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High-Quality Science Instruction Should Be 3-Dimensional. Here’s What That Looks Like (Opinion)

The Framework for K-12 Science Education is, in my opinion, one of the most important documents ever written about the field. Written by the National Research Council, the framework established a vision for science education and was the source document for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Forty-nine states have now adopted the NGSS or have standards that were based on the framework. With so many states using standards shaped by the framework, it is likely that along with being an important document, it may turn out to be one of the most influential.

The framework and the NGSS completely changed my paradigm for what the goal of science education could and should be. I taught secondary science from 2007 to 2016 in Malawi, Africa, and Texas. While training to be a teacher in the early 2000s, the big focus was on inquiry in the classroom. Like many things in education, inquiry became the buzzword du jour, and everything that was written for, and implemented in, classrooms was labeled “inquiry.” There was very little differentiation made between structured, controlled, guided, or free inquiry and there was also a heavy emphasis on hands-on or laboratory-based science instruction.

This emphasis resulted in curriculum materials that had cookie-cutter labs that attempted to lead students to follow instructions to reach the “correct” conclusions. And while science instruction was indeed hands-on, it often lacked “brains-on” components that are the habits of minds that scientists engage in to DO science and not simply watch a teacher understand science.

In 2017, I moved to Kansas City and started my current role as the secondary science coordinator in a mid-sized urban school district. I was introduced to the framework and the NGSS and quickly became an NGSS fanboy. I believed that this vision of science education was exactly what science education should and could look like. The NGSS helped me realize that I had been too focused on content knowledge, aka disciplinary core ideas, and needed an equal focus on helping students engage in science and engineering practices through the lens of cross-cutting concepts. Put simply, I needed to stop separating the content of science from the process of science by helping students engage in all three dimensions in the classroom.

But what does that look like in practice? I must admit that I struggled to answer that for quite a while after my initial excitement. The three dimensions of the NGSS are complex and nuanced and can be quite challenging to understand. but I certainly believe that the journey is worth it.

The framework and NGSS moved away from the overused and often vague notion of inquiry and shifted to encouraging teachers to help students explain phenomena (observable events that students experience). For example, before the NGSS, a typical unit on chemical reactions might begin with the teacher introducing the topic, lecturing on how chemical reactions differ from physical reactions, and providing students with lab instructions that tell them what to do.

Students are then expected to report their observations and conclusions, which should all be pretty similar, then assessing the student learning. The primary goal in this type of classroom is acquiring the disciplinary core ideas or content knowledge. It is essentially one-dimensional.

In a three-dimensional classroom, the teacher might instead expose students to a phenomenon that happens because of a chemical reaction (e.g., metal rusting, a solid forming when two liquids are mixed, bubbles forming when a powder is put into a liquid, etc.). After students experience a phenomenon, they might make observations and ask questions about the phenomenon. The observations can be used to help students construct an initial explanation, and the questions can be leveraged to help students design and conduct an investigation. In that student-designed investigation, students might look for patterns and evidence to make a claim or engage in a scientific argument. Throughout the unit, they would be developing models to explain chemical reactions at various scales. This type of three-dimensional classroom still wants students to gain knowledge, but it also wants students to DO science and UNDERSTAND the concepts.

Perhaps you are like me when I first bought into this vision for science education and are thinking, “This all sounds great, but how do I develop resources and lesson plans that can help students engage in all three dimensions?” Although the framework was published in 2012 and the NGSS released in 2013, it has only been recently that high-quality instructional materials designed from the ground up for the NGSS are beginning to be readily available. Comprehensive resources such as OpenSciEd, Amplify Science, and BSCS have received top ratings from EdReports for some of their resources, and groups like Argument Driven Inquiry and the Concord Consortium have some quality resources that can be used in a lot of contexts to help engage students in authentic three-dimensional learning with a lot more on the horizon.

Many of us experienced one-dimensional science education that was primarily focused on our knowledge acquisition. The next generation three-dimensional classroom wants to help students KNOW the core ideas of science, UNDERSTAND the large cross-cutting concepts, and DO the science and engineering practices because we believe that ALL students can engage in ambitious science.

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