Shifting the conversation into three dimensions
A Set of National Standards
With the adoption of the testing initiatives in the early 2000s, designing science instructional experiences in a Nebraska science classroom has, in the past decade, required teachers to balance competing priorities. On the one hand, the 2010 Nebraska Science Standards (Nebraska Department of Education, 2010) encouraged teachers to emphasize recall, recognition, and comprehension. (Perreault, 2000) This came about in order to ensure they were “covering” the material that students would need to take the standardized NeSA test, which will not assess Depth of Knowledge above level two until Spring of 2021. (Nebraska Department of Education, 2011). Standing in opposition, several decades of science education research indicate that constructivist, learner-centered priorities should dominate in the classroom. The science teaching professional community firmly advocates providing experiences that focus on skills in Depth of Knowledge three or four, thus providing authentic, thorough, and transferrable instruction. (Banilower, Cohen, Pasley, & Weiss, 2010)
For example, one seventh grade indicator, SC.7.8.4.E, states “Construct an argument supported by evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.” As structured, this indicator requires an evaluation of the student’s ability to piece together the argument and communicate it to others, and the ability to successfully accomplish this task cannot be accurately assessed using a traditional standardized exam.
In response to this call for higher quality science instruction, in 2017 Nebraska adopted the College and Career Ready Standards for Science. These standards closely reflect the priorities delineated in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012), as well as the Next Generation Science Standards that were formed from the Framework. (Nebraska Department of Education, 2017) The core of the NGSS, and thus the 2017 Nebraska standards is a three-dimensional approach toward constructivist and inquiry science learning. Three-dimensional Learning in the NGSS involves weaving together the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and Science and Engineering Practices. (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012)
Science & Engineering Practices
The Science and Engineering Practices component of three-dimensional learning consists of eight elements of scientific methodology that have an important place in inquiry and constructivist learning. Three of those include: “constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering),” “engaging in argument from evidence,” and “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.” (NGSS Lead States, 2013) These practices, along with the other SEPs, are interwoven throughout the Nebraska College and Career Ready Science Standards, sometimes found in isolation, but often used in tandem with other practices.
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
- Developing and using models
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using mathematics and computational thinking
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
This piece of the science standards represents a set of tools that span many different scientific concepts. For example, the crosscutting concept "Patterns" can be found when studying both heredity and weather forecasting. Likewise, "cause and effect" can be found in a study of biological evolution, waves, earth's processes, and many other topics.
The NGSS crosscutting concepts include
- cause and effect
- systems and system models
- energy and matter
- structure and function
- stability and change
Disciplinary Core Ideas & Performance Expectations
The third dimension represents the content-specific knowledge found across Earth, Life, and Physical Sciences, as well as Engineering and Technology. This dimension was nearly the sole focus of previous sets of standards that narrowed in on recall and comprehension. In combination with the other dimensions, students are now expected to learn and then apply, explain, design, and reason with the disciplinary core ideas.
The NGSS and related state standards, like Nebraska's, are built around Performance Expectations that require students practice and demonstrate 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 the higher-level thinking skills can be utilized within the curricular framework.
The project shown below represents one of my first attempts to design an entire unit utilizing three-dimensional learning. Looking back on it now, I recognize that the lesson sequence would be strengthened by focusing on an anchor phenomenon and referring back to it throughout the unit.