CSTA Classroom Science

Taking “Risks” with NGSS: A Growth Model for the Classroom

By Rachel Poland, Patricia Evans, and Jill Grace

As we entered the classroom to face a room full of 7th graders at Challenger Middle School in San Diego Unified School District, it was hard to tell who was more nervous, us or the students. Our journey had started the week before as we had gathered to plan our lesson study as a part of the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The lesson study is made up of a “planning day” where a team of teachers plans a learning sequence and targets for a teaching day where they can use a 5-E lesson plan to teach (Bybee, 2014). Most of our lesson study experience thus far had been designed to engage or explore a topic. We knew that with this time we wanted to work towards honoring the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by focusing on student conceptual understanding and seeing how we could shift our instruction to be three-dimensional (3D) using the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCC) to help students reach conceptual understanding of the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI). This required that students be near the end of a unit of study and in the explain phase of their lesson sequence, so the decision was made to conduct our lesson study with the students in Patricia Evans 7th grade classroom.

Leading up to the Lesson Study
At the beginning of the lesson sequence students were presented with the phenomenon of living in Biosphere II and eventually asked the guiding question, “Is it safe to sleep with plants at night?” After eliciting student ideas, students were presented data of daily carbon dioxide levels recorded in Biosphere II (McDougal Littell, 2007.) Student ideas were again elicited, and following the discussion, students conducted the standard elodea photosynthesis lab as well as read and took notes on photosynthesis and cellular respiration (McDougal Littell, 2007). Students then conducted independent team investigations on photosynthesis or cellular respiration, where each respective team decided what variables to change. The student investigations were purposely left open-ended (Salter, I, Smith, R, and Nielson, K., 2008). Our lesson study was timed to take place on the day students were interpreting the results of their data.

Planning the “Teaching Day” Portion of the Lesson Study 
We carefully considered the 3D nature of the NGSS. We had already created a conceptual flow (DiRanna, K., et. Al., 2008) and identified relevant DCI’s that supported our unit, but we needed to decide on the SEP’s and CCC’s that would be part of our lesson. We decided that the practice of Developing and Using Models best supported where students were in their conceptual understanding. We first had to wrap our minds around what the “practice” of modeling is in science. NGSS Appendix F identifies, “In science, models are used to represent a system (or parts of a system) under study, to aid in the development of questions and explanations, to generate data that can be used to make predictions, and to communicate ideas to others” (NGSS Lead States, 2013). This seemed appropriate for where students were in the lesson sequence as they would be ready to share their developing understanding. We then decided on the CCC of Cause and Effect as we felt this would be an effective lens to guide student thinking.

We identified the key components of the SEP of Developing and Using Models and the CCC of Cause and Effect (see table 1 below). We decided that students should be able to create a visual model of the experiment that they had created to work through their thinking and explain their data. Most of the investigations the students conducted were of a system with inputs and outputs, a perfect opportunity to apply both the SEP and CCC. (As an aside, we could have easily incorporated other SEP’s and CCC’s, but for our planning purposes, we decided to focus on one of each.) Students had some previous experience with modeling a few times prior to the lesson, but this was the first time that they had to model their own student-designed system that their data supported.

Table 1. Components of the SEP and CCC relevant to this lesson sequence

Table 1. Components of the SEP and CCC relevant to this lesson sequence[/caption] 

The Teaching Day
We presented our challenge to the students:

Work as team to create a model that explains the results of the experiment you designed, and be sure to include your data as evidence in the model. 

We set them up with a checklist (Table 2) for creating their model, and then we circulated the room as they worked. We set the expectation that everyone in the group was to participate in completing the model, and they were each to use a different color on the model for accountability.

Table 2. Checklist for Creating a Model

Table 2. Checklist for Creating a Model[/caption] 

After 25 minutes of work time we had the students visit and review two other models from different groups. Students were to provide structured feedback (Table 3) to the other groups. This was a purposeful instructional decision in the spirit of the SEP Developing and Using Models; we wanted the students to see the thinking of several other groups and get feedback in order to reflect on their own model and make revisions as their thinking changed.

Table 3. Peer Feedback structure

Table 3. Peer Feedback structure[/caption] 

Student peer feedback[/caption] 

The Lesson Debrief
By listening and watching students create their visual models, it became evident that some students’ had preconceptions not scientifically aligned. Looking at one group in particular, it became clear that students did not understand that the bubbles created by the plant in their experiment were oxygen. They also struggled to depict the process that was happening within the plant cells.

The students were hesitant to record their thinking; they realized (and we did as well) that their understanding of photosynthesis was very fragile. This was a very powerful metacognitive moment for the students. In a rare moment for middle schoolers – they knew what they didn’t know. We witnessed students challenging their own ideas and that of their peers as they grappled with their understanding, students (without prompting) pulling out their notebooks to check their notes, and students realizing that peer feedback revealed gaps in their own understanding.

Students using their notebook when they realized they needed help with their understanding.[/caption] 

We received great insight into student understanding because their thinking was apparent in their modeling, and we took time to talk with student groups and ask carefully crafted questions to push their thinking. In one exchange with a student group, the students were asked probing questions about the components of their model and what they thought was happening (CCC: Cause and Effect). The teacher purposely did not tell students if their content knowledge was right or wrong (as you’ll see in the video below). It was important to have them document their understanding. The practice of modeling as a performance task can give us great insight into how solid or fragile student understanding is, BUT only if students write down what they think. We have to take great care to train our students to record their thoughts and not be fearful of being “wrong”.

Video showing teacher carefully questing students to probe thinking. 
Want to know more about why the teacher didn’t tell the students they were wrong? Check out the SciEd Side Bar: Let Them Figure It Out.


Patricia used the results of this lesson to inform her next instructional move. To strengthen student understanding of photosynthesis, she included additional activities and readings that gave students more time to grapple with their thinking and more aligned to scientifically accepted ideas.

Our team realized that the CCC and SEP were powerful vehicles to challenge student thinking and deepen conceptual understanding. The CCC lens of Cause and Effect allowed for effective questions by the teacher to probe student thinking. In particular, the SEP Developing and Using Models revealed students that were struggling to represent a process and the relevant inputs and outputs of a system. By asking student teams to collaboratively model, they were naturally forced to externalize their “internal conversation” out loud to their team, fostering their metacognitive growth.

When students were asked the question: “How did working in a group to create a model clarify your thinking about your experiment”, eighty percent of students responded that working collaboratively helped them learn from each other while five percent of students said it helped them appreciate teamwork. Five percent of students felt that both of these objectives were met. Student thinking was also challenged by peer review.

When asked: “How did reviewing other groups models help you clarify your understanding about your model”, thirty-five percent responded that it helped their understanding, twenty-five percent stated that it helped them realize what errors they made, and twenty-five percent responded that it both helped their understanding and allowed them to correct their mistakes. Fifteen percent of the answers did not address the question.

Another big learning for the team was how to know if students “got it” by looking at their work. The next video shows our team debriefing and deciding how to make the evaluation of whether or not student understanding of the DCI as well as competency in the SEP were on target.

Video showing the teaching team evaluating student work.

There is no “failure” in NGSS - for teachers or students. For our students, the end of the lesson is not “THE END”, if they are not there yet - they are just not there YET. A constructivist view of learning sees student metacognitive processes falling on a continuum between novice and expert (Hogan, K. & Fisherkeller, J., 1996). As students gain more information, their understanding changes, and their thinking evolves. Modeling is the externalizing of those internal thought processes. The use and construction of models can also be described in terms of novice and expert (Quillin K., & Thomas, S., 2015), see Table 4, below.

Table 4: Differences between novices and experts in how they draw and use models (Quillin K., & Thomas, S., 2015).


We can’t judge our success as teachers based on what a student can answer “correctly” at the end of a single day. When we realize what the students know, it is an opportunity to allow us to plan for the next instructional move that will help advance our students’ conceptual understanding.

We wish to express gratitude to our students, who allowed a gang of teachers to probe their thinking and were willing to show their work, to our colleagues Teddy Meckstroth and Rich Baker who helped us in this process, and Christy Compton Hall, Project Director for the San Diego Unified School District California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for helping us debrief.

Bybee, R.W. (2014). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Personal reflections and contemporary implications. Science and Children, 51 (8), 10-13.

DiRanna, K., Osmundson, E., Topps, J., Barakos, L., Gearhart, M., Cerwin, K., Carnahan, D., Strang, C. (2008). Assessment-centered teaching: A reflective practice. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks.

Hogan, K., & Fisherkeller, J. (1996). Representing students’ thinking about nutrient cycling in ecosystems: Bidimensional coding of a complex topic. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33(9), 941-970.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. (2013).

Quillin K., & Thomas, S (2015). Drawing-to-learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology. CBE Life Science Education (14)1: es2.

Trefil, J. (2007). McDougal Littell science. Sacramento, CA: McDougal Littell.

Salter, I, Smith, R, and Nielson, K. (2008). Injecting Inquiry Into Photosynthesis Investigations. Science Scope, 32 (1), 34-39.

Rachel Poland is a middle school teacher at Innovation Middle School, SDUSD, a teacher leader for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a NOYCE Master Fellow at San Diego State University.

Patricia Evans is a middle school teacher at Challenger Middle School, SDUSD. A former Fellow with the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education, and a teacher leader for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative.

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance at WestEd and President-Elect for CSTA

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