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To science or not to science – that is the question!

Alissa Helgesen, Lower School Math & Science Coordinator, Whitby School, USA

In this article you will read how a PYP school approaches science or, better to say, why the school does not have science class in lower school. 

In my school we had many parents asking why we did not have science or social studies on our schedule. I attempted to explain the importance of transdisciplinary learning and what it looks like in our classrooms.

After 14 years as a classroom teacher, I recently became the Math and Science Coordinator at my school. This job has come with many new challenges, not the least of which has been answering parent questions about why we do not have science class. After my first few months on the job I met with a parent who wanted to know why their child did not have science class. I took a deep breath and composed myself first. I mean, we had just finished a six-week-long unit entitled Human body where the students explored how the different body systems interacted together to create a working system. Prior to that, they had a unit on the interdependence among organisms within an ecosystem. Were these not science-y enough?

But then I tried to look at this from the parent’s perspective. It is true, that we do not have “science class” in the traditional sense. In the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) the learning is designed to be transdisciplinary – or to extend beyond the confines of any one particular discipline. In the PYP framework, our subject specific goals, such as science, social studies, language and mathematics, are almost completely embedded within our larger units of study. It is true we do not write science on the Lower School schedule the way we write music and PE, but that does not mean we do not “do” science.

The discussion continued with the question: is there inherent value in naming the discipline the students are learning about or does that limit their ability to really learn in general? In my mind, by calling the class science instead of focusing on the central idea of what I want the students to come away with, I am limiting them in their understanding. It allows students to compartmentalize and apply specific skills and strategies to a single discipline rather than to learning as a whole. It is true that there are certain concepts, knowledge and skills to be gained within a defined subject. These guide our thinking when making curricular decisions around the traditional subjects of science, social studies, language arts and mathematics, but the ultimate goal is to link those concepts, skills and knowledge and transfer it or apply it to other subject areas in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding.

Think about it; When you are in science class, does that mean you neglect good reading habits, grammar and writing skills? When you are in reading class, do you ignore the information you are reading and just focus on decoding and phonics? What about in mathematics? Just because you are working with numbers, do you neglect the understanding of the context for which those numbers refer?

According to Making the PYP happen:

At the heart of the PYP curriculum are the essential elements: knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and actions. These elements transcend subject-area boundaries and forge the curriculum into a coherent transdisciplinary whole that is engaging, relevant, challenging and significant.

An example of what this looks like in our multi-age first and second grade classrooms can be seen clearly in the current unit under the transdisciplinary theme How we express ourselves. The students are inquiring into the central idea of People choose different forms of expression to communicate and evoke responses. They are able to dive into multiple subjects through this inquiry. They are using readers’ theater as a form of expression which allows them to practice their reading and oral fluency. They are looking at art through a mathematical lens when they explore different types of lines, angles and 2D and 3D shapes.

Additionally, through hands-on learning experiences they are exploring specific science standards that are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards. These include: planning and conducting an investigation to determine the effect of placing objects made with different materials in the path of a beam of light; making observations to construct an evidence-based account that objects can be seen only when illuminated; and planning and conducting investigations to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound and that sound can make materials vibrate. The students then connected these scientific understandings of light and sound to how they interpret a piece of music or art.

The fact is, we are preparing students for a world that is changing so rapidly, it is practically impossible to imagine. We want our students to feel empowered and take responsibility as open-minded, principled citizens in a global community and one way to do that is to encourage them to be curious and think outside the boundaries of one specific discipline.

Transdisciplinary thinking is an essential skill for the future work force. In real life you do not just sit down to do science or mathematics for the purpose of “doing science” or “doing mathematics.” You are going to use the specific skills you learned because it leads you to a bigger goal, because it is part of a larger concept. Whether it is to bake a cake, do your taxes or even solve global warming, the things we work on every day are complex and require a transdisciplinary approach.

So to answer this parent, he is correct; we do not have science class. And as the Math and Science Coordinator, I am not only okay with that, but I actually embrace and celebrate that fact because in a transdisciplinary learning approach students are able to make connections across disciplines, thereby creating an opportunity for greater depth and complexity without compromising the integrity of the discipline – and that is the type of learning that we strive for.

The original article can be found here.

Alissa Helgesen is the Lower School Math and Science Coordinator at Whitby School, a small, independent day school in Connecticut, United States. Alissa believes in empowering students to be risk-takers in their learning and to value their process as much as their products. When she is not at Whitby she enjoys spending time exploring with her family. 

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6 Responses to To science or not to science – that is the question!

  1. Anuradha 23 May 2017 at 4:08 pm #

    Very well connected Alissa!
    ‘Transdisciplinary thinking is an essential skill for the future work force.’ Completely agree!

  2. aruna 23 May 2017 at 6:24 pm #

    Surely the global requirement is to look at concepts with different lenses as it helps in viewing the larger aspect.

  3. Grant 24 May 2017 at 5:09 am #

    Really nicely said Alissa! I am going to file that away to use the next time I get a question like that!!

  4. Vanitha 6 June 2017 at 5:30 pm #

    ‘In real life you do not just sit down to do science or mathematics for the purpose of “doing science” or “doing mathematics.” You are going to use the specific skills you learned because it leads you to a bigger goal, because it is part of a larger concept!’
    – ‘Transdisciplinary thinking’, very well explained!

  5. Neville de Silva 21 June 2017 at 4:45 pm #

    PYP lays the foundation of our future world of Scientific Thinkers… The need to have “Hands On” approach at Primary Level is the core essential! Unfortunately Ministries of Education of the world look at Secondary and Tertiary level science teaching, lead and render courses and guides.

    My spending years of hand in glove, working partnership with local Primary Schools in our tiny Kingdom of Swaziland, has developed list of 94 item, Primary Science “hands on” Science Kit of materials and equipment with the relevant chemicals. We need to concentrate at this basic stage of science education with a flavor by providing a stage for experimenting and experiencing the fundamentals in Science Education… at PYP as well as the 7 years of Primary Education in all countries.

  6. gilnar 7 July 2017 at 11:43 am #

    Hello..I havlove been researching trying to find and understand how the sciences can be integrated/infused into the curriculum. I have a bright son & the school is on it’s was to get PYP accreditation which means a- it’s still in its early days b-the workforce is busy gathering their forces and getting approved. Basically my son didn’t gain any additional knowledge. I tri d to search for ways to infuse the PYP with hands on science experiences, I couldn’t find any. Can you kindly help me to pass it onto the school? Many many thanks

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