When students own their own learning, they are more engaged and personally invested in the outcome. One of the keys to implementing storyline pedagogy effectively is allowing the students’ own questions to drive the storyline. In this model, teachers are co-creating an understanding with their students. For students, it is an understanding of the lesson’s big ideas, and for teachers, it is an understanding of the dimensions of their student’s learning. To engage in deeper learning, students need a safe space where intellectual risk taking is protected and encouraged. Processes and frameworks can be put in place to allow them to be creative, take risks, and create on their own. As co-creators in the classroom, a teacher’s role is different, but even more important than transferring knowledge.
NGSS Storylines, Co-Creating, and Intellectual Risk Taking
Storyline pedagogy is constructivist. This means that the ideas students investigate and learn are constructed, not transferred from teacher to student. When engaging in an NGSS storyline, the students are the ones selecting the problem they want to solve. As they plan and conduct their own investigation, they are building mastery of core concepts. This new knowledge comes from the students’ own thinking and direct interaction with the phenomena.
Deeper learning occurs when students are engaged in reasoning and extending that reasoning. When students construct their own knowledge, rather than having it transferred from a book or teacher, their engagement with the content is deeper and more personal. In essence, students are creating personal meaning within the discipline, while the practices of science and engineering become part of their identity as a learner. This is the foundation of deeper learning and true mastery.
Each episode of a storyline is an opportunity for students to better understand the world around them. They are interacting with real-world problems and events that they have a personal interest in, because they selected what they wanted to investigate. But if students are not comfortable being curious in the classroom and working together with their peers, the storyline cannot progress. This level of rigor requires intellectual risk taking and a safe space to try new things without fear. The key to success is co-creation between student and teacher. When students take the lead with the help of classroom routines, they are building the tools they need to figure out complex problems in the real world.
When students make mistakes in this type of environment, just like scientists and engineers do, they learn from what went wrong. They use that knowledge in the next episode of the storyline. When the students succeed at figuring out a problem they chose to investigate, they learn how to use reasoning and investigation as a way of answering questions and solving real-world problems.
Release of Responsibility and Deeper Learning with Storylines
Storyline pedagogy challenges students to answer a question or solve a problem that is personally meaningful to them. The storyline is built on their own questions, created through unscripted episodes of student-led discovery. To allow for this high level of rigor in the classroom, each part of an NGSS storyline should have clear expectations and processes. Rather than controlling a students’ thinking, we can give them the freedom to act within a framework of expectations in order to achieve a set goal.
This type of partnership between student and teacher looks much different than the traditional model of instruction. Releasing responsibility over to the students requires trusting them to use their own skills, which in turn dramatically increases their ability to practice and hone those skills. When students develop their own plan, by building a question into an actionable investigation, they have purpose for the hands-on materials they have access to. To help students engage effectively with those materials, teachers can use formative assessments throughout the investigation process. With the help of ongoing, constructive feedback, students learn to think critically about their own ideas, plans, results, and conclusions.
Teachers as Coaches and Thought Partners
The next generation model of science instruction puts students in direct contact with the content. That’s what storyline pedagogy offers. It gets students thinking critically from the very beginning, when they are introduced to an anchor phenomenon. The role of the teacher is to help their students engage in reflection, questioning, and discovery. It is to coach and build their skills, be a thought partner, and model intellectual curiosity. Teachers who model intellectual curiosity and risk taking in the classroom can help their students learn how to do it effectively themselves.
Students who are given full responsibility to plan, design, and execute an experiment or prototype are building the skills scientists and engineers use every day. They are using cross-cutting concepts and fully integrating what they’ve learned about earth-based science, life science, physical science, engineering, and other core areas to solve real-world problems. At the root of this next generation learning process are the skills and thinking systems used to solve problems and build knowledge.
Building a Culture of Thinking in the Classroom
When teachers allow their students to work together, they are naturally releasing some responsibility over to them. True collaborative learning goes beyond that, however. It requires the release of responsibility for learning from teacher to student. In order to engage students in this level of rigor, the school must support student agency. By creating a safe place and a culture of thinking, where students are encouraged to make connections, act on their hunches, and use thinking as a tool for learning, we can promote deeper learning through co-creating and intellectual risk taking.
Storyline pedagogy is one way to release the responsibility to make choices about their learning journey over to our students, backed by clear expectations and scaffolds. As they build on each episode in a storyline, students need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. This is scary, especially in the higher grades, which makes it all the more important.
When we structure our classrooms to promote a culture of thinking, then thinking becomes a way of learning. It becomes a tool for uncovering, for discovering, and for figuring out. Students are coming to mastery of the standards by interacting with phenomena and by developing their identity in relation to those phenomena. Through their own observation of experimental investigative phenomena and hands-on experience with it, they're getting the opportunity to create something personally meaningful to them.