Scared of the NGSS? Build Your Students’ Schema Before You Jump In

Dollarphotoclub_73897668 (2)It is time for a moment of honesty.  The Next Generation Science Standards scare me!  That is not to say that I don’t think the standards are innovative and very necessary.  They are.  Brett Moulding, NGSS Writing Team Leader, states that “The NGSS shift expectations of students from memorization to understanding, and from recitation to application, providing teachers and students with the tools to transform science education into something that students can use to make sense of the world throughout their lives.”  Worthy goals to be sure… but they still scare me!  

For instance, I am currently asking my students to identify evidence from patterns in rock formations and fossils in rock layers and then use that evidence to support an explanation of how the land has changed over time.  This is the fourth grade Next Generation Science Standard 4-ESS1.  It is an exciting standard.  It requires students to engage in the scientific practice of constructing explanations and to use the cross-cutting concept of patterns to support their explanation.  This is miles ahead of how I was taught about earth science.  Actually, come to think of it, I don’t really remember ever being taught earth science before I graduated from high school aside from a picture of a volcano I vaguely remember coloring and labeling in fourth grade. I did take a geology course in college.  I remember it was a lot of note-taking and cramming for exams in which the knowledge was quickly forgotten. Forgotten knowledge and no idea whatsoever of what to do with that knowledge is the problem!

As a pre-citizen I needed to be taught using the NGSS.  Now, as the full-fledged but perhaps misinformed citizen I have become, I look at the standards and my heart skips a beat.  “Very cool” I think to myself.  “I wish someone had taught me to think that way.”  However, the essential question remains. How do I teach something that I don’t fully understand or am unable to do myself?  After the moment of panic wears off, I take a deep breath and realize that my lack of knowledge might be a blessing in disguise.  Weird,  I know.  But because I am starting at almost the same point as my students, I really have to think about how it is I need to proceed to get them where I want them and myself to be.  We truly are learning together.  Very powerful. 

In past posts I have discussed the importance of schema.  Schema is all of the stuff we have in our heads:  the books we’ve read, the places we’ve been, the people we know, the experiences we’ve had.  The fact is that I am not a scientist and quite honestly my schema is very limited in the area of science.  So… I decided to look at the standard and ask myself what specific schema do I need to help myself and my students reach this standard.  The standard doesn’t ask that students know the different rock types or that they understand the rock cycle or that they know what materials lie beneath the earth’s surface.  However, this schema is necessary to understand what they are looking at when they look at rock layers.  This, in my mind, is the biggest shift in science education.  In the past, it was enough to have memorized the rock types.  The future is here and students must be able to apply this knowledge in a meaningful way.  

With this in mind, I had students create a Schema Power Book.  Over time we filled it in with all the schema I felt they needed to eventually reach the NGSS fourth grade Earth Science and Space Standards.  I’m currently working on a template of the Power Book.  Watch for it in our YouCan2 Store.  In the next couple of weeks, the students will be required to look at a cross section of the rock layers in the Grand Canyon and write a story about what has happened there over time.  They would not have been prepared for this a month ago.  Now they will have their Power Books at the ready for support! And to be perfectly honest, prior to creating this Power Book, I wouldn’t have been prepared for this either!  

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