NGSS Instruction for Conceptual Understanding

Transforming instruction and instructional practices is key to truly transitioning to an NGSS-aligned curriculum and classroom.When we are teaching, we obviously want our students to be learning. But teaching and learning are not the same things, and one thing (teaching) does not always result in the other (learning).  We must transform our teaching so that students are actually learning. This is truly the intent of the NGSS — improve science instruction to improve science learning. And science learning is not just about content, but also about skills and a scientific way of thinking.


When we are framing our instruction for the NGSS, we should consider the different instructional models available. While there are actually several models that would work well with the standards, I have found the 5E Model is the easiest and most effective way to transition your instruction to the NGSS.  It allows you to work within the confines of the typical school, district, and state requirements without sacrificing the important opportunities for exploration and sense-making that support the NGSS Performance Expectations.


While the 5E may be the easiest to utilize in a traditional classroom, that’s not to say it is entirely easy to wrap your brain around.  There are a lot of misunderstandings out there about the 5E Model — what it is, how it should be used, and what types of materials are compatible. In this post, we are going to look at why we should be using the 5E Model and how we should be using it!


If you’d like more guidance and support in transitioning your instruction to the new standards, check out the NGSS Your Science Class course and Science Teacher Tribe.


Why The 5E?

The 5E Model is designed to help students develop conceptual understanding in science. What is conceptual understanding? In their book Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in Science, Richard Konicek-Moran and Page Keeley describe conceptual understanding as the difference between baking a cake from scratch and making a cake from a packaged mix.


When you make a cake from a box, you can follow the instructions, get the outcome you want, and not understand a single thing about what happened.  When you bake a cake from scratch – no recipe here – you have to know the purpose of each ingredient. You need to understand how they interact — the difference between baking soda and baking powder, for example, and how each affects the flavor and texture.  You need to know how much of each ingredient to add and the best way to add them, when and how to mix them, so on and so forth. You truly understand the whole process. It’s likely you could use your knowledge to make another type of dessert, too! You’re not limited to just spitting back the steps of baking a cake.


We want our students to learn how to bake cakes from scratch.  Ok, maybe not actually bake cakes (although that could be a fun chemistry phenomenon), but you get my point.  We want our students to understand the various components of the content we teach, how they connect and interact, the cause and effect relationships, and why they matter.  We want our students to be able to apply their understandings to similar situations, transferring their knowledge from one context to another. To do this, we need to transform our instruction.


Traditional Instruction vs. NGSS Instruction


Let’s take a look at a science example.  Typically, by middle school, students have been taught the hydrologic cycle (aka water cycle). They may have drawn pictures of the processes involved or made fun models with glass jars and plastic wrap.  They might be able to identify terms like evaporation, precipitation, and maybe even condensation. These are all pretty typical approaches to teaching the water cycle.


That said, there’s a good chance those activities didn’t help them understand what’s actually happening.


When given Page Keeley’s “Wet Jeans” probe (this is from one of her Uncovering Student Ideas in Science texts), students often reveal that they believe that water that evaporates goes to the clouds. It’s not surprising — our textbook models often indicate water evaporating from the ocean and moving to the sky, where it then becomes clouds and falls as rain or snow.  Where does it really go? It simply moves into the air around us in the form of water vapor — invisible but always there!


The same students who answered “it moves to the clouds” could very likely pass a test on the water cycle, correctly identifying the definition of evaporation.  They could probably draw a model just like the ones they saw in their textbook. But their understanding of how it really works is flawed.

Why does this matter? Why are we talking about conceptual understanding? Because the goal of the 5E Model is to guide students through conceptual change — moving from their flawed, alternative conceptions (or misconceptions) of phenomena to an accurate understanding of how the natural world works (as we understand it based on best-evidence now! It’s important to note that science is always changing…) So in order to understand the stages in the 5E Model and how they were designed to be implemented, you really have to understand what the goal of the model is.  It’s not for teachers to dump information into students. That’s the old way of teaching. The goal of the 5E Model is to provide students with the right activities that lead them to their own “ah ha!” moments – that key point when their flawed conceptual understanding of a phenomenon changes – hopefully becoming more accurate!!!


When You’re Implementing 5E Instruction…

  1. First, and most importantly, remember that the 5E Model is NOT a lesson-planning framework, in the sense that each day students enter your class and participate in a lesson.  The 5E Model is used to design instructional sequences — instruction that occurs over many class periods.


  1. Remember that not every stage requires a full class period, and it’s not uncommon for some stages to require several.


  1. Lastly, remember that the 5E Model is not truly a linear approach.  While there are five “stages” which may seem like steps, in reality, each instructional sequence will take a varied path through the stages depending on the content and student needs.


Looking For More?

If you’re serious about transitioning your curriculum and instruction to the NGSS, check out the NGSS Your Science Class course available at the Science Teacher Tribe.  Join our community to get the 12 module course with video workshops, audio tracks, ready-to-use resources, and a growing library of NGSS-aligned sample lessons and activities, plus personal support and guidance.

Get support for your NGSS transition at the Science Teacher Tribe.

Transforming instruction and instructional practices is key to truly transitioning to an NGSS-aligned curriculum and classroom.