August 2016 – Vol. 28 No. 12


Monday, June 20th, 2016

Navigating the NGSS Change Process: Understanding the How, What, and Why

by John Spiegel

Change is difficult. It requires significant shifts in thinking as we seek to understand what is changing and how we are supposed to implement those changes. Change can also be deeply emotional. It asks us to rethink the fundamental purposes and rationale for what we do, how we do it, and also why we do it. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) introduce a vision for science education that shifts the way students experience and learn science and engineering. It also places significant demands on teachers to rethink how they plan, teach, and assess in the classroom. Educators respond to these changes with a variety of emotions, which must be considered as part of the NGSS implementation process.

Over the past several years, I have introduced NGSS to thousands of teachers and hundreds of administrators. During that time I have attempted to help them understand what NGSS is and how to implement the Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas into planning, instruction, and assessment. This work has sought to answer the questions of what and how described below.

‘What’ Questions

  • What are the NGSS?
  • What are the changes NGSS brings?
  • What are the dimensions of NGSS?
  • What is three-dimensional learning?

‘How’ Questions

  • How will NGSS affect how I plan, assess, and teach?
  • How do I teach with the three dimensions of NGSS in mind?
  • How do students learn in a three-dimensional classroom?

Recently I have come to realize that focusing only on the what and how is insufficient in supporting educators as they move through the NGSS change process. As I meet with and listen to teachers, I notice they respond to the new standards in a variety of ways, ranging from excitement and enthusiasm on one extreme to dread and negativity on the other. I observe teachers who soak up new information like a thirsty sponge while others fold their arms and shut down. The difference between these extremes comes down to having a personal understanding of why it all matters in the first place. Answering questions of why are as important as questions of what and how.

‘Why’ Questions

  • Why is important for me to implement NGSS?
  • Why should students in my classroom experience science differently?
  • Why should I do things differently?
  • Why does three dimensional teaching and learning matter?

A review of NGSS literature, including the Framework for K-12 Science Education1, the NGSS Appendices2, and the California Science Framework3, provide insights into these why questions. Answers are not just external knowledge, meaning we can outwardly say the right things in conversations with peers or administrators. They are more internal ideas and reflections that drive how we feel and what we believe about science teaching and learning. Our responses to the why questions ultimately shape what we do in the classroom. They also affect what we believe about the challenges and opportunities in science education, including student access and equity.

The connection, or disconnection, between what we know and believe is an important aspect of the change process and affects teachers willingness and readiness to implement the NGSS4. A teacher who knows how the Science and Engineering Practices support language development and also believes all students, including English learners, can participate fully in scientific processes will seek ways to scaffold instruction accordingly. Conversely, a teacher who knows that three dimensional learning is important but does not believe it will improve student performance on statewide assessments will struggle to implement NGSS in their classroom.

Figure 1 below describes the connection between questions of what, how, and why (shown in purple) and key emotions teachers often feel as they build their capacity to implement NGSS (shown in red). When educators can answer questions of what, how, and why, they feel empowered to change and take action. They are the ones who advocate for their needs, including time to collaborate, plan, and build capacity of themselves and others in their school or district. Empowered teachers recognize the importance of deepening understanding of NGSS and are willing to struggle and learn as they begin implementing three-dimensional lessons in their classroom.

Figure 1 Image Source: J. Spiegel personal collection

Figure 1
Image Source: J. Spiegel personal collection

If teachers can only answer questions of what and how, but do not clearly understand why, they might feel resistance to change. This is often felt in the individual who is asked to do things differently in their classroom and is being shown how, but does not yet understand why they need to do it and why the extra effort is worth it.

If teachers can only answer questions of what and why, but do not know how to do it, they often feel frustration. An example of this is an educator who understands what NGSS is and knows why it is important for students, but does not know how to plan lessons or instruction aligned to performance expectations and the three dimensions.

Finally, if teachers can only answer questions of why and how, but not what, they sometimes feel incapable of implementing the change. This might be the person who knows why they need to change the way students experience science and have been given three-dimensional lessons, but does not have sufficient knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices or Crosscutting Concepts to implement that lesson.

As educators continue to navigate the NGSS change process, it is important for them to take the time to reflect on their own understanding of questions of how, what, and why. One goal of professional learning should be to help empower teachers and administrators as they move from awareness to implementation of NGSS. The road ahead is not easy. Change is difficult. The reward is a generation of children who have an appreciation for and a love of science.

For more help, feel free to contact Kirk Brown, director of STEM at the San Joaquin County Office of Education at, Maria Simani from the California Science Project at, or Kathy DiRanna, WestEd’s K-12 Alliance Statewide Director, at The CSTA NGSS page is also a wonderful resource, and can be located at

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Chelsea Cochrane (San Diego County Office of Education) and Jennifer McCluan (San Diego Unified School District) for their insights and feedback in developing this article.

John Spiegel is a Science Coordinator at the San Diego County Office of Education. He is available by email at and can be followed on Twitter at @sdngss.


1 The Framework for K-12 Science Education is available at

2 The NGSS Appendices can be found at

3 The CA Science Framework is available at

4 The Relationship between Teachers’ Knowledge and Beliefs about Science and Inquiry and Their Classroom Practices (2012). Taken from

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