New science standards urge shift from 'learning about' to 'figuring out'

Next Gen Science Standards, adopted by 16 states and counting, make students think like scientists

In at least 16 states, science education is undergoing a serious transformation. The key is three-dimensional teaching and learning, and even districts in states that have not adopted the Next Generation Science Standards may want to consider the shift.

Janet Dykstra is a science content specialist working for nonprofit testing company Measured Progress to develop NGSS resources for classrooms as well as a curator of high school life science content for the National Science Teachers Association. As one of about 50 curators for the NSTA, Dykstra assesses science resources to determine how well they align with the Next Generation Science Standards and writes reviews for teachers to consider as they explore potential resources.

An important instructional shift with NGSS is changing from simply telling students information they need to know to letting them figure it out. Students, then, go from “learning about to figuring out.”

That doesn’t just mean doing more labs in science class, though.

“Many students will do a hands-on activity but it’s generated by the teacher,” Dykstra said. “The teacher will say, ‘Today we’re going to do this.’ It’s put in front of them; it’s cookbook. But it may not necessarily help them gain understanding of how this activity that they’re doing fits in the natural world.”

Students who grow up in classrooms organized by the Next Generation Science Standards see a natural phenomenon that sparks their curiosity and then are guided along a path of inquiry, engaging in the activities real scientists do to make sense of it. As a K-12 science framework, the NGSS encourages teachers to help students build on prior knowledge and draw connections across science disciplines and grade levels to deepen their understanding from one year to the next.

That’s the foundation for multi-dimensional learning. Each standard in the NGSS combines three dimensions: practices, cross cutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. “Practices” refer to behaviors scientists and engineers engage in. “Cross cutting concepts” describe links across disciplines that help students create a coherent view of the world based on science. And “disciplinary core ideas” are the fundamental ideas students must know to understand certain disciplines.

Teachers should be striving to incorporate all three dimensions into every lesson and every assessment.

One reason why Andy Boyd, a longtime science and math teacher in Washington State, has embraced the NGSS framework is because it is designed for all students in all grade levels, not just high school students who seem to be on track to go to college. Boyd appreciates the career focus and the emphasis on developing the skills students need to be successful, no matter what they do after high school.

Boyd is the president-elect for Washington’s chapter of the National Science Teachers Association and he will transition from the classroom to a teacher support role this fall in central Washington. His work with districts will include supporting teachers and students transition to the NGSS. While Washington is one of the states that has adopted the standards in their entirety, Boyd urges district leaders elsewhere to read the standards and advocate for their adoption with policymakers and other state officials.

“To sit back and say, ‘What we have is fine’ without really critically looking at it, I think that might be a mistake,” Boyd said.

In the small, rural Coulee-Hartline District, where Boyd worked the last six years, administrators have supported teachers in their study of the NGSS and the instructional shifts that inevitably must accompany them. Teachers have attended workshops and conferences, and they have sought out support from regional educational service districts, the state board of education, and the National Science Teachers Association.

That has meant investing in substitutes to cover for teachers, but supporting Boyd’s participation in a regional workshop, for example, had its payback in creating a teacher leader to help colleagues think about the new standards.

One of the most complex challenges teachers will be facing as they implement the new standards is developing new assessments to gauge student mastery. As Dykstra says, it’s very different than just content knowledge. Teachers should be assessing whether students get the core ideas, but they also need to know whether students understand the larger framework and the ways scientists and engineers approach questions about the world.

“When you think about assessment, these are much more complex questions that are really going to help us get an idea of how well the students are growing in their mastery of that kind of three-dimensional learning,” Dykstra said.

That affects classroom teachers as they consider formative assessments as well as state education leaders who are planning for summative standardized tests. But the process seems to be proceeding slowly and methodically. Teachers are being encouraged to take their time learning the standards, getting additional training, and aligning their instruction. As states start debuting tests aligned to the NGSS, school districts may experience greater urgency, but for now, quality implementation is being prioritized over speed.

And Boyd thinks many teachers will be able to tweak their lesson plans rather than overhaul them in the shift. Once instructors have a clear understanding of what needs to change, they can reframe their projects and assignments, layer on additional context, and help students make the broad connections they’ll need as adults.

Because that understanding is important for more than just science.

“The goal,” Dykstra said, “is to have all students leave high school with an understanding of their world that will help them make good decisions as citizens going forward.”

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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Flickr; Energy.gov