What does effective teacher guidance look like in science instructional materials designed for today’s science standards?

In my first year as a teacher, I relied heavily on an inquiry-based textbook as I enthusiastically dove into writing units and lessons for my high school biology course. As I mapped out my plan, I modified the textbook’s unit structure by swapping activities for ones I liked better or skipping ones that weren’t convenient.

close up of magnifying glass and writing in book Despite my best intentions and efforts, my modifications sometimes derailed the plan for the unit, or worse — left my students confused or bored. As I dug more deeply into the Teacher’s Edition, I came to understand the program’s instructional model, gained strategies for more student-centered instruction, and learned to look for evidence that students were learning science ideas defined by my state’s 90s-era standards. The teacher materials supported my transition from a novice to a more experienced teacher, enabling me to spend less time writing or searching for replacement activities.

Science materials that effectively support teacher learning are more important than ever before. Although many teachers around the country have decades of experience helping students learn new science ideas through engaging methods, the instructional shifts of the NGSS and A Framework for K–12 Science Education have had an effect of “renovicing” even the most experienced educators. The innovations of today’s science standards demand a shift in both student- and teacher-facing materials. Instructional materials designed for today’s science standards are slowly coming to market, but there is much room for improvement.*

So, what does teacher support look like in NGSS-designed curriculum? One important feature is clear guidance about the material’s three-dimensional learning goals. The grade-band specific elements for each dimension of the standards have redefined both what and how science is taught and assessed. Effective materials should take the guesswork out of “unpacking the standards” for teachers, building knowledge about each of the three dimensions while providing clarity on how each activity will prepare students to meet each claimed three-dimensional learning goal, the connection between the goals and the standards themselves, and how evidence of three-dimensional learning will be generated (through formative and summative assessment opportunities) and interpreted (through detailed scoring guidance). (For more about three-dimensional learning goals, check out Section 1 of the Critical Features of Instructional Materials Design for Today’s Science Standards.)

While the concept of student-centered v. teacher-centered learning isn’t new, phenomena-driven instructional models and the three-dimensional activities likely are unfamiliar to most teachers. Well-designed materials include guidance that will help educators to successfully facilitate these activities, including how to identify evidence of three-dimensional student learning, make connections between students’ lives and the content, and foster a classroom community that empowers students and motivates learning.

Today’s science instructional units can feel expansive, with students working toward a set of three-dimensional learning goals for weeks or even months. With such a long learning journey, it’s easy for students or the teacher to get lost or lose motivation along the way, even when the materials are designed with a coherent sequence. Effective materials, however, can provide teacher guidance to understand and enact a coherent design through:

  • background information for teachers about the specific phenomena/problems,
  • guidance to help students make connections between activities, and
  • strategies such as facilitation prompts for connecting actual student questions to planned learning, and honoring questions that will be unanswered by planned learning.

High-quality instructional materials are as important for teacher learning as they are for student learning. Educative materials create a positive feedback loop — as educators learn more, instruction becomes more effective. This has the potential to improve student learning and the experience for both students and teachers. While conversations about curricular design for today’s science standards are often centered on student-facing features of instructional materials, effective teacher-support features are critical, especially if the goal is widespread use across educators with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Bringing ALL students meaningful instruction designed to meet the vision of the Framework and the NGSS means ensuring today’s instructional materials consider the learning needs of both students and teachers.

What teacher guidance in three-dimensional, phenomena-driven instructional materials have you found are most important for supporting effective teaching? How do you think teacher support in materials can be improved?

*According to EdReports 2021 Science Data Snapshot, only 7% of middle school science teachers are regularly using NGSS-designed instructional materials. Thirty-nine percent of teachers use pre-NGSS materials regularly. Source: EdReports

In 2015, science education leaders from across the nation convened to build consensus around the criteria that can evaluate the extent to which science instructional materials are designed for the NGSS. These guidelines include criteria in four areas aligned to NGSS innovations along with criteria for evaluating both student and teacher materials. You can learn more about this work here.

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