal in reality, it will still be awful.

    July 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  5. Bob

    ..."students get to start exploring their world, discovering their passion, applying what they know and beginning to experience the impact they can have."
    Many of our high school science classes do not even come close to achieving this. I know of one teacher who lectures students for 50 minutes everyday. The students take notes and are expected to be quiet.
    When this individual is offered assistance and guidance by adminstrators to improve student achievement, his response is, "it's the students' fault if they fail." Although I believe that there must be student accountability, I think everyone can agree that if we are to ignite passion and foster collaboration for the 21st Century, then this teacher is largely responsible for his students' failure.

    July 10, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  6. Paul

    I Love Nature's Gift!

    July 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm |