Written by: David Stroupe
Primary Source: Green & Write, April 10, 2017
The recent rollout of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) has paved the way for revised K-12 curricula, the redesign of course sequences, and the piloting of assessments tied to more challenging academic goals. While the notion of using standards to cohere elements of the science-learning infrastructure together seems promising, the document cannot fix the root problems of science learning in schools— a focus on the reproduction of textbook ideas, a lack of connection between activities and big ideas in the science, students unable to engage with one another’s ideas, and the marginalization of certain groups of students from participation in science.
As teacher educators, we will play a key role supporting teachers and students as they simultaneously enact NGSS and aim to reimagine the purpose of science classrooms. Here, I describe each group’s shifting expectations as imagined by the NGSS movement.
Changing expectations for students
The goals for student learning embodied in NGSS were drawn from an earlier National Research Council report called Taking Science To School. This document reflected agreement by experts about four goals that young learners should be able to:
- Understand, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world
- Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations
- Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge
- Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse
These goals signal a departure from common forms of learning in science classrooms that stress vocabulary acquisition, the development of procedural skills, the use of labs that have known outcomes, and the reproduction of textbook explanations. Instead, students should have first-hand experience in knowledge building through the coordinated use of science practices and the talk, representation of ideas, and the problem-solving that goes with doing authentic disciplinary work in a community.
The new role of science teachers
The primary instructional task for science teachers is to provide opportunities for all students to participate in science as a knowledge-building enterprise that involves important disciplinary practices. The core of this work involves shifting our professional focus from exposing students to NGSS-related tasks toward the instructional conditions and teaching moves that enable students to participate in and understand science through engagement with practices. Therefore, teachers can:
- Provide varied opportunities for students to reason through talk.
- Treat students’ ideas and experiences as resources to build on, rather than as misconceptions to fix.
- Make student thinking public and subject to examination and revision by the classroom community.
- Provide scaffolding to support students’ attempts at science-specific forms of writing, talk, and participation in activity.
These principles, taken together, frame a vision for science instruction in which the teacher’s work is to help students become increasingly capable of revising their own ideas over time using every resource available to them, including their own prior knowledge, scientific practices, material tools and representations, and the reasoning of their peers.
The new role of Teacher Educators
As mentioned, the role of students and teachers is spelled out across policy documents. Less clear, yet critically important, is the role of teacher educators in the NGSS era. I propose that the role of the teacher educator is to provide opportunities to learn for teachers in much the same way that teachers provide them to their students. The difference is that teacher educators must create situations that allow teachers to both rehearse the work described above, and to understand why such pedagogical practices are crucial for supporting student learning.
To be successful at guiding teachers through the goals of NGSS and practices to support the goals, a teacher educator must integrate what they know about student learning and science teaching into learning activities they design and enact for teachers. Therefore, a teacher educator must understand science content, but that by itself is insufficient. The teacher educator must know how knowledge is developed and revised over time in science, using ensembles of scientific practices. They would have to know what counts as an explanation, how evidence is used rhetorically in arguments, how one applies science to solve problems, and how science is co-constructed by multiple participants over time in a setting.
From a teacher perspective, a teacher educator would draw upon his or her own experiences as a K-12 teacher to support student learning. This includes the principles described earlier that enhance students’ opportunities to learn: the ability to encourage talk, incorporate students’ ideas into the lessons, scaffold strategically, and facilitate collective reasoning in the classroom. Unfortunately for many of us who educate teachers, our own instructional histories may not have included much of what is described about students and teachers.
How then, would teacher educators develop understandings of practices and standards they never experienced themselves? One idea might be to expand one’s horizons in a public school classroom. For example, a teacher educator might collaborate with a local teacher to plan together a unit of instruction that is based on the NGSS and the learning principles described above. They would teach the unit together, documenting students’ learning across time, reflecting on lessons and revising their thinking about what to teach next. Artifacts from the unit could become part of a portfolio of teacher educator learning. What would be included? Planning documents, lesson plans that are annotated with notes about how students responded to instruction, formative assessments, tools that were developed to support the science practices, and videos of key lessons. The portfolio could be shared with critical friends, who provide feedback and encouragement. This opportunity could be powerful if groups of science teachers and teacher educators did this together, if they could learn from their experiences, if they could develop a shared language about this type of teaching, and even design sets of tools to support teachers in taking up these practices.
Each of these groups plays an important role in reimagining science teaching and learning in the NGSS era. Hopefully, teacher educators will shoulder responsibility for supporting teachers and students as we collectively shift our expectations for a new generation of science education.