This is the second post in a series on how to break down the Life Science section of NGSS to create a unit. You can read Part 1 here.
These 4(MS) or 5 (HS) core questions [there seems to be some difference whether you are looking in the print guide or the online version perhaps someone can clarify?? For our purposes here we will be using the 4 core questions found in Volume 1 The Standards on pgs 103-104.] are the guiding questions we should be using in our planning. It can’t just be in our planning, because our students perform best when they know what the starting line is and where the finish line is going to be. The questions not only guide our planning, but when used effectively they become questions our students need to know the answers to. In future posts I will discuss how to use the questions throughout the unit to help the class stay on track toward their goal, however that is not the goal for today’s post. The purpose of today’s post is to look at the questions themselves.
There is of course a progressive unfolding of the Life Science Standards so it makes sense to have slightly different questions as we move up the ladder. This is another secret strength of the NGSS which I don’t believe gets played up enough. NGSS is a way for our students to build on their knowledge not for us to rebuild each year. Since the core practices are the same from K-12, our students over time will come to our classes with a better understanding of how science works, what real science looks like, and therefore have a better conceptual frameworks to hang new information on. Take a look at the questions for MS and HS and you will see what I mean.
As students advance through school the questions become more abstract and general. This doesn’t limit our teaching to the “new” standards, but rather gives us greater flexibility to meet our students where they are and design lessons and units to allow them to answer the questions.
A Danger Lurking
When any new standards are introduced the rumbling sounds of book presses start up, and books are suddenly “NGSS” aligned almost overnight. It might only be a new sticker showing up on the book and no significant changes are made either to the planning of units or organization of the book. The appearance given is the publisher has got it all figured out so don’t worry about it. Because of this tendency, we need to have a better understanding of the questions themselves so we can evaluate materials more effectively. So what exactly are these core questions?
The core questions are just that core questions, but they are not a curriculum. I believe this is an area where teachers who are expected to teach science according to NGSS without adequate training are almost doomed right from the get go. These questions can’t be looked at as the “stuff” we talk about in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters while hoping to squeeze in the last little bit in May. The NGSS is not a national curriculum. It is the guide however to what, when, and how we should be teaching. So if these questions are guides, but not curriculum how should we view them? I believe the answer is in how we create our units. The core questions are not silos to be kept separate. They are interconnected like an ecosystem. If one question is discussed without regards to the others we are at best missing part of the picture , and at worst we are hiding part of the picture from our students. Our students need to know there are 4 big questions we will be discussing throughout the year, and the questions all impact each other. Perhaps one way you can do this in your classroom is to have up posters or signs that list out the major questions for your teaching area. The 4 core questions help us battle the appearance that science is a disjointed series of facts as opposed to a flowing narrative where intersections between “topics” happen all the time.
You might be thinking “OK OK I think I understand the vision of progressive unfolding of information, wisdom in keeping our information organized, and having 4 core questions, but I need to plan my next unit.” That is what I hope to tackle in the next post. How do we take a topic like Genetics and in light of the core questions start to create a NGSS unit?