Newswise — New research on middle-grades science teaching reveals that without at least 5 hours of instructional time dedicated to science during a typical school week, teachers are less likely to use the types of inquiry-based learning practices recommended by leading science and education professionals.

Unlike traditional instruction, inquiry-based instruction approaches science learning through sustained real-world projects and hands-on experimentation rather than fact memorization, recall and prescribed experiments. It is considered a best practice by the National Research Council and the Next Generation for Science Standards, among other national and state science assessments, for teaching scientific knowledge and skills for the 21st century.

What's more, the findings — published Dec. 1, 2020 in the journal Teachers College Record — suggest that only about one third of eighth-grade students in the U.S. actually receive at least 5 hours of science instruction each week.

"Even the best teachers are less likely to teach inquiry-based science if they don't have the time," says study author Tammy Kolbe, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont. This study builds on her previous work examining what qualities and skills make for stronger middle-grade science teachers.

In a 2018 study, Kolbe found that inquiry-oriented education practices were more often used by eighth-grade science teachers with both education and science degrees, as well as by teachers with graduate-level degrees in science, yet only half of eighth-grade science teachers in the U.S. attained those credentials.

Both study's findings draw on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is used to track the knowledge and performance of eighth-grade science students. The NAEP includes information from a national sample of 11,520 eighth-grade teachers in 6,850 public schools.

Kolbe's new research suggests that while teacher qualifications and their knowledge of science partially determine whether or not eighth-grade students receive a science education rooted in hands-on learning and exploration, the time allotted for teachers to teach science is also a significant determinant.

"The middle-grades present an important opportunity to generate interest and excitement in learning science. Inquiry-based education is all about hands-on learning and engagement with scientific concepts. Engaging students in science in eighth grade holds potential to set a student's course for pursuing higher level science courses in high school, college and potentially a career in science and technology. Effective science teaching in the middle grades is of critical importance," says Kolbe.

To meet industry standards for science teaching in the middle grades, "Teachers' qualifications and the amount of time available to teach are key policy-malleable resources at our disposal to improve middle-grades science education," she says.

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