Teaching STEM with No Textbooks: Why NGSS Makes It So Tempting

 Teaching without a textbook can launch students and educators alike into new realms of learning and thinking.

Teaching without a textbook can launch students and educators alike into new realms of learning and thinking.

Wait for it …

In comedy, as with implementing newly developed learning standards, timing is everything. A punchline is as important to Jerry Seinfeld as high-quality learning materials are to educators. You wouldn’t start a joke without knowing where it ends any more than you would start teaching STEM without having textbooks, pedagogies, assessments, and lessons at hand that align with the learning contemplated in the standards.

Except that, well, this is pretty much exactly what has happened.

When Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) came out about eight years ago, the STEM textbook universe aligned almost not at all with the new NGSS vision for learning and thinking. One especially yawning gap in commercially available materials was in engineering, which had theretofore never been written into K-12 standards of any kind. By including “engineering design,” NGSS created a demand for textbooks and learning materials to address a topic completely new to the existing K-12 environment.

 Next Gen science learning seeks to make connections at many levels among seemingly disparate concepts and topics.

Next Gen science learning seeks to make connections at many levels among seemingly disparate concepts and topics.

Learning in three dimensions

NGSS learning is (in)famous for being “three-dimensional.” Teachers are asked to ground their students in a learning triad with mutually reinforcing elements: science and engineering practices, themes and patterns that cut across disciplines, and core ideas in specific subject matter areas.

As fascinatingly hard as this triad might be to conceptualize, producing textbooks and curricula that incorporate it has posed an even greater challenge. One science curriculum director, long immersed in efforts to implement NGSS, described commercially available resources as, “disappointingly very traditional, across the board.”

An implementation challenge

So what to do? How do teachers and schools implement NGSS standards in the absence of the commercial products that have heretofore served as ballast for learning in established science education fields? Moreover, how do they do so with engineering, an alien in K-12 “science” education suddenly accorded legal status?

Three general approaches have surfaced for implementing NGSS without fully aligned textbooks available:

  • Make do with existing textbooks and live with low levels of alignment between the classroom learning and new forms of assessment. Result: Easy to implement, but educational goals and values are sacrificed.

  • Supplement and extend commercially available materials with teachers’ own efforts to develop curricula more closely aligned with NGSS. Result: Helps establish consistency across buildings, but puts extra burdens on teachers and administrators.

  • Go textbook-free altogether, cobbling available and self-developed materials into a free-standing, NGSS-aligned curriculum. Result: Most control and greatest learning opportunities for educators and students alike, but, whew, the effort and cost.

Door number … ?

Districts have, of course, their own circumstances and challenges that shape what approach to take. But it’s clear what leaders in science education think.

The National Academies of Sciences issued guidance on implementing NGSS that included how to choose curriculum materials.

Schools “should not rush to purchase an entirely new set of curriculum materials since many … are not aligned with [NGSS]…. Leadership teams in science will need to … revise existing units and identify supplemental resources…. be critical consumers of new materials… invest in curriculum materials when high-quality materials become available.”

The National Science Teachers Association website features a “hub” for NGSS implementation. It proffers this foundational assumption:

“Because the standards are still new, it will take some time for policy makers and publishers to develop and endorse instructional materials that align effectively.”

And it follows up on this assertion with substantial commentary on identifying and developing NGSS-aligned materials in the absence of viable textbook options.

In other words, both groups seem to be saying, if you want something done, best to do it yourself. But if you can’t do it yourself, tread cautiously in the textbook market, and don’t believe the hype(!).

 Teaching without a textbook can lead to surprisingly rewarding destinations for educators and students alike.

Teaching without a textbook can lead to surprisingly rewarding destinations for educators and students alike.

Benefits of going textbook-free

This Connecticut math teacher details the efforts he and his colleagues went to in an effort to implement teaching Common Core math without a textbook. It is, perhaps strange to say, a gripping story. Teachers expanded and deepened their understanding of math standards, forged new intellectual bonds among themselves, and sharpened their judgment of how materials did or did not support Common Core goals.

However, it’s easier to teach textbook-free under Common Core than NGSS. The state of New York developed an extensive set of open-resource Common Core learning materials. The collection, EngageNY, has national value because the Common Core standards are the same for every state that uses them. In addition, a non-profit organization, EdReports, reviews an enormous volume of published educational resources for alignment with Common Core reading and math standards.

Backwards and in high heels

Neither kind of resource exists for NGSS materials. The infrastructure for alignment, professional development, and textbooks is aborning, but these are still very early days.

  • Achieve has developed a rubric for assessing materials for NGSS alignment called EQuIP. And the organization conducts its own assessments of materials to identify those that qualify as NGSS-aligned. It’s a hard test to pass: of the over 100 submissions, only 10 have cleared the bar, with only one in engineering.

  • STEM Teaching Tools offers substantive, wide-ranging resources to guide teachers in grappling with the philosophy and application of NGSS principles. Well worth studying.

  • And the state of California has recently approved a set of textbooks for use as NGSS-aligned instructional materials, which other states might well see as an example to follow.

The takeaway: going textbook-free is currently hard to do, requiring effort and creativity within a landscape of scarce resources. But it also promises the best learning outcomes for students, could supercharge teachers’ classroom abilities, and promises new, deeper collaborations among educators.

The special case of engineering

 Our Dream, Invent, Create program can start elementary educators on the road to textbook-free teaching of engineering.

Our Dream, Invent, Create program can start elementary educators on the road to textbook-free teaching of engineering.

Going textbook-free in engineering is almost a necessity. As the newest item in K-12 STEM assessments, it is the least developed curriculum topic. However, the NGSS emphasis on “engineering design” makes the topic more accessible than if, say, fluid dynamics and resiliency of materials were the focus. And there are numerous places for educators to go for ready-to-use resources. Lesson and unit plans in engineering are all available at sites like these below:

For elementary educators, our own Dream, Invent, Create program can help launch kids into engineering education. It features a language arts-friendly 40-page reader, recommended by NSTA, and a 175-page Teacher’s Guide in PDF that lays out 27 NGSS-aligned lessons in 15 major engineering fields.

And, finally

Would textbook-free instruction work for you or any educators you know? What, if any, stories have you heard about it? What sources would you add to our list of engineering resources shown above?

Please be in touch with any experiences of yours. And do share with interested colleagues or friends.

 


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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Photos: Counter launch, courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering; NGSS Dimensions, courtesy of NGSS.