Challenges of Three-Dimensions

Putting theory into practice

Shifts in Science Education

Nationwide, science teachers are grappling with a long-overdue shift away from direct instruction and low depth-of-knowledge assessment towards what is now commonly referred to as three-dimensional instruction. With widespread adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, or closely related standards, such as those adopted in Nebraska, constructivist methods and inquiry science teaching should not stand in competition to direct instruction methodologies but should become the primary means by which science is taught. This is a substantial change, and not only will it will take time and training, but challenges will have to be met and addressed, some of which undoubtedly have yet to be conceptualized. Assessment of the new standards will be structured differently, by necessity, as the indicators themselves are constructed in a way so as to make multiple-choice tests entirely inadequate measures of knowledge or skill.

This presents nontrivial obstacles to practitioners as they navigate the implications of the new state standard structure. State administrators will have to facilitate the redesign of assessments to replace exams at the state level, as well as support the training and adoption at local levels. Teachers subsequently will have to learn and implement practices that support three dimensional learning and assessment, as it will be assessed. Aside from being mandated from the top down, three dimensional learning represents the potential for normalizing constructivist, research-based science pedagogy on a new scale.

Three-dimensional Learning in the Next Generation Science Standards and the Nebraska’s College and Career Ready Standards for Science involves weaving together the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and Science and Engineering Practices, and this is discussed in the next section. The NGSS are built around Performance Expectations that allow teachers to provide rich experiences the enhance science skills, knowledge, and problem solving. Each Performance Expectation generally involves at least one Disciplinary Core Idea, one Crosscutting Concept, and one Science and Engineering Practice. These serve as a reference point for teachers to easily see where specific higher-level thinking skills can be utilized within the curricular framework. This requires instruction move beyond pure content and direct instruction. Lessons and content are meant to be centered around the examination of real-world phenomena, with which students are encouraged to ask questions and construct evidence-based explanations. (NGSS Lead States, 2013, Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012)

A Framework for K-12 Science Education explicitly defines a more specific, and perhaps more sophisticated definition of the word inquiry than what has been understood in the past. It has moved from being broadly encompassing "anything kids do that resembles scientific work" toward what we are now calling three-dimensional learning, in which students are doing scientific work, are engaged in thinking like a scientists, and are able to explain and justify scientific phenomena. (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) It is with this redefinition in mind that I will use three-dimensional learning and inquiry learning interchangeably in this work.

It is widely recognized that that science teachers will face challenges as into this unknown territory of three-dimensional learning. In a pre-NGSS world, science classrooms incorporated inquiry science practices at greatly variable degrees of frequency and quality, but approaching science instruction with pre-defined Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts will require teachers to think about their instruction in new ways. Furtak (2017) delineates some of the challenges of moving to a more rigorous standard of science education and she also provides future directions to guide the science education community with the key dilemmas. (Furtak, 2017 p. 863) Three of these keys were particularly resonant. “How can we support teacher learning of instructional shifts necessary to realize the NGSS vision?,” “What kinds of tasks do we need to elicit student engagement three-dimensional learning?”, and “How do we expect teachers to design these assessments when researchers struggle to do it themselves? And once the assessments exist, how should teachers use them?”