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Choosing Instructional Materials: Lessons Learned

By Cindy Workosky

Posted on 2018-02-23

Throughout my career as an educator, I’ve had many opportunities to select instructional materials. One experience is particularly memorable because I learned then that how you select instructional materials can be as important as what materials are selected

By that point in my career, I had selected materials for other content areas, but I had been the only teacher making the choices, and the process was simple: Pick the text I like most, and submit it to the district. 

This time, however, the process was a bit more complicated because I was part of a team making the selection. The biology team reluctantly gathered our sub lesson plans and headed to the district office. Using the district’s evaluation criteria, we spent all day reading and evaluating stacks of sample materials. By the end of the day, we narrowed our selections down to two options. 

The first option was not surprising: It was the newer version of what we were currently using, and we were ecstatic about the resources that would be at our fingertips. Every page was filled with great photos, graphics, and icons, along with thoughtfully formatted text on glossy pages; technology supports were integrated throughout; accompanying video clips were provided; lab books and student worksheets were coordinated with the student text; and a tall stack of fancy color transparencies (yes, this was a few years ago) were at our disposal. These resources and more were coordinated with an equally glossy wraparound teacher’s edition. 

The second option seemed much less desirable. It lacked DVDs; provided only a few color transparencies; included neither links to additional online information, nor glossy visuals; and had fewer hints and tips embedded on the pages. In addition, the teacher’s guide was a separate volume with little except text to support instruction. 

You might be wondering why we would choose this textbook as a finalist when it was so obviously lacking the resources the first one offered. We did so because the district’s review process challenged us to closely examine our choices. When we did, we realized that the second book was organized in a way that better aligned with the type of teaching we were striving for—one that supported students in making sense of the world around them, rather than just memorizing increasingly complex scientific information. It was less flashy, but more relevant to students.

Publisher sales pitches we heard the following month reaffirmed our thoughts and we chose the second text. Because my district had a process and criteria that allowed us to focus on what mattered most while giving us the autonomy to make a wise decision, we were able to select the materials that would help us improve our instruction.

If we hadn’t undertaken a facilitated, criterion-based review, we would have ended up with the same type of materials as before and experienced the same frustrations in the classroom. The selection process helped us identify what we really needed to change in the classroom and motivated us to make the right choice to achieve those goals. Additionally, because we came to this realization through the process rather than having it imposed on us, we owned the implementation of the materials and used it as an opportunity to advance instruction in our classrooms.

This experience was a watershed moment for me because it helped me understand that a robust process for selecting instructional materials can pay significant dividends over time.

Based on my experiences in the classroom, at the state level, and now at Achieve, I have five big lessons that I’ve learned about selecting instructional materials. Many of you are seeking instructional materials that are truly designed for teaching the NGSS, materials that don’t just have an alignment sticker or use the NGSS colors. You want materials that will make your classroom one in which students develop and use all three dimensions of the standards to make sense of phenomena and design solutions to problems. As you evaluate materials and make selections, keep these lessons learned in mind:

  1. Selecting instructional materials should be a part of a broader implementation plan. Materials are key, but can’t do everything and they’ll have a bigger impact if they are embedded in a larger initiative. If you don’t know where to start, check out these state and district implementation resources
  2. Don’t do it alone. It’s helpful to have other local educators to work with, but for those in rural areas with few science colleagues, or those struggling to find willing colleagues, communities on Twitter, Facebook, and in the NSTA Learning Center can serve as a sounding board for ideas and a source of support and feedback. 
  3. Be clear on what you need. It’s a common mistake to think that materials are the first step to implementation, but if you don’t know what materials designed for teaching the NGSS look like, you might select ones that appear to be aligned, but aren’t. Check out the criteria and support in the NGSS Lesson Screener (for lessons), the EQuIP Rubric for Science (for units), and PEEC (for year-long materials) here. In particular, read about the NGSS Innovations in PEEC that highlight what is new in these standards and how instructional materials can reflect that. Many producers of materials are making claims about NGSS alignment. Be skeptical consumers.
  4. Try out a unit designed for the NGSS in your classroom. To determine and understand the types of materials you’ll need, try a few in your classroom to decide what support is most helpful. You can find a variety of units identified as quality units designed for the NGSS here, and more are being posted regularly. 
  5. Understand the power of the process. Develop a selection process that brings teachers together to build a common understanding of what good materials are, and use carefully selected criteria to analyze the materials You’ll ultimately choose the materials best suited for your students, and teachers will be better prepared to implement them. 

While high-quality materials are needed, that’s only one of the factors to consider. The materials need to be part of a broader science implementation plan that includes, among other things, professional learning to support ongoing improvement in instruction. But how these materials are selected can help address several implementation issues simultaneously if it is done well. Because this is likely the most significant science-specific expenditure your district will make, it’s worth devoting the time and resources needed to select materials in a thoughtful, strategic way. Use this process as a lever for change to improve science instruction for every student in your district.


text-based header: Matt Krehbiel

Matt Krehbiel


Matt Krehbiel is the Science Director at Achieve, Inc. Reach him at and follow him on twitter at @ksscienceguy. Come learn more about selecting instructional materials designed for the NGSS during his session at the NSTA National Conference in Atlanta. The session, Looking for NGSS-Focused Instructional Materials?, is part of the day-long NGSS@NSTA Forum focused on instructional materials.


This article was featured in the February issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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Instructional Materials NGSS

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