Creating the right STEM curriculum involves understanding the difference between standards and curriculum, what an effective curriculum development process should look like, and how to estimate time and costs to stay on-budget and successfully meet Next Generation Science Standards year after year.
Standards vs. Curriculum
All NGSS standards are designed as performance expectations reflected in three dimensions.
The NGSS standards are designed as performance expectations reflected in three dimensions. If you look at the standard in the above image—"Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment"—it's easy to see where a traditional model of instruction would diverge from a next generation model. In a traditional model of science instruction, teachers would take each of these words and make it a vocabulary word. Then they would explain each word and concept to the students, show them what a food chain is and have them make one themselves. This describes the very common situation of mistaking standards for curriculum.
Instead, we must create environments in which resources support students engaging with the material on their own. That's why the standards are designed as performance expectations that exist in three dimensions. Each of these dimensions specifies how students should engage with the material: They must use the practices, learn and engage with the disciplinary core ideas and describe the system both in terms of its components and interactions between them.
That's where using the right resources come in. We really have to think about what those resources will look like, and answer questions such as:
- What are our current resources good for?
- Can they be aligned with the expectations of NGSS?
- If not, what will we do instead?
Student readiness levels progress from awareness readiness to knowledge readiness to performance readiness to mastery readiness. At each stage, the value to student learning is higher.
The unfortunate truth is that resources sitting in your closet or found at the national science teachers conference or bookstore aren't likely to be aligned with NGSS, despite their claims. They're likely to stop at awareness or knowledge readiness, which simply is not sufficient to teach the science and engineering skills and higher order thinking skills needed for students to meet evidence requirements.
Awareness-ready resources are the most basic type of resource, creating awareness in students that science and engineering are important. While they are valuable for setting the stage for inquiry, they cannot create it on their own. Then we progress to knowledge-ready resources, in which students learn about subjects in textbooks and by visiting museums. They learn what scientists have discovered and engineers have created, but they do not do it themselves. Unfortunately, learning about science and engineering is not the same as engaging in it and does not teach the skills they'll need later through some sort of magical osmosis. We need to go further.
Performance-ready resources are the black-and-white kit boxes that everybody uses, the three-units-a-year setups in which students learn in relation to specific contents to be able to perform a task when they need to find specific data or answers. An example of this would be doing a scratch test to determine how hard a rock or mineral is. Students can perform, but they aren't necessarily learning skills that they can apply to other situations.
Finally, mastery readiness is all about students developing content and skills that they can generalize and apply to unfamiliar situations. This is the type of readiness that NGSS-aligned resources provide every year, teaching the current year's standards and reinforcing those from years previous. This is especially important in urban school settings where students transition in and out frequently. Given this, students must be given a chance to master new material by being exposed to older standards. This becomes reinforcement for students who stay and critical instruction for those who enter in higher grades—say, 4th or 5th grade—where they will be tested on this content.
There is a huge difference between poor end-to-end continuity and its more effective counterpart. Only by instilling effective continuity in curriculum design can we ensure student mastery readiness.
We should note that how the standards get transformed into curriculum and communicated to educators, students, parents and the world also matters. The experience we create in the classroom has to bring those three dimensions to life in a meaningful context and in a way that fully engages students in the practices of science and engineering. If there is no continuity between the parties responsible for supporting students in this type of learning, that won't happen. That's why curriculum development needs to be a partnership between all decision makers, from the Council of Chief School Officers down to individual classroom teachers. That way the development process can proceed smoothly and lead to effective STEM curriculum.