“I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten classroom and helped the class work on a one-lesson activity with toys and looking at the motion of toys,” she says. “Each kid got a toy and I asked them to describe its motion. They also drew the toy and how it moved, and we had a conversation about the different ways you can talk about each toy’s motion.”
As an indication of how much students enjoyed this early physics lesson, they didn’t want to stop when the activity was over. “They wanted to keep going, to spend their free time continuing the lesson,” Schwarz says.
SEPs Boost Literacy
With everything required of elementary school teachers, taking on a change like implementing the NGSS SEPs can seem overwhelming, but besides being more fun than worksheets or vocabulary memorization, the approach can yield important benefits. One of these is the way science and engineering practices support literacy. “Research shows this,” Schwarz says. “And I don’t just mean reading, but their ability to talk and express and draw, ways that support written-text literacies.”
As in the one-lesson toy activity above, SEPs provide a framework for students to experiment with absorbing new information and expressing their thoughts about what they’re learning.
The Value of Exploring Together
Schwarz acknowledges that teachers are sometimes apprehensive about science. “They often grow up having had less positive experiences, where science instruction consisted of presentation of facts that needed to be learned. But science is about exploration, which is a natural inclination for children. And elementary teachers are the best ones to do this because they’re more willing to let students explore with them.”
And when the teacher is facilitating exploration, science time is more productive. Compared with the approach that says teaching is about providing answers, the use of SEPs helps teachers prepare students for the role of posing questions and finding answers for themselves. Schwarz says this is more effective than “thinking your job is to tell students the answer, because, honestly, they can just look up the answer if that’s all we want from them.”
She stresses the importance of educators understanding the instructional shift represented in the NGSS standards. “It’s toward helping students make sense of the world. It’s not about just knowing facts. It’s really about this figuring-out process, the ‘doing’ of the figuring out.”
In Helping Students Make Sense of the World: Using Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices which was edited by Schwarz (and her colleagues, Cynthia Passmore and Brian J. Reiser), the editors explain that previous attempts to incorporate this sort of inquiry, which started in the 1990s, haven’t quite delivered on their promise: “In many classrooms, students are primarily studying and recounting factual information and definitions provided by textbooks and teachers and reinforced through hands-on activities that may not be linked to advancing students’ conceptual ideas and practices.”
Instead, the SEPs are designed as a sort of “Inquiry 2.0,” as a way to establish “an ongoing process of questioning, developing, and refining explanatory knowledge about the world. Testing and confirming or disconfirming hypotheses is part of science, but these actions become meaningful by being a part of the broader work of building explanatory models and theories.”
Bringing SEPs into Your Classroom
This work, the “doing” of science, is supported by the eight SEPs. For K-5 students, however, Schwarz recommends teachers start by focusing on four of the practices:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Planning and carrying out investigations
3. Analyzing and interpreting data
4. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
The temptation for some teachers may be to spend a science lesson per week on each practice. However, isolating the practices in this way prevents students from grasping the interconnectivity between them all, that they all work together in the process of making sense of phenomena. (This diagram, developed by the Helping Make Sense of the World authors, illustrates how the SEPs are connected.)
A Three-Lesson Sequence in 30 Minutes per Week
Rather than taking a practice at a time, the better method is to devise a sequence that incorporates all four practices. A three-lesson sequence is a minimum, she says, for starting to investigate a phenomenon (why the moon appears to change shape, for example), brainstorming some questions, doing the work to answer those questions including looking at patterns in the data and how that might be connected with how and why something might be happening) and concluding with a summary – what things do we think we know and what things do we still have questions about.
Schwarz’s co-editor, Brian Reiser, has created what he calls Next Generation Science Storylines, which are free (click here) and designed to help teachers and students use the NGSS, including SEPs. Schwarz says that for teachers doing minimalistic sequences, his story lines are bit in-depth but any teacher would benefit from exploring them. “These are rich, beautiful story lines so even just using a couple subsets would make for a great, very effective sequence.”
Who’s Doing the Work?
Using the NGSS standards represents a distinct departure from the traditional way most of us learned science when we were kids. “Teachers today often don’t have alternative images for envisioning a different approach,” Schwarz says, and this can make the transition challenging. But she offers a useful question for assessing new approaches: “Who’s doing the work?” If the teacher is, then students are only watching and probably not learning very much.
“The work of figuring out is what we want students to be doing,” Schwarz says. “The teacher is important for guiding and helping students navigate the hard things. For example, what’s a productive way to move forward? It’s really hard to tell sometimes, but the teacher can guide students through the process of figuring that out. They might want to pursue a line of investigation for longer because they don’t know a way to approach this other question yet, or they might want to give it a try anyway, and the teacher can offer them ideas for resources to use.”
Building and Revising Knowledge About the World
Schwarz says what the NGSS are ultimately about is helping students make sense of the world. SEPs give teachers and students a method for exploring how and why a phenomenon occurs, which is critical for sense-making. In fact, as the conclusion of her book explains, “without a phenomenon to make sense of, our students cannot meaningfully learn how or why to apply scientific methods. Without the purpose of building and revising knowledge about the world (sense-making), students are simply learning to do school and fill out worksheets.”
About Christina Schwarz: As associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, Schwarz’s research centers on teaching and learning science, specifically enabling students and teachers (PK-16) to understand and engage in scientific practices – particularly model-based scientific inquiry. She also works with beginning teachers to support and enhance their practices such as noticing and responding to scientific sense-making. She has served as investigator for National Science Foundation grants on student sense making, supporting scientific practices in the classroom, and scientific modeling, among others. Schwarz received the MSU College of Education Excellence and Innovation in Teaching Award in 2005, has been an associate editor for the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, and has published articles in journals such as Cognition & Instruction, Science Education, the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, the Journal for Science Teacher Education, and Science & Children.