I recently did a workshop where I had some fourth grade teachers in attendance. I passed out the bulb, wires and battery and asked the teachers to make a circuit. I expected the kindergarten teachers to struggle, but was shocked to find the complete opposite was true. The kindergarten teachers jumped in and kept trying until they made it work. The fourth grade teachers (who teach electricity every year) had no idea what to do. It wasn't until later that I was told, the teachers teach with a textbook.
Okay...so I get that. We have a LOT to cover and not enough time to do it. But, something stuck in my head...if they don't understand how to light a bulb, how will their students? This brings me back to the fundamental belief...students need to DO science first.
In my classroom, I teach all kids - gifted, emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, English as a second language, autistic, ADHD and, oh yeah, a few that don't have a label. Since I teach children with many different needs I have learned over the years that it is crucial to level the playing field by giving all kids the same background to build from.
Using FOSS or any inquiry based program, you are trained to "do" first and add vocabulary and concepts later. For example, when teaching a concept such as "salinity" we start with an experiment or observation in which we notice what is the same and what is different in samples of water. The brain seeks patterns and stores information through activities that engage the brain - like comparing, testing, observing, and more.
Once we "do" the activity then we talk about it. What did you notice? see? observe? Talking helps to secure the information in the brain before we move on. Once you have explored and talked about the activity, then you can add the words and concepts. We add information on a class chart and introduce the science words we want our kids to use. (I love this chart that I learned about through the awesome program Seeds of Science!)
Then if you want to read from a text, the kids have something to hook the information to. We read a selection and then write about what we have learned. My students are used to answering focus questions in their notebooks and write full paragraphs to explain their thinking.
Lastly, and I think most importantly, is the "think it" phase. Students need to think things through, ponder, reflect, and solidify information. It's that "metacognition" piece that is so essential for students of all abilities.
Only through all of these phases will students truly "know" science.