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Helping Teachers Understand and Use New Science Standards

With the adoption of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by nearly 20 states, teachers are being asked to rethink the science content they teach and how they teach it. What can curriculum materials, which are used in nearly every classroom, do to help teachers meet the challenges posed by NGSS?

One answer comes from a team of scientists and education researchers at Project 2061, who have demonstrated that it is possible to design curriculum materials specifically to help teachers understand NGSS and support them in making its vision of three-dimensional learning a reality in their classrooms. Findings from the team’s study were published in a special January 2017 issue of the Journal of Science Teacher Education (JSTE) that focuses on the role of curriculum materials as tools for teacher learning. 

The study draws on examples from Toward High School Biology (THSB), an innovative middle school curriculum unit developed by Project 2061 and its partners at BSCS. In a prior study, the Project 2061 team showed that students using the THSB unit had a better understanding of chemistry concepts central to biology than students using a traditional curriculum.

In the current study, the authors describe how they designed THSB’s student and teacher materials to increase teachers’ knowledge of science ideas and practices and of strategies for teaching them.  The authors also report on how they used teachers’ analyses of their students’ written explanations of phenomena to measure what teachers actually understood about the science ideas their students were learning; the misconceptions their students held; and their students’ ability to use evidence, science ideas, and models in their explanations.

In an introduction to the special JSTE issue, editors Joseph Krajcik and Ibrahim Delen call attention to  the current challenges posed by NGSS, which calls for a shift from classrooms where ideas are merely presented to students to those where “students grapple with data and ideas and use those ideas to explain phenomena and design solutions to problems.”  Helping teachers make this dramatic shift requires curriculum materials that are not just aligned to the new standards but also draw on the best available research about teaching and learning.   

“Our study is one of the first to provide evidence-based guidance on the design of curriculum materials that integrate disciplinary core ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts—the three dimensions of NGSS,” said study director Jo Ellen Roseman. She noted that the study may also be the first to actually operationalize what teachers need to know about NGSS in an authentic way. “By analyzing how teachers evaluated their students’ work on an NGSS-aligned task, we were able to get a good sense of what teachers knew about key aspects of NGSS, knowledge we believe is necessary for successful NGSS implementation.”    

Development of the THSB unit that was used in Project 2061’s study was funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education. The unit will be published in mid-September by NSTA Press.  IES has also funded Project 2061 to build on their middle school work by developing a unit to help high school biology students understand important ideas about matter and energy in the context of living systems. The new unit will align with NGSS and include many of the same features for supporting teachers that are used in THSB.