How the NGSS can set your students (and teachers) free

While the Next Generation Science Standards ask teachers to take a new approach to instruction, they also empower teachers and students to be scientists together
By: | May 19, 2021
Kindergarten students mixing solution in science experiment laboratory class. (Image provided)
Ian Kastelic is a teacher on special assignment for the San Mateo-Foster City School District.

Ian Kastelic is a teacher on special assignment for the San Mateo-Foster City School District.

Like many districts throughout California and the nation, the San Mateo-Foster City School District has been transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). While we’ve been preparing for the shift for years, this is the first school year that we’ve had the standards and an NGSS-aligned curriculum in place throughout our elementary schools.

As the Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) tasked with overseeing the transition for our district, I’ve found the NGSS to be a powerful framework for bringing all students—and not just those who excel at or enjoy science—into the world of inquiry and wonder that science makes available. As exciting as the new standards are to some educators, it’s a big change to the way we teach science and, as such, can cause quite a bit of anxiety.

This is how we’ve tried to make that transition as smooth as possible, and why we think it’s worth the work, for both students and their teachers.

Why some teachers might struggle with the NGSS

In addition to a dramatic change to the content that is taught, the NGSS is a total pedagogical shift as well. The more you understand about the NGSS, the clearer it becomes that the teacher’s role is not diminished, but it is shifted. Instead of being the person with the answers, the NGSS asks teachers to move their students’ learning forward by being great questioners.

With the NGSS, students spend a lot of time exploring phenomena and asking their own questions, which leads to experiments, more questions and discussion, and maybe new experiments, allowing students to come to some answers by taking on the role of scientists.

Related: How states and school districts are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards

For example, our 2nd-grade students study erosion in a unit called “Save the Island.” In a series of activities, students experience wind and water erosion. In lesson 3, they create erosion models, make predictions about what will happen to those models, and then test them. The teacher’s role here is not to explain why the student groups get the results they do, but to guide them to the next bread crumb in the trail, which may well be another question. If that’s the case, the teacher’s job then is to help them initiate and move through the process of testing that idea.

Teachers are excellent question-askers but, but especially in elementary school science, they are used to being more focused on conveying information than in soliciting ideas. And while this change in roles can be freeing for some; for others, it may take some getting used to.

Curriculum is key

Choosing the right curriculum is critically important. With the NGSS approach to science and an excellent curriculum purpose-built to meet those standards, following the curriculum means that teachers are doing mostly all of the right things. They may not yet have the depth of knowledge regarding the standards or the reasoning behind them, but as they experience it, that depth of knowledge increases right along with their students’ understanding of how science is done.

Knowing that, early on, at least some of our teachers were going to be relying on their curriculum as a kind of “PD by fire” as they became comfortable with their new role as guides to scientific inquiry, we made a point of choosing a curriculum that had the NGSS baked into its foundations. We chose Twig Science Next Gen for many reasons, but a key one was that the K–8 curriculum was designed from the ground up for the NGSS. If you’re choosing a curriculum for the NGSS, it’s important to make sure it’s not just retrofitted and backfilled to bring a curriculum designed for the previous standards into alignment with these new standards. To really embrace the shift in the whole way we approach science instruction, a curriculum must also take a new approach—and make it as accessible as possible.

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Experiential professional development

At San Mateo-Foster City, we’ve found the best way to help teachers make the transition from information conveyor to question asker is to give them as much opportunity to experience it from the student’s perspective as possible. The NGSS has held a series of workshops, dubbed “NGSS Rollouts,” that put teachers in the place of students but are appropriately difficult for an adult. Putting them in a position to struggle with ideas and follow the processes they are being asked to guide their students through helps them develop a firsthand understanding of the methodology.

That is, unfortunately, a very time-consuming professional development experience, and teachers face a lot of demands on their time. Since it is such a big shift in pedagogy, it’s important to keep in mind that the increase in a teacher’s expertise in these new methods and standards will take years. The writers of the NGSS suggested 3-5 years before full understanding could be achieved. In our district, and in many districts across California and the other NGSS states, we’ve been working through training for years, though we’ve only implemented our Twig NGSS curriculum in the classroom this school year.

A more accessible approach to science

One of the big challenges to accessibility in our district is language. Almost one-third of our students are English learners. The English language scaffolding in the Twig science curriculum is great for English language learners or any student struggling with reading or comprehension.

But one of the best things about the NGSS is that they are inherently more accessible in many ways than more traditional standards. They don’t take away the opportunity for the “science kid” to excel, but they do give everyone else in the class a chance to excel, even if they haven’t memorized the scientific method or dozens of Latin names of dinosaurs. The NGSS is about equity! Since everyone is looking at the same problem and trying to solve it in the real world, real-world experience comes to bear at least as often as scientific knowledge, and every student has experience in the real world.

Just as it frees teachers to be questioners and guides rather than answer-givers, the NGSS also gives students the freedom to ask—and ultimately answer—their own questions.

Ian Kastelic is a teacher on special assignment for the San Mateo-Foster City School District. He can be reached at