With the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) at or near the classroom implementation stage in most states, principals and teachers have come together to discuss their interpretations. Everyone involved is doing their best to understand where they need to be in September.
The problem facing all educators, early elementary through high school, is that few classrooms have ever taught science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) effectively. While "science classes" have been taught PK-12 for decades, many educators are now questioning if they've ever really taught students science, and if not, what effective STEM instruction is and what it looks like.
To understand how to align to NGSS, we'll first need to walk through the basic shifts in the NGSS.
New Definition of Effective STEM Instruction
The definition of effective STEM instruction today is:
Effective instruction [that] capitalizes on students’ early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest.
This definition was first published in 2011 by the National Research Council's Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for K-12 STEM Education in a report called Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Effective STEM instruction Must Focus on Students' Skills
Traditionally, STEM instruction has relied on teachers or texts as experts and has been focused on awareness, knowledge, and task-level readiness. It takes just a quick Google search to see that there is no shortage of texts, demonstrations, and kits that profess to reveal "the science behind ____." However, this approach is now far afield of what the new standards require. NGSS shifts the experience to students and skills.
Today the primary reason to teach all children science is not so that they can recall facts; rather, it is to help them develop creative, evaluative, and analytical thinking skills. These skills are essential for answering questions and solving problems. Keep this in mind when you re-read the definition of effective STEM instruction above. This definition is phrased according to how curriculum should be designed and instruction should occur in the classroom for students.
Key Points from the New Definition
NGSS lessons must accomplish all of the following:
- Intentionally capture students’ interest
- Connect with student experiences from an early age
- Be designed to identify and build on what students know
- Engage students in science and engineering practices
- Sustain student interest over time
This is why the NGSS are now considered performance expectations and not merely standards. Students will no longer be measured by their ability to recall a fact. Instead, they will be expected to perform the specific expectation of the standards in a new context as a result of their classroom instruction.
Writing, Math, and now... Science and Engineering Practices
While classrooms have been teaching writing practices and the writing process for decades, the concept of teaching science and engineering practices is new to most classrooms. These practices are core skills specific to the discipline, applicable at every grade level, that act as tools for executing the scientific and engineering processes. STEM practices are the skills required to develop scientific knowledge and engineered technologies.
There are eight general science and engineering practices within NGSS:
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
- Developing and using models
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using mathematics and computational thinking
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
How Often are Students Traditionally Responsible for Science and Engineering Practices?
The answer to this question: rarely, if ever, in states without specific inquiry standards.
Those coming to NGSS from states with inquiry standards will have to pay especially close attention to the eight science and engineering practices listed above. Schools that perform poorly on standardized inquiry testing can expect similar performance under NGSS.
Most traditional STEM instructional models never equip teachers to engage students in the practices and processes of science and engineering, and most STEM professional development programs ignore student ownership in the classroom for these eight practices. For instance, most traditional science models will give students a multi-step procedure to follow, while in engineering students are often shown what to build or given a diagram to build-by-number. Such strategies are inappropriate under the new NGSS because students are expected to engage in the practices themselves, in this case developing the model and planning the investigation.
STEM educator preparation programs, including professional development opportunities for teachers that advocate strategies to limit student responsibility for all eight practices fully and regularly, should be avoided. Such strategies inhibit student learning and negatively impact student performance data. Teachers with special education students will need to think carefully about the nature and appropriateness of instructional modifications since many common modifications may inappropriately distance students from the practices dimension of the performance expectations.
Next Generation Science Standards are a Three-Dimensional System of Performance Expectations
The purpose of pivoting from standards to performance expectations is to position the new standards as a context for learning in three dimensions: science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. Each dimension is designed to be interdependent. This allows the performance expectations and the three dimensions to act as a system to inform curriculum and instruction.
This also means that the NGSS lend themselves to horizontal and vertical alignment; however, alignment will be difficult to achieve with the typical 3 or 4 unit per year instructional model common across most PK-12 classrooms. A system of standards and dimensions means there are intentional connections that should not be ignored.
Those Grade-Level Standards Aren't [Just] Your Standards
NGSS makes grade-level-specific recommendation for some standards. However, the NGSS, as well as every adoptive state, have made it clear that standards are not curriculum. But what does that mean?
The job of curriculum and instruction is to nurture students' understanding so that they will be able to perform the expectation as a result of the instruction they receive. The NGSS performance expectations are not specific tasks or contexts that students must learn. That was the model under the old standards.
While mastery of grade-level-specific standards is important in that grade level, those standards are not the only standards that should be taught. Effective STEM instruction needs to reinforce and build upon standards from prior grade levels while also introducing standards from future grade levels.
This is not only prudent for students' long-term retention and understanding; it is also important for preventing systemic gaps in student performance that occur with late students – those who are joining from outside the district, those who are English language learners, and those who suffer from transience or absenteeism who cannot afford to learn in a once-and-done curriculum model.
Ultimately, the NGSS will be hard for many classrooms and curriculum companies to align with because most existing lessons and resources do not approach STEM curriculum and instruction as a system for building knowledge and skills together across all STEM disciplines. However, by doing your research to really understand what the NGSS is looking for, you can help your school and community align more properly and efficiently with the NGSS.