Look—it's Science in Three Dimensions! No, it's Four, Maybe Five, Dimensions!

Larry Malone | March 14, 2018

Perhaps the most prominent proposal enunciated in A Framework for K–12 Science Education, and carried forward into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), is the declaration that Science teaching and learning should be engaged using a three-dimensional approach. At first blush it seems a bit cavalier to expect the American science education community to accept a seemingly radical departure from a long-standing tradition of teaching acknowledged scientific facts. But patient, thoughtful consideration of this 3-D approach to science instruction has proven to be a laudable rethinking of the enterprise. The challenge facing us all is to understand what the Framework writers had in mind.

What do they mean by these three dimensions: Disciplinary Core Ideas; Science and Engineering Practices; and Crosscutting Concepts? I have had several years to ruminate on the subject, and I'd like to share my over-simplified "3-D Science Instruction for Dummies" conclusions with you.

The Disciplinary core Ideas (DCIs)

First of all, we have to agree that the overall goal of science for students in American schools has not changed. The primary goal has been and continues to be for all students to understand the natural world—familiarity with its materials, objects, and organisms; knowledge of the myriad interactions between and among them; familiarity with the array of processes and principles that drive and constrain those interactions; and knowledge of the handful of monumental human intellectual scientific achievements that govern and define the condition of the world we are able to perceive. Now, make no mistake, that's a lot of ideas. Way more than a typical K–12 student body, or typical teaching community might be able to absorb or deliver. So, after much focused discussion and academic arm wrestling, the Framework writers agreed that they had to limit the scope of the science content to a judiciously constrained set of disciplinary core ideas (DCIs). The key word in the DCIs is core. American students should be familiar with and knowledgeable about a subset of the accumulation of ideas in science. That subset was identified as the core with the idea that functional knowledge of those few core ideas would constitute a solid minimal understanding of science for a person to be sufficiently scientifically literate to engage in the political/economic/environmental conversation needed to be an informed, engaged citizen. And that same minimal understanding of science would qualify a student, if he or she chose to do so, to enter advanced study in science and related fields.

So, in a nutshell, the first dimension, the DCIs, represents a focused, refined, constrained revision of the natural terrain over which every American student should have dominion by the end of grade 12. This is, in my opinion, optimistic, but not unrealistic.

The Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs)

The second dimension is: the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). The SEPs are not so much something to learn, as a way to learn. Traditionally the science teaching/learning enterprise was a matter of authorities communicating scientific information to students (scientific facts and principles, via print, lecture, demonstration, and media) and later asking students to report back what they acquired. Those who remembered were rewarded; those who forgot, well . . . In pursuit of the new vision of science, we present students with an experience (a natural phenomenon) and ask them to investigate it and explain how it functions and how it fits into the fabric of the natural world. That is, asking students to behave like scientists. What does that mean? It means asking students to engage in the characteristic behaviors of working scientists. What are those behaviors? Those behaviors have been analyzed into the eight SEPs. They are the several ways people attack questions about natural phenomena and discover answers (derive explanations for the phenomena). A simplistic way to look at the collected SEPs is as the rules of engagement for attacking a science question. They are the intellectual strategies and maneuvers implemented by the investigator or investigating team to acquire data, organize those data, and extract meaning from them. And what are these rules of engagement?

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Developing and using models
  • Constructing explanations and design solutions
  • Engaging in argument from evidence

Is this new, revolutionary thinking? Not at all! In FOSS, we have been using this approach for decades; we just called it inquiry instead of Scientific and Engineering Practice. Ever since inquiry was promoted as a valid and effective pedagogy for teaching/learning science, we struggled with the question "What exactly is inquiry?" We knew it when we saw it, but we didn't have the benefit of critical analysis and the precise vocabulary of the SEPs to answer that question. Now we do; the SEPs provide the much-needed clear precise definition of inquiry science.

As an aside, I must give a shout out to Drs. Daphne Minner and Jeanne Century, who, with colleagues at Education Development Center (EDC), undertook a meta-analysis of the research on inquiry science in the mid/late 20th century and found that effective inquiry approaches shared three attributes in common; they promoted 1) student motivation to learn; 2) individual responsibility for learning, and 3) profound engagement in active thinking. Now these are laudable teaching/learning outcomes, but they don't track cleanly onto the SEPs. The attributes discovered by the EDC researchers were significantly different than the SEPs (rules of engagement) described in the Framework and NGSS. I think Minner, et al., discovered three core elements of a critically important fourth-dimension of science teaching and learning, which I will elaborate a bit later.

So, in a nutshell, The SEPs are a collection of intellectual activities and procedures (rules of engagement) for getting at the substance of a scientific phenomenon, for answering questions, and for advancing explanations.

The Crosscutting Concepts (CCs)

Which brings us to the third dimension, the Crosscutting Concepts (CCs). We have dealt with what we need to learn about the natural world (DCIs), and how we should go about learning it (SEPs), what's left to be concerned about? We need some powerful intellectual connective tissue holding the whole mass of scientific knowledge together. Those bits of intellectual connective tissue include a handful of overarching concepts:

  • Patterns
  • Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
  • Scale, proportion, and quantity
  • System and system models
  • Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
  • Structure and function
  • Stability and change

These are some powerful integrating concepts. In previous iterations of science standards and frameworks, these have been known and organized under other lofty labels; the themes of science, the big ideas of science, and so forth. I prefer to think of the CCs as a selection of lenses through which you can look at an accrual of data and other information to make particular kinds of judgments about what you are experiencing. For instance, by looking at a desert landscape and a freshwater marsh landscape through the pattern lens, I can see photosynthetic organisms (plants, algae, etc.), animals consuming those autotrophs, and predators preying on the primary consumers in both landscapes. By applying the pattern lens, I am able to see the base similarities between the two systems, even though the specific players in the two systems are radically different, and by extension see a pattern that plays out in all ecosystems. As important as the CCs are, you will not find modules devoted to teaching them in the FOSS program. A bit of direct intentional instruction (using carefully crafted questions) is needed to show students how to mount these lenses, but once students acquire the basics, the CCs simply become another dimension of the conversation about the science being uncovered.

In short, the crosscutting concepts are a set of intellectual lenses that allow us to enrich, refine, organize, and connect various bits of scientific knowledge. They bring the whole messy accumulation of disparate scientific knowledge into one coherent totally related body of knowledge known proudly as science. It is the application of the CCs that allows me to draw a reasonably straight line between the big bang and my ability, and struggle, to craft this 3-D essay.

The fourth dimension?

Ready for the 4th dimension of science teaching and learning? I alluded to this quasi dimension when I introduced the inquiry work of the EDC researchers. They found that effective inquiry programs induced students to engage in active thinking, motivated students to learn, and encouraged students to take personal responsibility for their learning. In an earlier "Observations" piece I touched on this subject when I discussed what I perceive as one of the biggest challenges facing the implementation of NGSS. The subject of that piece was the need to transform classroom culture in ways that encourage collaboration, intellectual risk-taking, and a general atmosphere of helping one another learn and be successful. This is the domain of a new posse of researchers looking at social/emotional learning, and these issues are definitely at play in 3-D learning, but clearly represent another still fairly-well-hidden, dimension in the science teaching and learning picture.

The Nature of Science

The 5th and, for now, final dimension is described in the framework as a lofty goal of science, but is not included with specificity in the performance expectations. Fair enough. The 5th dimension is the nature of science. The nature of science is a peculiar thing, requiring the science student to adopt a particularly rigorous philosophical commitment to the scientific enterprise. Just as science has its SEPs (specified rules of engagement), it also has an established (if unwritten) code of ethical/intellectual conduct (habits of mind), which establishes the unspecified orthodoxy of science. Science does not have tablets of commandments with formal "thou shalts . . ." and "thou shall nots . . ." But there are ways of behaving that define the scientific endeavor. Science is a demanding intellectual activity, requiring the highest regard for honesty. The process of achieving scientific truth includes energetic presentation of logical claims, backed by valid, reliable data, and vetted with equally energetic critical response in an arena of respectful argumentation. Recognized scientific knowledge should be held in high esteem. This level of respect and, dare I suggest, reverence for science may not typically be achievable in a K–12 exposure to science knowledge and process, but it is essential in those who will go forward to become the next generation of working scientists. Preparing students with a sound foundation becomes all the more essential in the early years.

Summary of the Three+ Dimensions of NGSS

  • Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) are a menu of the knowledge of the natural world we expect students to acquire as a result of the first 13 years of their academic careers.
  • Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) are the rules of engagement describing how students grapple with phenomena and acquire knowledge of the natural world.
  • The Crosscutting Concepts (CCs) are a set of intellectual lenses for scrutinizing and integrating information and knowledge about the natural world.
  • A cooperative, collaborative Classroom Culture is one that engenders a social/emotional environment in which the pursuit of knowledge is a shared learning experience.
  • Nature of Science is a philosophical stance that assures that the scientific enterprise is undertaken and appreciated with rigor, respect, and honesty.