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More Than a Task: Learning STEM

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Dec 9, 2016

As you help students engage with material as scientists and engineers in a next generation science setting, a cadence begins to emerge. It begins with nonfiction reading, then transitions to Socratic dialogue. This means a teacher is not projecting information to students, but is instead asking higher order questions that force students to make concept-to-concept, concept-to-self and concept-to-world connections. Then the progression transitions to student team investigations, where the students are actually planning how they're going to answer a question as a scientist or solve a problem as an engineer. That's what these standards are really focused on. They are performance expectations that create a classroom environment in which students can actually engage in the practices.

Performance in 3 dimensions

In order to bring the three dimensions to life in a science and engineering context, the teacher leads the class from nonfiction reading to Socratic dialogue, students plan and carry out investigations, and teams form conclusions which they then debrief about as a class.


NGSS integration

As we think about the next generation model of instruction we are engaging both ELA and Math standards, especially common core state standards in the context of a next generation science classroom. 

As students work to purposefully carry out their investigations, gathering data and forming conclusions, they truly engage as scientists and engineers, learning all the skills actual scientists and engineers use in the real world. Seemingly almost as an afterthought—but in fact, very intentionally—students also use ELA and math along the way. In this way, time-on-learning is actually quite integrated. Instead of worrying that STEM will "take away" from other subjects, you can feel safe that it will actually provide a context in which to engage with them.

If you are from a state that uses Common Core ELA and math standards, you'll be happy to hear that the Next Generation Science Standards really align quite well to both. That's because at the center of NGSS are the creative, evaluative and analytical thinking skills. If you're from a PARCC state, Smarter Balanced state or a state where your ELA assessments are now performance-based, this is good news as well. You can expect that type of assessment to be the future of science, even if your state hasn't yet adopted NGSS.

Higher order thinking

The traditional pyramid that forms Bloom's taxonomy has been reordered here, still showing remembering, understanding and applying at the bottom, but moving to creating, evaluating and analyzing as equal at the top.

We must prepare students to perform the expectations of NGSS. The proof of learning will be when students can meet all expectations as outlined in the evidence statement or what they should be able to do by the end of the year. That's why integration of the various subjects is so important, because whether you're talking about science or ELA, the best way to teach students these subjects is through scenarios that encourage them to think as real scientists, engineers, mathematicians or writers would.

After all, professionals do not spend time just reading nonfiction textbooks. Reading is not the path to mastery. Memorizing facts is not the path to mastery. So why would we spend so much of our time-on-learning engaged in such activities? That's why we need to transition that time to the activities that actually put students in the role of scientists and engineers, developing those higher order thinking skills of creating, analyzing and evaluating.

What it should be spent on is an integrated model where students are actually scientists and engineers. Sure, reading provides a springboard, but that is part of a multistage experience where reading leads directly to Socratic dialogue. It is not an end goal. Similarly, discussion is a springboard to problems, questions and small group learning. There, students engage in hands-on full inquiry investigations, develop their own data and form conclusions. The goal of a next generation learning environment is to have students developing and using their knowledge to solve problems and answer questions.

In terms of rigor, in order for that time-on-learning to be very productive, we must focus that entire time on higher order thinking, ensuring that creating, evaluating and analyzing happen simultaneously. We must have a rigorous scope and sequence so that challenge consistently exceeds skill, because if the challenge doesn't exceed the student skill level, the opportunity to learn is lost. Boredom sets in. Students don't get pushed to higher levels of thinking or learning.

Topics: STEM

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