Return to Learn – Determining what’s “essential” in Science

As you start to look ahead to next year, you have likely been considering how the end of this 2019-2020 school year is going to impact your 2020-2021 students.  We know that the Next Generation Science Standards spiral and build on previous learning.  So, what is a teacher to do when that previous learning wasn’t able to occur due to Covid-19?

Let’s start with a few things we can’t do:

  • We can’t just “teach what was missed last year” at the start of next year and then pick up as normal.
  • We can’t ask students to “make up” those missed standards through independent study.
  • We can’t just pretend the students didn’t miss vital content and proceed as normal.
  • We can’t plan to use out of grade level materials, tasks and assignments. 

So, what CAN we do? We can work to discover what essential learning was missed and scaffold that into our units for next year – allowing for a “backfill” of information as the need develops during the year.   While this might feel overwhelming; we’ve been here before.  When the new science standards first came out, you had students working on the new standards without having had the necessary background information because the previous year had been under the “old” standards.  In order to move forward during the transition to the new standards, you would have had to backfill information – this is really quite similar.

In order to allow the time needed for that “backfilling,”  we also need to be prepared to remove any non-essential work in our science program for the year.  As you work to determine what might be non-essential for next year, remind yourself that we are not looking to select standards to cover and standards to cut.  In science, all standards are essential – what we are looking at, then, is what are the essential learnings that are necessary.

An analogy for this process might help.  Pretend you have a whole weekend to deep clean your house.  You get to dust, vacuum, clean the bathrooms, wash the sheets, wash the windows, and get all the laundry done and put away.  You might even clean out a closet or two or shampoo carpets as you deep clean throughout the weekend.  Now, imagine that your spouse calls to let you know that their boss is going to be stopping by for a visit in 3 hours – and your house is a mess.  You will probably do some “essential” cleaning – getting the most vital areas cleaned while letting other areas “slide” because they aren’t essential.  This is what we will need to do for next year – what are areas that aren’t essential that we can “let slide” in this situation?  Perhaps it’s your unit on “the scientific method” or your unit on “lab safety.”  Those might be units you (and the kids) enjoyed, but are really ones that could be taught within another unit. You can teach lab safety at the start of labs for other units; it’s not essential that it stands alone.   It might be a project or lab that you and the students enjoy, but it isn’t “essential” to building student understanding of your standards because you might have other experiences that also work towards that same standard.

We know the process can feel daunting, so we have created an Essential Learning Tracker tool to help guide you through the process of determining what gaps might exist in student science understanding as well as considering what non-essential activities you might have.  You are encouraged to make a copy of the Essential Learning Tracker tool so that you will be able to edit.

Step one will have you considering your scope and sequence – this is where you have identified your bundles of standards into your units and identified the timeframe in which you typically teach those units.  Ideally, your scope and sequence will also include additional information on the skills and content the students will be exposed to as well as learning targets and assessments.  But, if you do not have that additional data, it can be done at a later time.  For this process, knowing how your standards are bundled into units is a vital aspect.

Step two asks you to consider what standards were either unfinished or missed in your grade level in 2019-2020.  This information will be important for other teachers in your district as your students move into their classrooms or courses. 

Step three will have you looking at the DCI progression matrix to determine the essential learning in the content dimension that students will be lacking due to the missed standards. The focus is on DCI here only because the practices and cross-cutting concepts are repeated with other standards in your grade band, so it is likely the students had exposure to the SEPs and CCCs before the impact of Covid-19.  

Step four will analyze the missed information in grade levels prior to you.  If you are not able to complete this process with colleagues in lower grade levels, you may need to simply ask those colleagues what standards they missed during the Covid-19 closure and then use the DCI progression matrix to determine the missed content.  In this step, you will determine the content gaps that will impact your learning.  As you look at the progression matrix what are the critical prerequisites skills and knowledge that your students need?

Step five asks you to consider your activities and any units that are not aligned to the standards for your grade level.  At this step, you are considering what might be “non-essential” so that you can utilize that information if your pre-assessment determines that students will require additional backfilling due to gaps in understanding because of Covid-19. 

By thinking through what students have missed 2019-2020 and accommodating for that in 2020-2021 by considering the removal of non-essential activities, you will be best prepared to assist students in their “Return to Learn.”  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your AEA science consultant for any help or guidance.  We are here to serve you!


Reach out to the author:

Head shotMandie Sanderman, Consultant for Science and TAG