By Lori Andersen
I work in a state that adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in 2016. In my conversations with teachers, I often hear them asking what NGSS-aligned instruction looks like. They are seeking materials that will help them change their instruction. How can we identify which science instructional materials are of high quality?
Three key features distinguish high-quality, NGSS-aligned science teaching materials from other materials. These three features are not sufficient by themselves to qualify materials as high quality. Curriculum evaluation rubrics often include many more criteria. However, unlike the other criteria, these three features are very different from what we looked for in high-quality materials prior to NGSS. The three features are these: sequence of activities, use of the three dimensions, and supporting sensemaking. I will explain each of these key features and how to find freely available, high-quality materials.
High-quality instruction uses activity sequences that makes sense to learners. The storyline instructional model is a unit design that begins with a common anchoring event that students attempt to explain using their existing knowledge. Students generate questions about what they do not know and need to figure out. These questions become the goals of the subsequent unit activities as students figure out how to explain the anchoring event. In a storyline unit, the activities focus on students investigating questions about the anchor event in a logical order.
Activity sequences that makes sense to learners are fundamentally different from sequences that make sense to content experts, such as teachers. A traditional unit on thermal energy follows a topics sequence, such as thermal energy, temperature, heat, and conduction. These topics are usually followed by opportunities to apply content knowledge in an activity. A topics sequence makes sense to an expert who already understands the subject and is able to use that knowledge to break it down into logical subcategories.
However, a topics sequence is not logical to someone who is learning the subject for the first time. For a novice, a more logical sequence in a storyline unit on thermal energy is a series of questions that students need to answer to explain a phenomenon. Questions begin with simpler ideas that build on studentsʻ prior knowledge, then go on to ideas that are more complex. For example, consider these three questions:
• What cup features seem most important for keeping a drink cold?
• Where does the water on the outside of the cup come from?
• How does a cupʻs surface affect how the liquid warms up?
The questions start with simpler ideas about the cup features and go on to more complex ideas about how the cup’s surface interacts with light.
High-quality curriculum supports teachers and learners in developing each of the three dimensions. These supports are missing from most other materials. Traditional curriculum provides activities that focus mainly on disciplinary core idea content without focusing attention on the other two dimensions, or their grade-specific elements. For example, in a traditional unit in which students design a home to reduce heat transfer, students may use ideas about tracking energy flows, but may not be asked to recognize that they are using the crosscutting concept, energy and matter.
In a high-quality unit with supports, students are asked to include the crosscutting concept in their explanations, and the teacher provides instruction on the grade-specific element. For example, to improve the home design unit, students could be asked to develop a way to track energy flow through the house. They could use temperature measurements to determine if the energy flow was minimized and explain their findings. High-quality curricula call attention to all three dimensions, provide guidance for teacher instruction, and provide opportunities for students to develop skills.
High-quality curriculum provides many opportunities for sensemaking that prompt learners to share their ideas and respond to the ideas of others. In traditional curricula, students express their ideas in many ways, but it is less common to ask students to respond to one another's ideas. In high-quality units, students share their individual explanations, first in small groups and later with the entire class as part of the sensemaking process. Students compare their ideas and look for similarities and differences. They use evidence from investigations to make decisions about which explanations are supported. In this way, all students voice their ideas and work together to develop an answer to the question. The activities in high-quality units focus on sensemaking beginning with studentsʻ ideas, rather than presenting students with existing science ideas.
Many new examples of high-quality curriculum have recently emerged. Achieve maintains a list of high-quality, free curriculum units from multiple sources that have been reviewed by their Peer Review Panel. Keeping in mind that curriculum developers often follow similar design principles across units, searching their websites can uncover additional high-quality resources.
• Ambitious Science Teaching
As you review materials, keep the three features in mind.
• Activities are sequenced by students' questions, rather than science topics.
• Activities develop three-dimensional knowledge, rather than only disciplinary core ideas.
• Activities include student sensemaking, rather than presenting science content.
Lori Andersen is an assistant specialist at the Curriculum Research & Development Group at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Her research focuses on developing and evaluating science curriculum and teacher professional development.
NGSS Teaching Strategies Middle School Elementary High School