A more positive perspective

We recently spoke with Dan Damelin, a Senior Scientist at the Concord Consortium who has experience as a science teacher, curriculum developer, and provider of professional learning for teachers. Below is an edited version of Dan’s comments.

Dan: For many years I’ve held a firm belief that students learn best though discovering things for themselves. In the science classroom this means providing students with opportunities to engage in exploring the world like scientists. Until the NGSS, “inquiry” was always separate from other content standards, and usually thought of as an aside or add-on, not integrated into everyday experiences in the science classroom. It didn’t help that state testing almost solely emphasized content over process.

The critical breakthrough of the NGSS was to write the standards in such a way that engagement in science and engineering practices is part of the standard itself. With the influence of the NGSS, I’ve experienced a huge increase in teachers seeking help on how to teach from a more student-centered, phenomena-oriented, and inquiry-based approach. So I think NGSS has done a great service in promoting instruction that helps students learn about science by doing science.

I don’t think that the NGSS is perfect, but I see these standards as an opportunity to promote many goals that I support, and believe the integrated nature of the standards, each of which incorporates disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts, is integral to achieving those goals. For these reasons I would be reluctant to support a large-scale overhaul of the Framework on which the NGSS is built.

However, I do agree with many of the concerns you have written about. For example, there is no disciplinary core idea in the NGSS that covers epidemics—and now pandemics—so strict adherence to the NGSS would preclude teaching about that. However, the NGSS is intended to be a foundation, not a ceiling on what all students learn. Many curriculum developers are producing new instructional materials that are largely consistent with the NGSS and that focus on epidemiology and other additional topics—even if those phenomena are not 100% aligned with NGSS. I think the NGSS can also serve as a template for the integration of disciplinary ideas, practices, and crosscutting concepts, which can guide teachers and curriculum developers in designing materials that integrate practices regardless of the phenomenon being explored.

I do understand that many will interpret the NGSS as some limit on what they should be teaching and empathize with your desire to make sure anything you think is critically missing is directly included. If you feel that critical disciplinary core ideas or practices are missing I would encourage the two of you to suggest specific changes you would like to see in the text of the NGSS. The heart of the document is a set of Performance Expectations (PEs) describing what students should know and be able to do. I recommend you propose adding new PEs that you think are needed. For example, you might add a PE related to epidemiology, or extend the practice on “Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information” to include student understanding of the role of scientific institutions, like the CDC. However, if you do that you will probably also want to suggest removing some PEs, so the list of expectations does not simply become longer, because, as you know, one of the strengths of the NGSS is that it reduced the number of disciplinary core ideas to make room for more time to learn through engagement in science practices.

Your white paper suggests adding information to the NGSS about how students learn science. I wonder whether you can do that in a meaningful way without adding a large amount of new text and changing the basic structure of the document. The NGSS is intended to provide assessment boundaries. Imagine if we started adding pedagogical directives to the standards. Which should we add? There are many approaches, and it would change the entire nature of the NGSS, so I think it’s best to avoid that potential minefield.

Another of your concerns is that you would like teachers to be encouraged by the standards to teach science in the context of societal and personal concerns. That’s a great approach, one that has been adopted by many in the education research field who are developing curricular materials aligned with the NGSS. There are two approaches to influencing science teaching related to NGSS—change the NGSS itself, or try to influence the way NGSS is interpreted. The NSTA Position Statement “Teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues” is an example of the latter approach. Those researchers I know developing NGSS-aligned curriculum have all taken a particular stance on what it means to align with the NGSS. They are leading by example. I tend to take that same approach. I don’t want to suppress any debate around the NGSS. It’s not perfect and will itself be revised someday, so I encourage you to push for the kinds of changes you want to see.

Andy: Dan, the primary goal Penny and I hope to achieve with the white paper is to start a conversation about the strengths and the weaknesses of the NGSS. There is undoubtedly more than one way to improve the existing standards. Your approach is not the same as ours but we share many of the same goals for what science education should accomplish. That is an excellent starting point for a conversation. Thank you for your thoughts about the NGSS.

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