19 June 2012

NGSS Redux

In May, the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (think "Common Core," but for science) were released for public comment. The comment period is now over, and I know many of you posted on your blogs or submitted official feedback about the document. If you're looking for the document, you can download a copy here. There's nothing of use left on the NGSS website.

While there are plenty of comments that should have been made about the content and volume (400 standards? Really?) of the NGSS, the first thing that stuck out for me was the incredibly poor design. Here is a sample page:

What an unholy mess. Content is smashed together...organization makes no sense...and the colors are poor choices. Here is what the page looks like to someone who can't see or interpret the red part of the color spectrum:

Hmmm...not much difference between the middle and right columns in the middle of the page. The red text at the top has been completely de-emphasized. What about those who don't see shades of green?

A little better, but not much. I guess accessibility isn't a priority for the writers of these. Goodness knows building understanding was not.

I've been playing around with the design a bit. Here is what I have so far:

Click to embiggen or download .docx version here.

I can't figure out why the original document repeats the header in the first row of the table. Meanwhile, why put the abbreviation for the strand before the long form name? I've changed up the header to identify the grade level and name first. And, I've only listed it once.

You might not be able to tell from the original document, but the actual standards---what students should know and be able to do---are the component just under the table header. This should be called out, because everything else on the page is just supporting information...stuff that is nice to know, but not need to know. So, I created a separate section for the junk in the trunk: Connections.

K.OTE. c
When you look at the NGSS as it stands now, the pages are mostly taken up with the three columns of colour---and while the information there is interesting, it's really just an explanation of the learning targets. What the authors are (apparently) trying to say is that they've integrated three pieces of the framework (blue = science and engineering practices; yellow = disciplinary core ideas; green = crosscutting concepts) into one standard:  K.OTE c: Use observations and information to identify patterns in how animals get their food.

I took the giant three-column copy-and-paste from the original framework and slimmed it down to the main ideas. I did keep the three color scheme, but employed hues that everyone will be able to differentiate. If the standards are supposed to be an amalgam of the three areas (core ideas, cross-cutting concepts, and science and engineering), then we need a representation that shows this. I'm not sure that my idea for a graphic is the right one...perhaps some sort of "map" would be better; but I do know that the giant blocks of colour in the middle of the page are a stupid idea. I'm hoping one of you will have some better ones to share here.

CCSS lists are on the right. It's worthwhile information to provide, but they're not critical to learning targets themselves. I think these could either go in a supporting document/appendix or be represented differently.

On the bottom of my version, I copied in some language from the original document (connections to other DCIs at this grade level and articulation with others), but there is nothing on the original document which tells us what it means or why it's there. Maybe there will be some explanation in future drafts; but, if this is critical "big picture" information for implementing the standards, it deserves more attention than it's currently getting with the NGSS document.

The next---and final---draft of the standards is scheduled to be released in September. I don't know if we'll see many differences between the May version and the next link in the sausage chain. But I hope the NGSS group will invest in finding someone who can design something usable for everyone.

17 June 2012

Wave Your Wand

Suppose you were magically transported to a rural school district with a total enrollment of ~350 students (K - 12). (If you already work in a district like this, get ready...company is coming.) Your new district has been getting by on whatever allowance the state or feds send their way. There are too few voters and property owners to make a levy worthwhile. You find that a lot of the things you have been using in your former classroom are no longer available. However, the district can choose one thing off the list below. Which one do you think would have the greatest positive impact on student learning? Think beyond testing here to encompass all the forms learning can take, then answer the one question poll at the bottom of this post.

Here is some additional background for the choices you see:
  • Instructional Materials: Some of the smaller districts in our state are using math texts from the 1960's (or have no math curriculum at all) because they can't afford to update. Science labs are woefully outfitted (microscopes are older than math books). Assuming you have computers for students to access, software options are limited. There are schools in this state running Windows Millennium. Are current instructional materials the most critical item for student learning?
  • Technological Hardware: Do you have a projector, document camera, and/or whiteboard in your room? Do students have frequent and regular access to computers/mobile devices? Most classrooms in the state have at least one computer, a document camera, and projector. Is this enough?
  • Common Curriculum Map and Assessments: Most small districts do not have the capacity to develop common planning and assessment tools. Not only do teachers have multiple preps each day (and for multiple age groups), but the small student populations mean that sharing the planning or co-teaching is not possible. If someone handed you a roadmap that you could count on to free up your time for other pieces of instruction, would you want that?
  • Instructional Coach: Your opportunities for professional development in a small district are significantly reduced. Your principal might be the instructional leader for the school, but chances are that your principal is also the superintendent, another teacher, or has a host of other duties. What if you had someone designated to support you in the form of an instructional coach---help with planning, provide additional resources, engage in reflective conversations?
  • Outside PD (conferences, workshops...): Do you think you're going to be able to connect with peers at various conferences and workshops? Where will you find a sub? What about all the travel and registration costs? If conferences and workshops are critical to keeping you current with instructional strategies and other components of student learning, you'll have a sad in a small district.
Many other things can affect student learning: the physical plant (some of our schools are in a significant state of disrepair), quality of administration, community/parent support. I don't want to dismiss the importance of those...or the connection between all of the pieces that play a role in student learning. But this survey is just about you the teacher. What's your pleasure?

Use the poll below to cast your vote:

10 June 2012

That's (In)credible!

Teaching (and learning) should be a process full of reflection. The school year, however, is often unyielding in its insistence that we live in the present---not the past. It makes those moments where I get to slow down with teachers and really cuss and discuss into what is or isn't working in the classroom all the more satisfying. Another round of rangefinding is over for the year. While these conversations are among the most meaningful I have ever had, I also find them a little bittersweet because we can't dig into student work like this on a regular basis.

My personal take-away this year had to do with how we teach students to think about "credible" sources of information...and how we think about it, too.

My hunch is that we scaffold this skill for students in ways that ultimately turn out to be unhelpful. We give them black and white options for what is---in reality---a very gray area. We give students checklists...ask them to give us a yes/no response to any number of indicators about validity and bias...but this approach does nothing to create meaning for students (even if it does help them identify questions to ask). At the end of the day, how many "yeses" are enough? Are some "yeses" more important than others? Or is this really the point?

If I tell you that I am a biologist, does that make me credible...or do you want to see my college transcript? As an expert, can I be unbiased? When I was 8 years old, I saw a show by Harry Blackstone, Jr.---am I a reliable primary source (or did that have an expiration date)? Are primary sources always the best...why do we assume that eyewitnesses always relay the facts of an event? If a website hasn't been updated in several years about a topic that is old news (e.g., the death of Julius Caesar), is that so bad?

We set up safe searches for students...but we don't tell them the reasoning we applied when selecting the sites. In fact, I doubt we ever ask students to question us about that. Are we using school media resources because they were cheap? Because they came with a suite of stuff offered by a textbook vendor? How did we decide what was best?

I am, perhaps, overthinking all of this. But if the standard we want students to reach is a well-developed bullshit detector, then it would seem that we need to help them develop a (mental) flowchart, not hand them a checklist and assume they can come to a conclusion about what it's all supposed to mean.

Do you have a lesson you've used that helps students develop, and then consistently apply, a way to evaluate sources---something that gets at the deep thinking we need kids to do? Would love to see it!