In her eighth-grade science classroom, Carolyn Higgins is letting her students do the talking. She stands in the midst of a lively group of 13- and 14-year-olds, listening carefully as they debate which organisms consume more energy in their example ecosystems, prodding with a question when their experiments stall, and marking notes about individuals’ progress on her clipboard.
Rhode Island is in the first year of a three-year implementation plan for the Next Generation Science Standards, and as president of her state’s Science Teacher Association, Carolyn’s helping colleagues define what the shift will look like for them.
Letting Students Take the Lead
Her classes at Winman Junior High in Warwick, Rhode Island may look chaotic and unstructured, but they’re actually carefully designed to maximize learning and help students retain complex ideas.
"The generation coming through school now, they’ve always had Google at their fingertips," says Carolyn. "If you can look something up on Google and find the answer in 10 seconds, it really isn’t something you need to memorize for a class."
"In the real world, if you can’t remember which planet is closer to the sun, you can look that up. But concepts like 'why gravity is different between different planets' are harder for students to understand, so it’s more valuable to work through those with a teacher."
One of the biggest shifts Carolyn found with the NGSS model was that instead of standing in front of the class talking and leading activities, her role became more about encouraging students to ask questions, develop explanations, and then do research to test their ideas.
"When you get students interested in why and how something happens, their natural curiosity leads them to want to know more," she says. "It’s more hands-off for the teacher during the lesson, but it takes a lot of orchestration ahead of time, to plan well to get different levels and types of students engaged."
Planning lessons like these can be a challenge, but Carolyn compares it to another familiar activity.
"It’s like planning a meal and choosing flavors that go well together. The standards do a great job of putting together the recipes, now you just have to figure out how to make them and present them to students."
Some of the ingredients are easier to incorporate than others. Modeling is a scientific practice that can help students grasp advanced concepts more easily, but it’s not always practical in the classroom.
"When I first started reading NGSS, I thought modeling had to be something three-dimensional, like with K’nex or Legos," says Carolyn. "But I watched videos from Paul Andersonon YouTube, and what a relief when I realized diagramming was also modeling."
"You’re not giving the kids a set of directions, you give them supplies and let them figure it out on their own. Two students might draw something completely different, and they might both be right, because it’s not a black-and-white way of doing things. If they’re on the wrong path, you step in and gently point out their misconceptions, but the point is to let them reason it out independently."
Transitioning a State System
Grading and assessment with the NGSS present another challenge. They require a creative evaluation style, with more formative than summative assessments, to continually check understanding as students are working through concepts.
Carolyn makes observations of student performance during exercises and also uses them to group and regroup students by progress on a topic, so they are working and learning at their own pace.
"I use more class participation for grading, and I keep track of everything in a chart. Then I divide the class into one group doing one thing because they might need a little more time to understand a topic and other groups working on something else that will build a little more of their knowledge."
A Better Way of Learning
Despite the challenges, Carolyn is passionate about this style of teaching. She’s seen the results for herself in the classroom, and she shares them with others in her state as they work through the NGSS adoption process.
"It’s a better way of learning for students, and they’ll enjoy learning science more than just learning a bunch of facts and having to take a test on which planet’s closer to the sun."