September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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

Posted: Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

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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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

2 Responses

  1. Most insightful Mr. A’Hearn, as always. Your thoughts gave me Cutis anserina!

  2. Hi Nina- thanks for making me look up Cutis anserina!

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.