In short, NGSS-aligned curriculum does not demonstrate the same depth of thinking as curriculum intentionally designed to help students think critically, meet the performance expectations, and step into the shoes of scientists and engineers. To see why, it’s helpful to look at specific differences between aligned and designed curriculum, then discuss how we might go about designing classrooms for true alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards.
This lesson plan was created for a first grade classroom, and demonstrates the gaps in instruction frequently present in lessons that have been redesigned to “align” versus those that have been intentionally designed for NGSS.
This first-grade lesson is misleading right out of the gate, because although it was not designed for NGSS, it claims to have been. However, a simple review will demonstrate how far off the mark it really is.
This lesson pertains to performance expectation 1-PS4-1. What you see circled above are just some key parts. This performance expectation requires a student to be able to plan an investigation and to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound, and that sound can cause materials to vibrate in turn. That's the expectation of the student but when you look at the lesson plan, what the creator has done is broken up the 5Es into those antiquated phases.
For example, they're structuring engagement around what sounds students can hear at school. The lesson involves recording answers on an anchor chart, reading a book, and so on and so forth. Exploring includes listening for sounds on the chart or recording new ones, while explaining is reporting their findings. Elaborating means discussing new words and singing a song a couple of times, while evaluating involves keeping the student's journal so that future observations can be made at the end of the unit.
The problem with this approach is that when you look at the materials that are referenced herein greater depth, you see that the student never plans their own investigation. They're never actually providing evidence and connecting it to the idea that vibrating materials make sounds. They're just trying to identify sounds, which is fact-based rather than experience-based. They are being told that sounds vibrate – just as they might be told that coffee is hot – but how do they actually know?
In other words, this lesson is not really relevant to the performance expectation other than the fact that it involves a sound. You can see from the highlighted section that the intent of the lesson was to hit the expectations “planning and carrying out investigations” and exploring “cause and effect: mechanism and explanation.” Again, the science and engineering practice of planning and carrying out an investigation is not actually being addressed by this lesson. In fact, students are neither planning nor carrying out the investigation. There's actually no investigation at all … just a song and some pictures.
The other piece that the creator thought that this was dealing with is cause and effect: mechanism and explanation. That concept does come from the standards: the standard relating to the mechanism and explanation of cause and effect means you have a cause – like sound causing vibration while moving a material. You could think about the mechanism being sound causing movement or the explanation for the movement being the sound, or vice versa: the movement causing sound and therefore being the mechanism. But none of those ideas are actually happening here. Rather, the lesson focuses not on the concepts underlying this standard, but only on canned activities that relate to it tangentially.
You do still see the 5Es popping up here, but they really aren’t contributing to investigative, constructivist thinking. The problem is, this happens not only in district resources – like this one – but in commercially created resources as well. It’s a buyer beware situation.
This lesson (above), on the other hand, is designed specifically for an NGSS standard, relating to how light travels. While students are still guided through the scientific process, since it’s only a 1st-grade lesson, they are still asked to come up with their own prediction and make their own plan for testing it.
Here is another 1st-grade lesson plan, this one from KnowAtom. The question, as in this example, might be, “Does light pass through all materials in the same way?” Students then come up with a prediction: say, that light travels through all materials the same way or that it travels differently through all materials. The basic procedure is then to shine a light through different materials to see what happens, to see whether and how the light travels through.
The 1st graders then collect the data from their observations and identify different aspects of what happens to the beam of light as it goes through that material. Then they can connect that to what scientist would call that phenomena, the idea of what it means to be opaque, transparent or translucent.
Remember, these students are still very young, so they need a lot of guidance, but the key point here is that they are investigating and experiencing on their own. Using just a few phenomena-related vocabulary words, you now have a framework and experience for those students rather than a situation in which they’re just hearing the answer. This approach allows students to really grab, retain and use those vocabulary words over time. That's something we hear over and over again from teachers who use this approach and use our curriculum.
This is vastly different from the idea of walking around the school, trying to hear noises, reading a book about noises or singing a song about noises. There’s really not much else to this lesson: hearing a noise and being told about it. That’s the traditional model at its finest, the ultimate expectation being that the students would ultimately be able to transmit that information back to the teacher. There are no real phenomena here, be it anchor, investigative or otherwise. It’s just a rote lesson plan.
With KnowAtom, the difference here is that the student is a scientist making a prediction, which is their own way of encountering the phenomena, then relating that prediction back to the actual phenomena they encountered.
Let’s take a moment to consider what the first lesson might look like if it had been designed for NGSS, had been truly designed for the next generation standards. How might it be different? Well, for starters, it would involve a real-world context. When is a student going to be walking around listening to objects for no reason? Never, so the original context of this lesson falls far short of the mark. Instead, they need to be engaged in a context in which a scientist or engineer might actually find themselves, then seek evidence of the complex relationship between mechanism and explanation.
For instance, students might begin by watching a video of fireworks on the fourth of July, or cars being crushed at a junkyard. Many different situations could act as anchor phenomena; the point is simply that those situations need exist in the real world. In the lesson as it stands, there is no anchor phenomena to encourage identifying problems and questions, to encourage the dissatisfaction that will move them forward. Nor is there any option for their own planning, investigation, observation and gathering of evidence.
In the case of this particular lesson example, we would probably pose higher-order questions in looking for that mechanism of dissatisfaction with what we know. A few examples might stem from, say, watching that car get crushed and hearing the sounds that resulted, and asking:
- Where is it coming from?
- Who's making the sound?
- Is it coming from the crushing of the material?
- What material specifically?
- Is it just the two objects coming together?
Now, we have the foundation for an actual investigation. We could bring objects together ourselves. We could crinkle things. We could look at different kinds of materials. What happens when we move them? What kind of sounds are made? Or we could approach the lesson from the other direction. We could make sounds and see if those sound can move materials. In so doing, a student actually begins exploring and engaging at an investigative level with the phenomena, which in turn becomes a platform to explain the more complex real-world scenario. After that, we could come back as a group and pool our findings and reflect together, then elaborate on what we saw not only in our own investigations, but in the original anchor phenomena.
That is what becomes the platform for evaluating our ideas, each other's findings, human error and so on. That is really what's at the root of the Next Generation Science Standards: planning and carrying out investigations, looking at causes and effects, thinking critically about mechanisms and explanations, and using the tools and techniques that actual scientists and engineers use.
Scaffolded units help ensure that students are learning standards in groups, not in isolation. When we teach like this, we help avoid that systemic gap that occurs as students move between districts, so they can come into a new school and be prepared to be tested on that science material rather than being unprepared because teachers are teaching standards in isolation and gearing their instruction only to specific tests.
This type of education relies on an integrated approach with a dynamic framework that pulls the ideas of earth energy, life science, physical science and engineering, applications of technology and so forth not only through the year, but through the grade levels.
That means the standards are being taught in groups, not in isolation. That's one of the other problems with the non-designed lesson: the whole thing relates to just one standard, when in fact that standard has lots of different dimensions to it and relates to other standards. Teaching it in isolation is a major disservice to students. Only by teaching standards in groups and relating them to one another through crosscutting concepts – using systems thinking behavior – can we help students master the three dimensions. Similarly, only then are they able to develop the habits of mind and produce evidence of their understanding at a mastery level.
Good STEM education requires grouping the standards for another reason as well: it’s important to always be reinforcing past standards as you are introducing new ones. Why? Well, imagine a student who's tested in 4th grade or 5th grade, but who is new to the district. If they have not been there for the year to learn the information that a teacher is teaching to the test, then they are not able to meet those expectations. This isn’t a function of their actual learning, but rather a function of the fact that they missed the lessons relating directly to the test.
Unfortunately, since so many educators think this way – “If we can get students to master the standards, then in fact, they have mastered the test” – students who are new to the district get left behind. Instead, the goal should be to address the standards in an integrated way at a grade-appropriate level, introducing mastery and reinforcing one grade level to the next. That way, no matter when a student shows up in your district, they have the ability to interact with the material. They have encountered at least some of the standards before, and are comfortable enough with them that they don’t find a test completely mystifying.
If we want to remove this systemic gap, we must let go of the idea that we teach standards in a linear fashion, one at a time, without real investigation or experience. And that means designing new, NGSS-specific curriculum rather than trying to beef up or “align” that which we already have.