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The Traditional Model of Science Instruction

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Sep 21, 2016

Claim-evidence reasoning does not fill well into the traditional model of instruction. Rather, it calls for a new model that can account for the student-led nature of these higher-order thinking skills. In order to understand that, however, we must first understand what the traditional model looks like.

Traditional Model


In the traditional model of STEM instruction, content flows through a teacher. The teacher models it, explains it, and demonstrates it, and the student just absorbs it and has to recall, repeat, or summarize those facts. That's the rote recall model standardized testing has traditionally been geared around. Increasingly, that's why you see performance-based assessment taking center stage and taking over the multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank types of standardized tests most people are used to, which require only lower order thinking skills. The main reason these tests have become so popular is that testing lower order thinking and fact recall doesn't adequately show how prepares students are for what awaits them in higher education and the real world.

Next Gen Model

The next generation model of instruction is quite different from the traditional model. The experience we create in the classroom has to bring those three dimensions to life in a meaningful context and in a way that students are fully engaged in the practices of science and engineering.

Human minds, even our youngest students, can go far beyond these lower order thinking skills. Instead of banishing students to a repeat, recall and summarize definition of proficiency, we must take on a next generation model of instruction wherein the role of the teacher is to be the coach, to gradually adjust the student's support, to help students understand how to engage appropriately, and to redirect and monitor them as that full release of responsibility occurs over that first 10 weeks of school. After that, the challenge builds further and further, giving students ever-greater responsibility and leading them to tackle even larger challenges.

By challenge, we don't simply mean a specific task. We mean plumbing the depths of thinking, creativity, analysis, and evaluation to deepen those science and engineering practices and skills as much as possible. That's why instead of standing between the student and the contact, the next generation model shows the teacher stepping to the side and strengthening the connection between the two.

Standards Versus Curriculum

Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and DynamicsConnecting Standards to Evidence Statements



NGSS performance expectations exist in three dimensions. The role of the teacher is not to use this standard as curriculum, but instead build a curriculum around it that relies on students to use higher order thinking skills and science and engineering practices to learn and produce evidence of learning in their classroom.

If you look at this particular standard—"Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment"— it is easy to see how in a traditional model of science instruction, a teacher might take each of these words, turn it into a vocabulary word, explain that to the student, show students a food chain is and ask them make a food chain themselves. What we have just described, however, mistakes the standards for curriculum, an idea we discussed above. In the traditional model, the standards too often are the curriculum, rather than informing it.

The Next Generation Science Standards instead ask for teachers to move away from this traditional model and for students to be active participants, investing themselves in the process. Students should be developing rather than copying a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. Only when they engage in the creative process of development are they using the science and engineering practices, engaging in the content (the disciplinary core ideas), and observing and connecting that content across the disciplines. The expectations of a student in this model are very, very different. They must be able to develop and use the content with the practices, and therefore solve problems and answer questions for themselves.

Introducing Practices and Processes

Many people are curious about how to introduce practices and processes, but this is much simpler than you might think: you simply challenge students to answer questions and solve problems. That doesn't mean to do it as a teacher, or to force students to take a pre-specified path, but rather to challenge them to solve problems and answer questions they set themselves. What makes this difficult as a teacher is balancing authenticity, support, and rigor each day and as a school nurturing understanding from year to year as students are promoted.

When people look at NGSS PEEC and EQuIP-aligned curriculum, they might assume students couldn't do what it asks of them, but often this is because they've never expected such a thing of their students before or because they assume an adult must do it all for the students—as in a traditional model.

Districts and teachers who choose not to go this route, but rather to follow the traditional model of instruction, do their students a serious disservice. Similarly, districts that choose canned curriculum modified from previous approaches to teaching STEM, or that leave it up to their teachers to find something from the Internet, do not help students achieve the necessary familiarity with the practices either. Setting students up for that challenge and supporting teachers to create and maintain rigor all year long takes a lot of effort, a lot of thought, testing and design.

That just isn't a fair expectation of teachers. It fails to develop curriculum in such a way that it:

  • Outlives any particular teacher so that it's sustainable
  • Intentionally nurtures students from one grade level to the next
  • Ensures one grade leads seamlessly to the next, and
  • Sets up a new teacher coming into the district to succeed with everybody already teaching the curriculum in district

This isn't something any one teacher should be charged with doing because it's an unfair expectation. Nobody has the time for that, and it just isn't realistic. So how does this relate to the traditional curriculum? Because even though states might adopt NGSS standards and teachers might endeavor to teach to them, if they are left with old models of instruction and resources—finding workbook curriculum or spending all summer developing it themselves—they will fail to teach to the standards effectively.

So in answer to the question of introducing practices and processes, it's crucial to move away from the traditional model and start creating immersive environments across districts in which students can engage with the material on their own, with the teacher as guide rather than sage, and begin to plan their own experiments and solve their own problems. This is simply not something that can happen in a model where the teacher is the gatekeeper to content.

Now that we have discussed some of the problems coming from this traditional model and dispelled some of the myths about NGSS-aligned curriculum, our next article will take a close look at the new model of STEM instruction.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards

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