Exploring Wonder and the NGSS with Paul Andersen


This past week Legends of Learning attended the Science Teachers Association of New York State (STANYS) science conference in Rochester, New York. Paul Andersen keynoted the event.

Paul isn’t your average keynote speaker. I could say it’s because he’s really young to be giving advice, or he doesn’t dress up like the influencer that he is. But I think it’s more than that. He’s hyper-focused. Paul only cares about science and the people who teach it. His Ted talk, 500 thimgresousand YouTube followers, and 12K Twitter followers stand as evidence of his passion for science and teachers.

Much of his fire arises from his background and experiences. Paul grew up and still lives in Montana, where nature and science integrate into everyday life. As a kid, he also read the Animals do the Strangest Things series, further igniting his curiosity about the world around him. His questions eventually led him to the teaching profession, where he could spend entire class periods sparking his students’ imaginations.

Use Digital Media to Communicate

While in the classroom, Paul began producing simple videos to help students better understand his teaching concepts. As he shared early — and painful — escapades with video, he had the whole room belly-laughing. Paul’s students thought they were so bad that they could barely stand to listen to them. To keep them interested, or so he hoped, Paul inserted techno music in the background. It was, of course, an epic fail.

Paul learned a tremendous lesson from the blunders. “I’ve never learned anything from a compliment, but I learn constantly from constructive criticism,” he said to conference attendees. Through student’s feedback, he slowly improved and started posting the new iterations on YouTube. Viewers responded with a deluge of feedback, most of it negative. Again, Paul remained undeterred. He continued working on the videos, improving them little by little.

Remember Your Role in Teaching

Fast forward to 2012. Paul found himself working on the NGSS Standards in their infancy. He understood right from the beginning how difficult it would be for teachers to adapt their classrooms and mindset to the standards. Paul naturally gravitated toward video and started producing play-by-play recommendations on NGSS implementation. As teachers started to use the online resource, his hit rates spiked, and he received multiple invitations to speak with teachers.

His presentations, including the one given at STANYS, always emphasize the importance of elementary school science teachers in making the wheels of NGSS truly turn. “They begin the process of thinking in a cross-cutting way,” he explained. Elementary school teachers form the critical building blocks for students’ later years.

He also consistently highlights the need for wonder. “Don’t just give them [students] the answers,” he advised. “Show them something amazing, something cool and let them figure out how it works.”

Create a Sense of Wonder

Being a science teacher, Paul demonstrated his statement with an object lesson. He pulled out a tube with several puffy balls and strings attached to it. When he pulled a ball on the left, a ball on the right would move. We all sat, entranced. Many asked Paul how it worked. He refused to say and never did give a definitive answer. He asked that we simply ponder the question as he continued his discussion.

Paul showed us several more phenomena, including strangely configured shower heads from around the world that somehow managed to function. He displayed a diagram of the sun and moon and asked us to predict when high tide would be.

Paul urged all of us to be teachers who create wonder inside and outside the classroom. “Explanation kills wonder,” he warned. He implored us to let kids come up with their own explanations for phenomena and above all, think for themselves.

Develop New Techniques for New Standards

Paul then taught us a roadmap called CLAIM EVIDENCE REASONING, a technique that helps students think through problems. With it, students must provide three items.

  1. Students state what they believe is occurring with a given phenomena.
  2. They collect and share evidence in support of their claim.
  3. They explain why the evidence proves their claim.

For most science teachers, the process is a “sea change in pedagogy.” But Paul stressed that cookbook labs and hands-on materials alone do not constitute or lead to critical thinking. For that, students need to practice and fail with the technique, and teachers need to practice and fail in implementing it to see truly real and remarkable results.

Walk the Walk

It was an inspiring presentation, and I could have walked away from it feeling Paul’s genuine passion for the science right then and there. But Paul wasn’t satisfied with being a quote-on-quote thought leader. He came to the conference to learn, just like everyone else who was there.

Over the next two days, he appeared everywhere, attending seemingly random sessions to learn new techniques for himself and to study the ways speakers delivered their ideas. More than once I looked over my shoulder to find Paul taking notes or laughing with a newly-made friend.

Paul did what most keynote speakers don’t seem to have the time or patience for: he walked the walk. He showed us, in words and actions, his commitment to science and teachers. Seismic shifts face educators, but no one walks alone. We walk together as we get our hands dirty to bring wonder back to the classroom.

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