What exactly ARE the Next Generation Science Standards?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers express their confusion about the Next Generation Science Standards as they are written. I’ve heard complaints that they are too “broad” and “there’s no content,” while others know there’s something there but they just aren’t sure what it is.
The thing is (and this should be old news if you’ve been tuned in at iExploreScience for awhile), the NGSS aren’t all about content. The NGSS balances content equally with skills (the Science and Engineering Practices) and an overall “scientific worldview” (the Crosscutting Concepts).
So the standards themselves are written not as expressions of content but rather as Performance Expectations. Statements about what students must be able to do by the end of the grade or grade band.
What The Standards ARE:
The Performance Expectations tie together the skills (what students are doing) with the content and the big concepts. They really outline what your assessment should illustrate, and don’t say quite as much about what your daily activities might encompass.
So when it comes down to it, only your assessment will fully address the Performance Expectation. All other activities simply work toward the standard — helping students develop the relevant Science and Engineering Practices, discover the Disciplinary Core Ideas, and utilize the Crosscutting Concepts. A single activity may address only one or two of those relevant parts (and incorporate others — like using a different practice to explore a Disciplinary Core Idea or considering the content through a different Crosscutting Concept lens).
Along those lines, the standards are expressed as statements about what students should do by the end of the grade or grade band. It is entirely possible to address one part of a standard in one unit and come back to the second part of the standard in another unit. Along those lines, if you are teaching at the middle or high school level, your standards are broken across several grade levels. No one should be trying to address ALL middle school or high school standards in ONE year. They were designed to be broken into (at minimum) three year-long courses.
So again, it is entirely possible to address part of a standard in one course and return to the standard in another course. As long as the standard is fully met by the end of the grade band, the requirements have been met. (That said, it can get super confusing to do this if your courses aren’t laid out well! I wouldn’t necessarily recommend splitting up standards across courses/grade levels unless clear communication and teamwork exists between science teachers in the school. But if you CAN pull it off and it works for your curricular structure, go for it!)
So to summarize: the standards are expressions of what students should do by the end of the grade or grade band.
What The Standards Are NOT:
The standards are NOT what you are teaching day to day. They don’t outline the examples you should use, the facts and figures students should know, or the activities you must engage your students in. The NGSS gives you the freedom to choose the content that supports students’ ability to carry out the Performance Expectation.
This means that if you are teaching about changes in ecosystems, you might focus your instruction by choosing a phenomenon like the invasion of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes or ocean acidification as the result of global warming and climate change. Students will still learn the “basics” like food chains and food webs, energy pyramids, and how small changes can have big impacts — but they will do so under very different contexts. The assessment, in turn, will likewise focus on the phenomena addressed during the unit (or something very similar) — rather than just the “basics.” That’s truly the only way for students to do what the Performance Expectation asks.
So to summarize: the standards are NOT curriculum. They don’t tell you what facts, figures, and examples to utilize.