Teaching the Next Generation Science Standards With ‘Mysteries’

By Liana Loewus — March 13, 2015 2 min read
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In a packed session this morning, a professor who helped lead the development of the Next Generation Science Standards, described the new standards as “a shift from learning about something to figuring out something.”

Brian J. Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was introduced as “the godfather of NGSS,” offered this example: “NGSS does not ask you to explain photosynthesis, NGSS asks you to explain how a tree gets all its stuff.”

Traditionally, science classes have been taught a few different ways, he explained:

  • Through application: The teacher presents the idea, then students do the lab experiment to see it in action.
  • Through the “trust me” method: The teacher does the lab, then teaches the idea so kids understand what they just saw. “Why do we need to learn osmosis? Because you really need it in high school,” Reiser mocked.
  • Through the “Mr. Wizard” method: The teacher does something awesome and says, “Isn’t this cool? How does this work?”

The NGSS storyline is different. Students are given a big question that they can relate to—a “mystery” of sorts. Through their investigation of that question, they hit on other phenomena along the way that they also need to investigate and explain.

(To me, this is quite reminiscent of Stanford University doctoral candidate Dan Meyer’s theory on math instruction, which also advocates for starting with a big, real-world question.)

For instance, Reiser showed a lesson in which students were told that there was a large decrease in the number of Galapagos finches between 1976 and 1977. (“I do biology, so I like to focus on things like death,” Reiser joked.)

Students were tasked with figuring out why so many finches died and why some were able to survive. They were given access to data on the Web about the time period and had to figure out which questions to ask and what information was relevant.

Eventually students determined that there was a drought around that time, and that the seeds the birds ate were nearly depleted. Birds with slightly longer beaks survived because they were able to open the leftover, tough-shelled seeds.

Making Models

But that’s far from the end. From there, students investigate a similar phenomenon—for instance, why peppered moths were more prominent during the Industrial Revolution. “So you have two general models,” Reiser said. “Then you ask students to tell the story without the finch or moth.”

Eventually, they come up with a model. Something like this:

That’s when you deliver the kicker, according to Reiser. “Scientists have built a story like this, too, and it’s called natural selection.”

Classroom Implications

It’s an exciting prospect—teaching science with mysteries—but is it practical right now? Many teachers are just starting to get to know the standards, which 13 states and D.C. have adopted. And so far, there are very few resources out there to help them with tasks and assessments. So for the most part, they’re making up these mysteries on their own.

And as a Kentucky teacher at my table noted, these multi-day (multi-week?) explorations of data and a single question can actually become quite tedious for students. “You have to be careful what kind of activities you’re [implementing],” said middle school teacher Beverly Clary of Maysville. “They’re used to doing those fun labs. They get a little bored looking at data after awhile.”

Would be great to hear from others’ experiences with the NGSS in the comment section below.

Image: Slide from Brian Reiser’s NSTA presentation, March 13, 2015.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.