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March 15, 2021

Don’t Reinvent The Wheel: Making The Transition To NGSS Easier

Implementation of NGSS can seem like a daunting task. The focus is no longer content standards, but rather an interlocking system of content, engineering and design strategies, and cross cutting concepts — a 3D approach.

Content learning occurs when students design experiments, create models, and design solutions around authentic tasks and engaging phenomena. These phenomena can be grouped under common themes, or cross cutting concepts, which unite all discipline areas, such as cause and effect, structure and function, and patterns.

Standards­-based teaching has directed instruction for so long that a wide variety of quality, engaging labs and activities have been developed to help students better understand the content. Does NGSS implementation mean we need to abandon these well-thought-out lessons? Does it mean we, as teachers, need to re­write everything we’ve worked so hard on in order to make our teaching more 3D?

The answer is no!

NGSS does not mean reinventing the wheel. It means changing the sequencing of the activities taught to create a meaningful storyline. It means being purposeful in how a unit is designed, and being explicit where each aspect of the three-dimensional learning is occurring. NGSS implementation does not mean abandoning activities that we already teach and enjoy.

Consider the following example from my high school biology class.

Reworking a Classic Lesson

A typical lesson in biology focuses around cell division, where students learn about the purpose and stages of mitosis. Within this lesson, some type of lab is typically completed where students are asked to ID cells in various stages of cell division, such as the classic onion root tip mitosis lab.

My biology team has been using this activity in one way or another for many years and we’ve spent time making it a meaningful learning experience. We ask our students to look at varying stages of onion root tip cells in the process of dividing. They collect data on the number of cells in varying stages and perform calculations to figure out the comparative time cells spend in each phase of the cell cycle. At the end of the lesson, they compare their data to cancerous chicken cell data and draw conclusions on the differences.

Not a bad activity. Students are collecting data, making claims supported by evidence, and displaying graphical representations of their data, all skills we want our students to be able to do. The problem is, this activity is lacking a key element of NGSS in its current state ­– a sense of coherence and a connection to meaningful phenomena rooted in observations of the natural world.

We wanted to re­-work the lesson without abandoning the activity completely. To accomplish this, our team went through the following brainstorming process:

1. Determine where the activity aligns with NGSS:


The content piece of mitosis falls in HS­LS1 ­From Molecules to Organisms. Focus for this particular lesson lies more specifically on the first part of the expectation, illustrating the role of cellular division in maintaining a complex organism.

2. Choose a phenomenon:

Next, we had to think of a natural phenomenon where students would need an understanding of mitosis. Finding anchoring phenomena for focusing lessons is a powerful part of NGSS. It changes the purpose from “What are we learning?” to “What are we trying to figure out?” For this lesson, a phenomenon that requires knowledge of mitosis to fully understand it is cancer. While cancer had always been a part of our learning, it was never the focus, just an add­-on near the end. Positioning it as the driving concept adds real world meaning and purpose to our students’ learning.

3. Set the s toryline for the unit:

With cancer as the phenomenon, we began to develop a storyline that pulled together the activities and learning objectives of the lesson. We decided that presenting students with the challenge of diagnosing a patient with cancer would be a great anchoring phenomenon. Students working in pairs are provided with a patient folder the first day of the unit. In the patient folder we placed meticulously made up patient history forms and physicals. They were then presented with their challenge: figure out what’s wrong with your patient.

4. Reframe the activity so that it fits the storyline:

To incorporate a need to understand mitosis in order to solve their puzzle, we tied the content knowledge of mitosis in with a biopsy test. Once students narrowed down a specific area of concern for their patients based on their patient folder, they requested a biopsy of the area. We went through and modified a set of whitefish blastula slide images to represent a biopsy of the patient and a comparative slide of a biopsy of healthy tissue.

Students perform the same cell count activity we’ve completed in the past. They identify cells in each stage of the cell cycle, and then compare the numbers between their patient and a healthy individual. They graph the data, which allows them to draw conclusions on what is specifically different for the cells of their patient, and that data ends up being a piece of evidence in their eventual claim that their patient has cancer.

A biopsy slide 

Biopsy Slides

In order to fully understand what they are seeing in the biopsy, students must spend some time understanding the stages of the cell cycle, as well as cell cycle regulations to keep cell division in check in healthy individuals. Specific names of the stages were de­-emphasized and focus turned to the bigger picture. During this learning, they used models of the cell cycle to develop an understanding of how the process works, how it’s regulated, and what effect changes to cell cycle controls have on cell growth.

5. Culmination

The unit culminates with a presentation to their patient, where the student doctors explain to the patient their diagnosis, evidence to support their diagnosis (including a summary and analysis of the biopsy results), a description of possible causes for the development of the cancer, and a proposed treatment plan. The science and engineering practices of developing and using models and constructing explanations based on evidence are highlighted in this lesson, as are the cross-cutting concepts of systems and system models, and cause and effect.


This re-­work allowed our biology team to use a lesson that we had already invested time in prior to NGSS alignment, preventing us from abandoning it completely and starting from scratch as we worked to implement NGSS into our biology curriculum. Reworking this lesson created major changes in how the students saw meaning and purpose behind their learning. In our previous lesson, if students were asked why they were learning about mitosis and the cell cycle, a great response might have been so they know how cells divide. Now, when asked this question, students would be able to say, to understand how and why cancer occurs so they can make a diagnosis of a patient. This is a deeper and more applicable reason for them to be learning this content, and it takes away the common question teachers so often struggle with answering: “Why do we need to learn this?”

Special thanks to my team at Johnston High School — Sara Kate Howe, Jennifer Rollings, and Jennifer Lehman — for collaborating on this lesson.

This work was made possible through support by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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