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Next Generation Activity Development

NGSS Middle School performance expectations for Weather and Climate - page 58
If you’re a science educator, unless you’re a troglodyte (which let’s face it, every department has at least one of), you’ve probably been paying attention to the development of the Next Generation Science Standards or NGSS. The new standards are the culmination of years of work by scientists and educators across the country to rethink the way science is taught (and assessed) at the K-12 level, focusing on the depth of knowledge rather than breadth, while emphasizing an understanding of scientific practices rather than just core content.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably glanced at the draft versions a few times, but never really took the time to truly understand the new standards and the NRC Framework they are built upon. But now that the NGSS is out, for those of us dedicated to supporting K-12 educators with curriculum and professional development, the hard work really begins.

Last week, I had an opportunity to look through the standards alongside many other ocean educators at the National COSEE Network Meeting. Our goal was to figure out how the NGSS could be used to develop activities, or rather, how we need to adjust our activity development process to meet the goals of the new standards (and by extension, the districts and teachers who will follow them). Given how dense the NGSS is, and with only an hour to review and reflect on them, we didn’t get very far. However, I did take away a few key insights:

  • As they’re presented, the top of each page features the “performance expectations” for each topic or theme. These are the new standards, but in general, they are not content specific as many existing standards are.
  • The disciplinary core ideas, found in the middle orange box at the bottom of each page, are more akin to existing content-based standards. If you are going to develop an activity on a particular subject, identifying standards that include a given topic as a core idea might be a good place to start.
  • However an activity should be more than just an elicitation of content, and it’s important to understand how a core idea intersects with a given set of science and engineering practices, included in the blue box in the bottom left. These practices could be incorporated as the approach or methodology students use when carrying out an activity, again placing the emphasis of the activity on the practices of science rather than a hodgepodge of content.
  • To that end, I think the performance expectations are not necessarily the “content” that one might teach towards, but rather they should be used as the activity goal one can use to assess students’ scientific competency in a given area.
  • As the Appendix on Conceptual Shifts explains, the standards are “student performance expectations – NOT curriculum” meaning that the combinations of core ideas, practices and expectations provided should not be thought of as rigidly linked. That said, in these early days, as we think about developing new curriculum to meet these standards they are a good place to start.
  • Similarly, it seems that many districts may use the Topic Arrangement of the NGSS as the basis for structuring their curriculum, and will probably be looking for help at that level.

Personally, I’ve never really been a fan of standards. That is to say, I’ve always disliked how many educators and especially administrators simply use them as an exercise in bean counting.

But I am excited about the new standards because they represent a fundamental shift in thinking away from content to how science is practiced in the real world. Hopefully, as ocean science educators we can be at the forefront of this shift, capitalizing on the opportunity to build innovative activities for students built on the compelling content and real world science that oceanographers can bring to the table.

The trick will be, can we really practice what we… well… practice?

2 replies
  1. Happy Hobbit.
    Happy Hobbit. says:

    In what way do they represent a fundamental shift. I understand that is what is being said, but in what ways is it true?

    • Sage Lichtenwalner
      Sage Lichtenwalner says:

      I recommend checking out the NRC’s “A Framework for K-12 Education,” which served as the driving philosophy behind the NGSS. Specifically the summary section should give you a good idea of the proposed changes.

      The key goal of the framework, to my mind, is its recommendation to focus on a fewer set of “disciplinary core ideas” and “cross-cutting concepts” whereas past standards have focused more on breadth than depth. The point is that students should focus on a few core ideas in order to practice science inquiry and engineering design skills, rather than just learning about them in abstraction.

      That is, we want students to actually be able to act like “practicing” scientists and engineers (and hence, help spur innovations as they join the future workforce), rather than simply knowing a whole store of content knowledge that only serves as fodder for tests.

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