March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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 K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is 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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California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. 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.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: 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.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: