Preparing Teachers for Next Generation Science Standards
As a faculty member at the College of New Jersey, I wear many hats. Most importantly, I prepare college students to become pre-K-12 science teachers. Since the fall of 2013, I have been using the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, to frame my courses so that my students can learn how to use them in their teaching. These common science standards, adopted in 18 states and the District of Columbia, set clear, high expectations for what students should know about science and how they should use that knowledge to make sense of the world around them. These standards are a powerful tool that can ignite the best teaching from teachers and facilitate deep learning for their students.
Earlier science standards, both in my home state of New Jersey and across the nation, addressed science content separately from the act of doing science. The Next Generation standards take a different approach. Each performance expectation within the standards includes three dimensions: science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. This multifaceted view shifts away from the notion that science is simply a collection of facts and toward a deeper understanding of the broad and connected nature of scientific phenomena.
The teaching of properties of matter in elementary science is normally limited to characteristics of solids, liquids, and gases, and the way matter changes phase. A pair of preservice teachers from the College of New Jersey drew on the Next Generation Science Standards—specifically, the emphasis on problem-solving and applied-knowledge skills—to lead a project on building model boats in their student-teaching placement in a 2nd grade classroom.
This integrated approach to science teaching and learning may seem unfamiliar, and it certainly requires a shift in planning and teaching for many teachers and schools. But the ideas embraced by the NGSS, such as grounding science instruction in the act of doing science, have long been seen as best practices in education. Many science educators agree that the standards simply delineate what good science teaching looks like.
Emphasizing the connectedness of ideas is a central practice at the prekindergarten, kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade levels. For example, in a typical kindergarten thematic unit on "moving," children might explore how many things around them—from toy cars to leaves on plants to animals—move, along with the factors that influence that motion. Using observations as a springboard, the teacher can guide students to the concept that forces are pushes and pulls, and that we see forces at work in all domains of science and everyday life. This emphasis on the overarching idea highlights the connectedness of scientific phenomena and is the way that many students of all ages learn science content best. This type of unit is also an ideal place to introduce my students—who will soon teach science themselves—to the crosscutting concepts of the NGSS.
The crosscutting concepts within the common science standards spell out the specific scientific ideas that connect across content areas, opening the door for teachers to tap into students' natural motivation to learn content deeply instead of memorizing isolated facts. In the past, students may have studied the rock cycle as a topic in a geology unit by simply learning to define characteristics of various rock types and reciting the phases in the cycle. But by first introducing students to the crosscutting concept of patterns, they can relate the rock cycle to an important overarching scientific phenomenon: Things in nature occur in predictable, cyclical patterns. This shift in focus opens the door for an infinite number of connections across scientific domains, from cell division to star formation.
Students of all ages best learn scientific ideas—and how they connect to each other—by engaging in the practices of real scientists and engineers. Learning by doing, designing solutions, and stepping back to see how the scientific ideas are connected to other things give students a more robust understanding of content. With the NGSS, teachers now have an opportunity to explore and approach broad ideas, rather than teaching singular units.
As with any new initiative, there will, of course, be pushback. States, districts, and schools may elect to modify these standards for a variety of reasons. The Next Generation Science Standards require a different approach to teaching, and we need to support all teachers—from those in teacher-training programs to seasoned educators—to be successful at this new approach. To achieve this new vision for K-12 science education, teachers will need access to aligned resources and materials, sufficient time for prep work and collaboration, and quality professional development. I believe, however, the benefits far outweigh the growing pains and risks of adopting the NGSS. The resulting instructional shifts will allow educators to incorporate different areas of science, as well as concepts from mathematics, language arts, and social studies. I hope that even states that opt out agree to approach science content in a way that is grounded in scientific practice and emphasizes the connectedness of the discipline in whatever standards they develop. My exciting work with teachers-in-training shows the power of these new standards to dramatically improve science teaching and learning for children across the United States.