How can you differentiate NGSS activities to reach all learners?
The transition to the NGSS is hard. It’s hard for teachers, and it can be hard for students. There are some ways you can ease the transition, especially for students who already struggle (for whatever reason) with academic demands. The NGSS were designed for ALL students, and ALL students can meet the standards. Some just need more support getting there than others.
1. Provide guiding questions during exploration activities.
The NGSS is all about students “figuring it out.” Unfortunately, “puzzling it out” is HARD. For students who have been spoon-fed content for years (whether through lectures, textbooks, videos, and so on), the task of having to use observations and reasoning to make sense of things and DISCOVER content ideas will probably be overwhelming. Many won’t even know where to start.
That’s why I provide my students with “guiding questions” or “analysis questions” for every exploration. These questions walk students through making observations, connecting those observations, and making meaning from what they have experienced. I’ll get more into this use of questioning in next week’s post, so be sure to check that out.
2. Use “hedging language” and other risk-mitigation techniques.
As a part of this questioning – whether in the analysis questions during an exploration activity or in a follow-up discussion or lecture – I encourage you to use “hedging language” and other risk-mitigation techniques.
What is hedging language? Hedging language will use phrases like “might be,” “may be,” “could be,” “what do you THINK,” etc. The implied meaning here is that the answer does not have to be correct right now. We are, essentially, making some guesses. Throwing out some ideas. Talking about things. No one is 100% committed to an understanding just yet… we are working through the learning.
Another risk-mitigation technique could be asking, “What did you hear?” instead of “What did you say?” during a Think-Pair-Share or other discussion task.
Lastly, you can give students the opportunity to “pass” when asked a question in class. I like to do this with “come back to me” cards. Students have these cards in their folders, and they can use them during class discussions. When they hand me the card and ask me to “come back to them,” I then have a tangible reminder to actually do that. Perhaps it is one or two student responses later, but I make sure to come back to them — asking them to answer the initial question, add on to a students response, provide an alternative idea, whatever they would like to share that is relevant at that time. This can help students participate during discussions while still giving them a (brief!) “out” when they need just a few minutes to get their thoughts together and prepare their ideas.
3. Provide support stations and self-checks.
I found the use of support stations to be SO HELPFUL in reducing frustration and encouraging participation. So many of my students simply wouldn’t work because their fear of being wrong (aka failure) was bigger than the threat of a failing grade. Since I don’t really care whether they are right or wrong during the explore phase (obviously I want to move them in the right direction, but at first, they might not have all the ideas down pat!), I often provided “support stations” where they could self-check their work. There were always limitations and procedures that regulated these stations — what materials they could take there, how many students, how they got there, what they could do with the material they found, and so on. — but the comfort of knowing there was SOMEWHERE they could get help when they got stuck… it definitely improved engagement from even my most stubborn students.
I’ll be sharing more about support stations in a future blog post, so stay tuned for that!
4. Break down tasks.
This one is quick and easy — break down your tasks. Instead of giving students an entire exploration to make sense of, or an entire text to analyze, or an entire experiment to design — break it down. Give students a part. Get them comfortable with one skill, allow them to complete one task, and then provide the next step.
5. Emphasize student input.
One great way to begin a unit is to elicit students ideas to develop initial conceptual models. This can be done through simple questioning — “What do you know about molecules in a gas? How do they move? What affects their movement?” Or it can be done in response to a phenomenon, “Have you ever noticed the smell of fries from the cafeteria in one of your classrooms? How does that happen?” And perhaps students draw a picture to illustrate their understanding of what is occurring.
However – and this is the important part – asking students to draw from prior knowledge is not enough in and of itself. Teachers have to validate and utilize the knowledge students offer! Building from student examples – as opposed to providing teacher-created ones – is one way you can do this. You are both validating their contribution and expanding their understanding. You’re really emphasizing THEIR input to the lesson – giving them a sense of responsibility and ownership of the material they are learning.
Where can you learn more about designing activities that support student exploration and discovery?
Support student discovery is a VITAL part of implementing the NGSS. If you aren’t doing it, you simply aren’t using the standards as they were intended. For that reason, we devote a LOT of time in our Science Teacher Tribe Course + Community professional development program to developing instructional sequences that carry students from exploration to learning. If you’re looking for more support as you implement the NGSS, let us walk you through creating those cohesive units that tie your standards together, assessments that evaluate students on all three dimensions, and carefully crafted instruction that fosters student discovery of the content. End the course with a completely self-designed NGSS-aligned unit while earning a certificate of completion from iExploreScience!
If you’re not ready to enroll in our full professional development program, check out the free mini-course – Intro To The NGSS – to get a handle on the basics. Discover what the NGSS REALLY looks like in the classroom – from changes to your content and instruction all the way down to your assessments.
Science Teacher Tribe: Convenient and Comprehensive NGSS Professional Development
If you are anything like me, transitioning to the NGSS can be totally overwhelming. Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!
Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!
Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery. Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding. It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.
Learn more at the Science Teacher Tribe Course and Community.