The values (why) inform the mode of instruction (what), which lead to the details of execution (how).
The details of execution encompass what a lesson plan contains. This is predicated on the mode of instruction chosen, which is in turn based on the values that a team agrees are core beliefs. Each lesson plan should answer questions such as:
- What are we actually doing in class?
- What is that class time like?
- What kind of an experience is it?
- What are the expectations of the students?
The answer to each question has to reflect that next generation mode of instruction. It should reflect the values of the Next Generation Science Standards, and this is where a lot of conflict crops up. If you value test prep, you cannot have a next generation model of inquiry and instruction. That's not to say that a next generation model does not prep students for tests, because it does do that… every single day. It simply means not teaching to a standardized test. The next generation model of inquiry and instruction provides contextualized learning opportunities every day that extend students' knowledge and skills and take the old model of direct instruction to the next level.
That's where you can get a how and a why that are at odds with each other, and that's where the difficulty of curriculum development and the shift from traditional standards to next generation standards becomes a big issue. This challenges many instructors' mindsets because they believe the details of execution are beyond what somebody expects their children are able to do. Now the question becomes this: Why do you expect that that's all they're able to do? At what point are they going to be able to do that? If you've predetermined the answers to these questions, then your view of that student has become fixed.
Instead of predetermining outcomes and student readiness levels, we need to take a different approach. We need to believe that while our students can't do this yet, we can create a challenge-rich environment that will help students reach those goals. We're going to create an environment where we can place students in the role of scientists and engineers and encourage them by praising effort. We value students using their critical thinking skills and developing them authentically with their own ideas, not mirroring and parroting back what was demonstrated or told or shown to them.
That's where you get alignment and where you see teams make major progress. Some teams do better with this than others based on the mindset already in place, their expectations of their students, their expectations of themselves, and their ideas of what curriculum and instruction are.
The thing is, you can create accountability through checkpoints to help encourage and nurture this goal along, maintain accountability, and help students ramp up to an area of success if you structure your materials and your classroom that way. If you don't—that is, if you insist on having a traditional model of instruction with workbooks that have question prompts and play like an engineer and create things according to diagrams or copy a procedure off the board—you have removed that opportunity for learning.
From a mindset perspective, this is the perfect opportunity to teach children a growth mindset. As they go through these checkpoints through trial and error and as they create a plan that doesn't turn out the way they expected, it doesn't make sense to say, "You're good at this." Instead, we praise effort and teach students to think about their thinking. We teach metacognition, helping students take what they've done and consider how it can be done differently. We encourage them to analyze and evaluate their own work and their own outcome to create a new hypothesis or a new approach to the problem through a different prototype.
How We Go About Our Work K-12
Establishing background knowledge and holding Socratic dialogue are crucial parts of the next generation model, but shouldn't stop there.
Now it's time to address how, exactly, we go about this work in the classroom. To break things down a bit, you should be spending about 10 percent of your time establishing background knowledge through non-fiction reading. You should spend an additional 20 percent of your time activating that knowledge and learning through Socratic dialogue, asking higher order questions that cause students to create, evaluate and analyze in their responses. They must think about the context of the ideas; about what they read; and about the linkages from concept to concept, concept to will, and concept to self connections.
We do this by creating triads, pulling in different students, and getting them to challenge and counter-claim each other's ideas. It's important to note the teacher is merely the moderator; students are considering and responding to each other's contributions to the class dialogue.
This is where sharpening the irons really begins. We take those skills they've learned previously, as well as their newly attained knowledge, and we challenge students to plan investigations. We don't do this by asking them to mimic an activity; that's play. It is by and large not useful for learning, and you can approach it differently, by experimenting and prototyping.
Higher order thinking skills begin to emerge as students plan investigations, carry them out, gather data to evaluate and analyze, form judgments and claims, and support them with evidence.
The purpose of experimenting and prototyping in the classroom is to actually take something that you thought about and planned and carry it out. That's why planning is so important. That's where we create something new to solve a problem or answer a question. We create an idea and we establish how we're going to test it. We evaluate and analyze the results of those tests to form judgments and claims and to support those claims with evidence. These are all examples of higher order thinking skills in action. These processes nevertheless require remembering, understanding and applying—lower order thinking skills that aren't sufficient in themselves, but are still necessary.
Middle school students work to carry out their own ideas rather than carrying out a rote plan that they have been provided with.
The teacher is still serving as a source of support, redirection, and monitoring, but students are allowed to work relatively freely, exploring their ideas and carrying out their plans. Student teams create those plans, then check in independently at established check-in points, which gives teachers an opportunity to ask questions, evaluate, differentiate, and redirect each team or the entire class as they see fit.
Valuable in Any Culture
Students in refugee camps are more than capable of understanding and engaging with the inquiry model of science instruction, proving fancy equipment is totally unnecessary to teaching science and engineering skills.
Even in refugee camps, students can learn these skills, as shown in the photos above. These lessons were taught in Arabic, on a dirt floor, yet you can see students engaged in the exact same process as the middle school girls in the previous image. They are engaged in using their skills and knowledge and meeting challenges that extend a little past their skill level, truly learning in a next generation inquiry environment.
In any language, this kind of teaching requires students to plan, carry out those plans, form conclusions based on hypotheses or prototypes, engage claim evidence, and use technical writing. To do this, they have to have a sense of direction. They have to be determined. The upside is that with the appropriate challenge—even a challenge that somewhat exceeds their skill level—they can meet it with grit and determination.
That's why it's so important to get the right resources and to actually train people how to engage productively in risk-taking. This is crucial. An expectation without a way of meeting that expectation is just a path to frustration—and that's where leadership comes in. It's a higher order of leadership because it's creating, evaluating and analyzing the teaching and learning culture. By creating, evaluating and analyzing our teaching and learning environment, we can actually create a culture that develops those skills in our students. These new standards are the exact perfect context for that.
That's how we are going to be able to take the teaching and learning environment to the next level through things like 3D printing, adaptive apps, and so on. For most people, right now, that's too early. Your goal shouldn't be to hit that stretch goal, but instead to transform the way you teach so that it aligns with NGSS. Focus on why your school, your classroom and your instruction exists for science and engineering instruction. Build out from there, starting with the why, and then deciding on the what, the how, and the more granular details.