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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

In Step with the New Science Standards

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The Next Generation Science Standards can transform how teaching and learning unfold in the classroom. Here's what they look like—and how you can get started.

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Whether your state has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards or will soon revise its own science standards, one thing is clear: Change is underway—in what is learned, in how we teach, and in how we assess. This is more of a revolution than just another iteration of the same old stuff. It's a dramatic shift in the expectations that we have for all students.
Let's look at five ways that the new science standards will influence teaching and learning and five recommendations that can help ensure success as you begin your journey.

What to Expect from the New Standards

➀ The standards provide opportunity.

Teachers typically vary in their acceptance of standards, with some teachers seeing them as an obstacle that gets in the way of success and others viewing them as a foundation that guides instruction and learning. I suggest that we look at the new standards in a positive light—as an opportunity to challenge learners through authentic, meaningful learning contexts. We can debate whether there are too many standards or take issue with specific ones, but all in all, the new standards afford an opportunity to make learning relevant, challenging, and meaningful for all students. This shift from lesser to greater meaning is inherent in the basic architecture of the standards, which are referred to as performance expectations.
To succeed with the standards, schools and districts must shift from a predominant focus on lower-order thinking to one that makes higher-order thinking the norm. Many of the former state standards that were awarded high marks from the Fordham Institute's evaluation of science standards (Gross et al., 2005) placed great value on such skills as listing, recalling, and defining; relevance and meaning were secondary to the learning, if they were present at all.
The Next Generation Science Standards require students to engage in doing science by modeling, analyzing, and designing. These actions, by their very nature, encourage relevance, creativity, critical thinking, and meaning. (See fig. 1 on p. 18 for a comparison between the new middle school performance expectations and one state's previous science standards.) This new framework necessitates that we think differently about how teaching and learning transpire.

Figure 1. Comparison of NGSS Performance Expectations and Previous State Science Standards for Middle Grades

In Step with the New Science Standards-table


NGSS Performance Expectation

2005 South Carolina Science Standards

Life ScienceMS-LS1-5. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how environmental and genetic factors influence the growth of organisms.7-2.7. Distinguish between inherited traits and those acquired from environmental factors.
Physical ScienceMS-PS3-5. Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object.6-5.1. Explain how energy can be transformed from one form to another in accordance with the Law of Conservation of Energy.
Earth/Space ScienceMS-ESS2-6. Develop and use a model to describe how unequal heating and rotation of the Earth cause patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation that determine regional climates.6-4.8. Explain how solar energy affects Earth's atmosphere and surface (land and water).

➁ Instruction builds toward mastery of performance expectations.

Former state and national science standards typically were crafted with a one-to-one ratio between the standard and the objective, almost as though learning were a checklist to complete. For instance, a previous 3rd grade standard began, "Illustrate the life cycles of seed plants and various animals…." This standard could have been achieved in one class period through direct instruction, with time given for the students to draw their illustrations. This only served to perpetuate the feeling that the standards were prescriptive, limiting, and just something to "cover."
Not so with the new performance expectations, which provide objectives that often will take days to master. Students will need to explore, study, and investigate before they can provide evidence-based claims or model complex concepts and phenomena observed in the natural and designed world.
For example, in 4th grade, before students can "use evidence to construct an explanation relating the speed of an object to the energy of that object" (4-PS3-1), they must first explore, investigate, and collect data regarding an object moving at different speeds. They might begin by exploring the energy associated with a car rolling down an inclined surface; as the incline increases, so will the distance traveled because the potential energy increases.
Likewise, high school students must explore and investigate meiosis and mutations before they can "make and defend a claim based on evidence that inheritable genetic variations may result from (1) new genetic combinations through meiosis, (2) viable errors occurring during replication, and/or (3) mutations caused by environmental factors" (HS-LS3-2). Students might brainstorm various ways that information can be passed from one generation to the next. (These could include diaries, newspapers, movies, and e-mails, as well as DNA.) Once students begin to understand the basic process of how genetic information is passed from one generation to the next, they might discuss how possible variations occur. As they identify one of the mechanisms—for example, random, viable error in the passing of the code—the teacher might introduce supporting examples, such as how antibiotic-resistant bacteria evolve. Thus, instruction builds toward mastery of the performance expectations instead of conforming to a checklist of material to cover.

➂ Practices are integrated with concepts.

In the National Science Education Standards, the former guiding document for most state science standards, inquiry was separated from the content standards (National Research Council, 1996). Instruction often separated the "doing of science" from the content of science. For example, many teachers taught the scientific method as a unit separate from the concepts under study.
This was problematic on two levels: First, it taught that science is always conducted in a single linear sequence, which is not true; second, contextual, relevant learning experiences were largely absent in this approach.
The Next Generation Science Standards help remedy this with performance expectations that integrate specific practices with core concepts. For example, the high school expectation, "Plan and conduct an investigation to promote evidence that feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis" (HS-LS1-3) unites practices (plan and conduct an investigation) with core concepts (mechanisms that maintain homeostasis).

➃ Strategies are aligned to performance expectations.

Although the new science standards provide the foundation on which teaching and learning will transpire, the curriculum is left up to the state, district, or school. With the change in expectations and the significant increase in rigor and in the need for higher-order thinking skills, it makes sense to rethink which strategies will promote success for all students.
Inquiry-based instruction provides an equitable strategy for achieving mastery. It's been shown to facilitate greater student achievement relative to the learning of both core concepts and scientific practices (Roth, Marshall, Taylor, Wilson, & Hvidsten, 2014). A five-year study that included more than 10,000 students has shown that students of teachers who focus heavily on inquiry-based instruction significantly outperform similar students in classrooms where the teacher uses more traditional forms of instruction (Marshall & Alston, in press). The exciting part is that these findings hold true for male, female, white, Hispanic, and black students at all ability levels.
Inquiry-based instruction has additional strengths. First, it provides opportunities to more easily differentiate instruction. When students are engaged in the design of an investigation or are asked to model their understanding, creativity flourishes. Because learning is not prescriptive, individual students or small groups of students can take more or less challenging approaches in their investigations.
Second, inquiry-based instruction fosters mastery of more advanced, higher-order thinking skills. With that greater emphasis, the need for group interaction becomes paramount to success. As learning becomes more complex, there's a greater need to gather input from multiple perspectives. Moreover, if the questions are challenging enough, students need ideas and assistance from others to complete the task at hand, which could involve carrying out an investigation, analyzing and interpreting data, and communicating findings.
Finally, inquiry-based instruction addresses student (and teacher) apathy. Around 3rd grade, students frequently begin to disengage from learning (Fried, 2001). They often realize that school is a game to master—and that mastering the game is more important than learning. Thus, learning becomes different from school. By seeking answers to real-world problems, inquiry-based instruction provides a strategy to reengage those who previously failed to see purpose and meaning in school.

➄ Assessments drive change.

Undoubtedly, high-stakes tests will drive the change. Just as with the Common Core State Standards, the assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards will lag behind implementation. This is beneficial because it gives us time to assemble appropriate professional development opportunities that seek to transform instructional practice, but it's also limiting because we can only approximate the final metrics.
Nevertheless, the new standards provide assessment boundaries in many of the performance expectations to help guide the depth of learning. For instance, for the high school life science performance expectation, "Use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms" (HS-LS1-4), the assessment boundary states, "Assessment does not include specific gene control mechanisms or rote memorization of the steps of mitosis." In light of that, an assessment might ask students to create a five- to eight-panel cartoon strip, using 30 words or fewer, to progressively show how a zygote differentiates into a complex organism.

Five Recommendations for Success

➀ Move rocks, not boulders.

It's best to start small, seeing intended changes through to fruition before tackling more. The Electronic Quality of Inquiry Protocol (EQUIP) rubric provides one example of an instrument that teachers can use to target intentional change (Marshall, Smart, & Horton, 2010). The rubric provides 19 indicators of practices linked to student achievement that teachers can change in the areas of instruction, curriculum, assessment, and discourse in the classroom. Indicators include such items as teacher and student roles, question complexity, communication patterns, the role of assessment, the degree of student reflection, and integration of content and investigation.
The instrument doesn't seek to measure all forms of quality instruction—only those that are inquiry-based. There are four levels of proficiency: pre-inquiry, developing inquiry, proficient inquiry, and exemplary inquiry. (The Electronic Quality of Inquiry Protocol rubric is available for download at
For instance, the proficient inquiry expectation for the instructional indicator Order of Instruction states that teachers should provide opportunities for students to explore major concepts (such as forces and motion, inheritance of traits, and chemical reactions) before the formal explanation occurs and that students and teachers will be involved in the explanation. To that end, 2nd graders, armed with a magnifying glass, a ruler, and their notebook, might explore the different forms of living matter (plants, insects, birds, and so on) in a field or outdoor classroom and sketch and describe what they found. On returning to class, they could share their findings, conjecture why certain things were or weren't present, and begin to explore what other habitats might look like, given different conditions. In this case, students are exploring biodiversity on their own, without first being told about the various habitats and the kinds of living things found in each one.
Although seemingly small, this change takes time and effort. However, the effect can be enormously beneficial to students. As Malcolm Gladwell (2000) points out in The Tipping Point, small changes can have extraordinary effects—when the change is the right one.

➁ Offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of Brussels sprouts.

Because people tend to avoid change and because change can produce anxiety, it's important to introduce it gradually. Two approaches will help: scaffolding the change and using the sandwich effect.
Scaffolding change allows for growth while enabling students and teachers to remain within their comfort levels. For instance, breaking an assignment or goal into smaller timed tasks enables students to progress without becoming cognitively overloaded. Instead of giving students 50 minutes to plan, carry out, and communicate findings concerning a scientific question, you could scaffold the experience. Give students eight minutes to develop and present their group's procedure, then three minutes to discuss how they'll collect and organize data, and so forth. Note that the emphasis moves away from telling students what to do. Instead, they engage in the work through a series of guiding scaffolds. Students don't get overwhelmed, and if they do, they only have to wait a minute or two to get teacher support.
By sandwiching change between slices of the familiar, teachers can enact incremental changes while dissipating the anxiety typically associated with change. For example, if students have always completed prescriptive lab experiences in which everything was provided for them, begin with small changes to make the inquiry less prescriptive. If students will be collecting data, give the procedure, but don't include the data table. Instead, let groups wrestle with how to organize the data. Then, as a class, work through how to make sense out of what the students observed or collected.
Students frequently struggle at first and ask what they're supposed to do. This provides a great opportunity to ask them to discuss the kinds of data they'll need to collect and how they'll go about organizing the data. The first time students do this, you can walk through the process with the class as a whole, but over time, groups or individuals should be able to organize data without major teacher support. Thus, you've sandwiched the change (collecting and analyzing data) between the familiar (procedures and questions).

➂ Muck around, and then make sense.

In inquiry-based instruction, students need opportunities to explore ideas before the formal explanation occurs. However, this shift in approach takes time, and it should be tackled collaboratively as a school or science department and supported through sustained professional development. We need to acknowledge that most of our preparation as professionals and most of our experiences as students were counter to this new approach. The explain-first paradigm sufficed in a world that sought and valued primarily factual knowledge, but today such knowledge is only a small portion of expected outcomes.
For example, in a life science class in which students are beginning to study the cell, students can view microscope slides or digital images before you've told them the names and functions of the organelles. As they draw what they see, formulate questions, and model things that are going on in the cell, they create need-to-know information. Compare this with the more traditional situation in which the teacher tells the students all the parts and functions of the organelles and leaves them to memorize and identify the parts from pictures or slides.
Likewise, in a unit on weather, you could ask students to explore an essential question, such as, How can you predict tomorrow's weather? This sets them on a quest for learning. In contrast, just telling them what's required in terms of instruments and data doesn't give them the opportunity to muck around with books, resources, and equipment to begin solving the question.
Because this shift in instructional approach takes time to master, teachers and administrative leaders need to carefully prioritize professional development. We already know many essential components of effective professional learning:
  • It needs to be sustained over a significant period of time (1–2 years is the target for major instructional transformations).
  • It needs to provide modeling and time for practice.
  • The administration needs to value it as a priority. This work is not an add-on to everything else; instead, learning is offered in place of something else.
  • Administrative support needs to be present throughout the professional development.
Sometimes an internal person in the district can facilitate this process without assistance; in other cases, uniting with an external consultant can add credibility and provide guidance in key areas. The time and effort that teachers spend in targeted professional development must become a central focal point because they're essential to achieve this shift.

➃ Run the marathon instead of the sprint.

The tendency in our quick-fix society is to seek super-fast solutions—even to problems as complex as learning. But just telling students more facts, having them memorize more information, or assigning more of the same type of problems won't help them excel with the new science standards.
Instead, the goal should be sustained growth over an extended period of time. Teachers should give students data sets to interpret, provide multiple experiences with science content rather than just one, and offer time for students to practice after they have understood the concept—not before. Although our inclination is to make lots of changes all at once, both teachers and students need time to adjust, so it's preferable to scaffold changes, adding one new piece at a time and developing competence before tackling more.

➄ Put the challenges in perspective.

Challenges often accompany change. However, we can address them by being proactive and intentional.
The first challenge is this: Inquiry-based instruction, which aligns so beautifully with the Next Generation Science Standards performance expectations, isn't the easiest way to instruct. But considering the academic success and personal growth that students experience when they engage in inquiry learning, our goal should be effectiveness as opposed to just ease and efficiency.
A second challenge is that classroom management looks different when students are active and engaged (Marshall, 2013). Compliant learners who sit passively in rows will behave differently from active, engaged learners who are exploring and creating. This can be exciting, but it requires forethought in your role as a facilitator of learning.
An excellent way to begin shifting from teacher-as-teller to teacher-as-facilitator entails improving your questioning. Try to move away from fact-based, fill-in-the-blank questioning toward asking more how and why questions. Consider the way you respond to student comments. Instead of simply affirming the accuracy or inaccuracy of a response, move toward a more conversational style that seeks and values input from everyone in the classroom.

It's a Victory for the Team

The Next Generation Science Standards provide a framework to help teachers and students thrive. And because of their natural alignment with inquiry-based instruction, they offer an equitable approach for achieving mastery.
Effective professional development will be essential to help teachers transition from previous approaches to newer and more relevant forms of instruction and curriculum. However, the success that teachers can experience with all groups of students at all ability levels makes this effort toward transformation worthwhile.
Author's Note: The standards quoted in this article are from NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Editor's Note: Coincidentally, two rubrics mentioned in this issue share the same acronym, EQUIP. In Jeff Marshall's article, "In Step with the New Science Standards," the Electronic Quality of Inquiry Protocol (EQUIP) rubric focuses on assessing the level of inquiry learning in the classroom. In Jo Ellen Roseman and Mary Koppal's article, "Aligned—Or Not?" the Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) rubric provides criteria by which to measure the alignment and overall quality of materials with respect to the Next Generation Science Standards.

Fried, R. L. (2001). The passionate teacher: A practical guide. Boston: Beacon.

Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point. New York: Little Brown.

Gross, P., Goodenough, U., Lerner, L., Haack, S., Schwartz, M., & Schwartz, R. (2005). The state of the state science standards. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from

Marshall, J. C. (2013). Succeeding with inquiry in science and math classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD & NSTA.

Marshall, J. C., & Alston, D. M. (in press). Effective, sustained inquiry-based instruction promotes higher science proficiency among all groups: A five-year analysis. Journal of Science Teacher Education.

Marshall, J. C., Smart, J., & Horton, R. M. (2010). The design and validation of EQUIP: An instrument to assess inquiry-based instruction. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8(2), 299–321.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Roth, K., Marshall, J. C., Taylor, J. A., Wilson, C., & Hvidsten, C. (2014, April). Impact of science professional development on student learning: Four studies awaken dialogue. Paper presented at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Pittsburgh, PA.

Jeff Marshall has more than 25 years of education experience as a classroom teacher, leader, professor, author, and education consultant. His work focuses on increasing student achievement, improving instructional effectiveness, measuring and scaffolding teacher transformation, engaging learners in student-centered environments, transforming learning in STEM and STEAM schools, improving formative assessments, and aligning standards with curriculum, assessments, and instruction.

Currently, he serves as associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Education at Clemson University where he also serves as professor of science education and department chair of teaching and learning. Marshall's diverse experiences along with his ongoing work in classrooms allow him to ground research in best practices with a realistic understanding of today's teachers and leaders. He has been recognized by the White House, with the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. He has facilitated more than 120 professional learning sessions at national conferences and has authored five books and more than 60 articles in leading magazines and journals.


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