The “Art of Teaching NGSS”: How Phenomena and a Culture of Learning Impact Student Engagement

Not too long ago a reader of this blog posed the following question:

My question is how do you get kids to want to even ask questions? I teach high school and the only way most of my students learn anything is by my forcing it down their throats, because they aren't even curious about phenomena. This new model is awesome for kids who WANT to learn, but for the vast majority, school is where their parents want them to go so they aren't home all day. Any thoughts?

It got me thinking because it strikes at the very heart of teaching and learning: What is the value-add of time on learning today?

The art of teaching is partly match-making. The "perfect match" is where students encounter phenomena first-hand that engages their curiosity at a gut level and makes them want to learn more. The key to making this work is that both the encounter and the reason to engage need to be owned by the student. Most traditional teachers rely on a show-and-tell model where a computer program, book, or demonstration/video shows students phenomena and then the teacher proceeds to tell them about it and why they should care. However, this is not how students' brains are structured to learn; in fact it fights their very biology.

A student needs to believe something is important in order to begin processing it. This is why a next-generation model of inquiry instruction isn't about devices, eBooks, simulations, etc., but instead is about learning to think as a skill. This is why all of the Next Generation Science Standards (performance expectations) occur in the context of phenomena and have a science and engineering practices dimension.

Next Generation Science Phenomena Grade 2

Once students believe something is important, they will have authentic questions about the phenomena, providing a platform for inquiry -- to answer students’ own questions. But for students to want to ask their questions, they need to feel that their questions are respected and taken seriously by everyone [peers and teachers]. This is an issue of culture, both teaching and learning, that a teacher can influence. No one wants to look or feel stupid for asking a question, especially a teenager. Cracking jokes, allowing students to snicker at other students, or comments from adults like "we talked about that" or "you should already know that" are major barriers to building a culture of intellectual risk-taking. Remember: middle school and high school students will opt out of asking questions as a way of opting out of potential personal embarrassment.

This blog post provides 7 ways to set expectations for an effective, productive classroom dialogue: 7 Expectations You Should Set for a Genuine Socratic Dialogue.

Here is another blog post that talks through how the layout of your classroom can help to facilitate a scientific discourse in which students learn the expectations of asking questions and analyzing what they think and why they think it: How to Get Students to Participate in Socratic Dialogue.

You may also find the eBook “How to Develop a Culture for Success with the Next Generation Science Standards” and the webinar “Asking better questions: The key to deeper, more engaged, more authentic science instruction” on our free resource library helpful.

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