A smooth transition to next generation science standards requires the basic NGSS hands-on materials, professional development, and curriculum alignment to be in place, specifically effective support for teachers around Next Generation Science Standards and a system of closed loop communication, which keeps all stakeholders on the same page and focused on effective STEM instruction.
Support for Teachers
When resources are aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, then curriculum, professional development, materials and STEM learning all synchronize and support each other.
Professional development is a key consideration in this strategic approach to implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, because the question becomes: How do you map teachers’ existing skill sets to the skill sets they need to be deploying in a next generation inquiry environment?
It takes professional development to understand what effective STEM instruction looks like, what NGSS aligned curriculum means and what it’s expecting of teachers. Moreover, teachers need the hands-on materials to teach this curriculum once they understand it. It isn’t fair to expect them to acquire it on their own, and will most likely end in failure if that’s the expectation administrators set for their teachers.
Why is that?
Not only do teachers not want to spend all their free time and money buying and putting together materials together in order to ensure their classroom functions effectively, this type of setup also fails to lead to district-level continuity in the same way as NGSS-aligned resources that are intentionally constructed, deployed, and scaffolded by grade level.
That lack of resources can, unfortunately, affect student engagement and continuity in your district or school, both within the grade level and from grade to grade. There will be gaps in materials and learning as students move from grade to grade.
And why does it matter how districts support effective STEM instruction?
Because if you are setting up your strategy to implement the Next Generation Science Standards and aren’t considering skills and mastery as your primary goal, you run the risk of creating a classroom that follows the traditional model: teach a fact, then ask students to repeat that fact to show they've learned it. If this happens, your students never escape from those lower order thinking skills or emerge with the higher order thinking that they need.
Not only do they need it to perform well on emerging NGSS-aligned standardized assessments, they will need those skills in later life. Think of them as the ticket to successful college experiences and careers. Because of this, having NGSS-aligned curriculum and professional development are both critical pieces to effective STEM instruction, which is why as teachers and administrators it’s important to choose a resource that is specifically aligned to NGSS and focused on mastery of the three-dimentions, rather than trying to do it piecemeal.
At KnowAtom, for example, our curriculum scales from a one-classroom school to a 500-classroom district, helping teachers teach next generation STEM without creating knowledge gaps or returning unintentionally to that traditional model of science instruction. In other words, finding the right resources is a key consideration in teaching STEM.
Students in this picture are working as engineers, actually taking on the role as they engage with the problem and materials to develop a solution they can test and reason with evidence.
When you think about teacher-supported critical thinking in action, the above image is a good example for what it ought to look like. Here we see 5th grade students in the role of engineers. They have already completed nonfiction reading, they have had Socratic dialogue, they have connected their personal experiences to the new knowledge and now they’ve broken up into their small teams and they’re taking the problem apart.
They’re going through that mastery experience, looking at the available materials and having to decide together on an approach that they’re going to physically prototype here. That means testing, gathering the data and then reflecting on that prototype to decide if it solves the problem. Then they’re going to present it to their peers.
That is effective STEM instruction.
This picture is key because it’s not every student in a row, in a seat, quiet, filling in a blank or circling something on a multiple-choice problem set. The learning is dynamic: they’re not copying from a board into a lab notebook. Instead, they are creating their own lab plan to answer the question or solve the problem that they've thought of and then carry out.
Closed-loop communication enables all stakeholders in education to support student learning at all times. Teachers, supporters and students must all be understood for education to be effective.
In order to comprise successful STEM education, the experience we create in the classroom has to bring the three dimensions to life in a meaningful context and in a way that students are fully engaged in the practices of science and engineering. We can’t do that without closed-loop communication.
Perhaps, however, it might be more helpful to start with a definition of open-loop communication. There are three basic stakeholders in any educational process: students, teachers and supporters (including administrators, parents, after-school program leaders, etc.). In open-loop communication, these parties are failing to communicate with one another. The loop breaks.
Unfortunately, just as an open circuit can’t function. Feedback does not reach the other players, and those other players therefore can’t understand fully where they are in the process or learn from the other steakholders.
To take an example from the roll out of the Common Core standards, there was major open-loop communication going on. There wasn’t enough information about how these standards worked at any level becuase it was so distant from the source, which meant that end-users like administrators, teachers, and parents were using their own interpretations to put the instruction into effect.
That meant that much of the “Common Core” curriculum the ended up in the classroom was not really aligned to the new standards, which was confusing for students and parents. Perhaps not surprisingly, parents would then show up at meetings with assignments that weren’t aligned to Common Core standards, confused about how those standards worked or what was expected of their children. In this case, there was an open loop, because parents weren’t being kept informed and didn’t have the information necessary to support their children’s learning.
A closed loop, on the other hand, functions much more effectively when created at the local level. Indeed, strategically implementing Next Generation Science Standards requires closed-loop communication. Teachers need to understand what the Next Generation Science Standards are, what the specific performance expectations are and what each of these three dimensions is, but then they also need to communicate that among themselves and to students. They also need to communicate it to supporters, including administrators, school board members, parents and any community organizations that might be involved at the school in such a way there is a common understanding of the purpose of NGSS among all.
Success relies on principals and teachers conveying what is required for an effective STEM environment and effective science instruction in their classrooms.
Maybe that means communicating why time-on-learning is not spent on drill-and-kill worksheets and texct books, or helping parents understand what needs to happen at home to reinforce project-based learning. Whatever the case, all parties must be talking to one another. In other words, closed-loop communication is absolutely key for strategic success when forming a strategy for implementing the Next Generation Science Standards.