January/February 2018 – Vol. 31 No. 2

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood.

The whole idea was pretty easy for anyone with a little background in geology to dismiss. Evidence cited included the author’s kid’s science fair project. The author was listed as having a Ph.D., but nowhere did it say in what field.

This might not seem too surprising given the times we live in, the times of “alternative facts.” But this was actually 15 years ago. As science teachers, we know that there have ALWAYS been alternative facts. They were sometimes just annoying but sometimes caused real conflict and the interruption of learning. It’s starting to feel different now, it feels like people are asserting that there are no actual facts, everyone has the right to choose the facts that support their perspective. It could be about climate change, vaccination, evolution, or the safety of GMOs.

Without getting too philosophical, science depends on the idea that there is a real world that is knowable through experiment and analysis of data and doesn’t depend on perspective (I expect some comments on this). The great advances we have made in understanding and improving our world depend on there being a real world to understand. As science teachers, it is our job to teach students how to look at the evidence to see what is really there, and also to learn what knowledge scientists have gained from their studies.

We know that new ideas do not come easily, especially when they conflict with what we think we know about the world. Anyone who has worked hard to convince kids that objects fall at the same rate, only to see the test answers a few weeks later, knows how challenging it is to change people’s ideas. This can be much harder depending on the topic.

There are topics in science that students might feel are attacks on their identity. A student might feel that learning about Evolution threatens their religious identity. A student who has grown up in a household where keeping everything “natural” is an important value might resist learning about GMOs or vaccines. Students are part of cultural groups and being part of a group means sharing values and beliefs that might disagree with scientific findings.

Dr. Dan Kahan from Yale University had extensively studied what he calls “Motivated Reasoning.” It is a common assumption that people will change their minds if they are presented with more facts. Dr. Kahan’s research shows that when people face ideas that challenge their group identity, more facts just harden their positions. For example, a person who is deeply committed to free enterprise and opposed to government regulation can be presented with facts about climate change and will become more strongly confident in their position that climate change is not real (or not caused by humans). It is more important for people to maintain group identity than to have a “correct” scientific viewpoint. You can link to Dr. Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Project here: http://www.culturalcognition.net/.

So learning is always hard, and learning that threatens our identity is almost impossible. What is a teacher to do?



For one thing, don’t make learning about changing students beliefs. A student who thinks you are trying to change their beliefs will shut out the learning. An approach that worked well for me was to tell students up front, “I know this goes against what some of you believe. I’m not asking or expecting you to change your beliefs. I do need to you to understand what scientists think and what evidence led them to those conclusions.” This stance broke down lots of barriers. Many students who otherwise would not have listened became more open and curious.

This actually fits in with the approach that NGSS takes on learning science. The old California standards all began with “students know..” They were about science as facts to be internalized. Except that hard learning doesn’t work this way. If you want someone to change their thinking it takes the hard work at looking at evidence. This is what the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices are all about. How do ask questions about the world and how do we answer them?

Starting with phenomenon instead of starting with an abstract idea is a good way to approach a subject without automatically triggering resistance. A lesson that starts with some interesting bones found in the ground (especially if they are from around here) is less abstract and more approachable than a lesson that starts with “The Theory of Evolution.” This is in keeping with the NGSS approach of starting with real world phenomenon instead of starting with scientific concepts.

According to Dr. Kahan’s work, science knowledge doesn’t matter much in changing people’s minds. What is important is curiosity- people who are scientifically curious are able to accept new ideas. You have students who are curious about the world and love science but might be committed to ideas that are unscientific. Don’t shut them out.

The NGSS approach is all about curiosity. Start with the real world, ask good questions, and then learn how to use the intellectual tools of science to answer them. This is likely the only way to immunize our students against “alternative facts.”

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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

One Response

  1. Thanks Pete. Love the article and how it helps us in motivating students and WHY.

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Accelerating into NGSS – A Statewide Rollout Series Now Accepting Registrations

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

Are you feeling behind on the implementation of NGSS? Then Accelerating into NGSS – the Statewide Rollout event – is right for you!

If you have not experienced Phases 1-4 of the Statewide Rollout, or are feeling behind with the implementation of NGSS, the Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout will provide you with the greatest hits from Phases 1-4!

Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout is a two-day training geared toward grade K-12 academic coaches, administrators, curriculum leads, and teacher leaders. Check-in for the two-day rollout begins at 7:30 a.m., followed by a continental breakfast. Sessions run from 8:00 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Day One and from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Day Two.

Cost of training is $250 per attendee. Fee includes all materials, continental breakfast, and lunch on both days. It is recommended that districts send teams of four to six, which include at least one administrator. Payment can be made by check or credit card. If paying by check, registration is NOT complete until payment has been received. All payments must be received prior to the Rollout location date you are attending. Paying by credit card secures your seat at time of registration. No purchase orders accepted. No participant cancellation refunds.

For questions or more information, please contact Amy Kennedy at akennedy@sjcoe.net or (209) 468-9027.



MARCH 28-29, 2018
Host: San Mateo County Office of Education
Location: San Mateo County Office of Education, Redwood City

APRIL 10-11, 2018
Host: Orange County Office of Education
Location: Brandman University, Irvine

MAY 1-2, 2018
Host: Tulare County Office of Education
Location: Tulare County Office of Education, Visalia

MAY 3-4, 2018
Host: San Bernardino Superintendent of Schools
Location: West End Educational Service Center, Rancho Cucamonga

MAY 7-8, 2018
Host: Sacramento County Office of Education
Location: Sacramento County Office of Education Conference Center and David P. Meaney Education Center, Mather

JUNE 14-15, 2018
Host: Imperial County Office of Education
Location: Imperial Valley College, Imperial

Presented by the California Department of Education, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association/County Offices of Education, K-12 Alliance @WestEd, California Science Project, and the California Science Teachers Association.

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.

The Teaching and Learning Collaborative, Reflections from an Administrator

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

by Kelly Patchen

My name is Mrs. Kelly Patchen, and I am proud to be an elementary assistant principal working in the Tracy Unified School District (TUSD) at Louis Bohn and McKinley Elementary Schools. Each of the schools I support are Title I K-5 schools with about 450 students, a diverse student population, a high percentage of English Language Learners, and students living in poverty. We’re also lucky to be part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative with the K-12 Alliance. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

2018 CSTA Conference Call for Proposals

Posted: Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

CSTA is pleased to announce that we are now accepting proposals for 90-minute workshops and three- and six-hour short courses for the 2018 California Science Education Conference. Workshops and short courses make up the bulk of the content and professional learning opportunities available at the conference. In recognition of their contribution, members who present a workshop or short course receive 50% off of their registration fees. Click for more information regarding proposals, or submit one today by following the links below.

Short Course Proposal

Workshop Proposal 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.

CSTA’s New Administrator Facebook Group Page

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Holly Steele

The California Science Teachers Association’s mission is to promote high-quality science education, and one of the best practice’s we use to fulfill that mission is through the use of our Facebook group pages. CSTA hosts several closed and moderated Facebook group pages for specific grade levels, (Elementary, Middle, and High School), pages for district coaches and science education faculty, and the official CSTA Facebook page. These pages serve as an online resource for teachers and coaches to exchange teaching methods, materials, staying update on science events in California and asking questions. CSTA is happy to announce the creation of a 6th group page called, California Administrators Supporting Science. 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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

Find Your Reason to Engage

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Jill Grace

I was recently reflecting on events in the news and remembered that several years ago, National Public Radio had a story about a man named Stéphane Hessel, a World War II French resistance fighter, Nazi concentration camp survivor, and contributor to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The story focused on a book he had published, Time for Outrage (2010).

In it, Hessel makes the argument that the worst attitude is indifference:

“Who is in charge; who are the decision makers? It’s not always easy to discern. We’re not dealing with a small elite anymore, whose actions we can clearly identify. We are dealing with a vast, interdependent world that is interconnected in unprecedented ways. But there are unbearable things all around us. You have to look for them; search carefully. Open your eyes and you will see. This is what I tell young people: If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference. ‘There’s nothing I can do; I get by’ – adopting this mindset will deprive you of one of the fundamental qualities of being human: outrage.  Our capacity for protest is indispensable, as is our freedom to engage.”

His words make me take pause when I think of the status of science in the United States. A general “mistrust” of science is increasingly pervasive, as outlined in a New Yorker article from the summer of 2016. 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.