January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

NGSS: Storytellers Wanted

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Pete A’Hearn

Great teachers are great storytellers. They can take the dry facts and procedures in the standards or a textbook and weave them into a story that grips a kid’s attention. Stories are important. We know about some of humanity’s oldest ideas – The Illiad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Bible – because they were great stories worth remembering and repeating long before they were written down. In the right hands, science can be a great story too. In episode 7 of Cosmos, (spoiler alert!) Neil DeGrasse-Tyson told a gripping tale about how the quest to find the age of Earth led to the realization that leaded gasoline was poisoning us. Having a compelling mystery to solve is what drives science but for some reason often doesn’t drive science education. It certainly has never been part of the standards.

The NGSS, on the other hand, all but explicitly asks for stories. Read the Case Studies in Appendix D on “All Students, All Standards,” and you will see teachers using stories to motivate instruction.

What caused a railroad tank car to collapse after being steam cleaned and sealed? This is the compelling question (with a video to go with it) that drives a high school chemistry unit for a group of high school students living in poverty as they work to develop a conceptual model to explain what they observed, and then add to it a series of experiments.

Similarly, a racially and ethnically diverse group of middle school students learns about the cycling of energy in ecosystems by considering the effect of oil spills in Nigeria in the second case study. An interesting and challenging variation shows the teacher eliciting student questions from English Language Learners to inspire a second grade geology unit.

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In an often-cited article on NGSS Professional development (page 10), Dr. Brian Reiser identifies the use of coherent storylines to promote instruction as one of the major shifts that NGSS will demand of classroom instruction. Reiser explains that teaching and learning need to be based on answering questions raised by compelling phenomena rather than being about “what’s next in the textbook.”

The obvious question at this point is, “Where can I find these great science stories to use in my classroom?” Coherent storylines will be an important component of the new curriculum to be developed. Does it tell a good story that will hook our students? In the meantime, in the next few years as we move toward NGSS in steps and jumps (and wrong turns), were do find the stories?

There are two great processes for developing storylines that can either work independently or together. Both will be featured in the coming statewide NGSS rollouts. One is the conceptual flow tool developed by K-12 Alliance. It’s in Chapter 3 of Assessment Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice[1]. This tool helps teachers combine their prior knowledge with the standards to create a flow for unit design that incorporates formative assessment.

The other is the PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project as a way to think about teaching and developing a story:

PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project

PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project

Start with some science content that you want to use in class. Place it the first column (DCI stands for Disciplinary Core Idea- science concepts). Now brainstorm, preferably with others who are smarter, more creative, and experienced than you about what phenomena might help to drive students to want to understand that science idea. These ideas go in column 2. I would also add real world problems to be solved to column 2, as that helps make strong connections between science and engineering. Pick the best idea and go to column 3 to come up with a series of driving questions that will help the students to think about and understand the phenomenon (or problem). Column 4 prompts thought about which of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices your students will engage in as they try to understand or problem-solve. Finally, column 5 is for calling out the crosscutting concepts – which of the big ideas of science best help students to engage with the phenomenon. Here is a completed example:

Completed PQP Example

Completed PQP Example

Symbols for the crosscutting concepts at http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

Click here for an editable (Word) version of the PQP tables available for download. (.doc, 1MB)

Now you have the elements of a great story: a problem to solve, some questions to move the story forward, some ways of resolving the problem (practices), and some overarching themes to make the story meaningful (crosscutting concepts).

Happy Storytelling!

[1] DiRanna, K., Osmundson, E., Topps, J., Barakos, L., Gearhart, M., Cerwin, K., Carnahan, D., Strang, C. (2008). Assessment-centered teaching:  A reflective practice.  Corwin Press:  Thousand Oaks

 

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. I found this completely verifying. I am using the same terms as we develop our curriculum- storylines, driving students to understanding phenomena, driving questions. I love it when co-evolution happens!

  2. Storylines? Who would have thunk it? Somewhere in the archives at UCI, in the vaults of the K-12 Alliance, or in Kathy DiRanna’s basement (don’t scratch the parquet floor) are starting points for story lines on a whole range of concepts and big ideas. It will probably take a clever person a bit of time to translate some of that stuff to the NGSS, and some may be totally unusable (they were developed, after all, in the last century), but if no one else has the time to take a stab, I know someone retired in Oregon who would be willing to get the ball rolling. That would be me.

  3. In your most recent post you claim “integration promotes stronger storyline” and provide a link here, yet none of the examples here require the untested “integrated” model being promoted. Focus on changing practices (more storylines, engineering, and inquiry) and leave the content (which is fine as it is) for another day. Changing the practices is work enough!

    Claims without evidence do not help support your case.

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