January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Where’s the Nature of Science in the NGSS?

Posted: Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

by Larry Flammer

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2013) looks like the best thing that could happen to science education in this country. As long as teachers can be effectively prepared, and students are properly phased in (starting with elementary levels, then into middle schools and high schools), students should be far better prepared for high school and college level work.

However, when you carefully study the NGSS (2013), you will find that one critical topic in science is rarely seen there. Even the Framework (2012) devotes only two pages (78-9) to this topic. And that was because “Many of those who provided comments in an early draft thought that the ‘nature of science’ (NOS) needed to be made an explicit topic or idea. They noted that it would not emerge simply through engaging with practices.” (Framework 2012, p.334). By the way, those two pages in the Framework (2012, pp. 78-79) are rich with specific examples of the NOS. Every teacher should read them carefully.

We all recognize that students (and the general public) hold many misconceptions about the nature of science (NOS): its realm, its limits, how it really does what it does, and why it’s so successful in doing what it does. Those misconceptions color public (and student) understanding of many scientific concepts, not to mention public attitudes about politically sensitive issues that involve science, like climate change and evolution. In addition, “science” is widely misused in our society, leading to many pseudosciences that frequently mislead people. For our future society to function better than it currently does, students should be learning all of those elements of NOS, and recognizing all of those current misconceptions for what they are. They should also be learning the critical and skeptical thinking skills that scientists effectively use.

Current research clearly shows that those important NOS concepts are not learned very well unless they are taught explicitly. Assuming they will be absorbed automatically by doing inquiries and experiments has been shown not to work well. The Nature of Science must be taught as an important content topic in science (if not the most important topic). And it must be reinforced throughout every science course as it applies to the many other content topics being taught.

But the NGSS, perhaps reflecting its afterthought treatment in the Framework, relegates NOS to one of the several appendices (Appendix H). It says there that NOS elements have been added at the ends of selected Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts Foundation Boxes. But when they’re isolated in those places, it’s unlikely that most teachers will even see them, much less teach them explicitly! Most of their focus is going to be on the “Performance Expectations” (in the “Assessable Components” white box atop each Core-Idea page).

Snapshot of NGSS 5-LS2  Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics showing the Nature of Science Connection.  Source: California Department of Education.

Snapshot of NGSS 5-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics showing the Nature of Science Connection.
Source: California Department of Education.

The NGSS Appendix H says, “… students should develop an understanding of the enterprise of science as a whole—the wondering, investigating, questioning, data collecting and analyzing.” Included in this appendix is a 2-page matrix in which specific Learning Outcomes are listed in each of 8 Categories for each of 4 Grade Bands. For middle school, there is a total of 26 NOS Learning Outcomes (LOs). For high school, there are 32 LOs listed.

However, for the four middle school life science Core Idea pages, only 5 of those 26 LOs were posted. And for the four high school life science Core Ideas, only 7 of those 32 LOs were given. Again, these were placed at the bottoms of the Foundation Boxes, near the bottom of each Core Idea page. NOS is not likely to be seen as being very important.

The Framework (2012) did acknowledge the importance of the nature of science, saying, “… there is a strong consensus about characteristics of the scientific enterprise that should be understood by an educated citizen” (NGSS Appendix H, page 1). It also says (page 2) “… learning about the nature of science requires more than engaging in activities and conducting investigations.” A number of studies have shown that NOS must be explicitly taught and frequently reinforced.

So, how can we do that? Have you been to any PD workshops where NOS strategies were emphasized (if discussed at all)? Not likely. Therefore, I offer two suggestions:

SOLUTIONS

#1: Get the recently published book by Douglas Allchin Teaching the Nature of Science (2013). In that book, you will see the benefits of effectively using historical narratives about real science. Real science is often messy, unproductive and frustrating. Let your students relive a few of those very human histories, reflecting, discussing, and even proposing possible solutions, as scientists struggle to understand the natural world. These real stories are very engaging. For more details, see my review of that book at http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/Rev.Allchin.Tch%20NOS.html.

#2: Take a look at Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. This is a little text supplement for students, written at 8th grade level, and made for students in any science class, grades 7-10. It is intended to be used in conjunction with selected interactive, student-centered NOS lessons on the ENSI website at http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/natsc.fs.html. Doing this unit will satisfy all of the NGSS NOS expectations. It even includes interactive lessons (meeting Common Core standards) on scientific argumentation, critical and skeptical thinking, how to distinguish good science from poor science, or pseudoscience, and even some math. The extensive Teaching Guide for Science Surprises is available to teachers (free upon request, using your school email address) from the ENSI webmaster. [Conflict of interest note: the author of this article is also the ENSI webmaster and author of Science Surprises.]

You should obtain and read these resources as soon as possible, so you will have time to properly prepare for your opening unit in the fall. You might even decide to use both of these resources, because they are mutually compatible. In the fall, you can introduce NOS intensively at the beginning of your courses, and relate back to those experiences with each new topic in your course. Make the coming year your very best year—for your students!

Larry Flammer is a CSTA member and the webmaster of the Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

One Response

  1. Great article Larry, I also think the history of science is part of putting a great story together. This is a heads up to look for materials that take a historical perspective and deal with NOS.

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