One day last spring, a student in Allison Hogan’s K–1 transition class at the Episcopal School of Dallas came in from recess and asked, “Why do birds have different beaks?” Hogan simply could have answered in a couple of short sentences. But instead, she engaged her class in a discussion about their observations of birds.
Soon after, her students were engrossed in an investigation of the question at hand. Hogan challenged them to think of everyday objects they could use to re-create birds’ beaks. One student suggested tongue depressors; the class eventually settled on long cotton swabs from the nurse’s office. The students broke the swabs into various lengths, secured them into “beak” form with adhesive tape and rubber bands, and then used the “beaks” to try to pick up different objects. The students eventually concluded that “birds have different beaks to eat different things,” Hogan says.
This kind of science lesson wasn’t the approach Hogan might have taken in the past, but she had been studying the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which strongly encourage observation and model making.
At first, says Hogan, “a lot of students ‘failed’—their initial design didn’t work. But they were resilient. When something didn’t work, they reformulated their initial idea.”
That, supporters say, is the whole point of the Next Generation Science Standards. Developed by science education groups, including the National Science Teachers Association, researchers, and individual science teachers, NGSS is the first major revision of school science standards in more than 15 years. Learning by doing is at the heart of the new standards.
“Science is really about taking an active role in the practices of science—engaging in arguments based on evidence, analyzing and interpreting data, obtaining and communicating information, asking questions, and developing and using models,” says Kenneth Huff, a sixth-grade science teacher at Williamsville Central School District in New York and a member of the NGSS writing team.
Eight states (Rhode Island, Kentucky, California, Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Vermont, and Washington) plus the District of Columbia have already adopted NGSS; more states are expected to follow.
Here’s a look at some of the major changes under NGSS, as well as some ideas that may inspire you to tweak your science lessons.
Major Shift #1:
Emphasis on Scientific Practice
Instead of stating what students should know, the Next Generation Science Standards state what students should be able to do.
Under NGSS, “to demonstrate what they know, students will have to do something,” says Rita Januszyk, an NGSS standards writer and a fourth-grade teacher at Gower District 62 in Willowbrook, Illinois. “They have to investigate. They have to ask questions. They have to construct explanations, develop a model, or argue with evidence.”
That will mean a shift from teacher-centered learning to student-oriented learning.
“The role of the teacher is going to be a little different,” says Donna Webb, an independent curriculum writer and a Ph.D. student in education at Portland State University in Oregon. “The teacher will no longer be the container of information who spreads information to students. The students will take on a more active role in their learning.”
Huff offers his SSSNOW project (Students Synthesizing Snow data in Natural Objective Ways) with his middle school students as an example of student- and practice-oriented science education. “Traditionally, when students study weather, their study is limited to the collection of data one would see in a weather report,” Huff says. “The SSSNOW project involves the collection and synthesis of authentic winter data.”
“Students begin with a question and work like scientists,” he explains. “They investigate questions such as how snow crystals change over time while they’re on the ground, and they actually go out to the school courtyard, take measurements, and analyze and interpret the data.”
Major Shift #2:
Emphasis on Engineering
Previous science standards centered around three disciplines: life, physical, and earth science. NGSS adds engineering, technology, and applications of science.
Some teachers are intimidated by the idea of teaching “engineering,” but you may find that you’re already using engineering practices in your classroom. “When you build a model, you’re problem solving. You’re trying to figure out which materials work best for the model,” says Carolyn Higgins, a science teacher at Winman Junior High School in Warwick, Rhode Island, who recently challenged her students to build a model of the human respiratory system.
Engineering is all about application, experimentation, and learning to work within constraints. “As students build things, they see the limitations of their designs,” Huff explains. “Then they have to ask, What can I do to make this better? How can I optimize my design so that it fulfills the task
Higgins presented her students with soda bottles, balloons, and straws and set them off to create a model of the respiratory system. The effort involved much trial and error and integrated both engineering practices and scientific knowledge. “To build their models, my students had to understand the function of the parts of the respiratory system, as well as why and how the pieces work together,” Higgins says.
Major Shift #3:
The Right Topic at the Right Time
Previous standards used grade-band expectations; NGSS is more precise, assigning standards to specific grade levels throughout the elementary grades. (After that, grades 6–8 is a grade band, as is grades 9–12.)
Why such specificity? Timing is everything when it comes to age-appropriate instruction. “Since the last standards came out, there has been a lot of research on cognitive development,” says Januszyk. “We now have a better understanding of what an age-appropriate time is for certain concepts.”
Currently, Januszyk and other Illinois teachers cover the phases of the moon, the seasons, and the planets in fourth grade. “But before you can really understand those topics, you have to have an idea of gravity. You also need to have the ability to visualize abstract models and understand huge distances. Cognitively, fourth graders are not ready for that. They memorize it, but they’re not ready,” Januszyk says. As a result, those concepts have been pushed back to fifth grade under NGSS.
It will, without a doubt, take teachers, schools, and students time to adjust to the new standards and adapt curriculum materials. Allison Hogan, the K–1 teacher who helped her students investigate bird beaks, believes the effort is well worth it.
“I don’t think that lesson would have been nearly as meaningful to them if I’d just stood up and said, ‘This is the way it is,’” Hogan says. “It takes a lot of patience to listen to kids and help them come up with ideas, but it’s so worth it. It’s like digging for treasure.”