NGSS March Madness Edition – a Sports Analogy
By Peter A'Hearn
Imagine this scenario:
You sign your daughter up to be on an elementary age basketball team. After several weeks, you ask your kid how they like playing basketball. Your kid says they never play basketball, they run drills. You ask the coach when they will play basketball and the coach says, “They aren’t good enough to play basketball yet. They really don’t have the skills down, they can’t dribble well, shoot well, pass well, and can barely run any plays.” Then you ask when they will be ready to play basketball and the coach answers, “Oh probably in 10 or 12 years they will have learned enough to play the game.”
My guess is that you would immediately take your kid out of that team and put her on a team where she got to play. The play wouldn’t be great, the games would be at times painful to watch, but the kids would get the play the game. You can insert any after-school activity into this scenario – art lessons, music, chess club, any sport. We all understand that you have to play the game to learn the game, even if it’s not done with expertise.
Sometimes in school we forget this. In many traditional science courses there was a brief introduction to the “scientific method” at the beginning of the year, where students did an experiment that was likely not related to the content the kids were going to learn. Maybe they did an occasional lab where they had to follow a series of step by step procedures carefully to get the “right” answer. Mostly, for the rest of the year students learned content and skills without getting to “do science.” This is much like being on a basketball team that never plays basketball.
The NGSS asks us to have students doing science constantly. Every one of the performance expectations specifies which science or engineering practice students should be engaged in. Some of the resistance to NGSS from inside the classroom and outside is based on the idea that students won’t have enough content knowledge to “do science” well. This is from the Fordham Foundation’s unfavorable review of the NGSS:
The purpose of K–12 science standards, therefore, is not primarily to encourage mastery of “practices” or to encourage “inquiry-based learning.” Rather, the purpose is to build knowledge first so that students will have the storehouse of information and understanding that they need to engage in the scientific reasoning and higher level thinking that we want for all students.
This is from a recent Twitter exchange on #NGSSchat:
“what’s the point of chem if it can’t be used to solve real world problems?”
“LOL! You can’t solve ANY problems without a fundamental base!”
To me this is exactly the same thinking as the imaginary coach who doesn't think the kids can play basketball until their skills are proficient. Students do need skills and they need knowledge. They need to practice and they need to run drills. But they also need to play, so they will care about the hard work, so they will see how the parts of the game fit together, and so they have fun.
So in the spirit of NGSS, let the students play. Let them question, model, design and re-design, experiment, argue, and explain. It will be frustrating. They will forget everything they have been taught. They will do everything the wrong way. Things might get broken. But they will also do brilliant and unexpected things. You will find yourself cheering. It will be as meaningful and joyful as kids playing ball.