September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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:

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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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.