How are the Next Generation Science Standards different?

Dr. Kathy PeasleyKathy Peasley is the Assistant Superintendent of Academic and Technology Services for the Grand Ledge Public Schools in Grand Ledge Michigan. She is a member of TCI’s Science Advisory Board.

Our district’s K-12 science curriculum committee met last week to talk about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the ways that these standards are different than the previous standards published nearly two decades ago.

We began our examination of the NGSS by looking at the 8 science and engineering practices in the standards. The authors of the NGSS are very clear that students cannot truly understand scientific and engineering concepts unless they engage in inquiry.  Inquiry, however, is not to be used as a way to reinforce the concept under study, but as the fundamental way to learn the concept.  This is different than the way many science teachers use inquiry in their classrooms.  Commonly, inquiry is used as the way to introduce or reinforce a science concept, but not as a way in which to teach the concept.  Although teachers may have students “do a science lab” at some point in the instruction, the content is still typically taught through direct instruction methods such as lecture, question and answer, and reading the textbook.

We currently are struggling in our district with the distinction between “doing science” and “learning science.”  Our district recently adopted a kit-based hands-on elementary science program and the teachers in the science meeting last week were very vocal that students, and many of the teachers, are more focused on doing the activity and gathering the data than they are on learning the science content the activity is designed to teach.  When I probed the teachers about what would be needed in order for the students to learn and understand the science concepts, they were unanimous in their believe that students needed “good informational science text” (textbooks).  They further suggested that the publisher of the kit-based program should provide them with the scripted lessons in a PowerPoint to help them deliver the content through lecture.

Traditionally elementary teachers do not have a strong science background themselves.  Because of this, it is difficult for them to help the students construct an understanding of the concept that is being developed through inquiry and they revert back to telling students what they should have learned through the inquiry activity.  The teachers on my committee, all of whom are passionate about helping their students understand science concepts, are very concerned about how they are going to be able to use the inquiry process to develop the deep conceptual understanding of the scientific concepts described in the standards.  They know that the current science kits they are using are not helping students learn concepts through the inquiry process, but are not sure how they are going to be able to teach the content and practices in a holistic way and are having a hard time envisioning what this will look like in practice.

Has your district started evaluating the NGSS? If so, what have you discovered?