Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a lot of conversations surrounding the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Recently these conversations are growing in sophistication to much deeper and meaningful discussion about what the standards are and their impacts on teaching and learning. The primary focus has been on the shift in the teaching of Science. But, what do these standards actually look like, what are these shifts, and what does this actually mean for educators?
The NGSS is a set of standards based on the NRC’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education that are designed to reflect the interconnected nature of science as it is experienced and practiced in the real world. I often ask educators what the underlined portion of the sentence above means to them. As you can imagine responses are quite varied, but they all seem to fall back to immersing students in the thinking and work of scientists and engineers.
What is the work that scientists and engineers do? How do they behave and think? The first thing I always hear is that they investigate or solve problems. While this is true, I believe that if we limit our definition to that of just investigating, answering questions, and solving problems, we are actually limiting our students’ understanding of how scientists and engineers work and think. If we limit our definition, are we truly immersing our students in the process? Scientists and engineers do so much more. This list is not exhaustive, but let’s look at some of the work that they do at a basic level
- Ask questions and define problems
- Read others work
- Design and conduct investigations
- Create explanations and solutions
- Present their findings, explanations, and solutions
- Critique other’s findings, explanations, and solutions
- Refine findings, explanations, and solutions
So how do the Next Generation Science Standards reflect these ideas? The NGSS are made up of three dimensions:
- Science and Engineering Practices (SEP) – the behaviors that scientists and engineers engage in as they explore, design, and build theories and models.
- Crosscutting Concepts (CCC) – concepts that have application across all the fields of science.
- Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) – the core ideas of K12 science education.
What this means in practice is that content is inextricably linked to engaging in practices, and learning practices are inextricably linked to the content – a concept known as three-dimensional learning.
Having an understanding of science practices, models, and systems is of as much relevance for the student who does not want to follow a scientific or engineering career path as it is to the student who does and the NGSS is designed to provide students with a contextual understanding of not only scientific practices, but, how are these connected to the world we live in.
There is no hierarchy in these standards. Content and process are given equal weight. In practice, this means that when teachers plan instruction they should be paring the Science and Engineering Practices with the Disciplinary Core Ideas. Scientists and engineers don’t work on content in a vacuum, they apply specific skills and abilities and students must be given the opportunity to interact with content in the same manner.
The NGSS are designed to be progressive standards where each subsequent year builds upon the knowledge and skills acquired previously. As such they are designed to provide students with a deeper understanding of the key ideas in science (Disciplinary Core Ideas) and build a more sophisticated understanding of these each year. This approach to developing scientific knowledge also enables teachers to address the root cause of common misconceptions as the “stepping stones” that make up these learning progressions allow the student to master the fundamental knowledge and skills that precede more difficult concepts.
Students will not only be mastering these key ideas but they will be doing so through an investigative approach (applying the Science and Engineering Practices) by, asking questions, developing explanations, testing theories and laws, interpreting data and developing conclusions, just as scientists and engineers do. This inquiry-based approach enables the student to be in control of their learning experience and change the way they come to understand scientific practices. By utilizing the learning progressions and paring the three-dimensions, students develop a deeper conceptual understanding of how knowledge is constructed in science.
Another key idea in the NGSS is that students should be able to read, write, and think like scientists and engineers. Disciplinary literacy and academic vocabulary plays a vital role in students being successful. The processes outlined in the standards, creating conclusions, presenting their results, creating and defending their own explanations are all skills that scientists and engineers spend their time on. Designing and executing investigations, solving problems and proposing solutions all require background research and students need the skills to be discerning reviewers of literature in their chosen field. Critiquing others findings requires that the student posses not only content knowledge, but also a deep understanding of the practices and process that the author used to reach their explanation. Reading, writing, speaking and listening are process that all scientists and engineers use to perform their work at the highest levels. Students need these same opportunities in the classroom in order refine these skills and truly become scientifically literate.
Click here to find out more about Discovery Education’s solution for NGSS.