Next Generation Science Standards: The Times, They are a-Changing

Ngss Thumb
The final version of the long-awaited Next Generation Science Standards was released in 2013. Known by its acronym NGSS, this document offers up a national vision for the tenets of effective science education in the 21st century.

So what is NGSS? First off, NGSS is neither a curriculum nor highly prescriptive classroom cookbook. Instead, the document offers a higher level view on best practices, effective teaching strategies, cross cutting concepts and appropriate content for each grade range.

At its heart lie the Three Dimensions of Science. This hallmark term was coined by the National Research Council (NRC). This mega think-tank of researchers and educational policy makers scripted these dimensions as the scaffolding upon which those in the trenches would base their day-to-day instruction. These dimensions were outlined in the 2012 document, A Framework for K-12 Science Education‬‬.  

NGSS builds on the Framework, resulting in a more prescriptive approach to effective science teaching.  It offers a comprehensive and mostly grade-by-grade organization for primary and elementary levels. The result is a document intended as a pragmatic roadmap for instruction highlighting major pedagogical and content shifts. Two of the significant changes highlighted by NGSS include:

  • Shift from content to process:  As earlier mentioned, this document profiles fewer content ideas and instead places increased importance on the process of doing science. What we do with that information, how we critically analyze it, and how we apply and integrate it into our understanding of the natural world becomes of greater importance than the memorization, testing, and subsequent forgetting of "flushable" knowledge.
  • Inclusion of engineering within the domain of science teaching: Suddenly, those teaching science must also address the standards-based teaching of engineering. Although science and engineering may seem like the same concept, they are not.


Science addresses understanding of the natural world. Scientists want to know why and how. In contrast, engineering is about solving real world problems or addressing a specified need. Scientists use an often linear approach to uncovering understanding called "the scientific method." It begins with a question from which emerges a hypothesis. This reasonable guess is tested by a valid experimental design. Data that is collected and analyzed is used to support or refute the hypothesis. Conclusions are made and communicated. For the most part, that's the scientific method.

The engineering design process is based upon a series of "feedback loops” in which progress towards achieving a solution is continually evaluated.  If the achievement meets defined criteria for success, the engineer moves on to the next step. If the criteria are not met, the engineer goes back and repeats the step employing a different approach. Through this critical analysis process, steps are continually evaluated with resulting improvements eventually producing the best possible design.

Now, back to those Three Dimensions of Science...

  • The content nuggets, known as Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), constitute one of the three science dimensions. Unlike the previous release of national standards, these statements of content are expressed as Performance Expectations (PEs). That's to say they are not bullets which identify content that needs to be memorized and regurgitated on call. Instead, the DCIs are presented in terms of a performance task such as making a model or engaging in a successful argument that a student must demonstrate to illustrate proficiency.
  • These days the term "scientific inquiry" seems out of favor and apt to be replaced by the more inclusive "practices of science". However, within the NGSS approach, scientific practices do not stand alone. They are combined with often overlapping tenets of engineering and presented as the dimension "Scientific and Engineering Practices” (SEPs). Although profiled as what appears to be a sequential "to-do" list for uncovering understanding or designing a solution, these practices can be reordered and tweaked into their most effective application.
  • The third dimension is called Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs).  Most of these concepts may be familiar to teachers and students alike by a related moniker, "big ideas.”  Concepts such as "cause and effect" or "scale and structure" weave their way across both the practices and the DCIs, forming a truly three dimensional approach to understanding the standards.

When it comes to science education, the past few decades have experienced few major shifts in pedagogy and content. Hang onto your space helmet, Buzz Lightyear, because things are about to change...and change dramatically.

Related Reading

Activities to prevent math summer slide hero

Richard Blankman

Shaped Executive Editor

instructional coach in a room of teachers

Zoe Del Mar

Shaped Executive Editor

Summative Assessment hero

Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math