NGSS: Conceptual Shifts
2/28/2013 - NSTA Reports—Karen L. Ostlund
NSTA President Karen L. Ostlund
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provide the blueprint for preparing K–12 students to survive and thrive in the 21st century. The conceptual shifts in the NGSS aimed at accomplishing the goal of scientific literacy for all students are described below.
- The NGSS reflect how science is done in the real world by intertwining three dimensions: Scientific and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas.
Scientists ask and answer questions to further our understanding of the world around us. Engineers define problems and design solutions to solve problems. The intent of NGSS is to weave the three dimensions together to reflect the work of scientists and engineers. For example, students are expected to use scientific and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to develop an understanding of disciplinary core ideas. This is a conceptual shift from most state and district standards, which separate these dimensions in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Curriculum often initially focuses on the science process skills of inquiry without emphasizing science content. To prepare students for the competitive global economy, we must equip them with the skills and information to develop a sense of contextual understanding of scientific knowledge: how scientists acquire it, how engineers apply it, and how it is connected through crosscutting concepts. These understandings can be achieved by interlocking the three dimensions. Therefore, each NGSS performance expectation integrates scientific and engineering practices to understand disciplinary core ideas and connect ideas across disciplines by applying crosscutting concepts.
- The NGSS are student performance expectations.
Student performance expectations clarify what students should know and be able to do at the end of a grade level or band. This conceptual shift recognizes the NGSS are not curriculum, instruction, or assessment; the NGSS are student performance expectations that elucidate the intent of assessments. The NGSS will guide curriculum developers as they develop coherent instructional programs designed to ensure students attain the performance expectations. The three dimensions are integrated in each performance expectation and are intended to enhance instruction and curriculum, not limit it. The scientific and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts should be used throughout the curriculum and instruction so students have many opportunities to become proficient at using the practices to deepen their understanding of disciplinary core concepts by connecting them with crosscutting concepts. Backward curriculum design will be required to analyze each performance expectation and develop an instructional sequence that will help students achieve the outcomes delineated in the NGSS.
- The NGSS build coherently from grades K through 12.
The NGSS concentrate on a limited number of essential disciplinary core ideas that build student understanding progressively from grades K through 12. The conceptual shift is the movement away from learning disjointed and isolated facts and toward opportunities to learn more complex ideas as students progress through grade levels and bands. The disciplinary core ideas identified in NGSS form a coherent progression of knowledge leading to more complexity of student understanding by the end of high school. The goal is to help students achieve scientific literacy by focusing on fundamental content that builds as they progress. The NGSS progressions are based on the assumption that students have learned previous content and can build on their understandings. Therefore, it is critical that students master the content designated for each grade level or band. The omission of any content in a grade level or band can negatively impact student understanding of increasingly more complex core ideas as students advance through grades K–12.
- The NGSS focus on deeper understanding of content and applications of content.
The NGSS focus on disciplinary core ideas rather than the myriad of facts associated with each core idea. Although the facts support the core ideas, they should not be the focus of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The conceptual shift places more emphasis on the core ideas and less on facts to provide an organizational structure that delivers the scaffolding students need when acquiring new knowledge. Research indicates experts understand core principles and theoretical constructs of their field and use them to make sense of new information or to apply their understandings to solve problems. Novices hold disconnected and even contradictory pieces of knowledge as isolated facts and have difficulty organizing and integrating the pieces. Therefore, the intent of the NGSS is to engage students in scientific and engineering practices to gain a deeper understanding of disciplinary core ideas and connect those ideas with crosscutting concepts to help them develop from novices into experts.
- The NGSS integrate science, technology, and engineering throughout grades K–12.
The NGSS integrate applications of science, technology, and engineering into the disciplinary core ideas along with life, Earth, space, and physical science. This conceptual shift also raises engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry. This requires the development of curriculum, instruction, and assessments—as well as teacher preparation—to integrate engineering and technology into the structure of science education. Science and engineering are needed to address challenges we face in our ever-changing world, such as an adequate food supply, clean water, renewable energy, and disease control. Hopefully, students will be motivated to pursue careers rooted in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as a result of early opportunities to apply their scientific knowledge to develop solutions to similar challenges. Integrating science, technology, and engineering into curriculum and instruction empowers students to apply what they learn to their everyday lives beginning in kindergarten, throughout their academic careers, and beyond.
- The NGSS correlate to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics.
The NGSS are the vehicle for mastering the Common Core State Standards in ELA and mathematics. Science and engineering provide a content area for applying ELA and mathematics skills. The conceptual shift is away from viewing ELA and mathematics as content areas to the perception that they are skills to be practiced and mastered in the science and engineering curriculum. A synergy is created when ELA, mathematics, science, and engineering standards reinforce the acquisition of the skills and knowledge in all of these areas of the school curriculum.
These conceptual shifts in the NGSS present a new vision for science education. Following the blueprint provided in the NGSS will help students in every state become proficient and prepared for 21st-century careers.