Preliminary Thoughts on NGSS

doing_scienceThe second  draft was released last week that outlines the Next Generation Science Standards.  The documents were very large files with reading requirements that far surpassed the time I had in the week to fully read and understand them.   The first thing I did was download the .pdf files to my computer.   The last set of drafts that was released were pulled shortly after they were open to the public and it was impossible to find them again.  The NGSS site states the the files will be open for viewing from  January 8, 2013 to January 29, 2013.  That gives educators, administrators, and scientists 3 weeks to read and comment on the standards.   It hardly seems like enough time.

I started by opening each file and scanning them briefly.  I suppose I was hoping for a shortcut, that one file that if I read it, I wouldn’t need to read all the others.  There was also a file to tell me how to read and understand the standards.  This included a graphic explaining what numbers and color coding meant on the tables.   After I realized I still couldn’t make sense of the tables, nor could I find a shortcut, I decided that it might be best to just start from the beginning.

The first document (Appendix A)  outlines what is called conceptual shifts.  I suppose this is meant as the thematic basis for the new standards as a way to compare them to older  standards.  I only have experience with Illinois State Science Standards  which I can use as a comparison.    I was hoping when I first heard about the NGSS, that this would be a way to improve the depth at which a subject is taught and trim some of the details that made the Illinois Standards impossible to achieve.    In our case, the standards covered topics in earth science, biology, physics, and chemistry.  Even if a college bound student took a science every year in high school, one of those areas would not have been covered at the time they took the test their junior year.   The amount of detail included for each subject was also daunting, leaving us to scramble to just touch on each topic and move on quickly to fit them all in during a single school year.    Most science teachers did try, but this approach was often referred to as a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”    I opened the first file hoping to see a change in this approach with new standards that are inclusive, comprehensive and achievable.

The beginning of the NGSS standards contains 6 statements that summarize the conceptual shifts that serve to guide the overall standards.

1) K-12 Science Education Should Reflect the Interconnected Nature of Science as it is Practiced and Experienced in the Real World.
2) The Next Generation Science Standards are student performance expectations – NOT curriculum.
3) The Science Concepts in the NGSS Build Coherently from K–12.
4) The NGSS Focus on Deeper Understanding of Content as well as Application of Content.
5) Science and Engineering are Integrated in the NGSS, from K–12.
6)  The NGSS and Common Core State Standards ( English Language Arts and Mathematics) are Aligned .

My Take on the Conceptual Shifts

“Interconnectedness” is also a theme in the common core standards.  It seems that many educators are realizing that subjects cannot just exist in a bubble.  Projects in the real world must include a working knowledge of many subjects such as math, english, and science.   Most of the teachers in my school have already been working hard to tie their subject matter to real world applications.   For instance, a lesson on mitosis should also include a discussion of cancer and how drugs used to treat cancer need to target the cell cycle.   In physics, we talk about forces in relation to building bridges and designing elevators.

I’m a little confused about what  #2 means.  By saying it is not a curriculum, one would assume that we are left to design our curriculum around the framework.  I’m a bit skeptical about this.  The Illinois Science Standards said the same thing, but in the end, the requirements (or expectations) were so detailed that it was, in effect, telling us what our curriculum needed to be.

#3 also seems similar to common core standards where the expectation is not that you will accomplish every goal in one year, but instead each year of school will build on the last.     Based on the common core idea, I can assume that if one of the expectations is that students know how to make graphical models, that basic modeling will start as early as kindergarten, and by the time they are seniors, they will be competent  modelers and can tackle more challenging data.

#4 seems more of a generality than anything concrete.  It just says that the standards focus on a deeper understanding.   It’s been my experience that educators have very different views about what is “deeper understanding”.  Hopefully, this will be made clearer in the next sections.

#5 Science and engineering suggest that students will be doing more science, possibly requiring more project based learning or more  real-world problem solving.    I can appreciate this approach, but it definitely is one that is difficult to implement in schools that don’t have the resources.     I think many teachers might at first be intimidated at the idea of “science and engineering”.

#6 just states that these standards are aligned with the common core.   I imagine for each science standard there will be a link to a common core standard. This is also something I’m hoping will be made clear in later documents.

So far, this general overview is about what I expected, but this is just a tiny part of the overall picture.  As a science teacher, I will need to determine exactly what I need to modify with the science curriculum in order to align to the new standards.  I am also unsure at this point where the Illinois State Standards fit with NGSS.     I will be adding my own summaries to the next sections of the NGSS within the coming weeks.