The new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are like the science version of the Common Core, place much higher emphasis on the practices of science and engineering than have past sets of national science education standards. This is important, and it directly supports the shift towards broad, 21st-century skills that are encapsulated in the Winooski and Burlington Graduate Expectations. But how do we change teaching and learning in science so that students have real and deep opportunities to engage in these scientific practices? Shannon Bundy, Steve Crowley, and Nancy Keller – our Partner Teacher team in Winooski’s science department – are on the ground figuring that out.
When I had the opportunity to sit in on Shannon’s class on “The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life,” recently, I was blown away by the authentic ways I saw students putting these practices into action. The first NGSS scientific practice is asking questions, which is how Shannon kicked off her course. One wall of the classroom is filled with students’ questions about extra-terrestrial life. These questions have helped shape the direction of the course — and rather than answering them directly, Shannon sets up opportunities for students to investigate the answers themselves.
This approach creates space for several of the other NGSS practices that directly address skills of scientific literacy. On the day I observed Shannon’s class, her students were investigating the question of communication with E.T. life. Their homework the night before had been to find, read, and bring in an article or other piece of writing that related to communication with E.T. in some way; the article had to include at least one photo or other illustration. Class began with some vocab review: assumption, inference, reliable, valid, skeptical. Then students broke into pairs. Their task was to swap articles and answer the following questions about their partner’s article: What is the article saying? What evidence supports the claims? Is this evidence reliable? What inferences and assumptions can you made from the article? Are you convinced by its claims? In other words, as Ms. Bundy said, “tear the article apart.” I couldn’t imagine a better way to engage students in the NGSS practice of obtaining and evaluating information in a way that directly supports the science content of the course. Then, ultimately, the pairs had to discuss and decide which of their two articles was more convincing – giving them the chance to argue from evidence, another NGSS practice.
In addition, this lesson was also highly personalized. The open-ended task of finding an article allowed students to access it however it made the most sense to them. Some students had scientific articles from respected organizations such at SETI, while others brought blog posts describing unconfirmed UFO sightings and showing photos of hazy shapes in the sky. The beauty of the task is that this diversity of sources only enriched the conversation. There was no wrong answer; the articles with clearly poor evidence provided a good first step in evaluating evidence, and with this practice under their belts, students could tackle and critically evaluate the more scientific sources. Students who may not have known how to find more scientific articles got to see and interact with them anyway, from their partners, and will have that background for the next time they need to find a scientific source.
How did the students react to all this? It turned out to be a highly engaging class. During the vocabulary review at the outset, students played around with using the words in different contexts, clearly engaged in making meaning with them. Then, during the partner work, not only was every pair in the room on task but many were engaged in true debate. Abdi and Rebecca went in search of a related photo that should have been included with one of their articles. Xenith and Dominic argued vehemently about whether their evidence was real or not. Turns out that personalized, practice-oriented learning can be pretty compelling.
Meanwhile, across the hall, Steve Crowley’s class is studying glaciers as part of a course on Vermont natural history. In the past several weeks, his students have examined a variety of types of evidence to construct their understanding of how glaciers have impacted Vermont’s landscape. They’ve read articles, looked at maps, watched videos, and even traveled around the state by school bus to examine field sites with evidence of glacial impact. Today, his students were synthesizing their understanding of glacial action by actively engaging in the NGSS practice of developing and using models. Their task, guided by this rubric, was to create a model of glacial action that answers the question, “How does the action of a glacier affect the landscape?”
This particular scientific practice is a bit obtuse at first glance – what do they mean exactly by “model?” But Steve has done a great job of making it clear to his class: A model is anything that represents an idea, usually about how something works or how something is structured. It can take any form – a diagram, a picture, a piece of writing, a 3-d structure, or a map. Models can be used to organize your own thoughts, or to communicate your ideas with others.
When I walked into the classroom, most students’ models were nearly complete. The variety was great to observe. Some students worked alone with others worked in pairs or threes. Most were making poster-sized diagrams with labels, but some had panels with extensive writing to complement their pictures, and at least one student was writing an essay. When I approached students to ask what they were working on, every one of them could tell me what they were doing and could explain their model to me. That’s one of the reasons I have come to love this particular NGSS practice – I find that the term “modeling” makes it clear that students should construct something that represents their own understanding, and therefore they are much more likely to really own it and be able to explain it. In a sense, the process of modeling brings student ownership to several related NGSS practices, such as analyzing and interpreting data and constructing explanations.
Partway through the class, Steve asked his students to pause in their work on their own models. Each small group paired up with another group with the goal of explaining and getting feedback on their models-in-progress. to hear the other students ask probing questions about why a team had represented something in a particular way, or to suggest adding an aspect of glacial action that was missing. Students then got right back to work adding to their models. Overall, the degree of engagement was impressive.
To take a broad view, Shannon and Steve’s classes have a few important things in common:
(1) They are explicitly teaching students what it means to engage in the scientific practices. Rather than assuming that students already have these skills, their teachers are giving criteria and exemplars for what a strong scientific model should include, and they’re teaching and using precise vocabulary to describe what proficiency in these practices looks like.
(2) They are teaching the practices not in isolation, but with scientific content as the vehicle.
(3) Student collaboration is happening in meaningful, authentic, essential ways. (I’ve been thinking recently about different kinds of collaboration. In many instances, students collaborate on work that could also be done individually. In contrast, both Shannon and Steve set up opportunities for peer interaction where the collaboration – sharing resources, giving critical feedback – was essential for the work to move forward.)
(4) Most importantly, they were engaging their students in the NGSS practices in ways that put students in the role of scientists. Like actual scientists, students were responsible for gathering and evaluating information themselves, and for synthesizing information into a coherent model. And like actual scientists, the “expertise” in the room was generated through a process of peer review as students evaluated their own and their classmates’ ideas. Steve and Shannon, as teachers, no longer needed to be evaluators and instead could focus on facilitating. In this way, these classes approached true student ownership. The best part for me as an observer was to hear students speaking the language of science in a way that was truly their own.