Crowdsourcing a Biology Curriculum for the NGSS

sharing ideas

A strange hobby…

I’ve been tinkering around with the Next Generation Science Standards a lot lately, mostly out of a sense of curiosity about how they line up with my current practice. 15 years of teaching biology has made me rather opinionated about what’s important for students to learn, so its always a good reality check to see where my practice lands in comparison to the “latest research,” which in this case is the NGSS. This post will discuss what I’ve found so far (at least in HS biology), and what we as science teachers can do to make the NGSS useful to ourselves and our students.

First, a warning of sorts. I teach in Colorado, which doesn’t subscribe to the NGSS, at least not yet. The science gurus at the Colorado Department of Education are seemingly content to stick with their latest revision of their science standards, which is relatively new. They are currently busy snuggling up with Pearson to develop online science tests for next year’s senior class, so I doubt there’s much pressure to switch to the NGSS at this point in time. Unfortunately, this means I’ve got two masters to serve, assuming I pay any attention to the NGSS. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this proposal.

NGSS HS Biology overview

Regardless of my state’s stance on the NGSS, I’ve bought into them just enough to give them a good look-through to see what’s new, what’s the same, and what’s missing compared to what I do at the moment.

-New: The NGSS nicely integrates the Science and Engineering Practices into the teaching and learning of biology. If you’ve worked on upgrading your AP Biology curriculum to the latest version, you’re already pretty familiar with what the NGSS is aiming for in terms of science performances by your students. Also “new”: there are several places where “computer simulations” are mentioned along with the emphasis on modeling (the Colorado standards love computer simulations too). What these simulations are and who will sell them to me remains to be seen.

-Same: Most of the key content area knowledge domains are still there in the NGSS (with a few notable exceptions).

-Missing: Enzymes, cell structure, and membrane transport. I know that the writers of NGSS wanted to pare down the amount of stuff we have to teach in order to allow for deeper experiences, but wow, those are topics that have amazing labs that I think are perfect for the kind of science performances that the Practices are aiming at.

In short, the NGSS are a great step forward, but have some gaps that I think we can fill.

Who are the NGSS for?

Here’s the key question going forward with adopting any new set of standards like the NGSS: Who are the standards for? There’s been a lot of discussion of who wrote the NGSS and for what purpose, which are pretty darn good questions.¬†Unlike the Colorado standards, the NGSS don’t appear to be written with specific test items in mind. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be used to develop tests, but the greater potential of the NGSS lies in how teachers will use them to focus more on the practice of science and less on the lame “testable” stuff. As in all thing education-related, its going to be how the NGSS change actual classroom practice that matters. So how will we make use of the NGSS in a valuable way as science educators? First, we need to know what they recommend that we should be teaching and how we should approach that material.

A crowdsourced NGSS biology curriculum

In the spirit of thumbing my nose at those companies that want to make money by selling us “NGSS-ready” materials, I propose that we crowdsource a freely-available collection of documents that are aligned to the NGSS and link to resources that we can use in our classrooms. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the niceties of curriculum design and generally hate being pigeonholed into someone else’s formatting, so the stuff I’m proposing as a starting point isn’t going to win any awards with your administrators. Adapt it as you see fit. Its just a beginning.

I had recently developed curriculum docs for the Colorado standards so I did some cross-walking to see where the NGSS matched up to my existing unit structure. This was the result (in public GoogleDocs):

Biology units aligned to NGSS and Colorado Standards

These docs include:

    • A checklist for the 8 Science and Engineering Practices for each unit. This could be improved and made more detailed, but for now the simple checklist is a survey of which practices will be demonstrated (often its all 8, but not always).
    • A list of NGSS and Colorado standards for each unit.
    • Essential Questions and Big Ideas for each unit, primarily based on the NAP Frameworks for disciplinary core ideas, but also drawing on my teaching experiences.
    • Activities for each unit, based on what I do now with students, which could certainly be expanded and improved upon.
    • A Correlation Matrix that shows roughly in which units the different standards are encountered, both for NGSS and Colorado standards.
    • A guide for adapting the NGSS practices and topic areas for standards-based learning in biology.

Next steps

Right now the whole folder of goodies is shared publicly so you can at least view what’s there. Feel free to copy anything into your Drive and adapt it as needed. It’d be more fun, of course, if you are willing to share activities and help edit the documents to make them more useful “NGSS-ready” tools for teachers. If you want to help edit the docs, leave a comment here or drop me a note on Twitter and I’ll set your google account as an editor. Or, if you prefer, you can send me links to good activities and labs and I’ll add them to the appropriate units. Thanks in advance for joining me in the strange hobby of curriculum writing!

 

Image credit: CoolTownStudios

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  1. Dan Vanden Heuvel’s avatar

    I have been following your blog for a while and have always wondered how your approach looks on a day-to-day level. I found these documents fascinating. I am particularly struck by how “traditional” the unit overviews look: lots of vocab words (including many that would be specifically excluded in the NGSS), a mix of labs and research tasks, 3-ish weeks per unit. I suppose that the assessment piece is what really makes your approach work; even though there is a lot of content and vocab, the content only represents a small portion of the overall “grade,” rather than the bulk of the grade that is standard in traditional classrooms. My school is attempting to adopt the IB-Middle Years Program, and the assessment philosophy of the IB-MYP is similar to yours in many ways (It is based on 4 “objectives” including experimental design, data analysis, knowledge and understanding, and reflecting on the impacts of science). I guess I’m wondering how you find time for all of the content and vocab and so forth, plus the time for the skill development and the extensive writing/reflection that your process requires. In our case, it seems like a significant trade-off: we do IB-type projects and labs but need to cut a LOT of the traditional content (even more than NGSS, though I support NGSS’s effort to scale back, such as excluding “steps of mitosis” for assessment purposes and so forth). Student-designed labs with a writeup and feedback is a weeklong process in my experience, and teaching students to successfully “analyze data” takes a lot of time and practice, separate from the content. Thanks for posting these documents. They are very helpful despite the questions they raise in my mind. Your efforts to spread the word about what you do are appreciated.

    Reply

    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

      Dan,

      Thanks for keeping up with my ramblings and chiming in. This is a great comment that gets at the heart of the matter: how do we “cover” it all and teach (and assess!) the important skills at the same time? In an ideal situation, students learn the content and vocabulary through the activities and labs rather than through disconnected vocabulary exercises. That’s the goal I aim for, and honestly I hit about 80% of the concepts that way. The other 20% of the concepts and vocabulary are not explicitly “taught” because I run out of class time. That doesn’t mean that students don’t learn them, it just means that I didn’t explicitly direct them to that term or concept.

      I know it sounds strange, given that I just published a list of what I think kids should know about biology, but I think there does need to be an element of choice in what students want to learn in a given course, especially at the high school level. Not only that, but there needs to be some flexibility with how they learn it and even more importantly, how they demonstrate what they have learned. Even when I teach AP Biology, I teach it with a serious amount of student input into what they want to work on. We don’t get to discuss every topic in class, so you could argue that the syllabus doesn’t get covered, but those that we do discuss seem to be learned quite well, judging by student scores on the AP exam.

      The curriculum documents published here are just a guide that I hope to use. I would like kids to learn these things about biology. I will try to teach them these things. I won’t always get to them all in the course of a school year, given all the interruptions and nonacademic stuff that happens in the daily life of a high school. I might have a group of students that wants to go really in depth into a certain topic and takes class time away from other areas. But then again, I’m not too stressed out about that, as you might be, since I do not have a giant assessment hovering over me, or at least not one that I care to bow down to. I know it will feel very different if there is a looming IB review or state mandated test that requires that every vocabulary word on the list be learned.

      In the end it comes down to external assessments and how much we believe in their measurements and what they mean for our students. In some ways, you have a better read on this because of your connection to the IB program requirements and assessments. I have a good feel for what the College Board wants AP Biology students to know. However, at this point in time I don’t know for sure what NGSS-linked assessments will look like. All I can do at this point is try to use the class time that I have in the most productive way possible. For me that means a focus on skills that students will need to be successful after they leave my class. I will teach them what concepts I can from my list, but in the end, vocabulary and concept acquisition is secondary to the performance of and, more importantly, the enjoyment of science.

      Reply

    2. Logan Mannix’s avatar

      Hey Chris –

      I have also been following you and multiple other science teachers for the last two years pretty religiously. Thanks for all the work you put into this. This is, however, the first time I think I’ve left a comment. I have changed my grading system to a standards based system this year as a part of my grad school action research, and am excited about the possibilities despite having a long way to go here. My current system is still too content based, I haven’t placed enough emphasis on the skills and processes that I feel are the most important. (content coverage as the focus is a difficult habit to break)

      That being said, I really want to make a commitment to be part of the conversation rather than just an observer. I would love to be a part of your science curriculum project here. I teach at Capital High school in Helena, MT. I’m part of a science curriculum group here, but we’ve kind of stalled out at the moment. (our state probably won’t adopt NGSS for at least five years or so at this point)

      I would still like to push my curriculum in that direction though, so doing that with other teachers sounds like a great project. How can I go about that? Thanks again!

      Reply

      1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

        Logan,
        Thanks for the comment and for your willingness to get involved. I think the next step for you or anyone else who wants to add to the project is to send me your gmail address that you would like to use. You can email it to me at cludwig (at) lajunta (dot) k12 (dot) co (dot) us and I’ll set you up with editing privileges on the shared folder. That way you can add links to good resources/activities or comment or edit the docs as you see fit.
        Talk to you soon!
        -Chris

        Reply

      2. Dan VandenHeuvel’s avatar

        At any given time, you must have students working on a variety of different activities and in different places: some just need more time than others to get something, and some don’t use time very productively so they fall behind, and some choose one activity over another or work ahead. I feel like the big decision for me is whether I structure my class so that students work through it at their own pace based on mastery OR whether we all work together which leaves some students behind or holds back students who are faster. Labs are particularly tricky if we are not synchronous, I find. How do you deal with this issue? It seems like you provide a schedule of activities to help students monitor progress, but I would think that many of them quickly fall “off the pace.”

        Reply

        1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

          Dan,
          I haven’t really tried the flipped/mastery model in which you throw a bunch of resources and assessments on a Moodle and let students go forth at their own pace. I have chosen to mostly have students work together at a similar pace, certainly when it comes to labs. A lot of the other assignments, however, tend to be completed at different times depending on the student. Often for one assignment I’ll have students who rush to immediately get it done in an ok fashion, those who will work their butts off creating some really great evidence that they understand it but it will be posted later, and those students who wait until the last minute before the deadline or end of quarter to deal with it. I’d say that 2/3 of students fall into the first two categories, with the final procrastinating 1/3 making life very annoying around the time that quarter and semester grades are do.

          I’m still working on a good solution to get around this issue of getting a lot of late work, which generally doesn’t improve students’ grades because the quality is so low due to being rushed or plagiarized. If you figure out ways to keep everyone on the same pace and still allow for individualized, differentiated lab instruction, let me know!

          Reply

        2. Ed Jones’s avatar

          Hi, Chris. I came here via the BlueHarvest site. I’m trying to do some curricular crowdsourcing myself. My question is about BH and NGSS (or CCSS).

          When I tried to use BH, it wanted me to either type or upload some standards. Since we have something called the Common Core that 40+ states use, and the NGSS, it seemed that I ought at least be able to explore BH via a set of those standards, without having to go and figure out where to download the standards, perhaps convert them, then upload them again. And hopefully, more than just one block of standards, eg all of CCSS, & NGSS.

          Looking around it seemed that BH should definitely have been able to add something like this in the past year? Does this mean it’s sort of hit that wall where it will remain a techy-only tools? Are there now other, more advanced tools that the BH team has chosen to defer to?

          Thanks for any guidance on this!
          -ed

          Reply

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