While many science teachers have already embarked on the journey of “how to deal with the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards)”, others are just starting to wrap their minds around the shift or are perhaps in a state that has not yet adopted the standards. Wherever you are in your journey, I think it wise to focus on the process, where it takes your teaching, and to begin small. I myself have just finished the second year of a continuing process of understanding the NGSS, what they mean, how they are organized, and what it looks like in my classroom and in my own teaching. With lots of patience, collaboration, and professional developments, it can be done!
Two years ago, my science department and I started by working on two things:
- Identifying which lessons, labs, and activities already achieved the NGSS
- Developing a new way of teaching the scientific method.
I mention the second step because it was important for us to all be on the same page about what we were teaching as the process of science, and to establish a common language amongst students throughout each grade level (especially since I worked at a 6-12th grade school). This is especially important since secondary science education does not always necessarily progress in the same way as a math class.
After much debate and discussion, we eventually developed our own science cycle where we identified 10 terms, such as “question”, “model”, “design”, and “justify”, put them in a context (such as “identify limitations”), and produced posters and handouts for all students. We even had several heated debates on where to place the terms within the cycle. Having this done, however, helped tremendously when we began to shift our perspective on how this was all going to look in our classroom. Any time the students did an activity or lab, we referred them back to the science cycle to help them identify how they were doing science. This also helped us to further align with the science and engineering practices of the NGSS.
Identifying which lessons, labs, and activities already achieved the NGSS
Okay, now back to the first step. If you are just starting out with the NGSS, see what you are already doing at the beginning of each unit, because I am willing to bet that you are doing more than you think. Align the NGSS with your state content standards by looking for common language. Then, take out your post-its! I stuck them all over my hard copies to help me remember how each activity aligned for the following year. Then, repeat the above steps until you have gone through all units. This process will help you get more familiar with the language of the NGSS and how it relates to your classroom.
Now, you might be thinking, “I cannot even read these things to understand where my activities align!” You wouldn’t be alone. I was fortunate enough to attend an NGSS rollout session in California that was worth the time and money to figure out just a few little things that I do not think that I would have noticed. For example, the letters and numbers separated by dashes at the top of each subset of standards are the performance expectations (what students should be able to do), but letters and numbers separated by periods in orange are the corresponding disciplinary core ideas, or the content standards (the “what” we are supposed to teach). Understanding these little nuances is a tremendous help and will continue to be as assessments are developed. I find this page to be the most helpful for understanding how the standards are organized (I am a visual learner): http://www.nextgenscience.org/how-to-read-the-standards
Learn from my experience
While I could go on and on about the standards, I want to mention one final thing to keep in mind while you roll out this process in your schools and classrooms: teaching inquiry is not for the faint of heart. One thing that my colleagues and I learned this year is that you will now have TIME to teach science in the way that it should be taught. Not through a list of facts, lectures, and textbook notes, but through hands-on, thought-provoking, real-world problems. You will need to let go of the expectation that you will be keeping on pace with how you have taught in the past, because you won’t. Teaching through inquiry and through the use of the NGSS takes much, much longer. But the amount of learning that takes place, exciting discoveries, and in-depth discussions that your students will experience is so much more valuable. So, be patient. Let go of your internal timelines, and make goals that focus on how the students can have a meaningful experience in your classroom that they will never forget.
If you are reading this and thinking that you do not have the luxury to take the time at your own school to implement NGSS, work towards this goal by becoming a voice in your department. It took me three years to get my department on board with getting rid of teaching a linear scientific method that was outdated and unrealistic. Take some risks and show your school and administrators data that teaching in this way really works.
Shannon Baird has been teaching 7th grade life science and high school biology for the past five years in San Diego, CA. She recently moved to Tucson, AZ to teach biology and earth science in high school. Throughout her career, Shannon has focused on primarily using inquiry-based strategies in her classroom. Shannon was a 2014-2015 APS Frontiers in Physiology Research Teacher Fellow and is a LifeSciTRC Community Member.