September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Being an NGSS Teacher: Living with Uncertainty

Posted: Friday, May 5th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

“Teaching with NGSS;” this phrase is becoming colloquial in our profession. The actual meaning of it is probably more amorphous than anyone would care to admit. I am going to explain how I “teach with NGSS” in this article. This diatribe is not meant to be the pathway to follow, just a simple path and an elucidation of how one teacher in California does it.

First off, there is a big philosophical assumption about the NGSS that one ought to have before trying to figure them out or attempt to practice NGSS’s tenets. The philosophical stance is built from the three tenets of How People Learn. This book says that learning occurs metacognitively, through conceptual frameworks, and is based on prior knowledge (Bransford, Brown et al. 1999). Most of us have heard these things a lot during our teaching lives, but one needs to truly embrace them. The other thing about the NGSS, which stands for “Next Generation Science Standards” (which truly are standards for the next generation), is that the clause: “All Standards, All Students” is not just a platitude but the actual, true intention. The standards are designed for all students to take them in school, not just the ones who sign up for specific courses (like the previous standards). 

So, I embrace the above notions in my practice. All students learn (via those three criterion) and that every student needs exposure to all the standards. As a physics teacher, I have been able to see many kids start to make the connections between the curriculum and, essentially, the nature of things. Often that process takes time, and is developed individually throughout the course. Some “get it” right away, some take a few labs, sometimes the whole year, and yet some may not “get it” during their entire duration with me (but I hope subsequently, they will). The common thread of their learning is me, I have to remain consistently driven to assist their learning. Again, it’s their learning. Just because I tell them, doesn’t automatically transcend to their learning; that’s the old banking/deposit mentality. A teacher doesn’t deposit knowledge into their students. The students have to develop their own understanding. That development occurs according to the three tenets of How People Learn.

In my class, I try to make everything as autonomous as possible. The things that are done synchronously are labs/data collection and end of quarter exams. This is made possible through a computer cart and my own embracing of technology use. I spend a lot of time doing demos in class to generate discussion and thought. The demos are designed to supplement the lecture notes and instructional videos I post via our LMS. I have tried to minimize my time talking (whole class) and maximizing how much time the students talk. I have found anecdotally (and research seems to support) that the classroom has to be a place where the students do most of the active work; they need to be talking, questioning, writing, responding, etc. From my experience, I have been able to cover more topics, more deeply because I talk less. I try to go at the speed of the class. I let the questions from demos and labs guide the discussion and their work.

The NGSS are made up of three dimensions, one is called the “SEPs.” These are the practices of scientists and engineers. The students need to use those practices while working through their own coursework and experiences. Another dimension is the CCCs, or Crosscutting Concepts, these are the concepts that transcend a specific science and apply to all sciences; like Patterns and Cause and Effect, etc. (more in the NRC Framework (NGSS Lead States 2013)). I know the standards are new to many teachers, but those teachers might find comfort in reflecting on their practice and realizing that students learn more from those conversations we’ve had rather than from the PowerPoint we gave. It simply came down to my use of class time. I would rather have my precious class time used to help them build understanding than simply depositing facts into their minds.

I was early to embrace the NGSS. When I first heard about the Framework, I read it, and felt a kinship with it. Again, I think it is only truly understood from a certain philosophical stance. I share a belief that Richard Feynman held: “I can live with doubt and uncertainty.” I also am comfortable with having multiple pathways by which students reach the goal.

I’ve discussed my approach to NGSS and my acceptance of certain uncertainties about using the NGSS standards in my pedagogy. Upon more self-analysis, I realized that I have also embraced existentialism and its tenets of individuality and purpose. I know this may seem like a tangent, but reflecting on why we do something and embrace an approach will help make all subsequent work meaningful and impactful.


Bransford, J., et al. (1999). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C, National Academy Press.

NGSS Lead States (2013). Next Geeration Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, D.C., Achieve, Inc. on behalf of the twenty-six states and partners that collaborated on the NGSS.

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:

One Response

  1. I agree with most of the statements that you have made. But regardless of intent, in the end we are judged by what students understand (notice that I left out what “they know”). This must remain in our view so that we do not fall into the trap of suggesting that 3-D learning is a panacea.

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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.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. 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.