Deconstructing the NGSS Part 1: From Standards to Objectives


Academic standards.  Whether we like it or not, we are all held accountable for students learning – and mastering – them.  However, one of the biggest issues with standards is that they are pretty much meaningless to most students the way they are written.  After all, they were written by adults for adults.

In order for mastery to be clear to students, they must be unpacked, or to use the term I prefer, deconstructed.  Personally, I am fond of deconstructing standards into “I can” statements so that mastery is positioned from the student’s point of view.  After all, they’re are the ones that have to do the learning to reach mastery, nit us adults that make these standards.  Let’s look at an example from one of the high school life science NGSS standards:

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What is listed above is a performance expectation.  If you’re not familiar with the NGSS standards, the statements called performance expectations (PEs) are the actual standards students are supposed to master (by doing something…hence the expectation that students will perform in some way to demonstrate understanding).  In order for students to learn and show mastery of the performance expectations, there are three dimensions to learning in the NGSS that should be included in the instruction:  the science & engineering practices (SEPs), cross-cutting concepts (CCCs), and disciplinary core ideas (DCIs).  For the purposes of straight-up deconstruction, I always encourage teachers to look at the PEs and the DCIs, taking into account SEPs and CCCs when planning instruction and assessment.

If we were to deconstruct the performance expectation I slapped up there, here’s what NOT to do:

I can use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms.

I cannot emphasize this enough: PLEASE DON’T DO THIS. (That’s why it’s in red-danger!  Stay away!)  You can’t just slap an “I can” in front of a standard and call it good.  It’s a shortcut that shortchanges students because they often can’t wade through the educator-ese in which the standards are written.  Take a close look at that standard; if you aren’t already familiar with the science terms and concepts in it, you really aren’t sure what the heck it wants you to do.  So why would you do that to your students?  Bottom line – students can’t hit a target they can’t see.  We have to really deconstruct this performance expectation to make mastery visible.  The process of deconstruction has 2 steps:

  1. Stating in student-friendly terms what the standard says students should be able to do when they have mastered the standard
  2. Stating in student friendly terms what students will need to know, understand, and be able to do BEFORE they can master the standard (background knowledge and skills) if students haven’t been taught it before or they have but they don’t remember it from a previous course or grade level.

Basically, you’re taking the bigger connected pieces of the standard and breaking them apart for students.

So this performance expectation…

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…becomes a little something like this:

What I can do when I have mastered the standard:

  • I can create an original model to demonstrate how mitosis and differentiation make and maintain multicellular organisms.

What I need to know, understand, and be able to do before I can master the standard:

  • I can explain what happens to chromosomes during mitosis, using analogies to demonstrate my understanding of the process.
  • I can describe what happens during the process of differentiation.
  • I can make a connection between the purpose of mitosis, the process of differentiation, and how multicellular organisms are made.
  • I can make a connection between the purpose of mitosis, the process of differentiation, and how multicellular organisms keep themselves in good working order.

Five objectives were just born from a one-sentence standard.  Five ideas that make it much clearer to students what they have to learn and do in order to master that standard.

Notice I said “clearer,” and not “clear.”  Just because the standard has been deconstructed doesn’t mean the targets will be so crystal clear for students that they will achieve mastery just by reading them alone.  There is still some ambiguity here that needs to be addressed.  For example, what do you mean by “model” in the first I can statement?  A model can take on various forms.  What kind of analogies are going to be acceptable?  What does making a connection between those concepts look like when students master it?

Those types of questions are addressed in the next step, which is creating the assessment from these objectives.  It’s the next thing you have to do before teaching a unit so that you know clearly what the targets look like so you can communicate that to students as well as plan for appropriate instruction to help students reach mastery.  How to create assessments clearly aligned to objectives deconstructed from standards will be the subject of my next post.






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