Julie McCoy, Cruise Director, “Pacific Princess”

Science Teacher as Cruise Director…

And is that so wrong?

With the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) transforming science education for many states, and at least breathing heavily down the necks of all the others, conversations such as the ones seen in #ngsschat and #ngssblogs are sprouting up all over the place. There’s even now a site for compiling and showcasing some of them.

It’s an exciting time, mostly because everyone I know is struggling with how to wrap their heads around the NGSS in their classrooms — it’s a vast document with implicit expectations that science teachers add complexity to their lessons in ways potentially very alien to them.

Much of this struggle is related to two aspects: time, and the concept of “letting go” of the reins as students make their own meaning from class activities. Their relationship makes things even more difficult: time constraints limit the amount teachers can let go; lessons where students learn for themselves is time-consuming.

What is a poor science teacher to do?

Isaac Washington, Bartender, “Pacific Princess”

The issue here, in my opinion, is that we are seeing the NGSS, in all its complexities, as adding to what we do. What do science teachers do? Well, historically, it’s what we do more profusely than any other discipline: we teach content. With the NGSS, it’s all the content (Disciplinary Core Ideas — “DCI’s”) from before, plus Crosscutting Concepts (CCC’s), plus Science and Engineering Practices (SEP’s) — right?

I think not for two general reasons. First, we need to imagine the integration of these three elements to be temporally less than the sum of it’s parts. Like the old activity where you “fill” a container with big rocks, then “fill” it again with pebbles which fit in between the rocks, then “fill” it again with sand which fits in the smallest spaces — the three elements of the NGSS are like the different substrates (up to you to decide which is big rocks and which is sand — I prefer one, mentioned below). I’ve been tinkering with the idea that it’s more like an alloy, whose properties are better in some way than the individual components of the alloy… I don’t know if that works, but I like it.

Second reason — and this is the real heretical one — is that those in science education need to let go of the idea that content is king. It is not. It is simply easy to assess, and so is vaunted by us. Consider that in the above example, were one to weigh the rocks, pebbles and sand, they would find the same weight for each. (This is a completely unsupported, untested hypothesis, but you get my point.) How many science teachers are willing to accept that if they are to teach properly to the NGSS, that they need to drop content? If test scores mean anything to them, they are probably not willing — in my home state of CT, content questions on the CMT comprise 36 of the 51 possible raw points — about 70%, leaving a precious 30% for the “doing” of science.

This is why if a sea change is to happen with approach to content, it needs to be done holistically, from the Dept. of Ed. on down to us. The DCI’s must truly be seen as 1/3 of the NGSS. The bullet must be bit, and decisions must be made regarding what is essential content and what is simply “nice to have”.

“Doc”, “Pacific Princess”

And it should happen: the “doing” of science/engineering is the gateway into students pursuing a degree or career in science/engineering later. “I became a scientist because of the content I learned in ____th grade,” said no one ever. No one’s ever said that learning content made them a better person either; however, the scientific/engineering process is at least deeply embedded — and perhaps tantamount — to the formation of good citizenship in society. Jacob Brownowski, famous scientist, thinker, and personal hero of mine, wrote a book about just this position. Indeed, there is ample reason to imagine the SEP’s/CCC’s as the “big rocks” in the vessel, and the DCI’s as the sand that fills in the space — what would your class look like if the NGSS were tackled this way?

Even if it doesn’t happen on a systemic scale, one can always downgrade the importance of content themselves, while still teaching it. I did this about 10 years ago and haven’t looked back. I’ve been done teaching the essential content for weeks now. This past summer, I screencasted all the content portion of my curriculum. All 9:20 hours worth. I was amazed at how little there was. You could be too.

So let go of content, let the students strike out on their own, allow time to not constrain you, let the creative and scientific juices flow on their own!

But what does that mean for you?

Well, the going phrase right now is that you would be a “facilitator”. However, I don’t like that phrase. First, it implies to me that I am making things easier — more facile — for the students. As anyone who lets go of their classroom knows, it’s not about that. The students flail around in their own learned helplessness for a good while before realizing that you really mean it, and then they accept that things will just be tougher and deal with it.

“Love Boat” cast

I don’t want to think of myself as a “facilitator”. What, in fact, do I do?

  • supply materials for them to accomplish things;
  • get other materials when they go beyond what I imagined;
  • provide inroads to experiences that teach students things;
  • stay out of students’ ways when I need to;
  • Empower and encourage;
  • Think, anticipate, think, plan, stay a step ahead whenever possible.

There’s three phrases that have been jumping around in my mind lately regarding what I do:

  • Concierge
  • Tour Manager
  • Cruise Director

Take your pick. I like “Cruise Director”. It’s not a perfect analogy, and it’s borderline flippant, but hey, it beats “juggler”, which is seemingly the default likeness when discussing the NGSS. It implies that I scaffold activities and experiences for many different types of learners, who then bop around from one SEP, CCC, or content piece to another. All the while, getting somewhere on the boat. The Cruise Director is doing his job well when he is barely noticed or thought about. He doesn’t make things easier per se, but he makes things more memorable. And in the end, that’s not a bad “standard” to aspire to. ☺

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