How Important is Routine and Structure in NGSS Storylines?

kids engaged in science experiment

When we talk about storyline pedagogy, we describe the individual lessons, or ‘episodes’ that make up a storyline as unscripted opportunities for student-led discovery. But, without the frameworks and classroom routines in place to prepare students for this next-generation model of instruction, we’re not setting them up for success. In fact, without strong routines and structures in place in the classroom, the idea of ‘unscripted discovery’ may make teachers and their students uncomfortable. That energy, however, is what sparks scientific discovery. Students need the time, space, and structure to create, to interact with phenomena personally, and to make mistakes and learn from them – for deeper learning to occur. With frameworks and processes in place, students and their teachers have common tools to engage critical thinking, personal reflection, and hands-on investigation.

Framework and Process Come Before Activities and Investigations

One essential element of storyline pedagogy is the idea that a storyline is unscripted. Students in different classrooms can take a storyline stemming from the same anchor phenomenon in very different directions. The storyline’s words, its investigative strategy, and the outcomes students earn are not set by the teacher. This is very different from traditional instructional models, where even with the use of hands-on materials, students may be provided with steps of a script to follow, all while the teacher is looking for a specific answer or result when they are finished. 

In contrast, a NGSS storyline is created by the students. It is built using the knowledge they collect in each episode and propelled by their own curiosity and questions about an anchor phenomenon. With frameworks and classroom procedures that give students agency and a clear understanding of what is expected of them, we can provide the tools they need to think deeper. These learners are creating something personally relevant about an investigative phenomenon.

You may have heard the idea of ‘framework and process before activity.’ This rule of thumb encourages teachers not to start with a classroom activity first, and then try to connect it to the content. There are many hands-on activities related to state standards available. But when teachers select activities from many different sources, we’re essentially reinventing the wheel every day. Our students have to learn what we expect from them while completing the activity, and engage with its subject matter without a consistent process. In contrast, classroom frameworks and routines allow students to practice hands-on investigation knowing exactly what is expected of their depth of engagement. This gives them the time and space to think more deeply about the content.

Classroom Frameworks, Constructive Feedback, and Modeling Curiosity

A good process is something that can be repeated and becomes routine. A good framework is flexible to allow for use within any context. That’s how storyline pedagogy works within a classroom. It provides students the flexibility to take the lead and propel their storyline forward in unique ways. Repeatable frameworks allow for flexibility while giving teachers the confidence that students will use it to create new knowledge and strengthen their critical thinking skills in the process. 

Clear frameworks help both students and teachers share expectations for responsibility and engagement! In fact, they allow teachers to move from a role as agents of knowledge transfer to facilitators and co-creators. When teachers aren’t directing, they have more time to learn about their students’ thinking and provide ongoing constructive feedback that can be used immediately to improve investigative results. 

When these tools exist, the activities write themselves because the students are in the lead. The teacher’s job is to launch a process of reflection and discussion around an anchor phenomenon, and model intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills as the students create. When students have a high degree of agency and the opportunity to engage one-on-one with the content, they can authentically uncover and discover what the phenomena is and how it works. Students feel more comfortable taking risks because they know what is expected of them. That includes thinking deeply, questioning, and discovering. The students are free to experiment and think outside the box. 

Classroom frameworks can also be used to build constructive feedback into daily activities in the form of formative assessment. Testing at the end of a unit is a missed opportunity for students to learn and incorporate that knowledge immediately. Frameworks and routines allow for a self-correcting and self-differentiating curriculum. The students are beginning at a level appropriate to their learning needs, uncovering where they went wrong in an investigation, and figuring out for themselves how to fix mistakes. 

Implementing Frameworks and Scaffolds within NGSS Storylines 

When implementing storyline pedagogy, frameworks and teaching scaffolds help encourage students to observe and reflect on what they’re encountering. They should help to remove restrictions and increase thinking, giving students the opportunity to discover, wonder, and reflect personally on what they are learning. For example, instead of completing a vocabulary worksheet, students who are engaged in the process of planning a hands-on investigation are using science vocabulary. Before students can succeed at hands-on investigation, however, they need clear guidance on what is expected from them during planning, data collection, and reporting their results. This includes modeling, using the process as part of a group thinking activity to step into the shoes of a scientist or engineer for the first time. 

Collaborative Learning and Formative Assessment

A common tool used to engage students in personal reflection and deeper thinking is working with a partner. One way to encourage cooperative participation is the use of formative assessment checkpoints. When the students know that they have to check in with their teacher and explain their reasoning, with the teacher listening and asking questions of both partners, they know their reasoning matters and will be called into question. They know they have to stay engaged every step of the way. 

This is an example of a framework that, when used well, engages students in thinking critically about their ideas. Students working effectively in teams are practicing communication, argumentation with evidence, and collaboration. The teams know they have to support their reasoning directly to their teacher before moving on to the next step. But, if the teacher isn’t actively listening and engaged during the checkpoint, an equal partnership isn’t a requirement. It matters that teachers listen and think carefully about what students are saying (and not saying).

NGSS Storylines and the Picture Thinking Routine

Another classroom tool is the picture thinking routine. When introducing the anchor phenomena at the start of an NGSS storyline, the picture thinking routine encourages students to think critically about new information. Students react to the images in their textbook, writing down what they think the text will be about, prior to reading the passage. When they share these reflections, students learn from their peers how to look deeper and think critically when processing new information. 

The picture thinking routine also helps students understand how people change their minds when they learn new information. Maybe we missed something or miscategorized an item in the image when we first looked at it. When students go back and review what they wrote down before the reading versus what they know now, they are reflecting on how our minds work when taking in new information. When we pair the picture thinking routine with a classroom discussion, students reflect on what they can learn from others and how personal experience impacts how we create knowledge.

Sentence Starters and Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom

Sentence starters are a simple tool that can be used to prepare students for Socratic dialogue, or classroom discussion. This repeatable framework helps students think more critically about phenomena, connect it to real-world problems and experiences, and ask complex questions about it. When we’re asking students to come to a consensus about a problem they want to solve or more information they want to uncover about the anchor phenomenon, sentence starters can help them start narrowing down their investigative criteria. This is an important early step in an NGSS storyline for students working together to choose where their storyline will go next. 

As students get better at deciding what they want to investigate, tools like sentence starters can be phased out. With the help of strong frameworks and formative assessment, students will improve at critical thinking, sharing their personal experiences with phenomena, asking complex questions, and coming to a consensus as they engage in deeper thinking while building their own storyline.

Encouraging Deeper Learning with NGSS Storylines