Teachers Gear Up for Science Standards

May 22, 2013 9 min read
Third graders Pauline Helger, left, and Hayley Morrow observe the underside of a crayfish in their classroom at Ranger Elementary School in Tiverton, R.I.
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Well before the Next Generation Science Standards became final last month, teachers in pockets around the country were already exploring the vision for science education espoused by the document and bringing elements of that approach to the classroom.

• A South Dakota teacher scrapped one of her traditional activities on earthquakes and volcanoes and started anew, turning her students into investigating scientists.

• A Kentucky teacher revamped a lesson on friction, and had students make evidence-based arguments about whether it was their friend or foe.

• An Ohio teacher’s biology students analyzed the DNA of foods, including hot dogs and chicken nuggets.

The new standards call for bringing greater depth to K-12 students’ understanding of the subject and asking them to apply knowledge through the practices of scientific inquiry and engineering design, among other elements.

“The teachers say they are already changing instruction, changing how they look at content, how they plan for investigations and activities,” said Diane E. Sanna, the director of curriculum and instruction for the 1,900-student Tiverton, R.I., district, where a group of teachers has been engaged in professional development, drawing mainly on the National Research Council framework document that was produced to guide the standards.

“It’s going to provide much richer instruction,” Ms. Sanna said of the standards. “But it’s a big shift, and it will take time to make sure all the teachers understand [them].”

The Next Generation standards, developed by a coalition of 26 states and several national groups, still await individual state adoption by all but Rhode Island, which took formal action May 23. Substantial attention, though, is being turned to laying the groundwork for implementation, including teacher training and professional development, assessment, and curriculum and instructional materials. (“Common Science Standards Face Capacity Issues,” May 15, 2013.)

In South Dakota, 8th grade earth-science teacher Monica L. Dorn has attended a series of workshops on the topic since last summer.

“Most labs and lesson plans have one right answer you’re trying to get the kids to,” she said. “We brought these cookbook labs in and essentially tore them apart and rearranged them.”

With what she’s learned, Ms. Dorn will lead workshops on the standards this summer. The standards, she said, reflect an approach to teaching and learning science that will require big adjustments for many teachers, herself included.

Third grader Jenna Bowdren plants a seed at Ranger Elementary School in Tiverton, R.I. Teachers in some schools across the country have already begun to change their instructional practices in response to the Next Generation Science Standards.

“Students get the opportunity to do what scientists actually do,” she said. “Scientists don’t sit down and fill out worksheets; [they] don’t just sit down and take notes.”

For several years, Rhode Island has supported a professional-development initiative for science teachers in eight districts and some charter schools that brings in experts from the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The focus this academic year has been on helping teachers grapple with the ideas behind the NRC framework and the standards to rethink their instructional approaches.

“We need to augment our instruction to focus not just on what you know, but how do you know, and what can you do with that knowledge,” said Gregory K. Shea, a physics teacher at Mount Hope High School in Bristol, R.I.

The Kansas City, Kan., district has been working with teachers this school year on the framework and standards, targeting the science and engineering practices as well as the “cross-cutting concepts” that span scientific disciplines, such as patterns; energy and matter; and cause and effect.

“You’ve got people who say, ‘Oh, we already do this.’ But then, when they start looking at it, just looking at the practices and the cross-cutting concepts, they say, ‘Oh, not really,' " said Alan L. King, the curriculum director for the 20,000-student district.

‘Practicing the Practice’

Experts say that what sets the new standards apart is how they weave together three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas; science and engineering practices; and cross-cutting concepts. At the heart of the standards are performance expectations that ask students to take actions to show their learning, such as plan and conduct investigations, analyze and interpret data, and devise models.

(Major funding for developing the standards was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other funders include the Noyce Foundation. Both foundations help support Education Week reporting.)

Mary C. Colson, a science teacher at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead, Minn., who was on the 41-member writing team for the standards, said she appreciates how the practices are “front and center” in the document.

“In most state standards, the inquiry, the practices of science are kind of in their own section, so they are very much divorced from content,” she said. “But this time, they are woven together.”

Ms. Colson said she’s already “tried things out” from the standards in her classroom, but admits that faithfully embedding the practices in class isn’t easy.

“It’s a challenge for me to get kids practicing the practices of science,” she said. “It’s a different mindset.”

Denise M. Truver shows her 3rd graders at Ranger the proper way to hold a crayfish. She's revised her instruction in response to the new science standards.

She added, “I have lab experiences I’ve created, and I found myself looking at what I had done and asking: What practice am I wanting my students to focus on here? And what do I need to change ... so they are actually practicing the practice, rather than telling me the answer?”

Because the standards were just issued in final form in April, many early efforts to work with educators have relied heavily on the NRC framework document, a reader-friendly narrative published in 2011 that explains the vision and rationale for the approach to science education promoted in the standards. The framework is seen as a powerful resource for teachers.

Also, early drafts of the standards have been used as a reference.

South Dakota’s state education department brought together a group of teachers starting last summer “to work with some of the shifts found within the framework,” said Sam Shaw, a science, social studies, and fine arts specialist at the agency. As part of the work, some teachers, including Ms. Dorn—who teaches at Mickelson Middle School in Brookings, S.D.—were videotaped in their classrooms delivering lessons generated as a result of the prior workshops.

“We watched each other’s videos, what was working, what was not working, giving each other a lot of feedback,” she said.

As part of her experience, Ms. Dorn said, she overhauled her usual approach to teaching about earthquakes and volcanoes, and this time put the students in charge of their own investigation.

“I printed off about 30 pages worth of earthquake data, real-time data,” over a 30-day period, she said. “I gave students this packet of data and said, ‘Start finding patterns, relationships.' "

The students, divided into groups, devised theories. Some proved correct, some not.

“We took what would have been a very boring lab on earthquakes and volcanoes happening in the same place, and they got to explore and to hear what others found,” Ms. Dorn said.

She sees a big change in how students respond: “I have students at my desk after class saying, ‘Hey, tomorrow can we do this and this?' "

At the same time, she said, the approach can be tough—and a “little scary.” Labs and other investigations that in the past might have taken just a day end up taking several days. Also, she said, “the challenge of letting go of the control, stepping aside and serving as a guide, is difficult.”

Ms. Dorn explained: “The kids are coming up with awesome questions that I don’t know the answer to half the time. It’s hard to accept in the beginning that you’re not going to have all the answers. But I ask, ‘Where can we research to find the answer?' "

‘They Love to Argue’

The professional-development initiative in Rhode Island is very hands-on, said Peter McLaren, a science and technology specialist at the state education department who was on the science-standards writing team.

“They’re doing readings, doing investigations, so they get a sense and feel for what’s going on” with the standards, he said. The same teachers will be charged next academic year with writing “scope and sequence” documents for their districts, he said, and writing study units modeled on the standards.

In Kentucky, middle school teacher Melissa S. Bates also has been working with the NRC framework and the standards as part of an initiative led by the Partnership Institute for Mathematics and Science Education Reform, based at the University of Kentucky.

“For me, the biggest change is the integration of the engineering component, that is completely new, and the focus on the practices, rather than this rote memorization of content,” she said.

Taking inspiration from the work, she crafted a new approach to teaching about friction.

“Instead of me sitting there telling [students], ‘This is why it’s important,’ we went through a series of articles,” she said, “and they got to develop their argument: Did they think friction was their friend or was it more harm than help?”

She added: “In middle school, they love to argue, but to provide evidence to back up that claim, that was a bit of a challenge. ... They understand friction so much better than they would have in the past years that I taught it.”

Bar-Coding DNA

Philip Bell, a professor of the learning sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, has helped develop several initiatives to support educators and districts as they prepare for the new standards, including a biology course now being piloted in six high schools.

“We think [this curriculum] is a very good fit to the vision in the standards,” said Mr. Bell, who was on the NRC panel that crafted the standards framework. The project-based course has five units, he said, with students engaged in “authentic biology investigations.”

Created by the nonprofit Educurious with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the course offers intensive support and professional development for teachers. It also connects students with scientists through social media. (The Gates Foundation also helps underwrite news coverage in Education Week.)

One pilot site is New Tech West, a school in Cleveland, where veteran teacher Bernadette G. Manzo gives the course high marks.

“It’s a dive-deep situation, which is the way the Next Generation Science Standards are written,” she said. “The learning becomes real for the kids. They aren’t just reading something in a book.”

See Also

Part I of “Science in Practice” examined the capacity issues facing states, districts, and schools as they plan to implement the new science standards. Read the story:

Common Science Standards Face Capacity Issues

In a genetics unit, students were bar-coding the DNA of items they picked up from the cafeteria and grocery store, to see what ingredients they really contain. In a unit on the “diversity of life,” they identified and classified “microfossil” specimens provided by researchers working at a Montana field site, with the goal of exploring the connections between biodiversity and evolutionary processes.

“They’ve really learned how to think,” Ms. Manzo said. “One thing that is being driven home is that science is based on evidence. We need to talk about evidence.”

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Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Teachers Shift Instructional Approaches To Bring ‘Next Generation’ Into Class


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