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How NGSS will revitalize science education

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If widely adopted, the Next Generation Science Standards should break the strangle hold standardized tests have had on current teaching and learning. The last decade of science education suffocated under the weight of standardized tests. Classrooms and their inhabitants stagnated as teachers taught to tests and students absorbed content without understanding the nature of and relationships between STEM disciplines. Built on three pillars — practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas — the NGSS will breath new life into science education.

Two NGSS dimensions, practices and crosscutting concepts, provide educators and students the opportunity to engage in authentic learning. States and districts that adopt the NGSS free teachers to create and facilitate learning through engagements designed to integrate practices and concepts. By coupling these dimensions, the NGSS shift the vision of a classroom from a place to prepare for a test to a place to actively engage in science and engineering while applying core ideas from multiple disciplines.

Adoption of the NGSS comes with opportunities and responsibilities. The opportunity to revitalize STEM education requires applying best practices in teaching and learning, such as student-centered learning, emphasis of concept depth over content breadth, and the use of multiple methods of assessment to paint a fuller picture of student competencies. In addition, engineering, or “pre-engineering” as it often is called, will play an increasingly important role in K-12 education. While many people have visions for integrating engineering education into the K-12 community, few attempts have been made to implement these visions. Finally, new standards require supporting current and future teachers with time and training to understand and apply them in the classroom.

Twenty-six states provisionally agreed to adopt the NGSS in exchange for participating in their creation. Even with half the country behind the new standards, change will creep forward at a traditionally petty pace. Having thrown their weight behind standardized tests as a measure of student ability and teacher efficacy, the public may hesitate to grant educators the freedom and financial wherewithal to commit to the NGSS. Educators who do adopt the NGSS will need to communicate to parents and the public the value of the NGSS, the importance of providing students with opportunities to engage in the practices of science and engineering, and the need to include additional measures of assessment.

What will a classroom aligned to the NGSS look like?

Perhaps, it will look like my sixth-grade science and engineering class prior to standardized testing. As a sixth-grade teacher, most of my time was spent creating and facilitating engaging opportunities for students to interact with each other, scientific instruments or engineering tools and concepts. Without the demands for test preparation my students engaged in scientific investigations and completed engineering design challenges. Physically combine a classroom, a science laboratory, an attic or garage, and you might begin to imagine our workspace.

Before standardized tests, my students demonstrated the knowledge and skills gained by sharing the results of their work through poster sessions, formal presentations, written and verbal communication, laboratory based exams and traditional paper and pencil tests. My colleagues in math and language arts made time to reinforce the mathematics and communication skills I emphasized in the context of science and engineering. The knowledge and skills gained from such active learning are hard to quantify. Yet, parents always valued the teaching team’s ability to provide a detailed and complete picture of their child’s strengths and weaknesses. If adopted, the NGSS will revitalize the learning and teaching of science by emphasizing the nature of and relationship between disciplines.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.