There are several things we as science educators need to be mindful of as school districts around the country begin thinking about pilots and textbook adoptions. In California, a professional learning series called TIME is being offered at county education offices to help train those who will be leading these efforts. There are a variety of other tools as seen on the CSTA Website and the Next Gen Time toolkit training offered by Achieve found on the NextGenTime.org Website.
Ed Reports has recently released their first five reviews of NGSS instructional materials developed for middle school and can be found on the EdReports.org Website. But to be honest, the review are not great. This article by EdWeek explains the review process and reviews in more detail.
What does this mean? It means that as a whole, we are not quite where we need to be with understanding the required instructional shifts to be considered designed for the NGSS. We are making great progress in classrooms across the country, but teachers are not always offered the quality professional learning opportunities needed and publishers of science textbooks may also lack understanding of the required instructional shifts for the NGSS! If you have been trained and you are still struggling, this article by Jill Grace helps explains how many of us feel right now in science eudcation in an article called the Re-Novicing of Science Teachers and the Science Coach. You are definitely not alone!
One roadblock to developing this deep understanding of the instructional shifts required by the NGSS are time and money! Teachers often lack time and school districts often lack money. This is not the perfect ecosystem that fosters and promotes science education reform. However, let's focus on some key elements of understandings to keep things simple.
As many of you will be required to pilot or review instructional materials, remember that you can always add your flare and style during implementation. If an instructional resource does not offer strong phenomena or guidance on how to elicit student questions, this does not mean that you can not add them in yourself! When piloting or reviewing instructional materials or textbooks, please consider the following non-negotiables that need to be included in order to be considered designed for the NGSS:
All learning in an NGSS designed classroom should be focused on figuring out phenomena or design solutions. Several lesson-level or investigative phenomenon may be used during this process to support student sense-making of an overarching, anchoring phenomenon, but the goal is for students to own the learning process and have a need to figure something out.
The main objective for using phenomena to drive instruction is to help students engage in practices while developing the knowledge necessary to explain or predict the phenomena. Therefore, the focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the learning and teaching. The practice of asking questions or identifying problems becomes a critical part of trying to figure something out. Creating more opportunities for students to be involved in an iterative cycle of creating questions, reviewing and modifying those questions, and generating new questions is an important part of any unit.
Student performances need to be three-dimensional. This means that students are using all three dimensions at one time. These student performances should also be in service of the sense-making process as described above. This means that after students complete an investigation or develop a model, they will add layers of understanding to help explain the phenomenon. Some examples of three-dimensional student performances might be:
Assessments should also be three dimensional and ask students to make sense of a phenomenon or address a problem. Achieve has recently published the Task Annotation Project in Science to help us all better understand assessments designed for the NGSS. Most important are the non-negotiables for NGSS Designed Assessments as found on this page of the TAPS Website.
While reading through these resources, two new terms resonated with me; Near Transfer Assessments and Far Transfer Assessments. A Near Transfer Assessment uses a phenomenon or situation that is similar to the phenomenon they have been trying to figure out in class. A Far Transfer Assessment uses similar DCIs, SEPs, and CCCs that they have been using in class and asks students to apply them to a new phenomenon or situation. I will be diving deeper into the topic of NGSS Assessments this summer and next school year.
Check out the examples of NGSS Designed 3D Assessments provided on this page of the TAPS Website.
Coherence relates to way in which the ideas and concepts that students figure out in each lesson are sequenced. Each lesson alone does not provide the entirety of knowledge necessary to explain a phenomenon or design a solution. Even though students figure out a piece of the puzzle in a lesson, students are left with unanswered questions that motivate the need to engage in the next lesson. Each lesson builds on the other, resulting in an evolving understanding of science ideas and concepts needed to explain the phenomenon or design a solution to a problem. The emphasis here is on the “need to engage” in the next lesson (felt by the students). This need is driven by a desire to build on what they have already figured out about the phenomenon, as well as the desire to have their unanswered and new questions answered. This creates a coherent path to understanding science ideas and concepts by engaging in the practices-- from the student’s perspective.
In order to accomplish this, instructional strategies such as a Driving Question Board are a useful tool in capturing student generated questions and thinking. Students are presented with a phenomenon and then they generate as many questions as they can think of in a small group. Each group shares their questions with one another and picks one or more questions to add to the Driving Question Board (DQB). These questions are categorized, investigations are brainstormed, and students have a voice in the direction of learning that happens in the classroom. Sometimes they might feel an investigation is the next best logical step to take to figure something out, sometimes they think research is necessary. But did you just read that? Students think research is necessary! Because it is their idea, they feel a need to engage.
The DQB also provides opportunities for the questions to be revisited and revised multiple times times throughout a series of lessons. This allows students to see which questions were answered and then provides an opportunity to ask new questions that might have arisen. The DQB helps students remain aware of the questions they are trying to answer and provides a reminder of the “need to engage” in order to figure out the phenomenon.
Here is an article that provides a bit more guidance on using Driving Question Boards (DQBs).
Teaching is an Art Form
It is important for you to consider curriculum and other instructional materials as a resource that provides guidelines and ideas of what to teach. How you teach and assess is really up to you! I have witnessed the same curriculum turned into a series of note taking, lecture style, question and answer lessons with multiple choice assessments by one group of teachers while another team of teachers used the same curriculum with a focus on figuring out phenomenon that is revisited often and kids can't wait to talk and participate in the practices to figure it out and demonstrate what they have learned.
Teaching is an art form, and each of you bring your own style and interests into the medium that is your classroom. If you are bored with your curriculum, I would bet that so are your students. Have fun, mix it up, and do a little acting. Pretend you do not know the lessons you have already carefully planned and let the students think their ideas for investigations or research are really good ideas! Pretend you do not know the explanation to the phenomenon and you are figuring it out with them. Elicit questions, get students talking, and enjoy the process of learning together. This is the art of teaching!
Cari Williams is a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) for the Tustin Unified School District in Southern California. She holds a MS in Instructional Design and Technology from Cal State Fullerton and works on the side as a consultant writing science and STEAM curriculum and training teachers. After working for 12 years in the classroom as a middle school science and STEAM teacher, she transitioned into the role of Digital Learning Coach in 2013. In this role, Cari helped teachers innovate curriculum and shift pedagogies through the integration of educational technologies. Her most current work as a TOSA is focused on engineering design in robotics, computer science, and Makerspaces. She is an official VEX Robotics event partner hosting tournaments for teams from around Southern California as well as leading 28 robotics programs servicing over 100 teams in the Tustin Unified School District. Although her expertise has taken her deep into STEAM education, she remains passionate and engaged in helping teachers transition to the NGSS through participating as a Science Peer Review Panelist for Achieve and as a Professional Learning Facilitator for NSTA.