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Making the Hippos Dance: Implementing NGSS in the Classroom

ByRebecca HiteNOVA EducationNOVA Education

There is an old adage in the policy world that rings true in the process of transforming education and standards revision. It’s called “making the hippos dance,” and it refers to grandiose policy recommendations and ideas that are implemented on the ground or at scale. Like the hippo, educational reform is monumental and often ungraceful; to make this creature dance would seem almost impossible. The Next Generation Science Standards (

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NGSS ) are a similar behemoth; we have these great, peer-reviewed, research-based pedagogical standards at the ready to transform science teaching and learning for generations, but on top of everything else that a teacher is responsible for in a day, application can seem a colossal task—especially given the NGSS’s emphasis on process-oriented tasks and the integration of crosscutting concepts and engineering practices. According to Horizon Research, 1 only 7 percent of teachers surveyed felt they were “well prepared” to teach engineering. I would argue that many teachers currently teach in the spirit of NGSS; through professional development with careful, reflective practices, you’ll have this hippo up on its feet and ready to Harlem Shake.

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Making the Hippo Dance

The NGSS are largely pedagogical standards; that is, their methodology engages students with the content using the practices of authentic scientific study. Thus, the development of curriculum (i.e., what you do every day in the classroom) is largely up to state or district developers and the teachers themselves. The standards have explicit supports, with the educator in mind, to guide activities that build upon students’ prior knowledge and the critical thinking skills needed for future academic success. This is a unique and exciting time in K–12 science—the teaching professionals are leading in the creation of instructional curricula that will be used nationwide.

For example, Earth and environmental science teachers will be presented with this new standard ( HS-ESS2-7 ), where students “Construct an argument based on evidence about the simultaneous co-evolution of Earth’s systems and life on Earth.” The NGSS include clarification statements to illustrate content examples that may be used to contextualize this standard. Assessment boundaries demonstrate that the focus is on student understanding or application, not memorization.

A unique aspect of the NGSS is a three-fold system of student engagement: each standard has corresponding science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. These provide guidance in terms of the expected vertical alignment, its relationship to other branches of science, and the conceptual significance to the overall nature of science. Unlike previous state-based content standards, where topics were placed indiscriminately into various grade levels, the NGSS are thoughtful in scaffolding knowledge and fostering interdisciplinary studies in all areas of science and literacy.

So, how would you teach this in your classroom? Here is where professional development is critical to the successful implementation of the NGSS. Many schools already require teachers to meet in grade-level or content-based teams called professional learning communities (PLCs). You can use this time to analyze and develop best practices in the context of the NGSS. Inventory your group’s favorite activities and determine why they are so successful for students—use this as your starting point to develop your curriculum. You’ll find NGSS patterns emerging in existing practices like modeling, note-booking, student-developed protocols, KWLs, and inquiry-based learning. With NGSS, we must go further and transform these lessons into dynamic content that is student-centered and embedded with the hallmarks of STEM practices. If a successful lesson incorporated student discussion, how can it be advanced to scientific argumentation? Instead of having students follow a stepwise protocol, could they design their own or research existing protocols to use? How are students’ questions and curiosities driving the instruction in this lesson? Are the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, online research, and experimentation being used in this lesson?

To capture various ideas, create a chart similar to the one below, outlining each component of STEM. Then brainstorm ways to meet that standard through STEM integration.


For this example, students may conduct online research using credible, peer-reviewed sources to provide a diversity of examples that illustrate co-evolving systems on earth. They can pair-share to critique the arguments and identify the evolutionary mechanisms behind these symbiotic relationships. Students can begin to infer which relationships are delicate or more stable, which have endured throughout geologic time, and which have dissolved due to climate change, extinction events, or human-based effects. They may evaluate how current anthropomorphic systems are or are not playing a role in that evolution today. As a formative assessment, challenge students to design models or engineer solutions to promote biotic–abiotic balances. At their core, engineering practices view natural resources as being limited; this creates a great vehicle to integrate and contextualize mathematics study.

Lastly, when you are crafting your lessons with NGSS in mind, consider whether they are enjoyable and engaging. Are students having fun connecting with the content? Are you having fun thinking of new and exciting ways to teach the content you adore? After all, a major purpose of the new science standards is to cultivate student curiosity and foster a generation of radically new creative thinkers and problem solvers. So, enjoy the collegiality and reflection upon your daily practice. Professionally, encourage your coworkers to bring in lessons that you can modify together, and share your challenges and successes in your PLCs. Personally, reconnect with your content in a new and novel way; engage with your students in a dynamic fashion that you may have done only occasionally or never before.

I hope you find your hippo dancing. I’ve heard that when one learns, it can spread widely among the herd.

1 Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection .

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