Accept or Reject the NGSS? A More Fundamental Question

Recently, Diane Ravitch posted on her blog Jack Hassard’s review of Beyond Science Standards (https://dianeravitch.net/2021/12/06/jack-hassard-teaching-science-with-art-not-standards/). The post prompted exchanges about the standards and reform politics, mostly tangential to my perspectives. I have responded as follows:

To their credit, the NGSS has elevated the status of engineering education—a dramatic improvement in school science. In the 1990s I was an evaluator for a museum exhibit titled “Engineer It”—my eyes were opened. The documents of the NGSS, in print and on-line, are legion. The standards’ immediate precursor (a scholarly researched position paper) is “A Framework for K-12 Education.” Many parts are excellent. The authors recognized that methods of inquiry and ideas about the natural world ride in the same boat, that language is an integral component of learning science (beyond “hands-on’’—what Hassard called “minds-on”), and that expanding the circle of participation in the sciences is a moral imperative.

In the 1990s, the standards movement in the sciences began as with the intent to emulate the first iteration of the math standards. In my view, the mathematics community shared a vision of “what students ought to learn” (with disagreements on how to teach or how to sequence lessons) more so than scientists and science educators. The first science standards finessed disagreement by presenting standards in several distinct, co-equal “content domains.” Three were traditional (life, phys, earth sci.). They were joined by five others: (1) unifying concepts and processes, (2) science as inquiry (3) science in personal and social perspectives, (4) science and technology, (5) history and nature of science (https://www.nap.edu/read/4962/chapter/8).

The document was more of a treaty among competing paradigms than an effective plan for reform. In their zeal to rectify the ensuing chaos, NGSS authors settle on the construct “three-dimensional learning.” Disciplinary core ideas were restricted in number (4 big ones for physical science) and, in order to leverage engagement, bound to “cross-cutting concepts” and “scientific and engineering practices.” Thus streamlined and anchored to good scholarship, NGSS proponents began the task of marketing and glossing over shortcomings (and catch up with the math community’s efforts). I write to “ungloss” them, and it would take a book (or two) to explain my position.

Most importantly, the standards—their content and use–are not the fundamental issue. The ideology of the sciences as unified in “habits of mind” (Dewey phrase) or by a generic set of practices and themes accompanied the birth of science education for the general student in the 1850s (and philosophies of science for centuries). This belief reasserts itself decade by decade. It’s neither wrong nor unreasonable, but it does obscure essential differences among strategies for solving various kinds of problems.

I would not do away with the standards completely. I do think a revision in a decade or so will happen—something on the same scale that produced the “next generation” from the first one. It will be contentious. I would counsel standards that encourage timely, local, and particular studies—glacial soils in Wisconsin, reef ecology in Florida, zooarchaeology in Oregon. At the center, in place of a generic depiction of scientific literacy, I would place subjects chosen on the basis of contributing to solving societal problems. For each subject, I would emphasize, within a restricted context, how its claims have earned trust. I’d like to see 15% of the curriculum, if not more, organized in this fashion.

I hypothesize that the anti-science prevalent in current circumstances results, in part, from the public’s failure to appreciate the intelligent and adaptive response of different sciences to diverse problems. The generic approach, still much too present, encourages the misperceived expectation of conformity to a stereotype of experimental method in pursuit of definitive facts. Evolution, climatology, geology, astronomy, and medical sciences fit this mold rather poorly, opening susceptibility to arguments dismissing their conclusions. And that’s a serious social and political problem of the present.

Published by Charles "Kip" Ault

Professor Emeritus, Science Education, Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Counseling and Education.

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