Little by little, new science standards and expectations are sweeping the nation. Several states have chosen to make the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) their own. (Readers unfamiliar with NGSS can learn more at the official NGSS website.)
The new standards are ambitious. They share some features with Common Core standards, have the potential to radically change school science, and play a societal role far beyond the classroom, just as the previous standards movement did. They are more strongly based on our understandings about how people learn than some past standards. They also place greater emphasis on helping students understand not only the products of science—science content—but also the processes and practices used to create new knowledge. This can help make a society where people are critical consumers of the scientific information bombarding us daily.
But the transformation won’t be easy. Many teachers—and the schools, districts, and communities in which they work—will eventually need to make some pretty significant changes for this thing to work.
Change is difficult. Teaching children all day is tiring, and finding energy to do things differently can be difficult. And it doesn’t happen overnight. No one skilled in a complex craft like that of the K-12 teacher can simply get up tomorrow and be different.
Fortunately, lots of states recognize this. We are being given time to transition to the kinds of instructional changes NGSS needs for success.
What are those changes? Well, for some K-5 teachers and schools, the biggest change will probably be the need to make hands-on science part of every grade level. In NGSS, K-5 science is mostly about hands-on experiences centered on tangible, observable ideas. It doesn’t have to be daunting. The experiences, however, can’t be limited to, say, fourth and fifth grade. Every teacher has to be teaching at least a little bit of hands-on science all year long.
Beyond this, NGSS calls for radically different classes than the caricatured version of traditional instruction built mostly on direct instruction of vocabulary and the concepts underlying the new terms.
I see at least five key differences between this view of instruction and the NGSS vision:
- Every standard focuses not only on science ideas but also the science and engineering practices we use when doing science—asking investigable questions, interpreting data, building mental models to explain what’s observed, etc. These practices are learned when students do science year after year with teachers explicitly showing students how their work mimics and uses science’s practices.
- NGSS changes content expectations. Traditional middle and high school science classes ask students to learn lots of new ideas. Teachers often feel these content demands make it unrealistic to try different instructional methods requiring more class time be spent learning or practicing ideas. NGSS addresses this issue.
The new standards have lower content requirements than predecessors. They focus instead on core ideas within disciplines—ideas that either explain lots of different phenomena or connect to socially or personally relevant issues we face today.
Fewer ideas, addressed in different ways repeatedly throughout the K-12 spectrum, means more time can now be devoted to teaching and learning about a single idea.
- Because so many ideas are chosen for their broad explanatory powers, NGSS emphasizes explaining phenomena. Instead of saving application for the end of an instructional unit, NGSS encourages teachers to begin units by showing (or “engaging”) students with observable phenomena needing explanations—like discrepant events. Hearing students’ untrained explanations helps teachers figure out how to tailor the instruction that follows, where students learn about the power of alternative (scientifically accepted) models explaining what was observed.
- NGSS focuses not only on ideas within scientific disciplines but also ideas that cut across disciplines. Teaching students about these crosscutting concepts helps them learn to think about and observe the natural world the way scientists do.
- NGSS introduces engineering into the science curriculum. I admit that this is the change that probably freaked me out the most when I was first introduced to NGSS. It’s hard enough to teach science, I thought, and now they want to introduce into the mix an entirely new field of study in which most teachers have no background.
Like a fine wine, however, my judgments mellowed over time, especially after I read the National Research Council’s Framework document upon which NGSS is based (and drank some of that fine wine). Engineering is defined, basically, as using science ideas to address personal and social problems. In NGSS, engineering is supposed to be about applying science to find solutions for real life issues and problems. For some science teachers this is actually their favorite thing about teaching science, watching students build bridges, light bulbs, drop eggs off buildings, or build terrariums.
As a teacher, this last point brings home a truth we all need to keep in mind. The changes NGSS requires may be daunting and significant. But when all is said and done, they might also prove to make teaching science more rewarding and more fun!