How can NGSS practices transform science teaching & learning?

Have you ever heard someone unfamiliar with NGSS ask “Don’t good teachers already know how to teach science well?” Yes… and no. Adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) should lead to a transformation in how students learn science, as outlined in Appendix A of A Framework for K-12 Science Education.  It is crucial that students are applying their knowledge of the disciplinary core ideas through the science and engineering practices. But what exactly does this look like in a science class?

3-dimensional learning means that both the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) and the science & engineering practices (SEPs) are as important as the content – also known as disciplinary core ideas (DCIs). I recently wrote a blog post focusing on incorporating CCCs, but it is equally important to consider how students engage in the SEPs. Teachers may think that science class already naturally incorporates the practices, but that is not necessarily true. We should be asking ourselves whether students are acting like SCIENTISTS. Are students doing what scientists would be doing?

Check out this Teaching Channel video about NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (6min). Traditionally, learning science often involved the teacher acting as a knowledge authority to provide content, then students would be given a lab activity in order to confirm results that they are expecting based on what they already know to be true. The shift with NGSS is that STUDENTS should be the ones DOING science – asking questions, designing and conducting investigations, analyzing data, finding relationships, etc. Students should be given more experiences to think deeply, and have more opportunities to think like a scientist. These NGSS parent guides include a table that outlines what there should be ‘less of’ and ‘more of’ in a science classroom. This is a good starting point for thinking about how science classrooms can be transformed.

What are the NGSS science and engineering practices? They are listed below, and are explained in more detail in Appendix F of A Framework for K-12 Science Education:

  1. Asking Questions (science) and Defining Problems (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 (science) and Designing Solutions (engineering)
  7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

How can teachers begin to understand what they are already doing well with respect to the SEPs, and where they might improve? The article Assessing Science Practices: Moving Your Class Along a Continuum by Katherine L. McNeill, Rebecca Katsh-Singer and Pam Pelletier is incredibly useful. First, it has a ‘Science Practices Continuum Assessment Tool’ which allows teachers to assess where their students fall for each practice – Not Present, Emergent, Proficient, or Exemplary. This can help teachers to plan instruction that helps students to move along on the continuum. Second, the article also groups the 8 practices into the following categories:

  • Investigating Practices
    • Asking Questions
    • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
    • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Sense Making Practices
    • Developing and Using Models
    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
    • Constructing Explanations
  • Critiquing Practices
    • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
    • Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information

This makes it easier to envision how to incorporate the practices when designing a unit. Ideally, a unit should start with introducing students to a phenomenon, so that they begin by asking questions. A few years ago I came across the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute. However, at NSTA this year a couple of sessions referred to Questioning for the Next Generation (QNG), which is QFT adapted for NGSS. Love it! Using QNG is a great way to get students to help make sense of a phenomenon and perhaps even having students help to craft a driving question. Near the beginning of the unit, students should often develop a model to explain the phenomenon. Ideally, students’ models will be improved throughout the course of a unit as their understanding deepens through engaging with other practices, such as planning and carrying out investigations and analyzing and interpreting data.

For teachers new to NGSS, what are some simple strategies for incorporating the SEPs in a way that honors the intention of the K-12 Framework and NGSS?

  • Posting medium size posters of the SEPs means teachers can easily refer to them during class. (These are from @paulandersen’s amazing site The Wonder of Science.) It is helpful to post cards for the main CCC and SEP (practice) with the content learning target(s) for the day.This helps students to understand the 3D focus of the lesson. Refer to these both at the beginning and throughout the lesson.
  • Teachers can refer to more than one CCC and/or SEP during a lesson, even if they are not all assessed. In fact, at times it can be difficult to refer to a CCC &/or SEP in isolation. (See link for STEM Teaching Tools Practice Brief 3 below.)
  • As you plan a lesson or unit, be sure to plan in advance for incorporating at least one practice each lesson. You can find the continuum mentioned above AND instructional strategies for ALL practices on the Instructional Leadership for Science Practices. Very useful!


Here are some other useful resources:

Matrix of Science and Engineering Practices

This translates appendix F from NGSS into teacher friendly language. It breaks down each practice by grade band K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. 

Appendix F: Science and Engineering Practices

The intent of this appendix is to describe what each of these eight practices implies about what students can do. Its purpose is to enable readers to better understand the performance expectations.

Appendix I: Engineering Design in NGSS

STEM Teaching Tools Practice Brief 3

Practices should not stand alone: How to sequence practices in a cascade to support student investigations


NGSS Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs)

I was fortunate to have recently attended the 2018 Atlanta NSTA Conference.  It was so inspiring! I was able to hear from amazing presenters and speak with educators, instructional coaches and district curriculum coordinators who are doing amazing work implementing NGSS. As a 6-12 Science Instructional Coach hoping to support teachers, I focused on attending sessions that would provide tangible tools and strategies for ensuring that instruction and assessment is three dimensional (3D).  I was not disappointed!

Perhaps the simplest and most high leverage takeaway for ensuring instruction and assessment is three dimensional relates to the crosscutting concepts (CCCs). The NGSS crosscutting concepts are:

  1. patterns
  2. cause and effect
  3. scale, proportion and quantity
  4. systems and system models
  5. energy and matter
  6. structure and function
  7. stability and change

In general, the DCIs (content) are what students should KNOW, the SEPs (science and engineering practices) are what students should DO, and the CCCs are how students should THINK.

Why are crosscutting concepts important? Karen Whisler is an NGSS Solutions Leader for Measured Progress. In her #NSTA18 presentation, she said that CCCs:

  • are applicable across all science disciplines
  • facilitate comparison and connections
  • provide an organizational framework and way of thinking
  • support understanding of disciplinary core ideas
  • enrich use of the practices

In multiple sessions, I heard both presenters and participants say that CCCs are often the most difficult of the three dimensions to include in instruction and assessment. It is not necessarily new for teachers to refer to the crosscutting concepts (perhaps previously known as themes or overarching concepts), although traditionally many teachers have not been explicit about teaching &/or assessing CCCs. However, there are some very manageable steps that teachers can take to ensure that the CCCs are being taught and assessed:

  1. Asking at least one question related to a CCC in each lesson helps to ensure 3D lessons. Plan for this in advance of the lesson using these small cards created by @paulandersen.
  2. Posting medium size posters of the CCCs means teachers can easily refer to them during class. It is helpful to post cards for the main CCC and SEP (practice) with the content learning target(s) for the day. This helps students to understand the focus of the lesson. Refer to these both at the beginning and throughout the lesson.
  3. Teachers can refer to more than one CCC and/or SEP during a lesson, even if they are not all assessed. In fact, at times it can be difficult to refer to a CCC &/or SEP in isolation.
  4. Modeling ‘think alouds’ for students helps them to understand how to use the CCCs as lenses for asking questions, making sense of phenomenon, etc.
  5. Aim to have all assessment questions (formative or summative) at least “two dimensional”, and ensure that summative assessments are 3D overall. STEM Teaching Tool 41 has a wealth of prompts related to all 7 CCCs. Ensure that some student responses are required to explicitly refer to CCCs. Some teachers have students highlight work in green if it explicitly refers to CCCs.
  6. Keep posters on the wall that have questions for each of the CCCs. Students should be encouraged to refer to the posters to help them think of questions they can ask during instructional activities, small group and whole class discussions, etc. This will help students to build an awareness of the different ‘ways of thinking’ that they can draw upon when doing science. Students who are more aware of ‘how to think’ can apply this in other disciplines and start to see more connections as well!
  7. It is very important to connect the CCCs to the “sense making practices” which are: developing and using models, constructing explanations, and arguing from evidence.

The following framework by Brett Moulding was mentioned in more than one session, and I find it to be an incredibly useful way to organize the CCCs. Those in blue are used for explaining CAUSES, while those in green are related to SYSTEMS.

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.04.01 PM

Here are some other useful resources:

Matrix of Crosscutting Concepts in NGSS

This translates appendix G from NGSS into teacher friendly language. It breaks down each crosscutting concept by grade band K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

NSTA Webinar Series: Crosscutting Concepts

Appendix G: Crosscutting Concepts

The purpose of this appendix is to describe the second dimension— crosscutting concepts—and to explain its role in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Crosscutting concepts have value because they provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the differing areas of disciplinary content and can enrich their application of practices and their understanding of core ideas.

— A Framework for K-12 Science Education, Appendix G

Innovation Institute

Earlier this school year, I read Innovator’s Mindset but I did not have time to keep up with #IMMOOC. Why? Because I’m in my second year as a teacher in the Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School, China. In other words, I’ve been busy innovating! It is amazing and challenging and inspiring and messy and wonderful. We are so fortunate to have the use of a recently renovated space and wonderful resources. However, multi-disciplinary learning based on design and incorporating the 4C’s can still be done – we did not have this phenomenal space last year and the program was a bit more challenging but still successful. Check out a video of our program in the newly renovated space that is our new home this year:

Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School

I previously wrote a post on Chapter 1 and 2 (What is Innovation?) so I will keep this post short. However, I really want to finish blogging about Innovator’s Mindset, which I find so inspiring. I will try my best to stay involved in the conversation this time!

Ultimately, I think education needs to produce students who can change the world for the better. From politics to the environment and everything in between, our students need to be able to solve problems and empathize. They truly do need to have not only a growth mindset, but an innovator’s mindset. If I were starting my own school, I would make sure that students truly have an opportunity to explore their passions and that they would spend a LOT of time outdoors.