Why We Need K–12 High-Quality Science Instruction in a 21st Century World

Categories: 21st Century Skills

Elliott Seif is the author of Teaching for Lifelong Learning: How to Prepare Students for a Changing World.

This is the first of three essays that will describe why powerful instruction is important in three content areas: science, social studies, and the arts. This first essay examines the many reasons why good science teaching is so important for preparing students to live in today’s and tomorrow’s world.
I argue here that an important part of a liberal arts education is a strong science education that, among other things, develops a sophisticated understanding of the natural world and offers deep insights into the nature of scientific investigation. Unfortunately, too few school districts today create comprehensive, inquiry-based, high-quality science programs at all levels, kindergarten through high school. Other priorities, such as time limitations, lack of attention, fragmentation, or a traditional coverage-based focus, all conspire to reduce the effectiveness and excellence of science programs in many schools and districts.

Here are one dozen reasons why we must counter these trends and why schools and districts must find ways to provide high-quality science teaching and learning for all children at all educational levels.

1. Learning science is interesting, meaningful, and motivating.
Science questions provoke curiosity and interest in the wonders of the natural world. Students learn to focus on science as a series of mysteries to be explored through interesting questions, such as “What is the nature of the universe?” “How does life exist?” “Why do things grow?” Learning science also provides students with an understanding of its massive contributions to everyday living and the comforts of life. Science programs provide an important avenue for helping students to develop a passion for inquiry and a better understanding of the world around us.

2. Science knowledge provides us with a basic understanding of the natural world.
Scientific knowledge helps us to understand the natural world around us, such as the vastness and characteristics of the universe, how species adapt and survive, the nature of matter, and so many other important insights. Every educated person needs to be provided with background knowledge on what has been already discovered and what is currently being explored in science.

3. Science teaches students to be “skeptics” about claims of truth and to look for rigorous evidence to support statements claiming to be true. Science builds on the idea that knowledge is tentative, subject to change, and that changes to knowledge, theory and understanding, based on rigorous research and experimentation, are an important part of the learning process.

Too many students come away from school thinking that knowledge is fixed and immutable and that there is always a right answer. Good science programs teach students a very important lesson: that knowledge is tentative, changing, and subject to tests of evidence. For example, a study of Galileo’s or Einstein’s discoveries help students to understand that what once was thought to be “correct” turned out to be wrong; that supposedly “accurate” knowledge needs to be tested; research studies need replication; and theory is only an empty idea until there is valid evidence to support and explain it. This “scientific” attitude—the tentativeness of knowledge and the need for evidence to support claims of truth—is important to learn today, in light of so many spurious claims made without evidence that are often believed by too many people.

4. Science promotes democratic thinking and democratic values.
Science teaches children to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking in order to resolve problems. Conflicts in science are resolved peacefully through discussion, persuasive argument, further investigation, and the rigorous collection of evidence. Scientists learn to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Thoughtful criticism is the norm, not the exception. The expectation is that, as Einstein once said, “critical comments should be taken in a friendly spirit.”

5. Science builds positive lifelong learning habits, behaviors, and attitudes.
Good science programs emphasize the value of continuous inquiry. Students learn to solve problems and answer questions by taking small steps, being persistent, having patience, and overcoming adversity. They learn that finding “truth” is often messy and inconclusive. Science teaches that successful achievement and learning often require experimentation, trial and error, making mistakes, even failure. In other words, science teaches habits, behaviors, and attitudes that support self-directed, autonomous, lifelong learning.

6. Science develops critical intellectual skills, including creativity and imagination as well as tolerance for and adaptation to change.
Science fosters the development of critical and creative thinking skills that carry over to learning other subjects and daily living. Through science, children learn to:

  • Ask “what if” questions
  • Carefully observe: “What do you see happening to this plant as it grows?”
  • Interpret and hypothesize: “Why do you think this is happening?”
  • Conduct experiments: “How can we prove it?”
  • Consider many alternatives
  • See different perspectives and points of view: “What are different points of view about why this happened?”
  • Analyze: “What are its component parts?”
  • Synthesize: “How does this all fit together into a pattern? What are the connections and relationships?”
  • Test solutions
  • Draw conclusions: “What are our results? Conclusions? Why?”

Students learn how to create an argument with supporting evidence to justify a point of view and to question opinions that have little backing to support them. Science teaches students that change and adaptation is part of the nature of learning and growing by testing new ideas and adapting to changing circumstances.

7. Science builds reading and “learning to learn” skills.
Good science programs build strong reading skills! As students investigate physical forces, chemical reactions, biological growth, or the solar system, they also learn how to read a variety of science resources, understand new concepts, build vocabulary and background knowledge, and learn the language of science and science inquiry. The investigation skills they learn are a significant part of the “learning to learn” skills they will need for college and future careers.

8. Science helps students to learn and apply mathematical thinking.
Math is the language of science. As students learn science, they learn that mathematics is an important tool to help solve real problems and questions. As students “do” science, they learn how to measure, manipulate numbers, collect and analyze data, form patterns, develop spatial and geometric relationships, and apply many of the higher level and complex math systems to scientific problem solving.

9. Science enriches learning in other subjects.
All subject areas benefit when a student understands science concepts and ideas. For example, science concepts are helpful for understanding historical forces, technological and social changes over time, and current issues and concerns, such as global warming. Science problems can be used to help students understand and apply measurement skills and statistical analysis. The arts are integrated into science through graphic designs and drawings that complement learning about scientific and technological principles and innovations. Science concepts are intertwined with understanding healthy living habits and good nutrition.

10. Science develops teamwork skills.
Through science, children learn how to work together to investigate, test hypotheses, interpret data, and draw conclusions. As they work together, they learn to understand and tolerate difference and diversity. They learn how teamwork contributes to significant learning. Science can also contribute to making schools safer and more peaceful by teaching students how to work together and resolve conflicts.

11. Science creates a growing interest in and preparation for expanding career opportunities.
High-quality science program experiences develop scientific talents and interests. They encourage students to prepare to work in the growing science-related professions, as scientists, health care professionals, technicians, and other science-related fields.

12. Scientific understanding is critical for good citizenship in a 21st century world.
An understanding of science, science concepts, how science arrives at results, and science research is critical if students are to become intelligent citizens in a democratic society. An understanding of today’s complex issues, concerns, challenges and problems require an understanding of scientific principles, concepts, and ideas. Global warming is the most obvious, but others include what to do about atomic waste, how to get clean water, agriculture and food issues, health and illness, hurricane damage prevention, energy issues, automation and robotics.


Every child should have the opportunity to participate in a strong, coherent, inquiry-oriented science program. It should be a priority for 21st century world education. Science education can have a powerful impact on children and learning, and it can make a significant difference in the lives of children.

Teachers, boards of education, superintendents, principals, the community at large, and governments need to make a commitment to support and develop high-quality science programs at all levels, K–12. There are many ways to do this—for example, to widely share and discuss these twelve reasons on why it is critical to develop strong science programs. Teachers and schools then need to adopt high-quality science curricula at all levels. This will require the development of teachers’ science knowledge and skills, to train teachers on how to incorporate high-quality science experiences into their classrooms, to involve local science organizations in promoting and fostering high-quality programs, to apply for funds to implement and support high-quality science programs at all levels, and, ultimately, to develop competent science educators in every school and at all levels.

A New Framework for Addressing the SEL of Students with Diverse Needs

Categories: Authors, Instruction, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), Solution Tree, Student Engagement

At first glance, the title of my book Raising Equity Through SEL: A Framework for Implementing Trauma-Informed, Culturally Responsive Teaching and Restorative Practices may read to some like many buzzwords to cover in one source. Social and emotional learning (SEL) alone is a behavioral framework focusing on self and social awareness competencies and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2020b).

The title includes trauma-informed, culturally responsive teaching and restorative justice, so readers know that the book is not just about SEL. Instead, it guides for assisting multiple student needs by implementing practices from these pedagogies through an equity and SEL integration framework. This book is written to help begin or strengthen your equity journey by paying close attention to your own emotional intelligence (EQ) and the EQ of those around you. Read more

Part 2: Integrating Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and the Lifelong Learning Education (LLE) Framework

Categories: Authors, PLC, PLC at Work, School Improvement, Solution Tree

Elliott Seif is the author of Teaching for Lifelong Learning: How to Prepare Students for a Changing World.

As I indicated in part 1 of this series,
Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) “…are designed to counter the separateness of school teaching and learning by creating collaborative teams of teachers who work together to improve learning”. Or, as Dufour et al. (2006) write: PLC’s focus on creating “…an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” The PLC process should lead to new and improved classroom practices that reinforce relevant and meaningful learning across content areas and grade levels, and are likely to get better results for students. Read more

Image of Tom Schimmer on multicolored background

Q&A with Tom Schimmer

Categories: Bookmark, Solution Tree

From the cabin in the woods to educational airwaves, Canadian education expert and author Tom Schimmer sits down with us to discuss how The Tom Schimmer Podcast began and grew. Learn how Tom developed the idea for his podcast in 2020, and follow his journey as he discusses how he solidified his format, the importance of his special guests, and the ways he promotes his platform.

Q&A with Tom Schimmer

Congratulations on all of the success of the The Tom Schimmer Podcast! What’s the origin story behind the show? Why did you start it?
Thank you! The podcast was the brainchild of a very close friend of mine. My wife and I were on vacation with four other couples in the summer of 2020. We had rented an Airbnb in Whistler, BC for 5 nights. Most of this circle of friends are educators so we often talk shop. One evening, Andrea, Scott, and I were the last three remaining, and we were discussing an array of educational topics. After I had responded to one of the topics we were discussing, Andrea turned to me and said, “You know Tom, you really should have a podcast.” I dismissed it in the moment but what Andrea was unaware of was that it was something I had actually started contemplating about a month earlier. Andrea’s comment, despite her being a close friend, was all the affirmation I needed to at least pursue the idea in earnest.

Did you have any hesitations about starting a podcast?
Of course! I felt all the feelings of the self-doubt so many of us feel about putting ourselves out there and venturing into the unknown. Would anyone listen? Who am I to have a podcast? How do you even start a podcast? What would it be about? Would it be sustainable? I was hesitant about all of it, especially since I started it during the pandemic, which so many people did. The education market seemed to be saturated with podcasts and I wondered how I could make mine unique and stand out.

Your podcast has several segments, including Don’t @ ME and Assessment Corner. How did you nail down your format?
I have been an avid podcast listener since 2009, and I have several podcasts that I listen to on a weekly basis. The segments on my podcasts are an amalgamation of segments from my favorite podcasts. I began with five segments but quickly reduced it to three since two of the segments became challenging to maintain. I settled on three and that is my formula each week.

The main segment of the podcast is the interview where I interview high-profile educational thought leaders as well as school-based practitioners. They are not hard-hitting interviews but rather an opportunity to feature their work to provide listeners with a weekly dose of learning and inspiration to get them through the week. Preceding the interview is the Don’t @ Me segment that opens the podcast. This is my commentary sometimes on educational topics and sometimes on societal issues. It’s a chance for me to offer a perspective that causes people to think and reflect. The “@” refers to social media handles so the Don’t @ Me is a bit of a playful assertion that says this is a one-way commentary, not something I want to debate on social media. The final segment, called Assessment Corner, is an opportunity for me to address a listener question or a topic about assessment and grading, since that is my primary area of expertise. All-in-all the podcast is typically 60–75 minutes long.

It’s been fun to see all the ways you’ve been promoting the podcast. What’s been your marketing strategy?
I mostly market the podcast on social media (Twitter, Instagram, & TikTok). I also market the podcast at the workshops I conduct each week so that’s an opportunity for participants to continue their professional learning with me long after I’ve finished our workshop together. The other marketing tool is to have great guests. Educators love hearing from those who’ve inspired them and the interview format makes it very intimate and personal. I’d say great guests and compelling content make for a great marketing strategy.

What gems have you discovered about promoting your work?
The first gem would be consistency. Like most things, and I think this is especially true for social media, it’s out of sight, out of mind, so being consistent makes a difference. The second is that I find short, thought-providing video clips of the interviews I conduct work well. The videos of my interviews are on my YouTube channel, and I find that 30- to 60-second clips draw a lot of attention. It’s a fine balance between raising awareness and obnoxious self-promotion. I feel as though the best self-promotion comes when you add value while you promote; that people gain something, whether they ultimately subscribe to the podcast or not.

You’ve interviewed an amazing selection of educators. What makes a great interview?
I really have been grateful for all who have said yes to my requests to be on as guests; it’s been a good run with more to come! I would not consider myself an expert on interviewing; far from it. I do, however, think there are several things that make for a great interview:

  • BE PREPARED: You must put in the work. Prepare by making sure you have an adequate level of familiarity with your guest’s work. The more familiar you are with their work the more they will be at ease with you as an interviewer.
  • BE ORGANIZED: Prepare your questions ahead of time and share them with your guest. My interviews are not meant to be hard-hitting, so I like my guests to know the general flow of our conversation. I always tell my guests I may follow-up their answers with other questions or comments that came to mind while they answered but I want them to know the flow.
  • CONTEXTUALIZE YOUR QUESTIONS: My questions tend to be rather lengthy; that is intentional. I try to contextualize the question to help my guests understand my frame of mind when I formulated the question to steer them to the specific answer I’m wanting. It’s not about wanting a specific answer in terms of what they say, but it’s more about making sure the question gets answered. I want them to answer the question I asked, not the question they wished they were asked.
  • BE CREATIVE: I try to think of questions that my guest may not have been asked before or angles they may not have explored. Recently, I had John Hattie on my podcast and one of the questions I was most proud of was, “How would John Hattie the researcher critique John Hattie’s research?” Asking creative questions tells your guest that you were thoughtful about how you were going to navigate the conversation; that you don’t just ask the same set of generic questions.
  • LISTEN: This takes a surprising amount of discipline. It’s easy, while your guest is answering one question, for you to be thinking about the next question you’re going to ask. You must stay with your guest and be prepared to react to their answers in an authentic way. While I’ve prepared a list of questions in advance, I always make sure I react to their answers with an unscripted follow-up so that they know I was listening and genuinely interested in their response. I think this is magnified when conducting interviews over Zoom or some other online platform.

What advice would you give to authors who are considering starting their own podcast?
The first thing is to figure out what the podcast is about. My three segments—a commentary, an interview, and some assessment PD—creates a predictable structure that listeners can count on each week. There are so many ways to do a podcast that you must figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it.

The second is to be a little selfish about why you’re doing it. You’re not likely to get famous or rich from your podcast so do it for yourself. One of the main reasons I started my podcast is because I wanted to talk to great educators and learn from them. I get so much out of the conversations I have with each guest. Yes, you must market and all of that but really, do it for you and the listening audience will grow organically. Just focus on producing great content and the rest will follow.