Core Talk: NSTA 2015 – Models

Now that we’re back ready to process all that we’ve learned while at NSTA 2015, one topic keeps circling our minds: models.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) indicates students should learn about models as well as work with models throughout their K-12 experience.  Teachers, for the most part, recognize the importance of models, realizing they are effective ways to explain complex phenomena, yet there are many misconceptions surrounding the use and best practice of models as related to the NGSS.  Today, we hope to break down some of these misconceptions by defining models and articulate the shifts in thinking tied to using models in your science classroom.

What is a model?

A model, at its most fundamental, is a simplified representation of a system that can explain and help make predictions regarding a phenomena.  This means models can be mental representations as well as external, expressed representations.  Models can be as simple as a 2D drawing, or as complex as a physical reenactment of a system.

In a discussion of what models are, we’ve found it is just as productive to describe what models are not.  As Dr. Stephen Pruitt mentioned in his featured presentation this past weekend at the National Science Teachers Association 2015 Conference, “If you can eat it, it’s probably not a model!”

What Dr. Pruitt meant by that was that the days of creating jello mold representations of cells should be long gone.  Models should never be created for the sake of creating a model.  Rather, they should always be used in relation to helping explain a phenomena.  In that vein, models are also not art projects.  They are not stand-alone representations that are used to help reinforce vocabulary or definitions.  We’ll say it again: models should always be used to help explain and show the relationships with a real-world phenomenon, not simply define a concept.

Shifts in Thinking

Just as the NGSS as a whole requires a change in thinking about science standards and implementation, the use and teaching of models in the style of the NGSS will also require a shift.

The modeling process should be emphasized, rather than the model itself.  Students should be able to develop the model, evaluate the effectiveness of their model in explaining the phenomenon, use the model to help explain relationships and develop further questions, then go back to revise their model after further investigation.  The concept that models are dynamic—they change depending on the variables and parts with the system, in addition to being revised as a result of further observation and investigation—is critical.  Models are not static, isolated diagrams!

Data and evidence should be used consistently to support the development of student models and the claims students make as a result of their analysis.  The social nature of models should also be emphasized.  Discussion, sharing, presenting, and argumentation should all be included in the modeling process.  Not only should students examine how their model works, but it’s important to also ask students to consider the limitations of their model.

Next Steps

Having students construct models to explain phenomena, revise those models, and develop claims regarding these models in respect to the limitations and evidence they see, pushes them to move beyond rote memorization and “jello-mold models” of the past.  The NGSS hopes to move students—and their teachers—past shallow, matter-of-fact content knowledge and into thinking about science as a lens and process through which to view the world.  By incorporating models in your class, you can help your learners advance and articulate their ideas and prepare them to think critically about models of all sorts, both in and out of the science realm.  We’ll continue to report on implementing the NGSS the more we learn, so, until next time…

…stay classy, Standards Enthusiasts!

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