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Under Indefinite Construction: Creating an NGSS-Friendly Classroom Community

By Megan Rowlands Elmore

Posted on 2019-06-17


When the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were first released, I struggled with how to create opportunities that allowed the students to investigate and question. These standards ask alot of our students and require more planning and instructional finesse in the classroom. After attending a two-week modeling camp held by the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA), I felt I knew all the moving parts of the NGSS, but I did not know how to establish the foundation of instruction to support the transition. 

At the beginning of this school year, my department received the mother lode of professional development that helped me change how my classroom functions. Our principal had arranged to participate in a NSTA coach/mentee pilot. We had already started to shift to phenomena-led units using storylines, but we wanted our students to productively participate in scientific processes, similar to Strand 4 from A Framework of K-12 Science Education.

Scientists work in communities; they start with phenomena or problems to solve, then investigate, discuss, design, and work to find the answers. For this to happen we needed to build a classroom community that encouraged collaboration and discourse. As a team, we crafted lessons that created an inviting place for students to share their questions and ideas then brainstorm and discuss possible solutions.

The first major change to improve engagement was to start each unit with a phenomenon that was interesting, multifaceted, and not “Google-able.” We had been using phenomena to start lessons in the past, but having an anchoring phenomenon with supporting smaller phenomena created a greater scaffold for student learning. We observed this phenomenon together, then every student was encouraged to write down and share their questions. This provided a common shared experience for all students to brainstorm together and share ideas. We used their questions and ideas throughout the unit as our guide for learning. We returned to these questions or groups of questions as they were answered, and decided where to go next. This process validated student ideas, helped build our classroom community by sharing a common purpose, and increased student engagement. Students were definitely challenged by phenomenon-based instruction. They initially did not like it when I answered  their questions with,  “I don’t know” or “That’s a good question; let’s figure it out”; they wanted me to give them the answers. My hope was that using phenomena in this way would provide the time and space for my students to work together to make sense of what they were exploring and to ask more questions that would lead to next steps. 

As students became more comfortable with our classroom community, we used whiteboards, incorporated group-thinking, and engaged in more peer collaboration throughout the year. On any given day groups of 3-4 students would be at the whiteboards discussing data, arguing from evidence, creating models, and explaining the phenomena. As the classroom shifted to a discourse model, norms were being followed regularly without prompting, which naturally encouraged more students to be actively engaged in our community of student scientists. 

With any new approach there has been some trial and error. As we became more comfortable with the changes, I assumed that students would be able to continue to work in groups effectively without too much direction. However, after some timely student surveys and observations I found that the most driven students were doing all the work while others hung back. I returned to the practice of assigning student roles and discussed with the students how these roles made the group work better. The roles alternated from member to member so no one person was stuck doing the work. I also switched the type of whiteboard activities (an idea fromAMTA) to increase everyone’s chance to share their ideas. One strategy I used was a science version of the game Four Square. We invited each student to write their ideas on the whiteboard in a quadrant then we spun the board, and they would add more ideas to the quadrant that landed in front of them. We used peer review and feedback with sticky notes and gallery walks to keep one another accountable, which prompted me to ask them more probing questions.

I learned that guiding the students through their learning and allowing them to drive the classroom activities would ignite many students’ desire to participate. However, this was not an easy shift for me, and it took time and practice. I had to learn to embrace my new role as facilitator and get out of the mindset that teaching in this way seemed like I was being lazy. Facilitating a learning experience for my students still required a good amount of prep work and planning. 

Watching these student scientists discuss, diagram, erase, redraw, and finalize their ideas on whiteboards throughout the year has been such a pleasure. Even this late in the year, they continue to hold one another accountable in their discussions, and it makes me very proud of the work they have done. It has definitely required a lot of work to ensure that no matter how hard the science is, we worked on it together in a classroom community that allows for failure and questions…and lots of questions and whiteboard markers.


American Modeling Teachers Association. How effective is modeling instruction? Transforming STEM Education.2018.  Dec. 13.

Bacolor, R., et al. How can I get my students to learn science by productively talking with each other? StemTeachingTools.

Morrison, D., and A. Rhinehart. 2017. How can teachers guide classroom conversations to support students’ science learning?” StemTeachingTools.

National Research Council. 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Megan Rowlands Elmore is a 13-year veteran science teacher at Glenn Westlake Middle School in Lombard, Illinois. Elmore has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Drake University. Her experiences have ranged from a Fermilab internship to outdoor education in Wyoming, and from leading student trips to Washington, D.C., to zero-gravity training in airplanes, and she loves to foster discussion and interest in all types of scientific and life endeavors. 

Note: This article is featured in the June 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.

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