I recently attended a workshop that taught us how to create units aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and then allowed us plenty of time to actually make those units and get useful and timely feedback from other attendees. Here’s the overall format that was presented to design science units aligned to the NGSS (which, if you’ve done any problem- or project-based learning, will look a little familiar):
- Driving Question (I was excited – totally PBL-related)
- Performance Expectations (that are chosen, or bundled, to help students answer the driving question)
- Instructional Storyline (Essential questions that are coherently connected to each other, with each essential question having its own phenomenon)
- Anchoring Phenomenon (A scientific phenomenon that students can revisit after learning pieces of the storyline and after the end of the unit)
- Summative Assessment (That is a performance-based experience rather than a traditional multiple choice/short answer test)
Now, I’ve created more than a few units during my teaching years. I’ve created driving questions, hunted down interesting phenomena as entry events, and collaboratively developed a lot of performance-based assessments (along with WAY too many traditional tests). But I have to tell you – creating this unit was hard for me. Here’s why:
- Bundling those performance expectations gave me a run for my money. I could find a lot of connections between the performance expectations I was working with (high school life science and earth science). And I mean a LOT. That’s what makes the NGSS so, so, SO much better than our old Illinois Learning Standards for Science…but it’s what also makes them frustrating and slightly confusing for anyone diving into them for the first time. While there are already existing bundles made (and I was tempted just to copy some of those bundles), I wanted to try bundling on my own so I could get a feel for doing this and a feel for the standards themselves. (Also, I don’t really care for how the NGSS bundles are put together…but that’s a subject for another post.)
- I was having a hard time finding an anchoring phenomenon. I think it’s because I thought it had to be something grandiose and larger-than-life. However, after seeing what everyone else had come up with, I realized I was making this harder than it really was – anchoring phenomenon can be as simple as a picture, a small reading, or a video clip. The key to the anchoring phenomenon is that it has to be something students can “wrap back” to and reflect on to answer the driving question as they move through the instructional storyline. Speaking of the instructional storyline…
- I love the fact that each essential question in the plan comes with it’s own “sub-phenomenon” to continue drawing students in and, potentially, make connections between the phenomena. However, I think teachers new to this way of unit creation need to realize that they may not find a phenomenon for every essential question all the time. That’s the trouble I was running into: I was working so hard trying to find sub-phenomena that fit each essential question when I should have, in the interest of time, just found one or two phenomena that would match up with 2 or 3 essential questions. After all, I would rather have 2-3 quality, engaging phenomena uniting essential questions than several small ones that are just there because some template says I have to have one per essential question.
Even though I had a hard time with a few times, I really like the overall PBL-esque nature of this unit design template. I also love the fact that it stays true to the spirit of the standards, with having phenomena that students are challenged to explain, revising their explanations as they move through the instructional storyline. But I fell head over heels with the idea of using the evidence statements to create proficiency scales; mainly because it fed my deep addiction to standards-based grading.
During the workshop someone asked me this question: If you were teaching again, would you use this template?
The answer is yes. With some modifications, of course, to make it my own.