The Next Generation Science Standards represent much more than a realignment to standards – they represent a shift in the way we teach science.  The standards were born out of the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which lays the groundwork for a re-evaluation of how we structure our science classrooms.

While we may understand the Next Generation Science Standards and the shift they represent, it may seem daunting to begin a new pedagogical approach in the classroom.  Luckily, the NGSS don’t call for fixing what isn’t broken, and likely, you’re already emphasizing inquiry rather than fact-memorization.  As you begin to reflect on this school year and look for areas to grow, consider these three questions, and remember, the key is to start small.  Whether it’s only one unit that you change or a multitude of tiny adjustments throughout your year, a little goes a long way.  This is perhaps the easiest adjustment we can make in our classrooms when we consider the Next Generation Science Standards.  As you picture many science classrooms, the lab activity is usually towards the middle or end of the unit, after students have learned the associated vocabulary and processes.  What if we reversed this, and used a lab or an equivalent hands-on activity to introduce our material?  

In the ideal science classroom, students ask for knowledge rather than passively consume it.  Thus, we need to generate a period of time where students necessitate the knowledge we can then provide.  In one video in NSTA’s Primer and Unit Planner, we see students observing and discussing a balloon inflate as a result of yeast metabolism.  They had no vocabulary or prior knowledge; rather they observed a phenomenon that necessitated further investigation. Instead of the previous year where students first read about the relationship between yeast, sugars, and cellular respiration, the teacher realized that students wouldn’t be compelled to learn the content unless they had an investigation to help anchor this knowledge. Louis Pasteur didn’t first take guided notes before his investigation – his observation of phenomena necessitated note-taking!

One instructional approach that facilitates this shift in teaching is Rodger Bybee’s “5E Instructional Model,” which asks that our instruction be articulated in the following order:

1. Engage

2. Explore

3. Explain

4. Elaborate

5. Evaluate

If we are explaining before we’ve engaged and explored, we aren’t getting our students’ attention – and more importantly, we aren’t practicing real science. And this leads us to Question Number Two…

Sources: Cognitive Performance Group & NSTA

In the science classrooms of the past, students could not connect the facts they learned with real-life phenomena occurring in the world around them. Too often, breadth over depth was emphasized, going a mile wide and an inch deep.  Students memorized discrete facts and vocabulary words, rarely able to apply their knowledge to a new set of problems.  

In A Framework for K-12 Science Education, the authors stated that their goal of science education “is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science” (1).  They go on to list other goals, but this is the first — not the process of meiosis or the periodic table, but the majesty of science.

We know that a major tenet of the Next Generation Science Standards is to prompt students’ exploration of science by introducing our units with phenomena (“Engage” and “Explore” in the 5E Model), but we can’t forget to constantly bring students’ attention back to why we’re practicing science throughout instruction.  It can become easy to forget why we’re dissecting a frog’s lungs or learning about vectors.  If we don’t redirect students attention to the latest findings for respiratory disease or Tesla’s recent aerospace engineering feat, we are not paving a pathway for students to see science’s omnipresence around them on a daily basis.Let’s do a little math.

There are three dimensions to the NGSS:

  1. The Science and Engineering Practices, of which there are 8. These are the actions and processes that scientists and engineers use in their work.
  2. The Crosscutting Concepts, of which there are 7.  These are the underlying ideas that we find in other disciplines as well as science, such as “patterns.”
  3. The Disciplinary Core Ideas and their spiraled learning progressions, of which there are many.  These represent what we typically think of as our science content.

There is a reason that there are eight Science and Engineering Practices and seven Crosscutting Concepts, while there are many Disciplinary Core Ideas: the emphasis in our science classroom is no longer the just the content.  When you structure your Performance Expectations, which are composed (though not rigidly) of one Practice, one Concept, and one Core Idea, you’ll notice that, throughout your year, you will revisit the Practices and the Concepts many more times than you will repeat a Core Idea.  This is intentional: getting our students to become scientists relies so much more on their opportunities to participate in the scientific process than mile-wide-inch-deep content exposure.

So what does this mean for us as teachers?  When we are designing our instruction, it is essential that we see the Practices and Crosscutting Concepts as vehicles through which we explore content. If our students can think and act like scientists, the content will follow.

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