Constructivist theory and its use in the Next Generation Science Standards

The people involved with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have indicated that they did not plan to “mess” with teaching goals, professional development of teachers, and the ways teachers teach which were used as headings in the 1996 National Science Education  Standards (NSES).  But the National Governors Association has called for improving “training” of teachers — but many professionals find the word “training” of teachers as an example of failure to indicate any teachers and their teaching as “professional.”  The report focuses on career pathways without adequate evidence for achieving the reforms; nor does it suggest the need for collaboration for teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders. Perhaps, more is needed in the New Standards than merely STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) efforts as the heart of the outline for the NGSS for all to use in 2016 and beyond?

When the NSES (1996) was released, it indicated four goals for school science to produce students who: 1) experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world; 2) use of appropriate science processes and principles in making personal decisions; 3) engage in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and technological concern; and 4) increase their economic productivity in their use of the knowledge, understandings, and skills of scientifically literate persons concerning their careers.

The teaching section of the Standards began with major ways science teaching should improve.  The advocated changes were the easiest to assess and to develop (with little debate or objections).  These Standards said there should be less emphasis in teaching of the following: 1) treating all students alike and responding to the group as a whole; 2) rigidly following curriculum; 3) focusing on student acquisition of information; 4) presenting scientific knowledge guided by lectures, texts, and demonstrations; 5) asking for recitation of acquired knowledge; 6) testing students regarding factual information at the end of the unit or chapter; 7) maintaining teacher responsibility and authority; 8) supporting competition; and 9) working alone.

Conversely, the Standards called for more emphasis on the following:

1) understanding and responding to student interests, strengths, experiences, and needs; 2) selecting and adapting curriculum; 3) focusing on student understanding and use of scientific knowledge, ideas, and inquiry processes; 4) guiding students in active and extended scientific inquiries; 5) providing opportunities for discussion and debates among students; 6) continuously assessing student understanding (and involving students in the process); 7) sharing responsibilities for learning with students; 8) supporting a classroom community via cooperation, shared responsibilities, and respect; and 9) working with other teachers to enhance the school science program.

Interestingly, there has been little progress to increase emphasis of these nine conditions.  And unfortunately, the items that the NSES said be emphasized less remain largely unchanged with respect to the changes advocated.  The Governors Association report does not seem to help with the reforms and the actual changes needed in teaching for the reforms to succeed.  They ignore the Wiggins and McTighe’s recommendations for “Backward Design.”  The stages in the Backward Design process are:  identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence, and do both before planning learning experiences and lesson planning.

It has been 50 years since Vygotsky offered the Constructivist Learning Theory.  It essentially encouraged students to construct their own interpretations of actions as they explored the environment they are in and offer their own ideas for explaining the objects and events encountered.  The constructivist practices have been described as: 1) posing problems of emerging relevance to learners; 2) structuring learning around “big ideas” or primary concepts; 3) seeking and valuing varied student points of view; 4) adapting curriculum to address student involvement; and 5) assessing student learning in the context of reform teaching.

Constructivist theory influenced Carl Sagan’s statement that all humans start out as scientists who are curious, seek explanations, collaborate with others concerning questions and ideas about their current and daily lives.  Constructivist practices encourage all to explore the explanations that are offered by others and encourage all to collect evidence for supporting their explanations.  Yet K-12 students of science seldom accomplish better understanding of the universe.  How can we get more practitioners involved in correcting the real problems with school science?  

Robert E. Yager

Professor of Science Education

University of Iowa

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  1. Clayton Edwards
    Posted December 23, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    From my experiences in K-12 education, the problem arrises when teachers are not comfortable making the switch to a more exploratory focus. I teach mathematics, and this reads the same as any article I would write about mathematics reform. There is a need for deep mathematical understanding, justification, and collaboration, but that rarely occurs because the teacher has to be comfortable letting go of control. I must say that I had no professional development in how to do this, I just recognized a changed that needed to be made and was proactive enough to make it happen. That doesn’t mean there weren’t bumps in the road, but ultimately my release of control paid off in a big way.

    Here are a few examples from my blog:

    I am also a 1:1 advocate in Iowa and the same problem has occurred…high expectations + no professional development = worksheets on the computer.

    It’s hard to break teachers of bad teaching habits. This is actually one of the main reasons I decided to make the switch to higher education. This type of exploratory classroom setup has to be focused on early in a teacher’s career or else it may never change from what a preservice teacher experienced growing up in a school. That is what I am trying to do with my preservice teachers.

  2. Crystal DeMoura
    Posted January 12, 2016 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    As a middle school science teacher, I love constructivist learning in my science classroom, but here’s the reason it is so difficult to fully develop in my students:
    1.STATE MANDATED TESTING and test prep;
    2. GLE’s (grade level expectations) that are a mile wide and an inch deep;
    3. very little content teaching in the K – 5 grade levels due to emphasis on reading and math.

    Please address the practical ways a public school teacher today can practice the constructivist method of teaching science without focusing only on the ideal. A little constructivism goes a long way!

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