Six Strategies Designed to Differentiate: NGSS & The Diverse Learner

February 3, 2017 / by Meg Richard

Imagine being 12 years old and being told that you're made up of tiny bits, that are made up of tiny bits, that are made up of tiny bits; and all those bits are going to interact in different ways and have AWESOME names that sound more like spells from Harry Potter than English. For me, teaching cell transportation at the middle school level has been a challenge.

When students walk into our classrooms many of them have no concept of cells other than the ones they're carrying in their pockets. We, as science teachers, have long relied on analogies to demonstrate concepts; although this method has worked, I find there's always a student who is confused by the "endoplasmic reticu-what" and cannot work their way up Bloom’s or grasp the Depth of Knowledge (DOK) I'm seeking for mastery,

This fall, I decided to change my approach when teaching the topic of cells. Instead of having my students dance out the process of endocytosis (think the hokey pokey: "things move into the cell, things move out of the cell… and they move all about"), I would try to align more to NGSS using an approach rooted in phenomena.

As a proud member of the Tch Next Gen Science Squad, I was invited to attend the National Science Teachers Association conference in Nashville last spring. While at the conference, I attended an amazing workshop titled, “Moving Beyond the Candy Cell” by Zoe Evans and Jeremy Peacock from the Georgia Science Teachers Association. Their presentation centered around how we could move students beyond the candy cell models that so many of us love, and encourage students to take ownership of their own understanding by constructing models more conceptual in nature, as well as encouraging students to revisit their models over time to demonstrate growth. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and utilize the overarching storyline that Evans and Peacock had presented, knowing that using a storyline as a linking piece of phenomena would get students engaged and excited to investigate phenomena to build their own understanding.

I chose to begin the lesson with students making observations about an image of a high school football player and sharing their evidence from the picture. After students shared their observations, I shocked them by revealing that the young man had passed away. I handed out the first article from Evans and Peacock (from slide 6 of their presentation) and instructed the students to play CSI while constructing their first models. (Note: As a teacher, I tend to stay away from "death" in the classroom, knowing that students come from varying backgrounds and traumas. But I found this story to be one that many students had schema to relate to without a personal connection. This would be a sensitivity to take into consideration prior to teaching this lesson.) Their initial models blew me away.

I realized quickly that by allowing students to model at the beginning of the lesson, I was able to use their models as a formative assessment. The NGSS process challenges students to form connections in new and challenging ways, and the assessment piece is something we're striving towards. Some models used pictures, some words, but the thought and reflection was evident each step of the way. This process took time, but by not giving students an example of what they were expected to build, and allowing them to form their own connections, it produced a more meaningful understanding tailored to the individual.

This lesson continued for several additional days, incorporated hands-on laboratory experiences and, with their final models, students demonstrated that they were reaching conclusions about the body as an interacting network of cells and systems. But was EACH student meeting the disciplinary core ideas (DCI)? And how was I to know? This got me thinking about the differentiation embedded in NGSS.

6 Strategies for Implementing Differentiation in NGSS Lessons

  • Remember that anchoring phenomena may look different depending on the situation; sometimes it may be a photo, an experience, or even a video. Find a way to utilize phenomena in a way that connects with students on their level.
  • Stay with the methods that make you a strong educator. The number one tool in any teacher tool box is relationships -- don’t lose your sense of self by trying to fit into a mold. Do your best, love your job, and students will learn.
  • Go back and revisit the standards and their appendices. Appendix D discusses subgroups of differentiation and provides specific examples and strategies on how to help all learners. Sometimes we all need to go back to the basics.
  • Encourage students’ models to look different from those of their peers, and only rarely show them a sample. The NGSS process challenges students to form connections in new and challenging ways. This process may take time, but allowing students to form their own connections will produce a more meaningful understanding tailored to the individual.
  • Allow the Science and Engineering Practices to serve as pre-assessments and formative assessments along the way. If students are consistently using the practices and language of Three Dimensional Learning, they'll become more familiar and more confident expressing themselves in a way that reflects an understanding of science.
  • Use Evidence Statements to help guide the observable features you're looking for in your students' understanding of a lesson.

Get Connected! Use Your Resources and Help Us Build More

Getting connected can help us all become better together.

  • Twitter Chats: Twitter can help you build your own PLN (Personalized Learning Network). Whether you choose to simply follow the conversations or join in, here are some popular NGSS and education hashtags to try: #TchLIVE, #NGSS, #NGSSchat, and #elngsschat.
  • Online Forums: Search for groups that are centered around your topics of interest. NSTA has one of the most popular forums available and it's updated regularly.
  • Teaching Channel's NGSS Deep Dive: All of us at Teaching Channel want to help you! Please visit our new NGSS Deep Dive page. We're constantly sharing ideas and would love to hear more of yours.
  • Conferences: Did you know that Teaching Channel's Tch Next Gen Science Squad will be at #NSTA2017 in Los Angeles this spring? Conferences are a great way to meet new people and share ideas. Feel free to reach out to any of us, we'd love to connect!

Topics: Lesson Planning, Differentiation, Next Generation Science Standards, Science

Meg Richard

Written by Meg Richard

Meg Richard is a seventh grade science teacher at Summit Trail Middle School in Olathe, Kansas. She's been teaching science since 2010, and is a graduate of Central Methodist University and the University of Central Missouri. Meg is the coach of her school's Science Olympiad team and serves her district as a teacher leader. Meg is Nationally Board Certified in EA Science and was a 2019 Kanas State Finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). Meg is passionate about integrating authentic, hands-on science experiences for her students, and at times she can’t believe she is lucky enough to get to do the best job in the world: teach! Connect with her on Twitter: @frizzlerichard

Read Next

Sign up for the Teaching Channel newsletter to get the latest articles, videos, and resources delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning.

Recent Blogs

Search Blogs



      We're always looking for new TCHERS' VOICE bloggers! If you're interested in writing an article, please get in touch with us. 

      Learn More