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Contemporary strategies and strategic processing in science education

Strategies and strategic processing associated with scientific inquiry and expertise have set the stage for science educations present state. For example, the NRC (2012) proposed a three-dimensional framework for K-12 science education integrating:

[scientific and engineering practices; crosscutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering through their common application across fields; and core ideas in four disciplinary areas: physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and applications of science.

(p- 2)

This conceptual framework served as the foundation for the development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), with some aspect of each dimension combined to form a standard (called a “performance expectation” by the NGSS authors). The scientific and engineering practices are particularly connected to the notion of developing learners’ scientific expertise through engagement in scientific inquiry during classroom learning. Although the framework includes eight scientific and engineering practices in which students should engage, they reflect two broad strategic processing categories: science learning through argumentation and science as modeling. We will discuss each of these broad contemporary categories in the remainder of this section, and then in the next section, use an example to demonstrate authentic learning via socio-scientific topics that includes these two strategies.

Science Learning through Argumentation Strategies

Learning science through the practice of argumentation has seen increased emphasis since the late 1990s. For example, the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) emphasized that a critical component of scientific literacy is “the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately” (p. 22). More recent reform-based reports, such as A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012), have elevated the construction of evidence-based explanations as a scientific practice in which students should engage during classroom learning. This framework featured argumentation within a centralized hub of scientific activity, in which:

[argumentation and analysis that relate evidence and theory are also essential features of science ...[These argumentation processes] include appraisal of data quality, modeling of theories, development of new testable questions from those models, and modification of theories and models as evidence indicates they are needed.

(p. 27)

The framework also included argumentation within the social enterprise of science, and asserted “the norms for building arguments from evidence are developed collectively in a vast network of scientists working together over extended periods” (p. 27).

In short, educational reformers, researchers, and practitioners view scientific argumentation as an authentic scientific practice and a key science learning strategy.

Scientific argumentation is an inherently constructive process, and as a science learning strategy, it builds upon the notion of cognitive and social construction of evidence-based explanations. Toulmin (1958, 2003, p. 87) proposed a domain-general “layout” of argumentation that educators use widely. In this layout, Toulmin positioned argumentation as a process by which people validate a claim via data and backed warrants. Claims are implicit in assertions (i.e., claiming unalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and specifically aim to make a “claim on our attention and our beliefs” (Toulmin, 1958, 2003, p. 11). Science education researchers and practitioners often view claims as scientific explanations (e.g., accounts of how phenomena unfold that may lead to a feeling of understanding; Braaten & Windschitl, 2011; Brewer, Chinn, & Samarapungavan, 1998). As an explanation, claims may also answer questions relating to a particular phenomenon (e.g., the cause of current climate change). Toulmin views data as the “facts ... [that act] as a foundation to a claim” (p. 90). Toulmin’s use of the term data may be somewhat confusing in a science education framework because of the very specific connection of data as a quantifiable signal (e.g., a quantity obtained from a measurement or modeling simulation). Therefore, researchers and science education practitioners often use the term evidence (or evidence lines) in lieu of the term data or facts. Furthermore, in science, backed warrants are generally referred to as scientific reasoning, such as reasoning that evaluates and justifies connections between lines of evidence and claims. In essence, such reasoning would support the scientific “rules, principles, [and] inference[s]” that act as the tools to evaluate connections between evidence and explanations per Toulmin’s layout (Toulmin, 1958, 2003, p. 91). Thus, when thinking about the Toulmin model of argumentation within the context of science learning, claims, data, and backed warrants become claims, evidence, and reasoning.

Many science educators use claims-evidence-reasoning (CER) as a strategy to promote their students’ engagement in scientific argumentation. McNeill and Krajcik (2008) first introduced this strategy to facilitate students’ construction of explanations about a phenomenon. CER is often used in conjunction with classroom-based inquiry activities, such as investigations where students collect and analyze data (e.g., experiments, problem-based learning scenarios). Teachers can use scaffolds to facilitate students’ engagement in the CER strategy, such as answering specific questions that relate to each component (McNeill & Martin, 2011). For example, a question prompt could ask students to generate a claim, such as “what statement can you write to describe why X occurred?” where X is a phenomenon observed in the classroom (e.g., an observation that the temperature of boiling water stays the same even when increasing amounts of energy are applied to a hot plate). Another question could ask students to develop a statement of the evidence related to their claim, such as “what scientific data support your claim?” Finally, the scaffold would then use a question asking students to justify their claim by explicitly connecting the evidence to it, such as “how does the evidence support your claim?” Through this scaffolded CER process, students generate a scientific argument.

The CER process can include a fourth element, counterargument. When evaluation of alternative explanations become part of the CER strategy, students are more fully participating in scientific argumentation (Nussbaum & Edwards, 2011). Consideration of alternatives specifically helps students to develop their critical thinking skills (Lombardi, Bailey, Bickel, & Burrell, 2018; Lombardi, Bickel, Bailey, & Burrell, 2018) and deepen their learning on a particular topic through cognitive elaboration (i.e., making multiple connections with their background knowledge; Nussbaum, 2008). Such critical thinking and cognitive elaboration may also facilitate students’ scientifically accurate knowledge construction and reconstruction (Nussbaum, Sinatra, & Poliquin, 2008) and metacognition (D. Kuhn, Zillmer, Crowell, & Zavala, 2013). However, consideration of counterarguments and rebuttals is challenging for students. Therefore, developmental scientists suggest that instruction promoting evaluation of alternative explanations should often begin at early adolescence (i.e., after a student has increasing cognitive control over the coordination of lines of evidence and theory; D. Kuhn & Pearsall, 2000).

Engaging in scientific argumentation is difficult for students because coordination of evidence and theory is a challenge. Furthermore, using argumentation to promote science learning is also challenging for teachers. For example, research has shown that students can make claims without justifications, including not using credible lines of evidence and scientific reasoning (Fischer et al., 2014). Therefore, recent research projects have focused on developing and testing instructional scaffolds that promote students’ participation in collaborative and productive scientific argumentation in classroom settings (see, for example, D. Kuhn, 2010; Lombardi, Bailey, et al., 2018; Lombardi, Bickel, et al., 2018; McNeil & Krajcik, 2009; Nussbaum & Edwards, 2011; Rinehart, Duncan, Chinn, Atkins, & DiBenedetti, 2016). When viewing argumentation as a process that promotes deep understanding of both scientific content and skills, Manz (2015) says that development of scaffolds should “shift argumentation from a procedure conducted after scientific work has been done, or conducted in the absence of scientific work, and instead embed it in the scientific enterprise” (p. 20). In doing so, these scaffolds may help students to become more critical evaluators of the connection between lines of evidence and explanations, and potentially with more than one alternative explanation in the context of controversial and complex socio-scientific issues (e.g., causes of climate change).

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