CSTA Classroom Science

A Teacher’s Journey: NGSS Is NOT an Add On

By Peter A'Hearn

Students looking at a beaker containing 55.85g of iron-

“That is one atom of iron.”

Huh… Umm...Sinking feeling… I hope nobody who knows anything about science walks into my room right now.

My students were looking at a mole of iron (602,200,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms more or less) and concluding that they were probably looking at one atom of iron. And this was after two weeks of learning about the periodic table and structure of the atom. My formal observation lesson that year had been about how to figure out the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom based on the periodic table. My principal gave me all “3s” and told me it was one of the best lessons he had observed that year. In the post-conference I asked about something that was starting to bother me about all of my teaching, “Why won’t they remember any of it in a month? Why doesn’t it stick?” And now, a few weeks later my students were giving me clear evidence that they didn’t have the slightest idea what an atom was.

What was wrong? I was giving clear (to me) lectures, following up with carefully selected readings, giving my students lots of practice problems, and following the logical order of topics in the textbook. My labs were very well planned with procedures thought out step by step to make sure students got the “right” result. I was teaching the way I had been taught, and everyone told me I was a good teacher. Maybe the students were lazy, not paying attention, or unmotivated. Maybe science was something that only some students were capable of learning.

I started to make changes in my teaching. If I did an activity with discussion before the reading, the reading seemed to make more sense. My lectures got shorter and shorter until they mostly disappeared. They just didn’t seem to lead to much learning. I gave more open ended questions on tests and was often disappointed with how little my students could explain. I didn’t have a plan or a strong idea of what I was trying to do, I was just doing what seemed to work better.

When I first attended a K-12 Alliance institute (a statewide science professional development organization), it was confusing. People were discussing and working hard on things like inquiry, 5E lesson planning, conceptual coherence, using student work to guide instruction. It slowly dawned on me that there was a community of practice and a research base that already knew a great deal about what I had been struggling with. They knew that you can’t put ideas into people’s heads. People only learn when they struggle with ideas and build their own understanding. Prior knowledge is huge. Facts only make sense if organized in a conceptual framework. People need opportunities to reflect on their learning.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Carl Wieman took a similar journey in his teaching. His discussion of how his frustrations teaching physics at Stanford led to his research on teaching and learning can be found in the following article:


You might have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned NGSS in this NGSS blog. So what is the connection?

I often hear responses to NGSS along the lines of “We already do that.” Another response when the subject of NGSS expectations like engineering and modeling come up is. “We just don’t have the time for that.” These two responses are related in that they assume that most current science teaching is fundamentally sound and that NGSS must therefore be about small adjustments, calling things by different names, and some add ons.

But NGSS is NOT an add on. NGSS is NOT asking us to do everything we do now and then add NGSS on top of that. It is based on a strong body of research that shows that ways we have been teaching science don’t lead to strong understandings of science for most learners. NGSS is asking us to ask serious questions about what we teach and how. In Dr. Weiman’s article he notes that teachers might need a strong stomach to look deeply at learning. NGSS demands strong stomachs.

We know (from the research) that conceptual change is difficult and takes time. Teachers are not just going to read NGSS and change their practice overnight. They will be skeptical and demand evidence.

But I think that science teachers are better prepared than most for reflecting on and changing ideas about their discipline. After all, the history of science is all about overcoming deeply held conceptions: Earth can’t possibly move, mountains obviously last forever, there is a little person inside a sperm, living things are clearly made of something different than ordinary matter. The history of science is a history of letting go of what seemed like the most sure things.



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