A Perspective on Science Education Priorities

The bulk of the NGSS is a series of Standards, each a page or two in length, with “Performance Expectations” (PEs) at the top of the first page, followed “Foundation Boxes” and “Connection Boxes” supporting the PEs. It’s tempting to jump into the discussion of NGSS by starting there. It’s also tempting to start with the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), especially for those who specialize in a particular scientific discipline. But readers shouldn’t do either of those things. Appendix K of NGSS notes, “The goal is not to teach the PEs, but rather to prepare students to be able to perform them by the end of the grade band course sequence.” It’s important to understand the basic three-dimensional structure of the NGSS before looking at the PEs or DCIs. We will give them both their due, but we won’t start with either of them.

If you have a degree in a particular science, and this is the science that makes up the bulk of your teaching load, it’s natural to go straight for your area of expertise in the NGSS, to see how that’s addressed. But don’t do that, or, if you already have, try to imagine that you haven’t. Before considering the concepts and practices essential to being literate in your discipline, consider what you think everyone needs to know about science disciplines outside your area of specialization, and consider the ideas that are broadly applicable across all the sciences. That is, think about the fundamentals of science.

Imagine having magical powers that allowed you to make every American understand six or eight profound scientific ideas - ideas that, if everyone understood them, would help people make the world a better place because they would make better decisions. Imagine again that this power could also be used to give everyone a small set of well-developed scientific skills. What should these ideas and skills be? Ponder what these ideas and skills are before reading further, perhaps going so far as to put them down on paper. Ask your colleagues, and your former students the same question. What are the most important ideas and skills for everyone to understand or be able to do related to science?

The profound scientific ideas you thought of are likely to be something like NGSS’s Crosscutting Concepts, and the scientific skills are likely to be something like the Scientific and Engineering Practices (Table A.1). In reviewing the NGSS, teachers at the secondary and college levels who specialize in a particular subject are often naturally drawn first to the Disciplinary Core Ideas for their discipline, and when they find a favorite topic that is not addressed to what they consider an appropriate depth, they are upset that NGSS is not providing the content necessary to prepare their students for the future. But, decades of educational practice teaching science courses with thousand-page textbooks and scores of key ideas has not yielded a scientifically literate populace. It is essential to focus on smaller sets of truly big ideas (see also the Big Ideas chapter) and work across grade-levels to build understandings over time. This may mean, however, that your favorite topics are no longer explicitly listed in the learning goals.

Table A.1 in the next section contains abbreviated versions of the Concepts, Practices, and Ideas. You can find longer descriptions within the NGSS, and we’ll look at one as an illustrative example. Consider the full description of Crosscutting Concept #3:

Scale, proportion, and quantity. In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.

The Crosscutting Concepts are described in some detail in Appendix G of NGSS, and the Scientific and Engineering Practices are described in Appendix F.

It seems likely that most Americans do not have a good and durable understanding of this concept, yet it has relevance to many aspects of their daily lives. The same could be said of most, if not all, of the remaining concepts on the list.

Such understandings are almost certainly more important than knowing particular facts about geologic history or the nature of disease (two topics not given deep attention in the NGSS). Indeed, it’s only possible to understand geologic history or the nature of disease if you also understand these concepts!

While your favorite topics may not be explicitly mentioned in NGSS, that doesn’t necessarily preclude them from being taught. There’s a tremendous amount of content in these Teacher-Friendly Guides™ that are not mentioned in NGSS, yet we believe that all of the contents of the Guides support teaching that is aligned with the NGSS. Different topics, such as glaciers or mineral resources, can serve as our pedagogical partners in building understandings of the Crosscutting Concepts, Scientific and Engineering Practices, and the Disciplinary Core Ideas that make up the NGSS. In other words, we can and should teach these topics, but understanding the particular topic isn’t the primary goal. The primary goal is to use the teaching of these topics as a means to build an understanding of those bigger ideas.

It isn’t clear if K - 12 science curricula designed to bring the NGSS’s vision to fruition will be more or less rigorous than today’s common K - 12 curricula, but rigor shouldn’t be the goal of education. Education should develop citizens who can reason critically and use evidence to inform their actions. This isn’t to say that schooling shouldn’t be challenging, but rather that its challenges should be in the service of meeting other goals. Building deep and interconnected understandings of the three dimensions of NGSS will not be a simple task, but it has the potential to better prepare for students for citizenships, college, and careers.