What is new about the NGSS?
There are several ways in which the NGSS are different from the current national standards (National Science Education Standards) and most state standards.
Science education in the US leaves much to be desired with American students ranking 27th in science out of 64 countries based on 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. Partly to blame are the “mile wide and inch deep” standards and curriculum in the US (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1997). The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a serious attempt to ameliorate this state of affairs. There are several ways in which the NGSS are different from the current national standards (National Science Education Standards) and most state standards:
- First the new standards cull the unwieldy herd of science concepts students are expected to know and emphasize only four core ideas in each of four domains (life science, earth science and physical science, and engineering). These disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) are powerful central concepts in their respective field and can be used to explain a myriad of phenomena.
- Second, the standards expect students to learn these foundational DCIs by engaging in the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design. Learning content through practices is key to helping students develop deep and meaningful understandings that they will be able to use to reason and solve problems in science.
- Third, the NGSS emphasize a set of concepts that cut across the science disciplines and that serve as different approaches, or lenses, that be used to investigate and solve scientific problems and phenomena. Some of these crosscutting concepts were present in prior standards.
- Fourth, the standards describe the development of these DCIs, practices, and crosscutting concepts over the course of schooling. The new standards provide guidance about what is developmentally appropriate for students to know and do in science and how their scientific understandings can become more sophisticated over time. These progressions of understandings are grounded in research on science teaching and learning more extensively than prior standards.
How does current instruction fall short of NGSS vision?
The integration of DCIs, science and practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCs) is termed three-dimensional learning and is a hallmark of the new standards. Let us first contrast 3 dimensional learning with some of the common current teaching practices in order to sharpen the image of what it means to teach according to NGSS. Engaging students with the practices of science entails a constant and consistent approach. Therefore, teaching the scientific method at the beginning of the year briefly returning to it a few times during the year is not sufficient. Similarly, engagement in scientific practices is not merely about performing the practice (conducting experiments) as an application of knowledge that has already been acquired (through lecture presumably), but rather it is about generating new knowledge through these practices. Therefore, including hands on lab exercise to demonstrate or test a new concept will also not suffice. The NGSS also entails teaching all the required DCIs through engagement in scientific practices. Therefore, it is also not sufficient to engage students in student driven inquiry projects only once or twice a year around particular content that is deemed “more” amenable to inquiry. So what does an NGSS-classroom look like?
What does an NGSS-classroom look like?
The main goal in NGSS classrooms is to build scientific understandings of phenomena. Thus NGSS classrooms essentially reflect the kinds of activities, discourse, and norms that scientists engage in when trying to develop evidence-based models and theories about the world around us. Students like scientists are trying to explain natural phenomena. Many of these phenomena should be familiar to students, for example, genetic similarities between siblings, the need to breathe and eat in order to stay alive, the many kinds of animals that live in different habitats, etc. The scientific explanations of these phenomena are not simply provided to students, but rather students may brainstorm initial critical questions and explanations based on their prior knowledge and/or provided evidence and then through investigation obtain evidence that can help them make sense of the phenomenon and revise their explanations. Investigation activities are collaborative, take time, and may involve different types of tasks including experimentation, observations, and reviews of existing scientific research (provided in scaffolded formats that they can comprehend). Throughout this process students should be discussing their ideas, seeking and evaluating evidence that pertains to their developing explanations, and arguing about which ideas are best supported by evidence and why. In NGSS classrooms students are not just learning science content, they are learning to think and act like scientists in ways that can help them appreciate (and think critically about) how accepted scientific knowledge (theories) came to be so widely supported and accepted.
Is the change worth it?
Obviously, consistently engaging students in scientific practices to help them develop knowledge of the DCIs and CCs will require significant changes to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. While substantial, these changes are worth the time and effort given then benefits that will be reaped. Research about how people learn has shown time and time again that in order for knowledge to be useful it needs to be learned in the context of its use (NRC, 2000; Edelson, 2001), if students are not engaged in practices that allow to develop and apply the knowledge, practices that help them see how and why the knowledge is useful, they will not develop the kinds of enduring understands we want. Moreover, with technology bringing knowledge to our fingertips on the one hand, and the rapid advancement in science on the other, there is no point in trying to teach students everything they need to know. Schools have not, and will not, be able to keep up with scientific developments. We need to shift our focus from imparting an inordinate amounts of superficial facts concepts knowledge on students to providing with core ideas that are generative and teaching them how to use them as a basis for learning more throughout their life. Teaching students how to gain knowledge, evaluate knowledge, and use knowledge productively must be our new aim in science education. We cannot teach these skills in the abstract; students need to engage with the ideas and practices of science in order to develop these desired competencies. These new education aims are not merely the ideals of educators; colleges, industry, and civic engagement all require that our high school graduates be able to think critically, solve, problems and collaborate. These 21st century skills go hand in hand with what is advocated by the new science standards. It is time to make this important change.