September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

A Focus on Practices in the NGSS: What Does It Mean for Your Teaching?

Posted: Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

by Cynthia Passmore

There is a buzz about the Next Generation Science Standards. Many science teachers I speak to look forward with a mix of anticipation and anxiety to the release of new standards. Change can be hard, but for most of us in the science education community, we see that it is necessary to keep our field moving forward. So, what will the future hold and how will the new vision for science education articulated in the Framework and the NGSS play out in real classrooms? For this article I’d like to put forward some thoughts on one strand of the new standards, the “Practices.” Last month in this venue, Peter A’Hearn explained how the new focus on practices is different from the current California investigation and experimentation strand and why this approach is productive (see also Osborne, 2011). My purpose here is not to re-hash that account, but to put forward some ideas about how the focus on practices could actually look in a science classroom.

The new framework lists eight practices that are central to science. These are:

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)

2. Developing and using models

3. Planning and carrying out investigations

4. Analyzing and interpreting data

5. Using mathematics and computational thinking

6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

7. Engaging in argument from evidence

8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

But how might a teacher go from a list like this to a dynamic set of lessons that teach important science content through these practices. What might it look like for students to actually engage in these practices, seamlessly woven together, while learning the big ideas (core ideas and crosscutting concepts in the Framework) in their science classrooms? I suggest that to conceive of the eight practices as a list of discrete things is not a productive way to get from the framework to a coherent vision that can actually guide instruction. So, I propose that we begin a careful consideration of how the practices are inter-related, how they feed and support one another so that we do not fall into the trap of using them like a checklist where one day kids are using data… check; and the next they are developing arguments…check, and on yet another they are using math in science class…check. Rather, I propose that we consider the web of interconnections between and among the different practices.

To get the conversation started I posit that a productive centerpiece is what is identified second in the list, “developing and using models.” In the remainder of this article, I will describe an organizational structure for how the other seven practices relate both to modeling and to each other. In the next installment, I will illustrate the affordances of that view by describing a classroom science context and how the practices play out in the student experience, and in the third installment I will explain the teacher knowledge that will be important to carry this view to fruition.

Over the past 15 years, our team has been working on a view of science as fundamentally about making sense of the world through the practice of modeling. Thus, as I consider the eight practices laid out in the Framework, I see modeling as a central hub around which the other practices can be organized. First an important clarification: The practice of developing and using models (also known as model-based reasoning or model-based inquiry) is about developing sets of ideas that can be used to explain phenomena in the natural world. In science, models take on a particular form depending on the field of study; sometimes they are represented with diagrams or three-dimensional structures and other times they consist of a list of statements and in still other cases the model is represented as a mathematical expression. The form the model takes is less important for our discussion here than the role it plays. It is the set of underlying ideas that is useful for making sense of natural phenomena that constitutes the core of any model.

Given this view of models, then, we can begin to see how the practices of science center on models and modeling. Asking questions in science (practice #1) begins not with some observation of the world that is completely divorced from our prior experiences and understandings, rather, all that we see and notice about the world is filtered through our existing ideas (models) about how the world operates. It is these models that allow us to find anomalies worthy of our attention and that help guide us in exploring, bounding and defining what it is we want to explore and investigate (practice #3) about the world and how we interpret and analyze the data we collect (practice #4). Ultimately the goal of science is to make sense of the world by developing explanations for the phenomena we see and since models mediate how we think and investigate those phenomena, so, too do they provide a basis for the development of explanations (practice #6). Figuring out how the world works is not straightforward and along the way there may be many different lines of reasoning to consider. Attending to these different ideas and determining the fruitful paths to follow requires a careful consideration of different options which is at the heart of argumentation in science (practice #7). Thus, argumentation can occur when we use models to filter phenomena, to craft investigations, to interpret data, and to develop explanations. And finally, mathematics and other information are important tools in the development of models and the communication process is key to the social nature of science (practices 5 & 8).

By considering how the practices in the new framework can be woven together to make the whole cloth of scientific practice, our field can then move to the next step of figuring out how to engage students in these practices in meaningful ways in the classroom. Further, I hope that by suggesting how they come together around modeling, the effort to incorporate explicit experiences with these practices in science classrooms will seem less daunting. Stay tuned for more information about the NGSS and to this column for more thoughts about the practice strand and how a focus on modeling can bring a sense of order to the list.

Cynthia Passmore is associate professor at the UC Davis School of Education.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

3 Responses

  1. In the early 1990’s we had standards that concentrated on the “Big Ideas”. It was a wonderful time to teach science. Then test intensive, factoid memorization standards were developed. The defense of the factoid piles was that the teachers got to deside which piles were essential, relative to the mandated tests.
    If the heart of the new standards is these “eight practices”, unencumbered by fact piles, we could be turning back to a much more enjoyable time to teach science. We will all be able to lend our own strengths to the process.
    If there is still a fact pile, we will have truly gained nothing.

  2. The way that you’ve laid out the interwoven nature of the 8 practices makes me excited for the future of science. I am a linear learner who enjoys a framework on which to learn, as many students are. Yet I love the idea of thinking outside the box and abandoning the “checklist” mentality of the current standards. This will give the students and I the structure we crave, while allowing the freedom to explore and learning in a meaningful way through this exploration. Using the 8 processes to interweave a true understanding of science will be so much more enjoyable than forcing facts onto students.

  3. Well, from my read of the framework, there is still a “fact pile”, but it is a smaller and better pile in my view. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. The focus on integrating the “facts” with practices is potentially powerful, I think.

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