NGSS: Starting With The Three Dimensions

I recently realized that I have been writing about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in a very piece-meal fashion.  Honestly, I didn’t realize how many teachers were just beginning their journey. And how many teachers were struggling with the standards and their three dimensions.

Since this realization, I’ve tried to rewind a bit and get back to some of the basics. I’ve done some Facebook Lives, some free workshops, and some Instagram stories to touch on issues like mindset shifts, identifying quality resources, and the how-to’s “NGSSing” your science class.  That said, I know some people prefer text – and I love to write – so in the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of these ideas with you via the blog, too.


Some Big Shifts

The NGSS is overwhelming. You really need to rethink how you are teaching science if you want to be successful meeting the standards.  We can’t teach like we used to.

And what way was that? Well, the way I learned science when I was in school (and probably why I thought I hated it till I got to college!) looked something like this:

Let’s “think pair share” about the topic – aka shallow student interaction.  Let’s get up out of our seats so we feel like we are engaged – aka mistaking engagement for intellectual engagement. Here’s a demo – it will teach you the topic.  There’s a clear right or wrong answer – don’t be a failure.  Oh, let me correct you.  And here’s some more stuff you should know.

Real talk – if I described one of your lessons, I’m sorry.  But we have to do better.  We all do our best – I am sure of that, and the fact that you are reading this blog post is proof that you WANT to do better. You WANT to be an amazing teacher that engages their students in real, worthwhile science instruction.  Maybe you haven’t had the guidance and mentorship to figure out a better way. I get that. And that’s why I’m here!

So, if there’s a better way, what is it?

That’s what the NGSS tries to tackle. What is a better way to teach science?


Teaching In THree Dimensions

For the most part, humans like order.  We love to put things in boxes. Categorizing, labeling, structuring.  These are all tasks that help us understand complex topics and make sense of disorder.  We do this in our homes, and we do this in our schools. It’s not a bad thing — many times it makes sense, and it does help us understand and keep track of complex concepts and materials.  (It definitely makes it easier to find things!) The downside is that we can sometimes box things in so completely that we lose our understanding of the big picture.

If you look at our educational system, we have broken students down into grades, and then separated those grades into subjects, and then separated those subjects into topics.  While it makes teaching a bit easier (I don’t have to be a master of quadratic equations AND cellular processes, after all), our students may be losing out. This is especially true when we look at how we teach science – particularly those science and engineering practices and the crosscutting concepts (aka big ideas that link the disciplines).

For many years, we have been teaching science with a focus on the content (in NGSS language, this would be a focus on the Disciplinary Core Ideas).  Our state standards described what students should know, and our lessons taught those facts and ideas. This model doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did).  Why? First, Google. Yep, just Google. Why should a student memorize the characteristics of various minerals, when you can just Google them? Second, who cares? Unless you’re going to become a geologist, you probably won’t need to remember what color streak pyrite leaves.

Wouldn’t it be better if our students, instead, focused on understanding how matter cycled? And how that mineral they’re holding there was once part of a different rock? That the energy they learned about in their physical science class powered the changes in matter they explored in chemistry to create the new rocks they were examining in earth science? And what if they could devise a test to determine what type of mineral it is using their knowledge of chemical reactions? What if they could then use their data to support their conclusion?

In the above examples, you can see evidence of both content AND skills — or in NGSS language, practices.  The NGSS specifically integrates Science and Engineering Practices with the content. I.E. You should NOT be teaching “the scientific method” or even “science inquiry” independent of relevant content.  And you SHOULD be adding engineering into the mix.

By integrating the three dimensions, you are adding authenticity to your curriculum and a rationale for learning by demonstrating how it is all really interconnected. Moreover, you are giving students the time and opportunity to practice these skills and develop these understandings over and over. Finally, you are giving students a taste of what science looks like in the real world.  Science is a lot more engaging when you are learning it the right way.

The How-To: THree Dimensional Learning

Ok, so how do we do it. First, you need to understand what the SEPs and the CCCs are. Second, you need to figure out where you’re at and where you could be improving. Lastly, you will need to reframe those activities and instruction to incorporate the SEPs and CCCs.  Let’s break it down a little further…

Step 1: Understand Each Dimension

So again, first step: understand each dimension individually.  The idea of “core disciplinary ideas” is pretty well understood because really, it’s the content. Specifically, it’s the big ideas in the content.  I’m going to skip over that for now, because that’s the easiest to grasp independently.

The SEPs are a little trickier, because we do need to reframe our understanding of some of those practices.  For example, models.  Models are not just pictures or diagrams or craft projects. They are meant to be used – to explain big concepts – to predict changes – to figure out how something works.  So looking at the lunar cycle: asking students to cut shapes out of Oreo cookies is fun, but it’s not really a model.  Giving students a lamp, a golf ball, and some data sketches about what the moon looked like over the course of the month… and then letting them figure out how to get from A to B – that would be developing a model!

The last of the three dimensions is the Crosscutting Concepts, and I feel like this is the most easily ignored dimension and also the trickiest to truly grasp.  The CCC are overarching ideas that we see across the scientific disciplines – concepts like patterns, cause and effect, structure and function.  These are ideas that students must develop to truly adopt a scientific way of thinking and understanding the natural world.  To help you implement these in your classroom, Erin Sadler and I created a set of printable cards you can use during your planning to ensure you are addressing a myriad of CCCs in your learning sequences.


Step two: Evaluate Your Current Activities

So once you understand each of the dimensions, you can look at how well you are (or aren’t) integrating them at present.  This will also allow you to see where you SHOULD be adding them in.

First, you’re going to want to list the activities in your unit. You can see on my example that I’ve listed a series of activities in my Relationships in Ecosystems instructional sequence. I included a short description of the activity, although you may or may not need to do that. It really just depends on whether you will recognize what students are doing in that activity.

Then, I identified what SEP I am incorporating into that activity.  I circled stars based on how much the activity focuses on the SEP.  If the entire activity focuses on analyzing data, then that would earn 3 stars.  That activity is very much integrating that practice.  If, on the other hand, students are simply generating a question or two at the end of an activity – without really spending too much time or effort on that practice – I’d only circle one star.  It’s been incorporated but it’s not emphasized here.

I have done the same for the Crosscutting Concepts.  If understanding the concept is very clearly the focus of the instruction – for example, evaluating whether or not a relationship appears to be causal or correlational – it gets 3 stars.  If we just touch on the idea that some systems are too large or small to observe directly, I may circle just one star.  This is just a way to visually assess the degree to which the three dimensions have been integrated into unit activities.


Step Three: Reframe Your Instruction

Lastly, the goal is to begin reframing your instruction to better incorporate the three dimensions.  After completing the self-evaluation in Step 2, consider where you could place a greater emphasis on SEPs and CCCs – where are the gaps? Could you modify a “one star” activity to make it a “three star” activity? Looking at your CCCs cards, what concepts could easily be added to your discussion of the content material?

If you are looking for more guidance on incorporating the three dimensions into your classroom, check out this blog post.

Overall, as you develop NGSS units, you may wonder how well you are targeting each of the SEPs and CCCs. I would suggest keeping track in some manner.   Over the course of a unit – or even an entire year – you may begin to notice patterns in your use of (or neglect of) certain SEPs and CCCs.

I created a checklist organizer to keep myself on track – and it helped me to realize how much I was avoiding the the Mathematics and Computational Thinking practices. Since then, I’ve worked to better understand that practice and find ways to incorporate opportunities for students to practice those tasks in my unit activities.


Looking For More?

If you are looking for additional trainings and resources on these topics –  teaching with the three dimensions, the SEPs, CCCs, engineering in the classroom and so on, you may be interested in the NGSS Your Science Class self-paced course, starting this fall.  You can try out the first class free beginning August 1 by joining the Science Teacher Tribe as a FREE MEMBER.

Remember, adopting a Next Generation state of mind takes time. It’s going to take some serious shifts in our understanding of science as a discipline and its three dimensions, the content of our classrooms, and the strategies we employ during instruction.

Today, I covered just the first step — understanding science as a discipline, specifically grasping those three dimensions.  Stay tuned to learn more about evaluating content and instructional strategies.

Then again, if you just can’t wait, you can watch a whole video workshop about it here.