Choosing Instructional Materials: Lessons Learned

Throughout my career as an educator, I’ve had many opportunities to select instructional materials. One experience is particularly memorable because I learned then that how you select instructional materials can be as important as what materials are selected

By that point in my career, I had selected materials for other content areas, but I had been the only teacher making the choices, and the process was simple: Pick the text I like most, and submit it to the district. 

This time, however, the process was a bit more complicated because I was part of a team making the selection. The biology team reluctantly gathered our sub lesson plans and headed to the district office. Using the district’s evaluation criteria, we spent all day reading and evaluating stacks of sample materials. By the end of the day, we narrowed our selections down to two options. 

The first option was not surprising: It was the newer version of what we were currently using, and we were ecstatic about the resources that would be at our fingertips. Every page was filled with great photos, graphics, and icons, along with thoughtfully formatted text on glossy pages; technology supports were integrated throughout; accompanying video clips were provided; lab books and student worksheets were coordinated with the student text; and a tall stack of fancy color transparencies (yes, this was a few years ago) were at our disposal. These resources and more were coordinated with an equally glossy wraparound teacher’s edition. 

The second option seemed much less desirable. It lacked DVDs; provided only a few color transparencies; included neither links to additional online information, nor glossy visuals; and had fewer hints and tips embedded on the pages. In addition, the teacher’s guide was a separate volume with little except text to support instruction. 

You might be wondering why we would choose this textbook as a finalist when it was so obviously lacking the resources the first one offered. We did so because the district’s review process challenged us to closely examine our choices. When we did, we realized that the second book was organized in a way that better aligned with the type of teaching we were striving for—one that supported students in making sense of the world around them, rather than just memorizing increasingly complex scientific information. It was less flashy, but more relevant to students.

Publisher sales pitches we heard the following month reaffirmed our thoughts and we chose the second text. Because my district had a process and criteria that allowed us to focus on what mattered most while giving us the autonomy to make a wise decision, we were able to select the materials that would help us improve our instruction.

If we hadn’t undertaken a facilitated, criterion-based review, we would have ended up with the same type of materials as before and experienced the same frustrations in the classroom. The selection process helped us identify what we really needed to change in the classroom and motivated us to make the right choice to achieve those goals. Additionally, because we came to this realization through the process rather than having it imposed on us, we owned the implementation of the materials and used it as an opportunity to advance instruction in our classrooms.

This experience was a watershed moment for me because it helped me understand that a robust process for selecting instructional materials can pay significant dividends over time.

Based on my experiences in the classroom, at the state level, and now at Achieve, I have five big lessons that I’ve learned about selecting instructional materials. Many of you are seeking instructional materials that are truly designed for teaching the NGSS, materials that don’t just have an alignment sticker or use the NGSS colors. You want materials that will make your classroom one in which students develop and use all three dimensions of the standards to make sense of phenomena and design solutions to problems. As you evaluate materials and make selections, keep these lessons learned in mind:

  1. Selecting instructional materials should be a part of a broader implementation plan. Materials are key, but can’t do everything and they’ll have a bigger impact if they are embedded in a larger initiative. If you don’t know where to start, check out these state and district implementation resources
  2. Don’t do it alone. It’s helpful to have other local educators to work with, but for those in rural areas with few science colleagues, or those struggling to find willing colleagues, communities on Twitter, Facebook, and in the NSTA Learning Center can serve as a sounding board for ideas and a source of support and feedback. 
  3. Be clear on what you need. It’s a common mistake to think that materials are the first step to implementation, but if you don’t know what materials designed for teaching the NGSS look like, you might select ones that appear to be aligned, but aren’t. Check out the criteria and support in the NGSS Lesson Screener (for lessons), the EQuIP Rubric for Science (for units), and PEEC (for year-long materials) here. In particular, read about the NGSS Innovations in PEEC that highlight what is new in these standards and how instructional materials can reflect that. Many producers of materials are making claims about NGSS alignment. Be skeptical consumers.
  4. Try out a unit designed for the NGSS in your classroom. To determine and understand the types of materials you’ll need, try a few in your classroom to decide what support is most helpful. You can find a variety of units identified as quality units designed for the NGSS here, and more are being posted regularly. 
  5. Understand the power of the process. Develop a selection process that brings teachers together to build a common understanding of what good materials are, and use carefully selected criteria to analyze the materials You’ll ultimately choose the materials best suited for your students, and teachers will be better prepared to implement them. 

While high-quality materials are needed, that’s only one of the factors to consider. The materials need to be part of a broader science implementation plan that includes, among other things, professional learning to support ongoing improvement in instruction. But how these materials are selected can help address several implementation issues simultaneously if it is done well. Because this is likely the most significant science-specific expenditure your district will make, it’s worth devoting the time and resources needed to select materials in a thoughtful, strategic way. Use this process as a lever for change to improve science instruction for every student in your district.


text-based header: Matt Krehbiel

Matt Krehbiel

Matt Krehbiel is the Science Director at Achieve, Inc. Reach him at and follow him on twitter at @ksscienceguy. Come learn more about selecting instructional materials designed for the NGSS during his session at the NSTA National Conference in Atlanta. The session, Looking for NGSS-Focused Instructional Materials?, is part of the day-long NGSS@NSTA Forum focused on instructional materials.


This article was featured in the February 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.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | 1 Response

Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading Program Helps Students Develop Explanations

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) encourage three-dimensional thinking in students. 3-D thinking, and the process of developing scientific explanations, are curiosity-driven: They involve wondering, posing questions, and making observations; reading books to discover what others have learned; planning investigations; gathering and analyzing information; reflecting on what was learned in light of new evidence; and proposing explanations and predictions. Developing explanations requires critical and logical thinking, considering alternative explanations, and being willing to change one’s ideas when new evidence requires it.

Not only do scientists develop their explanations, but so do good readers, and information gathered from text is an important source of evidence. Therefore, developing explanations serves as one of the central strategies in the learning and teaching of science and literacy in the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading® program developed by Amplify. Teachers can access the free 33 strategy guides that promote the development of explanations.  Those strategy guides can be accessed on the Seeds of Science website

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And the Search Continues…

As a former elementary science specialist, I am familiar with the elementary teacher’s skill set. They excel at managing a classroom, are very organized, and love a great mentor text—a text that is an example of good writing. However, many don’t feel confident enough when teaching science to consider themselves science experts. Helping elementary teachers begin to become comfortable with the NGSS and similar three-dimensional standards and able to search for resources to support them consumed my days and nights as a science supervisor in a new district.

To fully understand what teachers experienced in the past, I trudged my way through the “science sheds,” as they were so fondly dubbed. I likened what I found to an episode of Hoarders Buried Alive, with a dash of the science kits from years past. The shed contained good stuff, but teachers either didn’t know how to use it, or were so overwhelmed with the vast teacher’s edition that they could just barely teach the allotted 40 minutes a week of science.

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Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | 1 Response

Why Don’t Antibiotics Work Like They Used To?

Why don’t antibiotics work like they used to? is an NGSS-aligned storyline developed by the Next Generation Science Storylines Project that focuses on natural selection and other mechanisms of evolution.  Wayne Wright and I (Holly Hereau) teach science at Thurston High School in Redford, Michigan. We implemented this storyline with our 11th-grade honors biology and general biology classes in spring 2017 and again in fall 2017 with a revised version following professional development on how to support a classroom culture of “figuring out”.

The first part of the curriculum is anchored on the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. Students meet Addie, a little girl who is on the brink of death after contracting methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The class decides that the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria should be investigated. Students have many interesting ideas and share their questions with the class. Students create a Driving Question Board (DQB) that helps them determine what kinds of questions must be answered to help them explain this problem. The questions they ask can be organized into two types: questions about what is happening inside Addie’s body and questions about what is occurring outside her, including which environments she was in and what symptoms are occurring in other infected people (the growing prevalence of cases over time).

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Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | 1 Response

How to Host a Science Night

My middle school would like to host a science night for the district. Do you have any ideas? —S., Illinois

Concentrate on activities that are safe. inexpensive, quick to set up and take down, and easy to clean up. Your students can learn a lot as the guides and demonstrators at the activities, while relieving you and your colleagues of some of the burden. Create passports that get stamped at different stations to promote participation.

Many quick engineering activities use only straws and tape: towers, cantilevers, bridges, and so on.

Astronomy is always a big hit (if the weather cooperates). Contact the local amateur astronomical society for help and equipment. Display images of the moon, planets, star clusters, and constellations students take with night photography apps on cell phones.

A “Science Mystery Show” in which students demonstrate and explain a variety of discrepant events will be a hit. There are many ideas for these on the web.

Hunting for pond micro- and macro-organisms under microscopes is another captivating activity. Students could create “wanted” posters that will describe certain species to find. The “reward” could correlate with the rarity or difficulty of finding that organism.

Extracting DNA from strawberries or other fruit can be really fun, inexpensive, and easy. Do a quick search of NSTA’s Learning Center or the web to find out how.

Messy but always fun is to make ooblek, slime, or gak as a chemistry activity. There are tons of recipes and different formulations online.

Most of all, HAVE FUN!

Hope this helps!


Photo credit:  National Science Foundation [Public Domain}

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Ed News: Highlighting the ‘E’ in STEM Education

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This week in education news, Trump presents FY 2019 budget to Congress; new study finds student learning gains in schools where teacher mentor their colleagues; Aurora science teacher like collaborating with students; new study finds online lessons can enhance students’ understanding of science; Idaho Senate Education Committee delays vote on proposed science standards; Wyoming Senate Education Committee passes computer science standards bill; and for experiential learning programs to flourish, they must bridge K-12, higher education, and the workforce.

Opinion: Banish ‘Just A Theory’ Dunces With Sound Science Education

“Evolution is just a theory.” When someone utters that phrase, there is no clearer signal that the speaker has failed to grasp one of the most basic of science concepts. In science, a theory is not a guess. The term used by scientists to indicate a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world. You’re unlikely to hear “gravity is just a theory” or “germs causing disease is just a theory.” And yet “evolution is just a theory” is suddenly popping up in conversations across Florida. Read the article featured in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Trump Budget Request Prioritizes STEM And Apprenticeships. But Is There a Catch?

The Trump Administration’s budget request for 2019 eyes a strong push for high school-based apprenticeships and career and technical education focused on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. The proposals, however, would revamp the Carl T. Perkins Act, the federal law that governs how this federal funding flows. Among other things, the budget request says it would “promote strategies that allow students to work and learn at the same time,” and prioritize “offerings to STEM fields and other high-demand fields.” Read the article featured in Education Week.

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NSTA Legislative Update: President Releases FY2019 Budget

President Trump released his budget for FY2019 programs on Monday, February 12, and, as expected, has requested significant cuts to key grant programs in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The Administration is requesting $63.2 billion in discretionary funding for the U.S.  Education Department FY2019 programs which will begin on October 1. This is approximately a 5.3 percent cut from current levels.  

The budget also “streamlines and refocuses”  the Federal investment in K-12 education by eliminating funding for 17 programs totaling $4.4 billion the Administration believes to be “duplicative, ineffective, or more appropriately supported through State, local, or private funds.”

Programs on the chopping block include the Title IV-A, Student Support and Academic Achievement Grants; Title II grants for teacher training; and afterschool programs.

Title IV-A Student Support and Academic Achievement Grants. The President is calling to completely eliminate the SSAE grant program in its third year of existence. The SSAE grant program under Title IV-A of ESSA is a flexible block grant that is designed to provide support for much needed health and safety programs, well-rounded education programs, including Science and STEM, and the effective use of education technology. Districts can use Title IVA funding to increase access to STEM for underserved and at risk student populations; support the participation of students in STEM nonprofit competitions; providing hands-on learning opportunities in STEM; integrate other academic subjects, including the arts, into STEM subject programs; create or enhance STEM specialty schools; and integrate classroom based and afterschool and informal STEM instruction.

Title II A:  The President is calling for elimination of this $2 billion program that funds teacher training and class-size reduction efforts.

Title V, Afterschool Programs (21st Century Community Learning Centers): The President proposes eliminating this $1.2 billion grant for after-school programs.  These programs fund high-quality STEM programming in afterschool and summer learning programs.

And now the good news: As a follow up to the Presidential memorandum to provide $200m for STEM education and computer science, the budget is calling for “$180 million in funding for the Education Innovation and Research program, as well as $20 million in new STEM grants.

The competitive Education Innovation and Research grants would support “evidence-based strategies and interventions to improve student achievement in STEM fields, including computer science.”  $20 million would go for awards to “create innovative career and technical education programs in STEM fields, including computer science, that are aligned with regional workforce and labor market needs.”

Keep in mind that the Administration’s budget is simply a suggestion to Congress, and Congress has the final power to determine funding levels for these programs.  However, it is important to note that the budget does signal the President’s priorities, and this year one of the six major themes listed in the President’s FY 2019 Budget was “promoting innovation and reform around STEM education”

Also complicating matters is the fact that appropriators have still not completed their work for the FY2018 budget year, which started Oct. 1 2018.  Last week legislators lifted the budget caps on domestic programs, including education, and federal agencies will be open until March 23, allowing legislators time to finalize an omnibus spending bill for FY2018.  More here on that.

President’s FY2019 budget also maintains support for Title I funding ($15.5B) and provides about $12.8 billion for special education funding .  The Administration is also seeking  $43 million for School Climate Transformation grants specifically to help states and local districts address the impact of opioids on students and schools.

The Budget maintains $1.1 billion in funding for career and technical education. The White House plan calls for sending the majority of this funding to high schools “to promote strategies such as apprenticeship, work-based learning and dual-enrollment.” It also calls for an increase in STEM offerings and for authorizing funding for “fast-track programs that prepare high-school graduates for jobs rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”

The President also wants to invest $1.1 billion in school choice programs.

Read more here and here.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s February 2018 K-12 journals

Regardless of what grade level or subject are you teach, as you skim through the article titles, you may find ideas for lessons that would be interesting your students or the inspiration to adapt/create your own.

All three journals include Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12: 2018. The books are organized by a relevant NGSS Disciplinary Core Idea, with additional correlations to Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices. The reviewers include a grade level range, so you can choose books for students at various reading and interest levels.


The Science Teacher – Maker Movement

This month’s Editor’s Corner: “Making” a Difference has several points about the Maker Movement. It’s worth a read if you need to convince others of the value.

  • Maker education involves problem- and project-based learning through open-ended, collaborative fabrication. Like engineers, makers use an iterative design cycle as they strive to create better solutions. Students solve authentic, personally relevant problems.
  • Making has the potential to develop students’ 21st-century skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, innovation, collaboration, and more.
  • While maker projects provide students with authentic experiences of science and engineering practices, it can be a challenge to clearly align them with important disciplinary core ideas.

The maker-related lessons described in the articles include connections with the NGSS (including DCIs) and many include classroom resources and illustrations of student work.

  • Just as play is important in early learning, Elements of Making discusses how to bring creative experiences to older students. The authors include six elements of making and a related matrix to help us incorporate making into science teaching.
  • Grouping Minerals by Their Formulas takes students beyond simply identifying minerals with a 5E lesson in using “mineral formulas to help Earth Science wonder about the connection between elements, compounds, mixtures, minerals, and mineral formulas.” The author includes example of student work in connecting the Periodic Table to mineral properties.
  • Not all making involves physical materials. Our Watershed describes a project in which students “use field exploration and online software to design virtual solutions to improve the hydrology of their schoolyard.” Many photographs are used to illustrate the process and the product.
  • The author of Going Beyond the X shows how students can probe more deeply into DNA replication through modeling. She includes photos of the partner and group activities.
  • Arguing Over Life and Death provides a real-life context (endangered species) for helping students learn, practice, and use a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning framework.
  • Career of the Month: Additive Engineer: Who knew that “making” could turn into a career?
  • This month’s Library of Congress resource–Right to the Source: Making Old New Again—has a story of students during WWII making model airplanes to aid in training. So… check out the photos–“making” is not necessarily a new thing!

These monthly columns continue to provide background knowledge and classroom ideas:

For more on the content that provides a context for projects and strategies described in this issue, see the SciLinks topics Chromosomes, Conservation of Energy, DNA Replication, Electromagnetic Induction, Electromagnetic Waves, Endangered Species, Mineral Identification, Mineral Properties, Mitosis, River Systems, Watersheds

Keep reading for Science Scope and  Science and Children.

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Assessment for Learning

What do you typically do after administering a test or a midterm to help students make necessary corrections and, thereby, reinforce the concepts that were not understood?
– J., New York


Tests and exams, which are assessments of learning, should also be a basis for learning. When I returned a test, the corrections automatically became an assignment. When I gave students points on their tests for their corrections, I sensed that they didn’t put as much effort into preparing for tests. To offset that tendency, I gave assignments the same weight, regardless of how many [or few] corrections were needed. To prevent the students from copying from others, they had to refer directly to their notes or textbook and write a little citation. They could append a photograph of their notes to their test. This technique also ensures that students will have complete notes to study from on midterms or final exams.

In my experience, people tend to repeat the same mistake on multiple choice questions if they take it again. Attempt to circumvent this by having students write out the question and the correct answer in full. You may need to give students more than one attempt at essay, long answer or conjectural questions for them to arrive at the correct answers.

I usually kept corrected tests on file until exam review, primarily so students didn’t lose them!
Hope this helps!

Photo Credit: Alison Wood (Own Work)

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Farm: animals & a beginning understanding of hereditary

Figure 1 — Pie chart showing estimated proportions of different groups of organisms on Earth today, by numbers of species.

If you were asked to name 10 animals, would an insect be one of them? Many of us, including young children, think of insects as “bugs” that are not really animals. Looking at a pie chart showing estimated proportions of different groups of organisms on Earth today we see  a great diversity and how the number of species of insects is many times larger than other groups of organisms (Slater, 2014, Figure 1).

Diversity of animal life doesn’t only mean the amazing number of different species of living animal organisms in the world, counted by scientists thus far. Diversity can be observed within a species and the words we use when talking about animals with children can help them understand this. If children are matching toy animal parents with babies based on color, begin a conversation about the other attributes of the animals. “Which animal models have horns?” “What are their tails shaped like?” “What about this animal makes it look like a cow?” Provide children with photos and other media examples of animal groups where the parents and babies are not exactly alike. Families in your program or class may be good examples of how young animals “are like, but not exactly like, their parents” (NGSS 1-LS3-1). Use resources that describe the many ways families come together to affirm all family structures and be aware that not all children are biologically related to their adult family members. The book Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards has helpful chapters on family structures, culture and language, racial identity, and many other areas where prejudice, misinformation, and bias may exist.

Two Disciplinary Core Ideas for Life Science, LS3.A and LS3.B, in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), are concepts preschool children can think about when learning about where our food comes from. Preschool lesson plans can do more than present a mythical farm where there is one family group of each animal species and each baby animal looks like a miniature version of the adult parent.

LS3.A Inheritance of traits. Young organisms are very much, but not exactly, like their parents

LS3.B Variation of traits. Individuals of the same kind of plant or animal are recognizable as similar but can also vary in many ways.

These two DCI’s support the first grade Performance Expectation 1-LS3-1 Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits. This standard states “Students who demonstrate understanding can: Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.” Children might observe that the baby chickens that were hatched in the classroom have a variety of feather colors, and that their own hair is different in texture or color than their father’s and mother’s hair, or that the leaves on a tiny Redbud tree are smaller than those of the parent tree.

Consider what you want children to do and what you want them to learn. What will help children learn about the world beyond their immediate experience? What do you want them to know first—the species’ names for the mother, father, and baby of common farm animals (e.g, mare, stallion, and foal), the sounds they make, their relationships to one another, or what kinds of products we use made from farm animals? Providing labels for objects helps shape children’s conceptual development as well as knowledge (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council page 99).

While reading a book about animals to children, naming the species and imitating their sounds will be the first way I introduce very young children to animals. Pointing out the baby-parent relationship and introducing words such as “foal,” “calf,” and “kid” can come later. Unless those words will be used on a regular basis—if your children often see parent and baby horses or other animals—new vocabulary words won’t be remembered and that is okay. 

Having two words for a single animal may be confusing. Some baby animals look very different from their parents—caterpillars and butterflies, and tadpoles and frogs. We can emphasize the connection by frequent labeling when we talk about these animals, saying, “The caterpillar is a baby butterfly,” and “The baby butterfly is eating the leaf.” Even when pictured side by side children may easily identify a frog but say its tadpole is a snake. First-hand experiences observing baby animals maturing into their adult form can link dissimilar baby and adult forms as one species in children’s understanding.

Adult and baby chickens and pigs shown in a children's bookIn the February 2018 issue of Science and Children I wrote about observing animal life cycles. Children who live close to animals, pets or farm livestock, become knowledgable through first-hand observations as well as learning about other animals through fiction and non-fiction books. Learning about animals of all kinds expands children’s understanding of animal diversity. When looking for books to teach children about animals be aware of the limitations of learning through media rather than by direct experience. Look for books and video with images that show adult and baby animals in proportional sizes, or in relationship to a human, such as Actual Size by Steve Jenkins (2004) and National Geographic Children’s Books Explore My World Baby Animals (2015) by Marfé Ferguson Delano.  View images of animals on commercial farms, available on the FarmFood360 website by Farm & Food Care Ontario.

Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

Slater, B. J. 2014. Fossil Focus: Arthropod–plant interactions. Palaeontology Online, Volume 4, Article 5, 1-17.

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