Updated on November 10, 2023.
It's important to understand the the difference between traditional models of instruction and the mode of inquiry NGSS is built on. This post looks at the transition from the widely-used traditional model of teacher as a sage who distributes knowledge and students as sponges who recall that knowledge, to a next generation model where teachers act as coaches, and students as scientists and engineers in their own right.
The Traditional Model
The first model is the traditional one, in which teachers have access to content and students do not, except through the teacher. In a traditional model of instruction, content flows to a teacher, who acts as a content specialist: explaining, demonstrating, and modeling for students to watch and listen. A student is expected to take all of that content and be able to repeat it, summarize it, or show it back to the teacher. If what the teacher has given matches what the student has given, that's proficiency.
In the traditional model of science instruction, the teacher is the gatekeeper standing between students and the content. Their role in this scenario is to model facts, demonstrate phenomena and explain to students what’s going on. For their part, students are expected to recall the facts, repeat demonstrations and summarize what they see.
This becomes a big issue around Grade 5. Prior to that, students have language limitations (whether or not they are English language learners) that make it necessary to deliver content in more of an experience model.
At this level, the idea that content is merely delivered through a teacher is a bit more foreign, and teachers – even generalists – take pains to make lessons more experiential, which are naturally more in line with the next generation model.
However, around Grades 4 and 5, a transition occurs and the traditional model of science instruction starts to take over. For one thing, the science curriculum and resources become a lot more traditional. Science textbooks become the norm, and the teacher begins to model facts, demonstrate phenomena and explain what’s happening to students in ways that didn’t happen before. The students’ job then becomes to recall the facts, repeat the demonstrations and summarize the phenomena that they saw.
This is a classic traditional model, and it’s a mirroring process: The teacher plays the sage and distributes information while students sit and listen or read, ultimately just recalling the facts that were given to them. It isn’t by nature interactive, and it is very limiting.
The issue with the traditional model is that it involves no experience - there's no problem solving involved. It's really just recall, which is lower order thinking. If we look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, these expectations of students require only the skills of remembering, understanding, and applying.
Higher Order Thinking
Because of the inclusion of science and engineering practices in NGSS, the emphasis on lower-order thinking completely flips in a next generation science classroom. The Next Generation Science Standards are really looking for students to be able to create, evaluate, and analyze simultaneously - or higher order thinking. Achieving this requires a different model of science instruction—the next generation model.
The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy moves away from the traditional pyramid. While remembering, understanding and applying still form the base, creating, evaluating and analyzing now share the top position, because all must be used simultaneously in an effective science classroom.
We still need the lower order thinking skills in the next generation model. If students are creating, evaluating, and analyzing simultaneously, they have to remember what they know. Because they have to try to make sense out of that information, they have to try to understand or extend their understanding. They must also try to apply it as they're analyzing, evaluating, and creating. There's a feedback loop that happens.
Unfortunately, that’s not something that exists in the traditional model. If there is no real challenge involved other than remembering, then there's no opportunity to develop a skill.
Rigor is where challenge exceeds skill. The rigor in the traditional science classroom involves memorization. Under NGSS, however, the rigor is connected to creating, evaluating, and analyzing problems and questions by using skills and developing the content knowledge that students possess. That's the challenge for the classroom, to be an environment that offers experience and opportunity to engage content and skills simultaneously.
Enter the Next Generation Model
The next generation model is very different. In this environment, the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage.” Instead, they are a skillful coach, trying to strengthen the connection between students and the skills and content. They're trying to curate an environment in which student skills are nurtured, the support for those skills are dynamic and changing over time, and there is a full release of responsibility from early on in the year.
The next generation model significantly changes the relationship of all parties, from students to teachers to the content and crosscutting concepts themselves. Here, the teacher tunes the inquiry environment with gradual adjustments, helping students engage appropriately, and readjusting and monitoring where necessary. Students have firsthand contact with the content, developing and using it, using their STEM skills to solve problems or answer questions, and employing systems behavior to inform their efforts.
The teacher's role in a next generation inquiry environment is to tune the inquiry environment. The student's role is to use their science and engineering practice skills to develop and use the disciplinary core ideas and the crosscutting concepts. The teacher adjusts support, helps students understand how to engage appropriately, and redirects and monitors student teams in the classroom.
Students are able to show that they meet expectations not only by engaging in that process of developing and using the content, but also by being able to answer unfamiliar questions and solve problems using the skills and content.
They should be able to explain content and its relationship to each of the dimensions, or explain each of the dimensions and their relationship to content. As you can see, this model is much more dynamic. We’re looking at a change in system-level curriculum articulation in order to move from the first model to the second.
Consider: If a student is being nurtured appropriately by the curriculum (and therefore instruction) from September through June and from one grade level to the next, that student will be much better equipped to set into the role of scientist and engineer enthusiastically, with real command of skills and an ability to employ that habit of making connections.
This is a change in the student’s mindset that must be cultivated by curriculum and instruction, one lesson at a time, one unit at a time, as responsibility is slowly released and students are allowed to engage with content on their own. This is very, very important.
A question we hear a lot is this:
"I think we've been doing this already. Is there a litmus test for what science or engineering is, so we can tell if we’ve done this?"
The answer is simple:
If you’re not sure whether or not your curriculum aligns, go back to the STEM cycle and the nature of science of engineering. Ask yourself if students are being – that is a very intentional word – scientists and engineers.
Remember, science and engineering are not something that you do. They’re not like peddling a bike. They’re not like reading off of a page. Those are rote processes. Doing is rote. Being is creative. It requires something of students; it necessitates their ability to create, evaluate and analyze.
The bottom line is this: If your science or engineering curriculum is not about students being scientists and engineers, so that students are actually engaging the practices, using and developing content, then it's not next generation. Videos, simulations, and demonstrations that call themselves “next generation” are often just replacing the teacher in a traditional model of instruction with another form of “teacher”.