The Next Generation Science Standards envision students learning as scientists and engineers. This is really a new approach to learning that sets students up to be critical thinkers and innovators. It's no longer about doing science but about being scientists; not doing engineering but being engineers.
As classrooms begin to implement NGSS and work to achieve this vision, there are inevitably some challenges that will come to the forefront.
Below are five common pitfalls facing K-8 educators who are implementing NGSS in the classroom, and how to avoid them:
Pitfall 1: Educators think they can cover one standard at a time, cross it off the list, and then move on to another standard.
Unlike more traditional standards, the Next Generation Science Standards aren’t designed to be stand-alone, isolated concepts. Instead, they are designed to intersect and connect with many other standards.
To avoid Pitfall 1, science instruction will need to provide students with a framework that builds from one year to the next and connects the concepts in a systematic way. Having curriculum that is specifically designed for NGSS will go a long way toward helping educators avoid this pitfall. Your curriculum needs to be intentionally scaffolded and nurturing from September through June as well as from kindergarten through grade 8 and beyond.
Pitfall 2: Educators manage their classroom by requiring that all students remain in their seats and are quiet.
For students to become scientists and engineers in the classroom, the curriculum is just one piece of the puzzle. Classroom cultures will also need to change, allowing students to learn by being scientists and engineers.
To avoid Pitfall 2, educators will have to move their classrooms away from a quiet learning environment to an active, self-determined, small-group learning environment. This shift needs to start early: it's important to start nurturing skills and expectations in kindergarten. If you're waiting until grade four or grade eight, it’s too late because of the three-dimensional nature of these standards. Science and engineering practices provide a framework of expectations that are intended to be nurtured from kindergarten on.
Pitfall 3: Educators use unproductive student tasks and assignments in the classroom.
Part of this new learning environment involves an emphasis on using real-world phenomena, what NGSS calls anchor phenomena, as the context for nurturing those science and engineering practices. This anchor phenomenon is something complex that you can't recreate in the classroom but you can read about it or watch it occur in a video. This becomes an opportunity for students come up with questions or problems with what they’re seeing.
To avoid Pitfall 3, first sit down as a team, look at the task, and say: “How is this lesson giving students a reason to care? Where's the opportunity for students to explore elements of the anchor phenomena? How is it possible for a student to explore it hands-on? What are the materials that are available?”
Remember that anchor phenomena engage students and motivate them to learn. These anchor phenomena also expose what students believe about the world, showing the teacher and the other students both what students believe as well as what they are dissatisfied with.
Pitfall 4: Educators who are used to a more traditional learning environment may view some of the learning in a next generation environment as a waste of time.
These educators may see students having difficulty as they work through the process of planning an investigation or developing a model. They may believe this struggle is a waste of time because they, the educator, could simply tell the students what to do, the students could do it, and then the class could move on more quickly.
To avoid Pitfall 4, educators should recognize that these struggles are productive and an important part of the learning process. They are in fact a result of students internalizing the science and engineering practices and developing those higher order thinking skills—the ability to create, evaluate, and analyze —so they can apply what they have learned to new contexts.
Pitfall 5: Educators continue to assess their students using high-stakes, infrequent summative assessments.
A summative assessment is a judgment of what students have accomplished, and it relies on student memory. In contrast, a formative assessment is frequent, low-stakes, and part of the instruction. It is the job of a formative assessment to give teachers perspective on their students and where they are in the spectrum of mastery. Using everyday observations can help students understand how and where they can improve, which in turn helps them inform their approach and what’s expected of them.
To avoid Pitfall 5, assessments should be primarily formative, blurring the line between instructional and assessment activities. Observing a student at any point in a next-generation classroom yields information about where that student is on their level of mastery of the science and engineering practices.
Avoiding these five common pitfalls will require that educators understand the shifts called for by the Next Generation Science Standards, and how teaching and learning will need to change as educators implement the new standards.