KnowAtom's Blog

5 Key Pivots Required to Meet the Goals of NGSS

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Mar 16, 2016

In order to meet the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards, there are five key pivots to consider. These are each innovations that your curriculum will need to reflect. 

5 Key Pivots Required to Meet the Goals of NGSS

Pivot One: K-12 Science Education Reflects Three-Dimensional Learning.ecosystems.png

Each standard contains a performance expectation – what students must be able to demonstrate – that students need to access three ways but simultaneously: through science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas (content specific to that discipline) and crosscutting concepts (system behaviors and relationships that reach across disciplines).

That first pivot holds that K-12 science education, under the Next Generation Science Standards, must reflect three-dimensional learning. In the graphic above, you can see a single performance expectation from the NGSS. The three dimensions – science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts – are represented in the colored foundation boxes, each of which provides clarity for the design of curriculum and instruction.

It is important to note that these are the minimum elements that have to simultaneously exist as a context for demonstrating performance of the standard you see here. This is the point where curriculum gets its standard-level focus. However, the rigor of curriculum comes from how these elements are intertwined and with what depth of responsibility students are given. Good curriculum will bring multiples standards and additional elements of practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts together.

Together, these dimensions are the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards.

The practices are skills specific to science and engineering, the disciplinary core ideas are content specific to science and engineering, and crosscutting concepts are really how the content interacts in a system. You should always think of content as being dynamic, applicable in multiple situations. Most states have operated under some flavor of disciplinary core ideas.

This has changed under the Next Generation Science Standards, however, because the disciplinary core ideas (the real content of the standards) are chosen because they're dynamic. By their very nature, they interact with other pieces of content. Skills and crosscutting concepts are less reflected in previous state standards, but all three dimensions need to come to life in the classroom if we are to effectively align curriculum to the NGSS.

Again, the way the Next Generation Science Standards were designed, these are the absolute minimum of elements that need to come together for students to be able to demonstrate their understanding. Good curriculum is going to bring these elements together and give students the opportunity to develop and use the skills, the content and the crosscutting concepts.

NGSS Processes

science-and-engineering-processes.pngK-12 science education should reflect learning in all three dimensions. Practices are the tools for developing and using the disciplinary core ideas and the crosscutting concepts, but one of the things that is not particularly well articulated in the Next Generation Science Standards is the role of processes.

The processes of science and engineering are different. The scientific process and the engineering design process are actually different methods in a logical methodology. These are articulated in such a way as to define how students can use practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts to answer a question or to solve a problem.

We'll take a look at those specific processes a little bit later, but for now it’s important to understand that from a curriculum standpoint, it’s not about checking off a series of boxes, as the performance expectation might imply. Instead, it’s about looking at all of the elements together and seeing if the curriculum and resources you have in place bring different elements and even different standards to light in the same context, so that students actually have a really robust and rigorous curriculum.

That's part of the difference between curriculum and standards: A performance expectation is a standard, but curriculum has to bring that standard to life in the classroom with the help of a skillful educator.



The tradition of siloed instruction really has no home with NGSS. NGSS by design treats science and engineering as integrated disciplines. That’s why you see these students taking on the role of engineers but using their knowledge of science to solve a problem in their own way. The processes define how students go about science or engineering, how they go about answering a question or solving a problem.

As students work through the process, they use the practices. The process involves skills and practices, content and crosscutting concepts all interacting at once. That's why when you look at a next generation science classroom, the instructional environment, is going to look different from a traditional classroom one.

[Slide 11] Caption: NGSS standards are integrated performance expectations. Past standards have separated skills and knowledge, often leading to an omission of inquiry and practices.

In order for K-12 science education to reflect three-dimensional learning, we must move from a model in which students observe then repeat, to one in which their skills and knowledge unite through inquiry. If you're from a district where the definition of effective instruction is students in rows, quiet in seats, with paper and pencil in front of them, that's going to be at odds with the next generation inquiry environment.

The reason is that students need to be engaging in the practices of science and engineering such that they're using the disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts authentically. They're the ones who are doing the planning of an investigation – ideally in small groups of two or four. At least, that's the way we've structured it here at KnowAtom.

In the picture you see here, the class has gone through a process of becoming aware of a problem. They're now taking on an engineering challenge; they are using their scientific knowledge to solve the problem they've identified. They're working through the engineering design process, from inventorying the materials, deciding how to design a prototype, and then how they're actually going to collect data from their prototype and use that data to reflect back on their solution.

This process is something that needs to reflect all three dimensions and that's what's happening in that environment. Worksheets, workbooks and textbooks are not complete solutions for manifesting three-dimensional learning in the classroom. That’s why curriculum should consist of learning experiences that explicitly blend multiple elements of all three dimensions, with the goal that students are actively engaged in the scientific or engineering process, to develop and use their understanding. That way, they stand a better chance of being able to solve a problem or answer a question the way that a scientist or engineer would in the real world.

Pivot Two: Students engage in explaining purposeful phenomena & designing purposeful solutions.

The next key pivot is that students should be engaging with and explaining purposeful phenomena and designing purposeful solutions. Unfortunately, a lot of what has happened under the flag of engineering is that students will create things that are not really that purposeful. They're almost little combinations of make-believe and imagination.

Oftentimes no real testing process exists to help ensure that the gadget is meaningful. Even in first grade, and all the way up through 12th grade, the Next Generation Science Standards seek to encourage students to research and engineer with purpose. There is no reason, even in the younger grades, that students shouldn’t actively seek to solve real-world problems. While imagination is wonderful, it doesn’t do well on its own in the engineering world. Instead, students must be taught to ask purposeful questions and design purposeful solutions, both of which can be tested.

Purpose stems from solving a problem or from answering a question using some type of planned investigation, which students should develop themselves.

Students should use the disciplinary core ideas, the science and engineering practices and the crosscutting concepts as tools that they can identify in their quest to design meaningful science and engineering tests. They should be able to reach into this tool kit in order to answer a question in the context of science or to solve a problem in the context of engineering.

They should understand that the process looks like this:

  • Planning
  • Carrying out the plan
  • Gathering data
  • Analyzing the data
  • Reflecting on the results to form a conclusion

We can absolutely teach these skills at the kindergarten level just as well as at the 12th-grade level. What changes is not the process, but the depth and complexity of the type of investigation and the context of that investigation. That's why, from a curriculum perspective, it’s very important that the curriculum be intentionally nurturing, not only from September through June, but from kindergarten through 12th grade.

grade-2.pngWhile this format is appropriate for Grade 2, when students still need a lot of guidance in what it means to be a scientist of engineer, this model is not appropriate for older students.

The example above is appropriate for second graders because it helps them structure their process. It starts with a question, which the students themselves pose. Then, using concepts from a lesson on the states of matter, they investigate the question, guided through the scientific process as they gather data to help them form a conclusion to their question in this next generation environment. The effect of gradually releasing responsibility is that, come June, students will have more ownership over different elements of this process than they do in September.

Again, this is appropriate for second grade. If you’re seeing fill-in-the-blank instructional materials like this at the middle-school level, that’s no longer appropriate. That should raise a red flag right away. Under the Next Generation Science Standards, the goal is always to give students an opportunity to develop and learn the skills, and practices needed to engage with the content and the crosscutting concepts.

While Grade 2 calls for a formal structure to help initiate students into this way of thinking, that structure should gradually diminish over time. By the time you reach seventh grade, students should be using lab notebooks to plan their own investigations, authentically addressing questions with partners and eventually, through testing, coming to their own conclusions.

grade-7.pngAn appropriate lesson in Grade 7 does not offer fill-in-the-blank templates, but instead offers students background scientific concepts and the materials to carry out an experiment on their own.

In the example pictured, we’re talking about groundwater permeability as part of a Grade 7 unit. Students have already learned about the phenomena of aquifers and the water cycle, and are now assessing which materials will be most permeable to water.

As you can see, this is a scientific approach. Students are actually designing a procedure, carrying out an investigation with different materials (sand, gravel and soil), gathering the data, and then forming a conclusion based on the data that they gathered. That's science.

Note the fact that there's no template. There's no fill-in-the-blank required. It's not an activity sheet, which is what, in essence, this Grade 2 model is (which, as a reminder, is okay at that age). This model has increased in complexity and in depth, and is fitting to the content that students are currently engaged with. It is bringing all three dimensions together, while allowing students and their teammates to helm their own investigations.

Remember, the content of the curriculum is not an end in itself. Instructional units should focus on relevant phenomena that can provide tools and motivation for students to become invested in their own learning. Only by activating all three dimensions do we see students learning to engage in meaningful science and engineering processes, and do we see curriculum that actually aligns to the NGSS.

Pivot Three: NGSS Incorporates Engineering Design and the Nature of Science as Practices and Crosscutting Concepts.

The traditional model of STEM instruction puts the teacher on a pedestal as knowledge-holder, and requires students to watch, listen and regurgitate facts and demonstrations later. This is a “recall-focused” type of instruction, where students repeating facts back to teachers is the primary goal.


The third key pivot is that students need to understand the "enterprise of science as a whole – the wondering, investigating, questioning, data collecting and analyzing." The Next Generation Science Standards call this the nature of science. At the same time, the standards call for STEM instruction to focus on "raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry."

Together, the nature of science and engineering design are really extensions of the practices and crosscutting concepts, and the new standards require the incorporation of both into all STEM instruction, from pre-K to grade 12.

In order to understand how this pivot will change instruction, it's important to first understand the traditional model of instruction, which simply will not mesh with this pivot. We'll contrast that traditional model with the next generation model of instruction, which is focused on integrating both the nature of science and engineering design in the classroom.

The first model of science instruction, and the one we’ve been using for decades, posits that the teacher is an all-knowing sage (at least from students’ perspectives). The teacher is the only one with access to the content, which the above image makes clear. He or she models facts, demonstrates phenomena and explains what is going on to students in a one-way transmission of information. Students, for their part, prove they’ve “got it” by recalling these facts, repeating the demonstrations and summarizing the phenomena they see. In this model, students are rewarded for pure

In this new model, the one required by Next Generation Science Standards, students are no longer simply absorbing facts and procedures as the teacher hands them out; they are now actively engaged in the process of learning, activating their knowledge and accessing both content and crosscutting concepts through STEM practice skills.

The next generation model of science instruction puts the students in the driver’s seat. It allows them to engage with the material without needing a teacher in between as mediator. This is not to say, of course, that the teacher no longer serves any role. As we can see from the image, the teacher is responsible for making sure students engage appropriately with the material, helping them understand and interact with it and stepping back slowly over time as students gain confidence in the practices.

Students, on the other hand, develop and use this content, applying systems behavior to understand and describe dynamic interactions. They do this through accessing their STEM skills, which lessons in turn help them hone. These skills, or practices, are outlined by “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” and are as follows:

  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

These practices help students to engage on a much deeper level, where they are thinking critically as well as creative, evaluating and analyzing.


Both the scientific process and the engineering process have distinct steps, which students must understand if they are to engage meaningfully with material. It’s crucial to understand here that engineering should be integrated with science.

Engineering is not a stand-alone supplement; engineers do not work in a vacuum in the real world. Rather, they rely heavily on science to back their investigations, which is why the NGSS work so hard to integrate science and engineering as a cycle of processes and practices that contribute one to the other. Because engineering is not a stand-alone supplement, but rather a subject deeply intertwined with its partner, science, it is crucial that we teach these skills to children in this way.

Again, neither curriculum nor teaching should present science or engineering as supplemental or disconnected. Both science and engineering should be integrated and assessed using disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts. Understanding and using the nature of science and learning engineering design are both crucial to developing the skills necessary to later engage in STEM environments or careers.

This is very different from the traditional model of science instruction. Indeed, it is opposed to it.

A teacher standing at the front of the class, handing out worksheets and assigning chapters to read from textbooks goes against the very core of what the Next Generation Science Standards are trying to achieve. Procedure following and note taking fail to teach the skills students will need in later life to contribute to science and engineering fields.

Moreover, teaching in this way fails to integrate science and engineering meaningfully, as they are in the real world. Only when students use their skills, develop them in the context of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts so that they're engaged with the content and engaged with the phenomena, will they truly become scientists and engineers.

Pivot Four: Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts Build Coherent Learning Progressions from K-12.

scaffolding.pngThis is a high level example of material articulated from September to June and through grade levels. You can see how the strands are never one-and-done, but rather build from one unit to the next, and also from one year to the next.

This approach to introducing, mastering and reinforcing is good for everyone but especially for late-coming students or those who simply didn’t get a thorough understanding at their first exposure. The fourth pivot is that the science engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts build a coherent learning progression. Students require coherent learning progressions both within a grade level and across grade levels so that they can continually build on and revise their knowledge to expand their understanding of each dimension as they progress toward Grade 12.

That’s what the Next Generation Science Standards attempt to provide, and what your curriculum should do for students. When we say learning progression, we don’t simply mean a page of vocabulary or a few standards that administrators leave up to teachers to figure out how they’re going to employ. No, the standards must be backed by intentional curriculum that upholds these standards and the next generation teaching model from September through June as well as from kindergarten to Grade 12. It needs to be clearly articulated on a unit-by-unit basis, and give teachers the support to be successful lesson by lesson.

From a user's stand point – and here we must think about the students as the users – if your curriculum leaves it up to teachers to interpret what's meant by covering a standard in a particular lesson, then students across your district are going to get a different science education depending on what classroom or building they’re in. That’s why thoughtful scaffolding of concepts, vocabulary and context is important.

The gradual release of responsibility means the teacher needs curriculum that will help to build this progression, scaffold material appropriately, support Socratic dialogue and plan effectively. There’s another reason that practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts must build in gradual progression throughout the year as well as from kindergarten through Grade 12, and that’s because teachers need to slowly remove structural supports and release responsibility to students.

If teachers are unable to plan for which supports to remove – and how to compensate for that newly given independence with other curricular supports – they won’t be able to plan effectively, lead discussions effectively or turn content and practices over to students.


Therefore, your curriculum should be aimed at learning experiences from kindergarten through twelfth grade, which focus on essential knowledge and skills (as defined by the NGSS), forming a coherent continuum of teaching and learning. 5. NGSS connects to ELA and Math, specifically Common Core.

As we think about the next generation model of instruction we are engaging both ELA and math standards, especially Common Core state standards in the context of a next generation science classroom.

Pivot Five: Recognizing that NGSS connects to English language arts and math, specifically Common Core.

After all, NGSS was written with CCSS ELA and mathematics in mind. Learning experiences should explicitly connect to math and ELA in meaningful and substantive ways to provide deep conceptual understanding in all three subject areas.

Because the Next Generation Science Standards emerged after Common Core ELA and math standards, by the time the articulation of NGSS standards took place, it was possible to make intentional connections between all three. Teachers and administrators really need to think about science as a basic knowledge set alongside reading, writing and math.

Science under the Next Generation Science Standards specifically involves applicable Common Core ELA technical subject standards: communication, reading – especially opportunities for nonfiction reading in the ELA context – and writing are all areas of overlap. Unsure where writing might figure in?

Imagine students writing a conclusion using evidence from data, for instance. That’s a Common Core ELA technical writing skill. When students use evidence from text, that's a reading skill. On the math side, there are Common Core math practices. They very, very closely mirror the science and engineering practices from NGSS but, in fact, science is an opportunity to apply those math practices to a real context in which students have a level of ownership and interest. Most importantly, higher order thinking skills overlap in all three areas.


It’s important to provide a context for students to learn in three dimensions and to address three areas of standards: NGSS as well as Common Core ELA and math.

By carefully building up layers of nonfiction reading, Socratic dialogue, planning and carrying out of investigations, and forming and sharing conclusions, students hit standards in all three dimensions (science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts) and all three areas.

The list of examples of subject crossover goes on and on:

  • Socratic dialogue hits ELA Common Core standards for speaking and listening.
  • Student teams planning investigations is a crossover between writing as they develop a nonfiction text in their lab notebooks.
  • As students carry out science and engineering plans that they've developed, they are using their math practices.
  • ELA and math naturally come together when students form conclusions using the data from an investigation to reflect back on a prototype or a hypothesis.
  • Students use communication skills when debriefing after an experiment or considering the results of other teams’ investigations.

Curriculum needs to create the space for this continuum to happen. Otherwise you run the risk of siloing individual disciplines, which, considering those disciplines are already naturally integrated in the real world, doesn’t serve any of the disciplines very well. Also, by segmenting and supplementing patchwork pieces of knowledge together, gaps tend to result. Gaps in language, practices and many other areas make it hard to establish the necessary continuum of learning and subject areas.

All knowledge is interconnected: reading, writing, math, science and engineering. Curriculum should absolutely reflect the interconnectedness across disciplines on an everyday basis. That's true at least of Next Generation Science curriculum, and of anything that's claiming to be aligned to it, whether that means materials you create yourself or those you buy. Furthermore, the NGSS may have serious value for ELA and math.

Consider the NGSS an ELA and Math CCSS resource opportunity, to move away from a patchwork of random nonfiction texts for ELA, and instead replace them with nonfiction reading from science. The same goes for math. This reduces the burdens of limited time-on-learning and simultaneously creates meaningful synergies among content.

Topics: Readiness Levels, 5 Pivots, Assessing Curriculum

On-Demand Reading Sessions

Posts by Topic

see all

Stay Up to Date With Our Latest Posts

Pick How Often: