How NGSS falls into “Stage-based Development” Trap

I’m certainly not an NGSS hater. I actually find much to like about it, even if there are specific things I don’t like. In this post, however, I want to talk about one potential flaw I see in how the NGSS conceptualizes progress in scientific practices.

The trap I think the NGSS seems to fall into is seeing growth of sophistication in practices as based on age, rather than based on depth of knowledge and experience in a particular domain. This is a common “trap” to fall into–thinking that sophistication in reasoning or skills unfolds with age rather than unfolds with the depth of knowledge and experience someone has about a particular topic. Lot’s of people have written about this–one in particular that I think is great is Metz’s 1995 article called, “Reassessment of developmental constraints on children’s science instruction.” From what I know, a lot of the “stage-based” development stuff has roots in particular (arguably flawed) interpretations of Piaget’s work, and a lot of subsequent work to debunk such interpretations are based on findings that even young children can engage in sophisticated reasoning when its about things they have lots of knowledge and experience about.

Let’s start with the eight NGSS science and engineering practices:

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

On the one hand, the NGSS is very deliberate in saying that children should be expected to engage in all practices in all grade bands. And NGSS is very explicit that what develops over time is the sophistication of practices, not which practices students engage in.  We can see this emphasis in the guidelines they provide about the practices:

Students in grades K-12 should engage in all eight practices over each grade band. All eight practices are accessible at some level to young children; students’ abilities to use the practices grow over time…

Practices grow in complexity and sophistication across the grades. The Framework suggests how students’ capabilities to use each of the practices should progress as they mature and engage in science learning…

So now let’s focus on one practice and how it unfolds in sophistication–asking questions. I want to argue that the particular articulation of sophistication falls into the trap they seem to want to avoid. Now, keep in mind, there’s a lot written down about questioning in the document, and here I just take a particular slice of what NGSS has to say about the development of questioning practices over different grade bands. So here’s a slice:


Ask questions based on observations to find more information


Ask questions about what would happen if a variable is changed


Ask questions to clarify and/or refine a model or an explanation


Ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory

In this slice of the progression, students might be understood to change over the years from asking questions based on observations to asking questions based on models and theories. That is to say, it seems as if, in K-2 students should be expected to ask questions about observations, but they should not be expected to ask questions a kin to, “I wonder what would happen if we changed this?” Grade 3-5 students can ask “What if” questions, but shouldn’t be expected to have questions based on ideas they either have or have heard about how something works.  Middle school students can be expected to ask questions about a model or explanation, but they shouldn’t be expected to ask questions that involve comparing and contrasting different ideas.

Maybe this doesn’t sound crazy to you, but it kind of sounds crazy to me. Why it sounds crazy to me is because I think in almost any inquiry you do with anyone at any age is likely to follow that progression, give or take. Students will likely initially be thinking about something they’ve seen. And their questions will flow from that. As they get to tinker with the phenomena, they are likely to wonder about what might happen differently if different features of the scenario were changed. As they start to develop ideas about the phenomena, new questions stemming from their ideas should arise. Finally, as students think and share about the different ideas they have, new questions should arise based on differences between those ideas. That progression doesn’t take 12 years. A few hours, a few days, a few weeks, depending on circumstances, the content, and the students. But not years.

My contention is that if you give me some college-age kids, our questioning practices won’t start off in the 9-12 band. They will almost necessarily start at the K-2 / 3-5 band, if it’s an area these college students don’t know a lot about. Of course, over time, our questions will progress in sophistication. My other contention is that if you give me some kindergarteners, the same thing will happen. Kindergarteners aren’t stuck asking questions on the low-end. As they get to explore, think, talk, and share, their questions should stem increasingly from the ideas they have. Now what might be true is that it might take different age students differing amounts of time to get from one end of the progression to the other, but I’m even hesitant to commit to that.

Here’s an example. This semester in my inquiry class, we are investigating light and color as usual, beginning with observations of images through pinholes. Our initial questions were things stemming from observations and questions about changing variables.

“Why is the image upside down?” (an observation)

“I wonder what would happen if we used colored paper instead of white paper?”

“Would we see a panoramic view if we poked holes on multiples sides?”

“I wonder if it would still work inside rather than outside?”

“I wonder what would happen if we used a different kind of tape?”

For our first two homework assignments, students have been articulating initial ideas about how it might work. By articulating ideas and sharing ideas, we have new kinds of questions.

“If we poke the hole toward the bottom of the box, will the image now be right side up?” This question is a what if question, but stemming from an idea that it was the location of the hole toward the top of that mattered and the particular angle light had to enter the box.

“Is the image flipping outside of the box or inside the box?” –> This question comes from comparing two different models, one showing an image flipping when light from sun bounces off a flower, another model showing the image flipping as light bounces of the top and bottom walls of the box.

“Does light bounce off objects in all directions or shoot in one straight line?” –> This questions comes from comparing different diagrams that were made, some showing light bouncing one way and one showing light bouncing another way.

It didn’t take us long to progress from one end to other, but that didn’t happen because these students are adults. It happened because (1) students were given something interesting to observe, (2) they were given time, space, and resources to explore and tinker, (3) they were asked to articulate their ideas, and (4) we spent time explicitly sharing ideas in order to compare and contrast our different ideas. That said, were not done–as we cycle through different observations and ideas over weeks, we’ll continue to ask questions all over the progression.

Anyone who has taught even young children knows they are capable of asking what if questions, and capable of hearing others ideas and responding with questions.

One argument someone might make against my issue is this. The NGSS doesn’t say that students shouldn’t engage in all questioning levels all the time, because NGSS does not describe curriculum or pedagogy. It is only saying what students will be expected to do. So, Brian is free to engage his kids in questioning at all levels, but we will only test them on questioning at the low end. I say that’s fine, but then I don’t the logic of why the progress is how it is.

What do you think? Am I crazy? Does this matter or no?

2 thoughts on “How NGSS falls into “Stage-based Development” Trap

Add yours

  1. You are not crazy. I imagine child development creates some boundaries. The kindergarten kids won’t be doing algebraic thinking that comes from a model or theory. But otherwise your thoughts about how much they’ve engaged in exploration being the main determinant of ‘level’ seem right.

    I just read a book that seems connected to this. The Book of Learning and Forgetting, by Frank Smith, is about the ‘classic view’ of learning versus the ‘official theory’. We learn by what we are engaged in, interested in. It is by immersion in these things, and following the lead of those more expert who are around us, that we learn – effortlessly.

    1. Right I don’t think that there are no sensible constraints and progressions that could be laid or that exist. I’m just saying that I think they got this particular one wrong. I’ll have to see if the library has that book. Thanks!

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