Great Lesson Design: The Next Generation

What makes a great lesson? How do we develop the best possible lessons for our classrooms?

These two essential questions were at the crux of interaction between me and elementary educators at Saint Joseph’s University taking a science methods with their professor and my PLN friend, Marialice Curran. Asked by Marialice a few weeks ago to facilitate a lesson with her students via Skype, I thought the class would be a great opportunity to share and discuss the Next Generation Science Standards and what they mean for curriculum and lesson development at the K-5 level.

There was lots of agreement that lessons should be “engaging”, with kids responsible for their learning while developing an understanding for the world around them. Few however spoke to precisely what or how students should be engaged, launching us into a conversation connecting the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, and the method of designing educational curriculum known as backward design.

To illustrate how the NGSS and backward design might work together, Marialice and I modeled a second grade level “Mystery Matter” (oobleck) lesson where her students filled the roles of curious seven year-olds. Oobleck and Mystery Matter have long been staples in matter-centered science units. When asked how many of the students had performed this activity at least once before, all hands were raised. The idea of exploring mystery matter is almost never a bad one, but how the matter is explored and clearly defined learning goals are what separate this lesson from good, great, and simply fooling around with a slimy substance!

We started by asking students to “describe different kinds of matter,” then narrowed the thinking to that of solids and liquids before bringing out the oobleck. Students then observed and manipulated the Mystery Matter, recording observations about its consistency, behavior, reaction to touch, and so forth before determining if any of the observed properties gave clues as to whether the matter was a solid or a gas. From there, students were asked to argue scientifically with one another in an attempt to classify the matter once and for all.Students often associated some mysterious behaviors with those of more familiar forms of matter to draw conclusions. Before jumping into a full on argument students were asked, “how do scientists come to a conclusion” in an attempt to draw the importance of evidence and science-supported argumentation from the students rather than the lead teachers.

After the lesson was completed, I presented students with the backward design unit I generated for this activity; citing desired results and outcomes first, determining how students would be assessed second, and ultimately designing the lesson to fit the needs identified in steps one and two.

Backward Design Process Stage 1 for Mystery Matter (Link to unit at bottom of post)

One of the most significant shifts science teachers note from current science standards to NGSS is the added emphasis on practices and cross-cutting concepts across the core ideas that have consistently been the backbone of science education. It is therefore now just as important to include these practices and cross-cutting concepts when designing science curriculum and the lessons that they consist of. The Mystery Matter lesson not only focuses on recognizing different forms of matter, it presents opportunity to recognize patterns in matter classification while practicing argumentation with scientific evidence.

When asked why I selected Mystery Matter as the lesson to epitomize learning framed by NGSS, I introduced the “WHERE” criteria to students. WHERE stands for, “Where are we headed? Hook the student, Explore the subject, Rethink our work and ideas, and Evaluate results.”

I asked students to reflect on the Mystery Matter lesson and make connections between what we did and the WHERE criteria. To my joy students found connections to all five points! From here we circled back to the original question: What makes a lesson great? I asked students once again to consider the question and charged them to strive for using the techniques presented throughout the 90-minute session to better their own curriculum and lesson planning, particularly as Connecticut decides whether or not to adopt the NGSS in the coming weeks.

At the conclusion of the course the students thanked me as I signed off. The following day Marialice shared some of the feedback she received from her students regarding the Mystery Matter lesson and the lesson as a whole. While some kindly lavished me with praise for the time I devoted to them and dedication to my work, my favorite was this:

“I can see myself using this lesson in my future classroom, and using these teaching strategies in all content areas. We have all been exposed to the concept of backward design, but this lesson and presentation helped me gain a deeper understanding of what backward design means in the context of an actual lesson.”

Exactly what we designed this lesson to achieve!

For more resources on “Backward Design” and the “WHERE” criteria, check out or purchase the book “Understanding by Design” by Wiggins and McTighe.

Additional Resources:

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
This entry was posted in Curriculum, NGSS, Professional Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

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