What is the NGSS Three Dimensional Learning Approach?

Color image highlighting the NGSS 3 Dimensions of Science Learning

Want to understand the Next Generation Science Standards? In three words: three-dimensional learning. Figuring out exactly what those words mean and how they make NGSS different from existing standards will get you much closer to understanding exactly what is expected in the next generation of science education.

What is Three-Dimensional Learning?

The term “NGSS three-dimensional learning" refers to the three pillars that support each standard, now called NGSS performance expectations. The NGSS three dimensions are:

  • Science and Engineering Practices
  • Crosscutting Concepts
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas

You can use this rubric to evaluate your own science curriculum for NGSS.

How Does Three-Dimensional Learning Differ From Traditional Scientific Practices?

NGSS 3D learning essentially shifts science education. Science is no longer seen as fact trivia or rote memorization. NGSS recognizes that while specific knowledge of content is important, facts and memorization fall far short of what’s required to do science and engineering.

Equally important is the ability to create, analyze, and evaluate using NGSS three-dimensional learning because science is not static. Scientists are constantly discovering new knowledge or new ways of looking at existing knowledge. Therefore, students must be able to understand scientific concepts, and use those concepts to answer questions and solve problems. Students must also recognize how those concepts connect to other concepts in other STEM fields.

So, what do the NGSS 3 dimensions entail? Let’s take a closer look to understand more about how they relate to NGSS performance expectations.

Understanding the 3 dimensions of NGSS is essential

As a result of effective STEM instruction, students should be able to demonstrate what they have learned in new scenarios and contexts. Students should have the critical thinking and STEM practice skills necessary for working through questions and problems.

One way to understand how the three dimensions of the NGSS achieve this is to picture a stool. The performance expectation is like the seat of the stool, while the three dimensions are like the three legs of the stool holding up the seat. The dimensions not only support the standard but also help form the context in which the students will be expected to demonstrate their understanding.

The Three Dimensions: Pillars of the NGSS 3D Learning Model

1: 8 Science and Engineering Practices

Science and engineering practices are the same skills that scientists use to answer questions and engineers use to solve problems in the real world.

An NGSS curriculum should teach the 8 science and engineering practices identified by the National Research Council:

  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

By stressing the importance of these practices, NGSS is emphasizing that science is not just isolated facts. When students engage in the practices, they learn through NGSS performance tasks how scientific knowledge develops by working through the same practices that scientists and engineers use. 

Consider the practice of developing and using models. One reason scientists develop models is to figure out how the parts of a system work together and influence one another. With NGSS, students need to be able to develop models to evaluate the evidence provided by the model to gain insights into the phenomenon being modeled.

This participation also creates a more meaningful learning experience because students are doing science, which, in turn, better prepares them for NGSS performance assessments.

2: Crosscutting Concepts

NGSS curriculum crosscutting concepts are those concepts that apply across all scientific disciplines. They provide students with an organizational framework based on behavior and function that connects ideas from different scientific disciplines in an NGSS curriculum. 

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:

  • Patterns

  • Cause and effect

  • Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

  • Systems and System Models

  • Energy and Matter

  • Structure and Function

  • Stability and Change

These concepts play an important role in NGSS three-dimensional learning. For example, students can see how energy and matter are essential to understanding Life Sciences, but also for understanding Physical Science, Earth Science, and Engineering.

Consider the crosscutting concept of systems and system models. It is useful to understand the whole of an ecosystem as well as the parts that make it up in order to understand how the ecosystem functions. Crosscutting concepts are ways of relating NGSS disciplinary core ideas. A student’s understanding and modeling of other systems such as energy systems, rock cycles, and food webs supports their understanding of systems and system modeling.

3: Disciplinary Core Ideas

Disciplinary Core Ideas form the basis of what most educators would consider STEM "content knowledge," also known as scientific facts, in an NGSS curriculum.

These core ideas are grouped into four content domains:

  • Physical sciences

  • Life sciences

  • Earth sciences

  • Engineering, technology, and application of science

NGSS disciplinary core ideas are designed to focus learning on the most important aspects of science, as well as to be teachable and learnable over multiple grades as students progress through their studies.

Take the disciplinary core idea of cycles of matter and energy transfer in ecosystems. With NGSS, students should understand that matter cycles and energy transfers among the living and nonliving components of an ecosystem

The elements of the three dimensions required for each NGSS performance expectation are clearly designated. NGSS also includes supporting elements, which provide the bounds of a scenario that students may be presented with when asked to perform expected learning outcomes on future standardized tests.

By successfully creating hands-on science and NGSS three-dimensional learning experiences, teachers can achieve maximum student engagement and outcomes within the context of the NGSS performance expectations.

Effectively Engaging Students with NGSS Three Dimensional Learning

By using NGSS three dimensional learning, educators are doing more than teaching a specific performance expectation. Educators are also supporting young minds in developing critical thinking skills – the skills they will need to question, analyze, evaluate, problem-solve, create, and innovate.

These skills are not only important for science learning in school or careers beyond school; they are also essential life skills, equipping those young minds with the tools they need to realize their own ideal of a bright, promising future, whatever that ideal may be.

Next Generation Science PD Session Resources for Teachers

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