How to make NGSS Storylines a Student Centered Learning Experience

student centered learning ngss


Storyline pedagogy is modeled on a new partnership between students and teachers. The students’ own questions are the catalyst for each part of an NGSS storyline. Through self-discovery, reflection, questioning, and risk-taking, students make connections across science disciplines and concepts. Through student-let investigation, they make personal connections with the phenomena and engage in deeper learning. The teacher’s role in this next generation learning model is essential. They must create a culture of thinking and a safe space for risk taking by allowing students agency over their own learning. Classroom frameworks and formative assessment can help release responsibility onto the students for this to occur consistently.

High quality student interactions with science phenomena are built on curious questions. Using student’s own curiosity to power their learning and drive each episode of a storyline promotes building personal connections to the concepts we want students to master. To spark their curiosity, teachers should ask generative questions (ones we don’t know the answer to), constructive questions (interpret, connect, extend), and facilitative questions (making thinking visible by explaining and elaborating). These types of questions model curiosity and inquiry, driving student-led investigation.

What Is Student-Centered Learning?

Storyline pedagogy engages students in deeper learning at the intersection of mastery, identity, and creativity (Making Thinking Visible, Ritchhart, Church, Morrison (2011). Student-centered learning gives individuals the opportunity to create something personally meaningful. Through hands-on learning, students achieve mastery of the standards while investigating, questioning, and connecting their own identity to science phenomena. 

Student-centered learning is a key element of storyline pedagogy. The students are making the key decisions about what they want to investigate about a real-world phenomenon. Through hands-on discovery, they are building their own personal connections to it. A storyline provides an integrated continuum for students to think deeply about science concepts and big ideas, through personal inquiry into real world phenomena over a series of days and weeks. The NGSS storyline provides the structure for students to integrate science and engineering principles, cross-cutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas with personal investigation. 

Why is Student-Centered Learning Important?

Student-centered learning is thinking-driven. When students take the lead on building a storyline, the 
output of each student-centered investigation feeds into the next episode. Each is driven by the students’ own questions and thinking. Together with their peers, the students are figuring out complex new phenomena in relation to their own experiences. In this type of learning, concepts are constructed, not transferred, using the students' own knowledge. Through their own interaction with the phenomena, students are building strong, personal connections to it. 

By figuring out phenomena through a question and discovery process, students are thinking deeply about and mastering core concepts. These students can reproduce their thinking process – questioning, investigating, analyzing, and making conclusions – in response to other situations and questions. Rather than just learning the answer to a common question and repeating it back when asked, student-centered learning promotes critical thinking and true mastery of the standards.

The Role of Teachers in Student-Centered NGSS Storylines

An NGSS storyline is not a script that students and teachers read through together. It's not a trail of breadcrumbs (or tasks) that the students follow to get to the end of the story. In student-centered learning, the students are writing their own story within each storyline episode. An anchor phenomenon kicks off the storyline and the students’ own creativity and inquiry does the rest. The story is written by nature and governed by the laws of science, but the students choose how they interact with it by picking their own investigation questions.

The teacher's role in student-centered storyline pedagogy is essential. If the student is steering the ship, the teacher is the architect of that ship. The students must be given clear expectations to guide their inquiry, and strong classroom frameworks to work creatively within. Creating a classroom environment where students can wonder, experiment, make mistakes, ask questions, and think for themselves is the basis for student-centered learning and implementing storyline pedagogy. The role of these teachers is to help their students better engage in reflection, questioning, and thinking moves throughout each episode.

The Role of Students in Student-Centered NGSS Storylines

In an NGSS storyline, each student-led episode flows into the next, with students building on their outputs while refining their own thinking and reasoning skills. Instead of a distinct 45-min unit that ends at the bell, each episode ends with the students wondering about something new. The connections they made, information they collected, and questions they answered feed into what they want to discover next about the anchor phenomenon.

For example, in the five-part KnowAtom NGSS lesson framework, students encounter an anchor phenomenon using the picture-thinking routine. When working in familiar frameworks, students know that their own questions will drive their investigation. There is a payout for their creativity and deeper thinking because it drives the storyline. Next, the students decide together what they want to investigate. This can be done through a science circle or Socratic dialogue. The students share their knowledge, experiences, and ideas about the phenomena during classroom discussion and pick something they want to learn more about. 

A student-centered investigation is planned by the students. In teams or pairs, they define their process, identify the purpose for the materials they need, and choose the data they must collect to answer their question. The students lead their own experiment or engineering process, analyze their own data, and form their own conclusions. Finally, the students share their discoveries and form a consensus about the anchor phenomena. This conclusion flows into the next episode – what did we learn, and what do we want to know more about now? 

How to Ensure Your NGSS Storyline Lessons are Student-Centered

The teacher’s role within student-centered learning is key. To ensure students are really in the lead every step of the way, teachers must provide clear guidance and expectations, model intellectual curiosity, and implement frameworks that allow their students to practice deeper learning through investigation. In student-centered learning the goal is the process – mastery through personal inquiry. Through the act of intellectual risk taking, students build critical thinking skills and use their agency to build strong personal connections. But the teacher must create the opportunity and the safe space for this to occur consistently. 

One way to do this is through formative assessment. Instead of one big test at the end of a unit, formative assessment is low-stakes and ongoing. It provides students the feedback they need at the time they need it – when they’re still questioning and discovering. It helps them improve their thinking process, as well as their results. It allows students to make mistakes, change their mind, and go back and rethink their hypothesis or investigation plan, just like scientists and engineers do in the real world. When students own the process, they own their results and the connections they make along the way. They are learning the why – why scientists and engineers do things in the real world – and the what – how those results change the way we understand the world around us. 


Student-centered lesson planning checklist

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”