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The Debrief

Seven pitfalls that every STEM curriculum leader should consider

Elizabeth DiRenzo
Oct 14, 2019

Science educators are in an unusual position. Their subject, which was marginalized for years under No Child Left Behind, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight with the 2013 introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and an ever-increasing focus on STEM as the bedrock of 21st-century skills. 

That has left many science educators grasping for the tools and support they need to implement complex new standards. One study in California found that many school districts there were having trouble implementing the new standards, and in underperforming school districts, nearly a quarter of teachers said they were only “slightly familiar” with the standards. Moreover, it’s difficult to find the right content, particularly around real-world phenomena, that is simultaneously accessible to students. 

Future-proof science curriculum requires content that exposes students to real-life phenomena, which requires a fundamental shift in the types of texts used for science instruction. The monolithic, singular narratives of textbooks must be traded in for a range of authentic texts that encourage student inquiry and exploration of real-life scientific phenomena. The NGSS are an opportunity to teach students science in a way that’s more meaningful and practical than ever, but only if school districts implement them effectively. To do so, they’ll need to avoid the following common pitfalls.

Rolling out the NGSS without professional development and resources for teachers 

Forty-three states have shortages of certified science teachers, so some students are bound to receive their science instruction from educators who do not specialize in the subject. That makes professional development all the more important in implementing NGSS—but unfortunately, many schools have tried to roll out the new standards without appropriate training for teachers. At some schools, this shift has thrown already underprepared science teachers into the deep end, forcing instructional methods that can’t fully support new standards. Even when they receive professional development about the new standards and instructional practices, teachers often do not have access to the instructional materials and resources needed to bring these new approaches to life.

Assuming that “hands-on” means a classroom is doing the NGSS

Hands-on, practical science is fundamental to the NGSS, but there is more to these standards than that. After all, many common science lessons that preceded the NGSS were also hands-on: Cookie-cutter labs where students act out scripted “experiments” with predetermined results are still incredibly common. But this type of “hands-on” learning misses the point of NGSS, which is to support student-driven inquiry and exploration. 

Neglecting reading/writing/literacy when implementing NGSS 

And that exploration doesn’t always have to be hands-on. Professional scientists spend most of their time writing, reading, and interpreting texts, because solving today’s most challenging problems requires collaboration and knowledge sharing. Literacy is essential for that, as evidenced by the inclusion of literacy-based science and engineering practices in the NGSS. Not all students will become scientists, but all students need to be fully comfortable with informational reading and writing if they are to succeed in life and conquer the biggest challenges facing their generation. 

Teaching a standard in a single class

One of the hallmarks of NGSS is that they are not afraid to lean into complex science topics that are explored through real-world phenomena. For phenomena to truly challenge students, they need to be complex enough that students cannot investigate and explain them in a single lesson. This means that teachers accustomed to teaching standards in a single class will need to adapt their approach. 

Ignoring the skills and only focusing on content knowledge

Previous generations of science standards featured long lists of topics that teachers needed to cover each year. The NGSS take a different approach, with the understanding that inquiry-based problem solving and critical thinking are just as fundamental to science literacy as mastering specific content. Educators’ teaching styles need to reflect this by centering problem solving, inquiry, and exploration.

Assuming that phenomena must be phenomenal

Phenomena-based learning lends itself to exciting lessons about big, spectacle-oriented topics like volcanoes or dinosaurs. However, it’s good for much more than that, and phenomena don’t need to be flashy to capture students’ attention. At its core, phenomena-based learning is about embedding a spirit of curiosity and inquiry in everything students do, so educators should lay the groundwork for student-led exploration of ordinary topics as well as extraordinary ones. 

Treating phenomena like a “hook”

Opening a lesson or unit with a surprising phenomenon is a great way to engage students, but educators can’t stop there. The phenomena’s role as a hook can be a red herring: Real-world problem solving requires sustained attention and follow-through, so educators should return to phenomena regularly and allow them to drive the entire lesson sequence so students can continue their exploration in the longer term. Only then can this pedagogy achieve its full potential to deepen students’ understanding of science. 

Districts are also dealing with challenges like teacher shortages, outdated technology, and insufficient professional development to bring educators up to speed on the new standards. However, one key tool has the power to defang all of these threats: robust content libraries. With content that supports science standards, educators can ensure strong literacy and skill connections and center inquiry-based phenomena in a way that inspires students’ natural curiosity and motivates them to learn. Extraordinary content can also ease the burden on struggling teachers who may not specialize in science education, making teaching easier and freeing time and energy for professional development. To meet students’ evolving needs and rise to the challenge of producing truly scientific thinkers, administrators must support their educators however possible—and helping them avoid these pitfalls is the first step.

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