Educational leaders often speak about preparing the “next generation” for the future. In the years ahead, the next generation will work in jobs that are just emerging or don’t yet exist and will face challenges we can only theorize on today. While leaders often pay lip service to “investing” in the next generation, only one content area explicitly states that the next generation is their focus. That area? Science.
The Next Generation Science Standards were adopted by most states a few years ago. Dedicated STEM educators have remained focused on those standards, optimizing curriculum and preparing for updates that will inevitably come.
Those kindergartners who began with the new NGSS standards in 2015 will be graduating in 2028. Many educational systems continue working toward preparing their students for their future in STEM fields. The most successful schools are:
- Learning how to read NGSS standards with an eye to future changes
- Anticipating ways their teaching practices will need to shift
- Viewing student needs in the context of skillsets that will be most in-demand in the real world
How to Read the NGSS Standards
As teachers dig into how to read NGSS standards, they will quickly see the difference between these standards and all of those that have been written before. NGSS truly are something new and different and are intended for a new generation of students—and teachers.
The Next Gen standards are not traditional standards such as those teachers typically find in content areas such as ELA and math. Generally, those standards are direct and require a skill to be demonstrated or explicit knowledge to be learned. These work well in an assessment-centered environment. In the era of high-stakes testing at the start of the century, teachers could teach directly to these standards to help improve test scores.
But good test scores alone do not create problem solvers. The authors of the NGSS set out to create something different, so the standards are built to support not just the skills and content that students need for science, but overarching concepts that cannot be demonstrated through a multiple-choice assessment. Focus of the standards lies heavily on abilities such as developing and using models, arguing from evidence and analyzing data.
As an example, consider a common second grade lesson developed around the standards on “Why is our corn changing?” Children learn that harvest corn, something initially seen as decoration, suddenly begins to sprout what appears to be leaves and roots. Disagreements about how the corn is growing then spark a series of questions and ideas for investigations related to what is causing this growth. So rather than focus on mere reasons for the change, as might have been done traditionally, the students are taught instead how to assess and determine the information that will be most helpful to them when determining the cause—a perspective that will serve them well when facing other situations requiring problem-solving.
The Next Gen Standards also reach well beyond just science concepts. The standards themselves include a focus on technology and engineering, and the cross-cutting concepts guide teachers in embedding STEM concepts in areas such as math, ELA, and art.
New Standards Call for New Teaching Practices
Great teachers use best practices in the classroom regardless of the standards or content they are teaching. So, referring to the new standards as a call for “new” teaching practices probably is not fully accurate. A better description is what the National Research Council refers to as three dimensional learning. Teaching through cross-cutting concepts is one of the three dimensions, and the one that might require the biggest change for teachers. NGSS curriculum crosscutting concepts are those concepts that apply across all scientific disciplines. They provide students with an organizational framework based on behavior and function that connects ideas from different scientific disciplines. Here is where teaching focuses on things such as helping students recognize patterns, identify cause and effect and understand structure and function. And while cross-curricular teaching is not a new idea, what is new is the charge to embed technology, computational thinking, and engineering design concepts into teaching.
Even for teachers who implement cross-cutting best practices in their classroom all the time, this is a shift in mindset. Teacher preparation programs typically do not prepare teachers for content areas such as engineering and technology. This is why professional learning should play a larger role than ever before.
Also of note is that teachers will be called to think more broadly in how they approach lessons. The Next Gen standards themselves challenge teachers to make this paradigm shift, but in the end, it is essential for students to feel that learning does not take place in a vacuum. Lessons learned in regard to science or engineering about how to describe, collect data and make evaluations should reflect a learning process that will work when encountering scenarios beyond the particular lesson or classroom. The student should see learning as integrated and interconnected.
Developing Thinkers, Not Just Test Takers
At some point, we probably ask ourselves, “If this type of teaching is so great, if this is what our students truly need…why haven’t we been doing it all along?” The answer is multifaceted, but one answer is the pivot that government leaders have taken to focus on test scores. In the past 20 years, No Child Left Behind legislation created a hyper-focus on math and reading high-stakes tests. While tests do have a role in the educational system, we now see the downfall of a system focusing too heavily on repetitive skill practice in the absence of critical thinking: real-world problems do not work that way. The problems of the future will be more complex than they are today, and if we want to prepare students for this world, we must also develop their creativity, problem solving, and reasoning skills. Fortunately, there are research-based tools that are available to support our teachers in preparing our students for the challenges of the future.
Preparing for the New Standards: Where Do We Go from Here?
For many instructional leaders, principals, and teachers, approaches to learning that evolve from NGSS hold much promise. Connecting content, creating genuine moments of critical thinking and reflection, and coaching students as they develop the skills needed to analyze and interpret data and argue from evidence is what school should be all about. Tests play a role in instructional design, but they should not be the goal of learning. Thinking should be the goal of learning. The NGSS support this from K to 12th grade.
Teachers who embrace these ideas still need curriculum and resources to make it happen, especially in the STEM areas. Engineering and science concepts can’t be learned only on paper or from a screen. Students need to touch and manipulate materials to fully apply their knowledge.
Success depends on more than knowing how to read the NGSS standards—science for the next generation and preparing for the new standards requires that educators access the best curriculum materials. As principals and teachers seek new ways to ready for the future, adapt teaching practices, and focus on skillsets in real-world demand, they need look no further than KnowAtom as the solution. KnowAtom fully integrates the NGSS for teachers as an aligned, K-8th, hands-on STEM curriculum.