Three Dimensional Teaching Examples For Deep Science Learning

Three Dimensional Teaching And The NGSS

Three Dimensional Teaching: Developing Deep Science LearningThree dimensional refers to the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards – the science content (Disciplinary Core Ideas), the science skills (Science and Engineering Practices), and the critical thinking habits (Crosscutting Concepts) that help us develop a scientific way of understanding the world.  

Whether you are working with the NGSS, some version of it developed by your state, or you are simply designing investigative units of study into phenomena of interest to you and your students, your approach should integrate these dimensions equally. This is three dimensional teaching and learning, and its goal is to strike a balance between content, skills, and ways of thinking about and understanding the world — developing “scientific mindsets.”


How We Used To Teach Science

This is a huge shift from past approaches to science education (see: How To Bring Wonder Back Into Science Education: Teaching From Phenomena) In the past, we have focused on content – content, content, content. Facts and figures. Vocabulary. Ideas that don’t change.

When science skills were addressed, they were traditionally taught as “the scientific method” or utilized only on “lab days”.  A week was spent teaching how to measure, how to analyze data, and how to run an experiment at the beginning of every year… and then it was never integrated authentically again.

Along those lines, content was taught, and students completed some type of lab afterward. Kind of like, “follow these instructions and SEE, I told you I was right!” These labs – sometimes called “cookie cutter,” “cookbook,” or “confirmation” labs – didn’t require much in the way of critical thinking. It was mostly about following the steps and proving what students were already supposed to have learned. 

It was about following directions and pumping out product. Basically, it was factory work.

Three Dimensional Teaching

In three dimensional lessons, the balance shifts away from content alone — toward a more equal focus on knowledge and skills.  The practices, plus of course the critical thinking habits and worldviews — these are just as important as the content itself.  For that reason, the Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts are embedded into each and every learning opportunity in a three dimensional classroom.  

We are teaching our students to think, to solve problems, and to be creative. These are the skills and mindsets they will need as they leave our education system. 

In a three dimensional lesson, students are actually using the Science and Engineering Practices to discover the content. They may be analyzing data to uncover how latitude affects climate.  They might be building a model to figure out how the arrangement of the sun-Earth-moon system explains the phenomenon of moon phases or Earth’s tides.  The role of the educator isn’t to tell them the idea, but rather, to guide them to their own discovery of it.

Likewise, the Crosscutting Concepts are “lenses” through which phenomena are studied, understood, and explained.  These concepts – things like patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity – help students develop a scientific way of viewing and understanding the natural world. As they encounter things in their everyday lives, they can consider them through those lenses — searching for patterns, considering potential causes, understanding the impacts of small changes, and so on.

These Concepts don’t stand alone in their connection to phenomena though. Rather, they are likewise tied to both content and practices.  In the classroom, students seek patterns in the data or work to explain the cause of a phenomenon.

In three dimensional lessons, each of these dimensions holds equal weight. They are meant to be integrated into each and every learning activity.  While one or two may move to the forefront of a specific task, over the long-term in a unit of study, each receives equal focus and attention. 


An Example Of Three Dimensional Teaching: Earth’s Structure

Let’s take a look at how we can integrate the three dimensions into our daily activities. (Simple, right?)

Graphing Seismic Waves

In our first example, students are working toward understanding the structure of Earth’s interior and ultimately the cycling of matter within it by the process of thermal convection (HS-ESS2-3 Develop a model based on evidence of Earth’s interior to describe the cycling of matter by thermal convection.)  

The Phenomenon:

In terms of phenomena, perhaps students are working to explain the magnetic striping of the ocean floor. Or perhaps they want to understand why Earth has a magnetic field while Mars does not. Maybe they are investigating a specific earthquake, trying to understand why earthquakes happen at all.  Perhaps you will discuss several of these phenomena within your unit of study.

As you can see, you can approach this standard from different perspectives.  The goal is to provide evidence for Earth’s interior structure. In fact, in this activity, students are discovering that structure entirely.  (I’d like to note – while many students do come to class with prior knowledge from middle school… many students don’t! And even when they know the layers, do they understand how we know them?)

The actual investigation first provides a little background information on P waves and S waves. Primarily, students are told that scientists study how these waves behave to understand what is inside Earth. These waves behave differently depending on the material they are traveling through. For that reason, they can provide insight into characteristics of Earth’s interior. (If the phenomenon under investigation is earthquakes, perhaps students already learned about this!)

Incorporating The Science And Engineering Practices

Then, students are asked to graph seismic data and interpret the graph they create to make scientific claims about Earth’s interior structure.  This ties to the Science and Engineering Practice of Analyzing and Interpreting Data — specifically, “Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims” which is expected at the high school level. Now to truly meet this expectation, students could be asked to use a tool like Excel to produce the graph.

Anyway, by analyzing the data, students are able to determine that the Earth has unique layers and that some of these layers are solid and one is liquid.  They have not yet named the layers, and they don’t know what they are exactly made of… but by applying an understanding of the behavior of P and S waves, they are able to interpret their data to draw each of those claims. 

They discovered the content using the practices.

While we clearly can see the Science and Engineering Practices and the Disciplinary Core Ideas in effect here, where are the Crosscutting Concepts?


Incorporating The Crosscutting Concepts

When students are engaging in data analysis, you can often tie in the Crosscutting Concept of Patterns to your task.  One way to understand data is to search for those Patterns.  This can also help identify Cause and Effect relationships (another Crosscutting Concept!), although additional evidence is usually necessary to confirm a causal relationship (as opposed to a correlational one).  

In this activity, students identify patterns in the behavior of P and S waves at different depths within the Earth.  Because both waves change at the same location, they can draw the conclusion that something is happening there — a change.  Patterns help them understand that the Earth has layers and where those layers actually begin and end. 

You can see that while the Crosscutting Concept is certainly not the focus of this task, it is still incorporated into student thinking through the analysis questions and through follow-up discussions.  


A Three Dimensional Approach

All three dimensions won’t always be at the forefront, but as I mentioned, over time, all three should receive attention and study when we are embracing this new vision for science.

One task. Three dimensions.  This is what we want to see! 


An Example Of Three Dimensional Teaching: Exploring Sunlight On Earth’s Surface

A group of young children might notice that when they visit a local pond, they often find turtles sitting out of the water on logs on sunny days. Investigating this phenomenon could work toward (among others) a simple objective like: students can make observations to describe that sunlight warms Earth’s surface.

Our activity focuses on actually addressing this objective.

First, I would need my students to recognize some areas are reached by sunlight while others are not. They would need to notice that some areas are “sunny” while others are “shady.” Simple discussions and experiences are typically the best way to draw out observations from young children, so this would be a prime opportunity to simply spend time outdoors on a sunny day. 

It would be important to discuss why some areas appear bright and why some appear darker — attributing this specifically to the sunlight. 

After recognizing the sun’s effect on how Earth’s surface appears, we would want to direct student attention to how it feels — the warmth.  I might model feeling the bright pavement and encourage my learners to engage with me. I would ask, what does it feel like?

We might wonder aloud – if they don’t ask themselves – “What might other places feel like?”

Students could be encouraged to test out other places on “Earth’s surface” and discuss what patterns (a Crosscutting Concept!) they discover. 

Ultimately, through this investigation (a Science and Engineering Practice), students could discover that the sunlight warms Earth’s surface.

Don’t forget to come back to the phenomenon!

Eventually, we would work to tie this back to our initial phenomenon – our turtles. 

We noticed our turtles liked to come out and sit on the logs in the sun. “Imagine that log, sitting in the sun,” I might say. “Do you think it would be warm or cool? How do you think the turtle feels, sitting on the log in the sun — warm or cool? Why might turtles come out to sit on logs in the sun?”

Again, even young students can discover science content using science practices


A Balanced Approach

This is three dimensional learning.

There’s a balance – always – in practices, in ways of thinking, and in content. 

Skills are integrated into content, and content is tied directly to the real world.

Everything has context, and therefore, it all has value.


Learn More About The Three Dimensions

Why Do We Need To Teach The Crosscutting Concepts?

Crosscutting Concepts: Do’s and Don’ts

Simplifying The NGSS Science and Engineering Practices

Understanding The Three Dimensions Of The NGSS