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A Way to Think About Three-Dimensional Learning and NGSS

DeeDee Whitaker
Product Content Specialist

April 2017


You may have been asked recently to shift your classroom practices towards the Next Generation Science Standards® (NGSS) and the three-dimensional learning that they prescribe. You may have heard or seen the term “scientific practices” in workshops or science education literature. What does all of this mean to you as a teacher? A helpful warm-up exercise is to ask yourself a few questions:

  • What do scientists do?
  • What makes the discipline of science different from the disciplines of history, English, and global language? What commonalities do they all share?
  • What common threads link together the disciplines of life science, physical science, and earth/environmental science?
  • What are the big, essential ideas I should teach my students?

Chances are, when you look at your answers you’ll have lists very similar to those illustrated in the NGSS.

The National Research Council (NRC) went to science and engineering practitioners and gathered information on how they “do” science and engineering. That information was organized and the resulting framework is the Next Generation Science Standards. What scientists do is Dimension 1: Practices; concepts applied to all domains of science is Dimension 2: Crosscutting Concepts; and big, important concepts for students to master is Dimension 3: Disciplinary Core Ideas. Each dimension is further refined into specific behaviors, concepts, and ideas. Below is a list of the three dimensions with an accompanying explanation and a brief rationale for each.


Dimension 1: Scientific and Engineering Practices

Practices are the behaviors that scientists engage in as part of their daily work routine. By engaging in the practices, scientists increase the body of scientific knowledge, construct models, and build theories. Scientific practices are more than skills because they require mastery of content knowledge as well as inquiry skills. NGSS practices help to clarify the relevance of science and engineering to everyday life.

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


Dimension 2: Crosscutting Concepts

Crosscutting concepts are applicable to all science disciplines and link the disciplines together. Crosscutting concepts can provide an organizational structure for students as they interweave concepts and knowledge from one science discipline with another. As a teacher, it is important that you make students aware of the crosscutting concepts so your learners can in turn make and strengthen connections across science disciplines.

  1. Patterns
  2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
  3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
  4. Systems and system models
  5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
  6. Structure and function
  7. Stability and change


Dimension 3: Disciplinary Core Ideas

Core ideas are the broad, key ideas within a scientific discipline. Without mastery of the core ideas, students will be unable to proceed to more complex investigations. Core concepts are revisited at many grade levels, each time with more depth and complexity, and should be teachable and learnable at the appropriate grade level. Disciplinary core ideas should be relevant to students’ daily lives and their past, personal life experiences. Disciplinary core ideas are grouped into four large and familiar categories: Physical Science; Life Science; Earth and Space Science; and Engineering, Technology, and the Application of Science. State or local content standards may be unpacked within each discipline, at each appropriate grade level, tailoring the science curriculum, instruction, and assessments to best fit student needs.

Physical Science
PS1: Matter and its interactions
PS2: Motion and stability: Forces and interactions
PS3: Energy
PS4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer

Life Science
LS1: From molecules to organisms: Structures and processes
LS2: Ecosystems: Interactions, energy, and dynamics
LS3: Heredity: Inheritance and variation of traits
LS4: Biological evolution: Unity and diversity

Earth and Space Science
ESS1: Earth’s place in the universe
ESS2: Earth’s systems
ESS3: Earth and human activity

Engineering, Technology, and the Application of Science
ETS1: Engineering design
ETS2: Links among engineering, technology, science, and society


Science practices: What do your students know?

How much do your students know about what scientists actually do? For a Day 1 or warm-up activity, reword the introductory questions above and see how many scientific practices your students can name or describe. Make a master list of science practices and post it in the classroom. For every lesson you teach, have students identify the science and engineering practices in which they are engaging. Put a check mark on the chart and encourage them to be scientists and engineers every day!


NGSS resources

Next Generation Science Standards
Get to Know the Standards
Three Dimensional Learning
Standards by Topic
National Science Teachers Association NGSS Hub

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