106- 6 Things Elementary Teachers Need to Know About NGSS Science

May 9, 2022

The NGSS completely changed the world of science education. While these changes improve learning, the NGSS can feel completely overwhelming. This is especially true for elementary teachers. In this episode, Erin discusses the major changes and provides easy-to-implement solutions.

Erin created this episode for elementary teachers. But, it’s also a great refresher for anyone who needs a quick refresher on the intent behind the NGSS.

The topic for this episode came from Hannah Schmidt, a listener from San Mateo, California. Here is what she asked:

“Hi! I’m a first-grade teacher in San Mateo, California. I know your focus is on science education in the secondary space, but I’m curious what your advice is for those of us laying the foundation for your future students. If you had to pick a few main teaching shifts or elements of the NGSS for elementary teachers to emphasize more, what would they be?”

6 Things to Know About the NGSS for Elementary

While NGSS are incredibly complex, the intent behind them is simple. Students learn better when they are able to discover content for themselves. Many of the things covered in this episode reflect this idea.

Also, it’s a good idea to see where you are on this list and focus on one piece at a time. Once you feel comfortable with an item on this list, you can move down to the next piece. That way, you won’t feel overwhelmed by these instructional shifts.

#1 The Content Isn’t Everything

Not too long ago, the science curriculum focused heavily on content knowledge. Students were expected to memorize a long list of facts. Unfortunately, this resulted in a lack of a foundational understanding of the nature of science. The NGSS changes that by using a 3-dimensional approach to science

For example, Erin recalls a time when her daughter was in early elementary school and came home with a “Layers of the Earth” diagram. Her daughter was far too young to understand the complexity of this concept. However, she was able to name all of the layers. This example represents the old style of teaching where content knowledge was prioritized over everything else.

The Disciplinary Core Ideas are more developmentally appropriate.

Now, the content represented in the Disciplinary Core Ideas is far more age-appropriate. It is written so that students are able to use a discovery-based approach to the content.

What is a three-dimensional approach?

In addition to gaining content knowledge, there are two other dimensions of the standards. These are the Science and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts. To learn more about three-dimensional learning, take a look at this post.

#2: Start with the Crosscutting Concepts

This one is totally an opinion. But, Erin thinks this is a nice, easy place to start. In reality, you can start adding in SEPs or phenomena. However, this is often difficult for elementary teachers to do. So, Erin suggests starting to add the Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) into your lesson plans.

The Crosscutting Concepts help connect ideas across science disciplines. They are an easy way to help your students see connections between different content areas. And, they are relatively easy to make sense of. Finally, there are many places where the CCCs overlap with the Science and Engineering Practices. So, when you are ready, you can start incorporating those as well.

To get started, Erin suggests grabbing a copy of the NSTA Matrix for the Crosscutting Concepts. Use the components to make graphic organizers, exit tickets, or questions that you ask students during class. Focus on one CCC at a time and add another one once students show a strong understanding of the concept.

If you are interested in joining the waitlist for her upcoming Crosscutting Concept Course, sign up below.

#3: Stop front-loading vocabulary.

In other content areas, it might make sense to front-load vocabulary. However, it isn’t an effective strategy for science education. Why? Nicole does a fantastic job of explaining why in this episode.

Instead, allow students to describe things that they are making sense of in class. Then, provide them with the term that describes what they are seeing. For example, students describe pieces of sand falling off a cliff, wearing away the edge of the cliff. After they’ve described it, you can tell them this is erosion.

This shift helps all students to use vocabulary appropriately. And, it makes their understanding of the terms stick.

#4: Find more time for elementary science in your classroom.

One of the most common questions Erin is asked is how to make time to teach science in the elementary classroom. Most teachers have about an hour per week to teach science. And, we know this isn’t enough time to make the instructional shifts required by the NGSS.

Luckily, all of the NGSS standards are aligned with Common Core State Standards. So, there are countless opportunities to create cross-curricular activities.

But, this doesn’t just mean reading science texts. It’s important that you focus on more than just content in your lessons. For example, science presents a fantastic opportunity to incorporate the measurement and data math standards. These activities have the potential to create a deeper understanding of the materials and provide more time for science content.

Finding Overlap Between the Common Core State Standards and NGSS

If you look at the PDF versions of the standards by grade level, there is a description of how each of the performance expectations lines up with the common core standards. For example, let’s take a look at the third-grade standards. You can see that 3-PS2-1 is written to work with RI.3.1, RI.3.7, and RI.3.8 for ELA. For math, this performance expectation aligns with MP2 and MP5.

#5: The Science and Engineering Practices are done by students.

This one may seem obvious. But, when we discuss the Science and Engineering Practices they are meant to be used by students. For example, if students are using the practice of modeling, students are expected to develop and use a model. This means that you aren’t really providing instructions on how to create the model.

However, teachers often provide strict guidelines for making the model. Or, students use a model from a textbook and make a representation using food or art supplies. While these activities are fun, they aren’t meeting the intent of the standards.

Luckily, the SEPS are also written to be developmentally appropriate. To see what the practices look like at each grade level, check out the NSTA Matrix of the Science and Engineering Practices.

How do students use the practices?

The science and engineering practices are used in three ways. First, they are used to investigate phenomena. For example, students use the practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations to gather data about a phenomenon. Secondly, the practices are used to make meaning. For example, student models help students to describe a phenomenon. This practice helps to clarify their understanding. Finally, practices are used to critique explanations. For example, students use the practice of argumentation to determine which of several claims is correct.

Introduce one practice at a time.

This might technically count as shift 5A. But, we don’t teach the scientific method anymore. Instead, students learn to use each practice separately. To learn about this change, check out this episode.

#6 The performance expectations aren’t (exactly) standards.

This is a bit controversial. However, the intent isn’t that you teach the performance expectations. Instead, these are three-dimensional statements that explain how students are to be assessed on the standards. That difference may seem semantic, so let me explain further.

The performance expectations include a science and engineering practice, a disciplinary core idea, and a crosscutting concept. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to teach the specific SEP with the same DCI and CCC. In fact, these pieces are meant to be interchangeable.

Ideally, if students have a good grasp of the individual components, they should do well on the assessment.

Using the SEPs and CCCs

At the beginning of the year (or whenever you are ready to introduce the SEPS and CCCs) start teaching your students to use the practices and contents listed in the performance expectation. Then, when students are comfortable, start adding another SEP or CCC. After students have had the chance to use the SEP/CCC you can use them in conjunction with others.