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Building Towards NGSS Classrooms

October 16, 2015 / by Sean Elkins

Systems tend to move toward a stable state, and so do people. Change is usually hard, and if it doesn't feel hard, you probably aren’t really changing all that much.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a significant transition from our previous state standards in that they explicitly call for a multidimensional approach to teaching to be the norm in every science classroom. Common practice for many veteran teachers of science has been to emphasize content knowledge first, application next, and connections between and across disciplines last. Effective implementation of the three-dimensional NGSS demands a fundamental shift in this practice and such a large change likely won’t happen instantaneously. At several points along the way, it will probably feel hard — and that's OK.

New Video Series

The videos in this new series, developed as part of a partnership between Teaching Channel and Achieve, capture snapshots of two teachers in Boone County, Kentucky as they begin and continue transitioning their practice to help students meet the goals of the NGSS. Becki Cope (second grade, first year NGSS implementation) and Tricia Shelton (ninth grade, second year NGSS implementation) show us some examples of what classroom implementation looks like right now, inviting other educators to see both the successes they have had and the challenges they are facing as they move toward meaningful, three-dimensional classroom experiences.

In this video, Tricia's students use energy concepts to make connections between physical and life science systems. Watch how Tricia's classroom is different from a "traditional" lab experience. In Becki’s class, students are engaged in three-dimensional learning in an elementary setting. In this video, we see how Becki teaches her students to use evidence to back up their claims as they design a way to lessen the impact water and wind have on a sandcastle. Becki teaches her students to work in teams and make collaboration an integral part of scientific investigations. Both classrooms show how teachers are moving towards implementing the NGSS. Tricia shares her first steps here.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in implementing the vision of the NGSS and the Framework for K-12 Science Education is the effective integration of all three dimensions in the classroom. For teachers who have been asked to prioritize content in the past, giving equal emphasis to the science and engineering practices (SEP) and crosscutting concepts (CCC) requires different ways of thinking, lesson planning, and daily instruction. The disciplinary core ideas (DCI) provide familiar and safe ground because they include the ideas of traditional content we have prioritized in the past.

In the first stages of transition to a 3-dimensions approach, there is a natural tendency to teach those ideas in much the same way as before, and then bookend the SEP and CCC as separate but related lessons in a learning progression. This approach, while understandable, lacks the true integration of the dimensions the standards envision, as well as being instructionally inefficient. Our ultimate goal is for all three dimensions to be learned together as an integrated whole. This huge shift in instructional planning and delivery is likely the biggest hurdle in effectively transitioning to NGSS, but also one of the most exciting professional challenges.

Most teachers are exceptionally reflective by nature, and as a result, many tend to be their own worst critics. While this trait is ultimately positive because it drives a cycle of continuous improvement, it can also sometimes lead to hesitation to embrace change due to a fear of failure. Teachers are used to being the experts, but we must remember that at this stage in our transition to NGSS, there are no experts. We're all pioneers and trailblazers on this new frontier, and we need to give ourselves permission to wander down a few wrong paths on our way to the new frontier of truly integrated 3-D teaching and learning.

Suggestions From Early Adopters

There are no roadmaps to this new frontier, but there are a few guideposts that have been planted by enthusiastic teachers who started down the path early. Suggestions by those early pioneers include:

  • Find an organizing principle, observable phenomenon, or authentic context to build instruction around. One of the greatest strengths of the NGSS is the authentic integration of the three dimensions, and this strength is multiplied when the performance expectations are taught in a context students find interesting or familiar. This is often the most important planning decision a teacher makes, because a great context or phenomenon makes three dimensionality much easier.
  • Don't let the great be the enemy of the good. A "2.5-D" lesson can always be revisited and improved later, but one never planned or tried cannot. Every path has a beginning, and every beginning has a first step. Effectively integrating two dimensions is better than none, so long as there is a plan to revise and improve as experience is gained.
  • Cultivate administrative support. Take the time to help your instructional supervisors understand the 3-D nature of the new standards and why a "content-only" approach fails to address 2/3 of the standards' intent.
  • Don't do it alone. Use the supports available to you or create a learning community of your own. Seek out other teachers in your school and/or district. Utilize the resources of the National Science Teachers Association, your state science teachers association, and Teaching Channel. Read blogs, join forums, subscribe to listservs, and participate in #NGSSchat on Twitter.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes and promise yourself those mistakes will be reflected upon and turned into successes.

Some challenges of implementation are the same throughout the grades, such as imagining authentic and engaging contexts or organizing phenomena. Others vary by grade level. Elementary teachers may struggle to convince administrators to find time for science in a culture driven by reading and math assessment results. Middle and high school teachers may need to help their administrators understand how the SEP and CCC are just as important as the traditional content ideas of the DCI. Across K-12, educators at every point in the system will need to invest in shifting classroom culture: from teacher-led classes to student-driven learning; from seeking the
"right" answers to empowering students to critically approach a situation where there may not be a right answer; from solitary performances to collaborative meaning-making.

Why make the effort? The payoff in terms of student learning is obvious. Notice the quality of conversations seen in these classroom videos. Students are being equipped with the tools to have authentic scientific discourse and with the ability to make connections across disciplines. Note also how the classroom culture encourages and rewards genuine thought and analysis over simple recall. Finally, notice how the teacher has the freedom to be a facilitator of learning, rather than simply a distributor of information.

Make no mistake: implementing the vision of the NGSS and the Framework is hard, but the reward will be worth the effort. With every new success in planning, teaching, and learning, we move one step closer to a nation of scientifically literate citizens, equipped with the skills needed to be creative problem solvers, informed decision makers, and critical consumers of information.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards, Video Playlist, STEAM

Sean Elkins

Written by Sean Elkins

Sean Elkins is the instructional coach at Boone County High School in Florence, Kentucky. In his previous role as a science consultant with the Kentucky Department of Education, Elkins coordinated Kentucky's involvement in the development of the Next Generation Science Standards. He is a 27-year veteran of public education and holds certifications in chemistry, physics, and earth science.

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