The "New" Emphasis on Practice

If you really want to understand the intentions of the Next Generation Science Standards, look no further than its published predecessor, the NRC’s “Framework for K-12 Science Education:  Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.” Inside the front 100 pages of the document we find the rationale for a new look to K-12 science classrooms, and a breakdown of how the standards are being drafted and revised.

One thing immediately apparent is how “practice” has been integrated into every benchmark for student science mastery. No more “knows” or “understands.” Benchmarks start with action verbs such as “use, plan, develop, collect and communicate.” This is deliberate, as the Framework highlights eight “practices for K-12 science classrooms” that will, “… help students understand how scientific knowledge develops; [because] such direct involvement gives them an appreciation of the wide range of approaches that are used to investigate, model, and explain the world.” (pg. 42)

Practices for K-12 Science Classrooms, page 42

Quality science teacher will immediately read these practices and proclaim, “Nothing new to see here! My students practice these ‘skills’ all the time!” Indeed, I’ve been privileged to work with many teachers who strive to have their students do more science than anything else. What makes this text compelling is that these practices are being explicitly included for the first time as a part of THE benchmarks that school districts will use to assess their students’ mastery of science.

If we are to believe that future state testing will include sections where students will plan and carry out an investigation, perform calculations on the data collected, and later use these calculations to argue whether their hypothesis was right or wrong… well it would signal a significant departure from the current format and focus of annual MCAS testing in Massachusetts. One thing is for sure, #2 pencils and a stack of booklets will no longer cut it. I’d love to see a move to portfolio assessment. What better format than science notebooks, be they paper or digital?

The “new” emphasis on practice should lead to a boost in student thinking and higher-order learning in classrooms from the earliest primary grades and up. Words like “evaluate, create” and “analyze” are not new to those familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy. They signal a need for a deeper understanding of the “content” section of the framework beyond simply knowing scientic facts like “the seasons are caused by the earth’s tilt.” Of course, for students to attain such deep understanding and higher-level thinking there will have to be plenty of time dedicated to quality science teaching.

The expectation is that “students will themselves engage in the practices and not merely learn about them secondhand.” That is a tall order for the teacher more comfortable with the “demo and notes” approach to science. But the NRC is right to note “students cannot comprehend scientific practices, nor fully appreciate the nature of scientific knowledge itself, without directly experiencing those practices for themselves.” (pg. 30)

I hope to further explore this sharpened focus on student practice in future posts and look forward to sharing with fellow science teachers how they best introduce, share, and help students develop such practices along their way to becoming scientific-minded contributors to society.


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About MrMusselman

K-5 Science Specialist for the Burlington Public Schools of Burlington, MA.
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