Saturday, January 23, 2016

What will be different this time? Thoughts on NGSS implementation Part 1

Part 2 is now posted here. It uses an embedded questionnaire to gather your insights.

While this post was inspired by The draft New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards (NYSSLS) that are now available online, I hope it has relevance beyond New York State. This series of posts is intended to raise issues of national importance related to the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and to dig into the question in the post's title. New York's draft standards are close cousins of the NGSS, which are national in scope, but not federally funded or mandated. Throughout the post, I'll largely treat the two sets of standards as one as they are so very similar.

There is a short appendix at the end of the post specific to New York. If that's not of interest, skip it. There's also an appendix offering up my bona fides for commenting on these issues. You can skip that with impunity as well.

Complexifying the Seemingly Simple and Simplifying the Seemingly Complex

Whether talking about the NGSS, or New York's version of them, the cartoon above has some relevance. The cartoon resonates partly because the simplicity of the cartoon ultimately causes the cartoon to make fun of itself. It’s a simple and basically correct idea that simple ideas about complex things are usually wrong, which implies that the cartoon itself is wrong. Yet, it still holds some truth. (You might pause and ponder Occam's razor).

The NGSS is appropriately wickedly complex, as science, and the processes necessary to build deep understandings of science are complex. But the NGSS is also about simplifying science by first identifying three dimensions of science (Crosscutting Concepts, Science and Engineering Principles, and Disciplinary Core Ideas), and then a few big ideas in each of those dimensions. Each of those dimensions should be thought of as about a third of the standards. That simple conceptual framework is one of the best things about the NGSS.

But, and it is a pretty big but, that simplicity is not immediately evident, or anything close to immediately evident, when you look at the either the NGSS website or the New York draft standards. That's too bad, but it's also fixable. Click over to the NGSS website and look around. How long does it take for you to identify something that's both important about these new standards and different from what we've thought of as best practice? Or, how long would it take to do that if you'd never seen them before today? I'd argue that it might take a few hours. It shouldn't. 

A simple and important idea to grasp before digging too deeply into the NGSS

This three dimensional framework, with each dimension consisting of just a few key ideas and each being of roughly equal importance is far from the only really important change envisioned by the new standards, but it's right up there. Another important idea hitched to this is that discipline specific ideas, what we tend to think of when we think of high school and college science, are only a third of what should be taught in K-12 science education. I agree with this whole-heartedly, by the way. The Science and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts are just as important to understand as discipline-specific ideas.

What do I think are the most shifts in the nature of science education envisioned in the NGSS?

The interdisciplinary nature of NGSS, which is closely tied to its attention to teaching about systems is, in my view, is probably more important than the idea of three dimensional science. The attention to the idea that it takes years of coordinated instruction to build deep understandings of big ideas is of similar importance. Approach the standards with these big conceptual shifts in mind:
  • It is more important to understand a few big ideas deeply than it is to know lots of facts. 
  • It takes years of coordinated effort to build deep understanding of big ideas. 
  • There are three dimensions of roughly equal importance, one of which is (almost) what we think of as traditional school science disciplines.
  • Systems thinking and interdisciplinarity are appropriately pervasive in the standards. 
  • The goal is for students to explain real-world phenomena and design solutions to problems using their understanding of the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and Science and Engineering Practices. 
How many clicks on the NGSS site does it take to bring out those ideas? The site includes a couple of videos that tell you that science teaching needs to change, and some of the reasons why, but they don't really give great insights into what the changes actually look like. In the video on the NGSS homepage, Fred Johnson, starting 37 seconds in, does give about 10 seconds of insight related to NGSS's interdisciplinary nature. The 11 minute video on NSTA's homepage for NGSS resources does offer a good glimpse into what teaching that aligns with the NGSS's vision might look like. That video - which isn't on the NGSS page - is probably worth your time.

It's important to emphasize that while some lessons are better suited to supporting the NGSS than others, no single lesson, by itself, should be thought of as satisfying the NGSS, or, by itself, as even necessarily aligned with the NGSS. That lesson has to be understood in the context of many other lessons, including, at least in some cases, lessons in non-science disciplines and lessons that have been or will be taught at other grade levels. That's a big, important and complex deal.

Without simple ways to help teachers begin the process of wrapping their heads around the complex ideas, too many (I think most) teachers won’t really wrap their heads around the NGSS and they’ll ultimately have little impact on classroom practice, just like the last time some pretty good standards came along.

A five minute video highlighting interactive features on the NGSS website

There are also some powerful tools built right into the NGSS website, and the standards are really thoughtfully designed for online reading. It's easier to show those features in a video than to describe them in text. There's a bit more on how to read the NGSS online in the first of the additional resources below. That piece is largely borrowed from the NGSS Structure document in the sidebar on the Standards page of the NGSS website.

Looking back to more effectively look forward

If you've been around a while, like me, I invite you to think back to 1996 when The National Science Education Standards (NSES) came out. Those standards were pretty good too. If the vision laid out there actually came to fruition, we'd be doing pretty well. I'd argue that they didn't change classroom practice very much, and I'm deeply concerned that we're largely repeating the actions of the NSES rollout. And, I'm deeply concerned that the great thinking and hard work that has brought us the fine product that is the NGSS won't do much to change what science teaching looks like and won't make K-12 students and graduates more scientifically literate.

It's been 20 years since the rollout of NSES. If you have evidence that American high school graduates are more scientifically literate now than they were then, I'd like to see it. If you have evidence that makes a causal link between an increase in scientific literacy and the NSES, I'd really like to see it. Personally, I'm not aware of evidence that shows much change - good or bad - in the scientific literacy of Americans in the last several decades. And I have looked.

Happily, these new standards represent a change in vision for the nature and structure of schooling. Unhappily, there is little recognition of the scale of change envisioned. There are, however, places where the scale of change is more clear. For example, the PEEC-Alignment draft (found on the helpful Resources page of the NGSS website) includes this idea:
"Shifting school programs to support the implementation of the NGSS will require many changes. The best response to this challenge would be to design brand new school science programs." 
That is a suggestion to redesign K-12 science from scratch, not work to force fit the NGSS into existing structures. That's a heavy lift, but essential if we actually want to change the outcomes of school science.

In the next post, I'll ask you for some input as to how we can make the rollout more effective than the NSES rollout in 1996 and more clearly raise the issue of the mismatch of the NGSS and the structure of schooling. Some of what's coming is foreshadowed in the resources below.

Part 2 is now posted here. It uses an embedded questionnaire to gather your insights.

Additional Resources:

NGSS & the New York State Science Strategic Plan: Implications for Teachers

Putting a hyper-dimensional peg in a round hole: Addressing the mismatch of NGSS and the structure of schooling

The New York Appendix

For the New Yorkers reading this, I'll point you to a survey from the New York State Education Department on the New York draft standards. The survey is open until February 5, 2016. The survey does depend on knowledge of the NGSS, that I think would take at least 20 hours of study to really provide informed responses to most questions. If you've not yet dug into the NGSS, start now and come back to the survey before the February 5 deadline. If you don't have time to do that level of preparation before the deadline, but want to give feedback, you are able to leave some questions blank, and the survey ends with open ended questions. 

Other than the extension to preschool that the New York standards include, I wish the New York Standards were the NGSS. There are costs and benefits to the tweaks made by the New York writers, and it's hard for me to see the benefits as greater than the costs. The New York standards include a few added Performance Expectations. These are shown in highlighted text. Some addition content was also added or revised and each occurrence is marked "NYSED." Adding the preschool standards makes good sense. The few other standards that were either added or revised may have some benefits, but the costs are more obvious to me. Will these changes make it so that some curriculum materials developed for the NGSS are inappropriate for New York State? If so, is that loss of resources, worth the advantage gained by tweaking the phrasing? If not, what's the point? The answers to these questions should be clearly and concisely spelled out in front matter for the standards. The answers matter for informing the selection of curriculum materials and professional development programs.

The navigability of the NGSS online platform is far superior to presentation via pdf. Of course, the number of changes between NGSS and the NY Standards is fairly small, so using the NGSS site primarily is not much of a problem. Being able to scroll over a PE and see a pop-up showing the more detailed information is valuable, and the ability to click on the related content in the connections boxes and go to that content is even more valuable. I am hopeful that the NGSS web design can be replicated for New York's use and the modifications made for New York can be placed into a platform that has the look, feel, and operability of the NGSS site.

The above portion of the appendix are generally about the standards, and not the survey. There is one particular set of items in the survey that I'd like to draw attention to, as it confused the heck out of me. In the "Coherence" section of the survey, questions 17 & 18 are as follows:

Criterion:Standards include connections across science disciplines.
Rationale for Criterion:Standards fostering recognition of knowledge and practices shared amongst science disciplines reinforce learning in one or more specific science disciplines.
17. The Science and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts draw connections among physical sciences, life sciences, and Earth and space sciences. 
Within each Topic Area minimal connections among physical sciences, life sciences, and Earth and space science exist as presented in grades K-5. There are no apparent connections among the Disciplinary Core Ideas presented at the middle level or high school in the Topic Area arrangement. Explicit connections among physical sciences, life sciences, and Earth and space sciences could be accomplished through curriculum/course development.
Based on the evidence provided above by NYSED, the draft New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards:
  • Do not meet this criterion
  • Minimally meet this criterion
  • Adequately meet this criterion
  • Meet this criterion to a great extent
18. Additional Comments:
End of quotation

 The text in red is very confusing. This reads like an answer to the question within the question. And, while some of this is open to interpretation, some of it is flat-out wrong. To say, "There are no apparent connections among the Disciplinary Core Ideas presented at the middle level or high school in the Topic Area arrangement" is factually incorrect. On each and every page of the document, there are such connections within the Connections Boxes.

Other questions in the survey make me somewhat uneasy - some seem to misunderstand the importance of the systems and interdisciplinary nature of the scientific enterprise represented in the NGSS and target fairly specific trees whilst missing the forest. There is also emphasis on college and career readiness, without any emphasis on readiness for the duties of citizenship. 

Don's bona fides

I am amongst the cast of thousands who have contributed to these standards, both at national and state levels. I was a member of the Earth and Space Science Design Team for A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideasthe document that serves as the foundation for NGSS, and I served on the New York State Statewide Leadership Team for Next Generation Science Standards Development, and was part of STANYS's Earth science group that provided feedback to the New York State Education Department on the standards. I have also led or been a leader for a number of workshops and presentations on the NGSS. Two of those are included in the Additional Resources section at the end of this post. And, I've got nine years of experience in the high school classroom, mostly teaching Regents Earth Science, and eight years of experience as a professor of science education at Kalamazoo College, Cornell University and Colgate University. For the last eight years, I've worked for the Paleontological Research Institution, its Museum of the Earth and its Cayuga Nature Center where my current position is Director of Teacher Programs. This month marks my 30th year as a professional educator. In other words, I've been thinking this stuff for a long time.

While I have been involved enough to have good knowledge of the standards, my role is admittedly small compared to many, many others.