Friday, June 28, 2013

Next Gen Science Standards, a Need Unfilled

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Steven Pruitt speak at Iowa's kick off of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this spring. Now, those of you who know me, or have read any of my earlier posts, should know that I am both the theorist (the talker) and the engineer (the doer). I seek out innovative approaches to teaching by lurching blogs and twitter like a squirrel in a bush hunting nuts. But like the squirrel, I am finicky. I won't eat anything. I also don't like to be force fed. Right now I am trying to decide if these standards, were tossed before me by Cinderella, or laced in poison.

Enough with the rodent analogies.

I am by no means an expert in these standards, but from my cursory study of them, along with my visit with Dr. Pruitt, I have come up with some opinions. 

1. Dr. Pruitt surprisingly makes a lot of sense! He stood before us for eight hours on a cold Iowa spring day giving more than 200 educators an overview of the history and purpose of the standards. He spoke of the need for commonality, the research background underlying then standards, and the intricate politics (or lack of) that went into the decisions made in their development. All in all, he made very good arguments, had research and reality to back up his claims, and was not afraid to tell us the shortcomings involved with their development. I left there trusting that the guy knew what he was talking about.

2. Dr. Pruitt made a lot of sense to 200 educators. I can tell you that, even with my BS glasses on, I came out of that day sipping the Kool Aide. If his goal was to get Iowa's educators excited about the standards, mission accomplished... if Iowa only had 200 educators. My biggest worry on the long drive back to Bettendorf, was how I was going to spread my enthusiasm for what was coming down the pipe. When I got home, I quickly realized that this was going to take some time.

3. Science is not Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Earth/Space science. This was the brightest epiphany for me since that day. It was not Dr. Pruitt, but a particle physicist I know from Coe College that happened to be at the kick off that drew me to this realization. I had worked with Dr. Ugur Ukgun for several years, where he has led me though the intricacies of quantum theory and experimentation. That day, however, he wore a teacher hat. He had been engrossed in laboratory work at the University of Iowa for over a decade while getting his doctorate. Now he was looking for the brightest minds for his own labs. It hit me that this is the guy I am preparing my students for! I needed to pay attention. He said two things that strung a chord with me. He talked about scientific research as being non-denominational. He didn't consider himself a particle physicist, or even a physicist. He was a scientist. In his work, he needed very high level chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, and three other scientific disciplines I had never heard of. Science was not a set of classes, but a way of thinking about nature that is cross-discipline at its very nature.

4. Math is a language, science is a method. The other point that Dr. Ukgun made was that if a student was weak in science, he could work with them. If a student was not proficient in the language of math, he couldn't even talk to the student. Math is the language of science. He believed that if high schools focused more on math (and with that computer programming) they could pick up the science concepts later. This was rather humbling to me as I have devoted many hours to teaching kids science, but his point had some validity.

5. Performance expectations are not the same as standards. They don't just tell us what students should learn, they dictate what students should be able to do. They have the odd feel of Hogwart's potion making class. I am working on my contempt glare ala Professor Snape when a student's potion blows up in their face. I am joking of course, but there is an element of performance assessment that is inherent in them. My problem with performance assessment is that I am not ever sure how to ride the line between pass/fail and giving students too many points for "trying". I guess I will have to look into this. When I figure something out, look for a post:)

6. Lastly is the "Need Unfulilled" aspect of this post. Dr. Pruitt made it exceptionally clear that these performance expectations are not curriculum. They are not intended to be "how to teach", just end results. This is where the teacher comes in. I applaud his committee for giving us reign here to play to our strengths and devise what we feel effectively matches our strengths and individual student's learning styles. However, the amount of work needed to make this change is daunting.

Thus I call to you all again. I am going to be fighting through this for the next few years. So are many of you. Join me in the conversation about how this these standards are interpreted into daily work. I am "phoning a friend" so to say so that we can talk this over, hash it out, and do it the right way. I believe this has to come from teachers, not politicians. We need to take the initiative, something we didn't do with No Child Left Behind. The biggest problem with that legislature is that politicians thought it up and ruined it. Lets have this come from us. We have the guidelines, we just devise the game.