Rewriting Chapter 1

Pete A’Hearn of the California Science Teachers Association has a great post describing the need to rewrite chapter 1, or whatever we call our introductory science unit. This encapsulates a great deal of what is different (and great!) about the Next Generation Science Standards: learning happens best when it sits within a context that is relevant to students. Teaching one thing at a time might make planning and assessment seem simpler, but it robs students of the best ways to learn and grow.

Starting each year with a unit on measurement is neither effective learning nor efficient teaching. It’s a unit devoid of context that takes up valuable time for students to be learning. During which unit are students going to first make use of those measurement skills? Is it during Unit 2 while learning about forces and motion? Great – let’s develop measurement skills in the context of the content that we want them to learn. That’s part of what is meant by three-dimensional learning in NGSS.

NGSS 3D

The practices or skills that we want students to use are best developed while learning core ideas that students need to know, in situations that allow them to use crosscutting concepts to reason and make sense of the world. Students can improve their skills measurement and data analysis while learning about forces using the idea cause and effect. This isn’t a new idea, but it remains a shift in practice. Diagnoser.com, first programmed in 1989, provides a helpful model for thinking about developing students’ content knowledge, reasoning, and science practices simultaneously.

Starting the year with a unit on the scientific method is also problematic. Experimentation is an incredibly valuable tool for developing scientific knowledge. Developing is a key word here.  How many textbook science units begin with students reading text or listening to lectures on a scientific principle, say energy transfer, and follow that up with an experiment to provide “verification” to students? Verification is important but hardly the only (or best) reason to experiment.Placing the experiment after an initial hook is a great way to motivate students to read, write, listen, and talk about the content in a way that allows them to learn more effectively.

Washington’s outgoing science standards had the unfortunate consequence of leading some students and teachers to the idea that “inquiry” and the “scientific method” are synonymous. Students need more authentic inquiry experiences where they are helping to develop the question and procedures instead of merely following them. We need our students to understand that messy processes that generate scientific knowledge, not just the outcomes.

Do you have a favorite investigation or unit that helps students develop process skills or understanding at the same time as content knowledge? Please share in the comments below!

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