NGSS Practices in the Elementary Classroom

Tuesday evening I sat in on an NSTA web seminar titled, “Using the NGSS Practices in the Elementary Grades.” For 90 minutes over 100 educators listened intently and asked thoughtful questions in order to more readily identify which kind of best-practices our elementary level teachers should be using to make the most out of limited science classroom time. When the webinar was over and archived, I left with the following thoughts bouncing around in my head:

What we know about early-age learners:

Research over the last two decade has led to some important lessons surrounding young kids when it comes to their competence and learning capacity. 1) Children starting school are more competent than we often expect. They have a substantial knowledge base about the world around them based on experiences and informal learning well before they walk through the school doors. The challenge for kids comes when they are required to articulate or apply their knowledge. They are anything but blank slates!  2) Children are not concrete and simplistic thinkers. Informal evidence and well-documented research show children can use a wide range of reasoning processes, the types of skills that NGSS hopes to draw on. In short: its possible that we’ve been short-changing the capacity of our students by not offering instruction that has challenged our students’ level of sophistication.

Practice and Instructional Support for Children’s Learning is Key

Children can handle higher level experimental skills like identifying and changing variables or using different forms of data for analysis. The roadblock that separate children from adults is a lack of familiarity and use of the tools needed to perform such work. For example, children who are unfamiliar with recording data either informally or in a data table fail to recognize they can not accurately hold all the information in their head and the value of data recording until a teacher explicitly supports them by showing them how and instructing them on the skills needed to use such tools.

Two Great Benefits of Putting “Practices” First in K-5 Science Classrooms

Using the practices to carry the content of science is valuable in that 1) practice-focused instruction leads to greater engagement when compared to fact-learning or content-centered learning and 2) such focus provide greater opportunity for student reflection and a deeper understanding of how science is applied and used to find answers and solutions in science and engineering. No doubt our students’ world will be full of challenges needing to be overcome. Students who understand the science/engineering process will be more likely to pursue scientific and engineering solutions when such challenges are posed before them to solve.

During the second half of the web seminar, educators Debbie Smith and Jessica Jefferies shared a wonderful example of their kindergarten level pilot experience with a practice-centered curriculum focused on plants and what they need to live and grow. I encourage anyone interested in their experience to listen to their portion of the webinar (available on the NSTA website here.) Of the many behaviors seen, these resonated with me the most in terms of young learners doing science despite relying almost exclusively on previous experiences outside of school.

  • Class time shifted to spending more time with the “how” than “just the facts.”
  • Children were able to come up with and evaluate different ways of observing.
  • Children used different types of data (used and shared pictures / drawings / writings) to record their observations which were later shared in a “science circle.” 
  • By sharing results children were able to see what the consensus was and whether their experiment agreed or disagreed with the consensus.
  • Observations from the first experiment led to a multitude of questions that teachers could use as an opportunity to select the next direction class would go.
  • Kindergarteners were capable of discussing which students arguments were rooted in evidence and which were not (delightfully surprising the educators!)

All of these successes left me feeling stronger about the NGSS ability to appropriately reach down to our youngest learners but also acknowledged the expectation that such forms of science education can be unpredictable and take teachers out of their comfort zone. Students asked questions teachers were unsure how to answer and wanted to lead the class in all sorts of experimental directions. It was up to the expert coaching and decision making of the classroom teachers to design which paths to follow and which to simply leave as wonderings for another day or individual scientific pursuit!

How do you see the practices coming to life in your classroom? Will they lead to a greater scientific understanding, or leave our future scientists unprepared?

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About MrMusselman

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