What is the difference between using and developing the three dimensions? 

When I was about five years old, I started taking piano lessons. I wasn’t extraordinarily talented, but I practiced a lot and worked hard (much to the annoyance of my long-suffering parents). Initially, I learned finger placements for scales and how to read music. Later, my teacher introduced chords and terminology for keys and rhythm. Eventually, once my legs were long enough to reach the pedals, I learned how to sustain the sound and control the volume and pace of the music to create the desired effect. 

What would have happened if, instead of learning new information and techniques along the way, I had just practiced one-handed musical scales over and over for years? I would have been terrific at scales, but would anyone have called me a pianist?  

Playing piano, like science education, requires both practice AND new learning. However, when teaching science, this distinction isn’t always made. That’s why, in the EQuIP Rubric for Science, which provides criteria to measure the NGSS design of lessons and units, one of the criteria specifies that any set of instructional materials: 

  • Provides opportunities to develop and use specific elements of the SEP(s). 
  • Provides opportunities to develop and use specific elements of the DCI(s). 
  • Provides opportunities to develop and use specific elements of the CCC(s). 

When noticing this, many materials developers ask us “what is the difference between ‘using’ and ‘developing,’ particularly for the SEPs and CCCs?”  

“Using” SEPs and CCCs is similar to practicing piano techniques that I’ve already learned (or “developed”). We use the terms “using” and “practicing” when students are not supported to learn brand new things. Instead, students are applying or repeating practices and concepts they’ve already been introduced to.  

These steps of repetition and application are crucial to long-term retention and mastery — especially in the case of SEPs and CCCs, all of which students need to apply in many different situations to reach full proficiency. For example, students might begin learning an SEP idea during life sciences instruction and then will also need to practice it during physical and Earth sciences instruction and in combination with several different CCCs. 

Practicing things they have already learned and applying them to new contexts can help students deepen their understanding. They can learn that the modeling practices they learned in life science are transferable to Earth science, for example. Building transferability of ideas is not the same as learning brand new ideas, but we very often see it as the only kind of SEP and CCC learning that students have opportunities to do. This commonly takes two forms: 

  1. Using elementary-level SEPs and CCCs throughout K12; and
  2. Using grade-appropriate SEPs and CCC from day one in each grade band without support for learning first.  

Case 1: “Using” elementary-level SEPs and CCCs throughout K12 

 A Framework for K-12 Science Education describes a progression of student understanding for each SEP and CCC. For example, when describing the Stability and Change CCC, it says that by the end of high school students should be able to  

“…recognize that much of science deals with constructing historical explanations of how things evolved to be the way they are today, which involves modeling rates of change and conditions under which the system is stable or changes gradually, as well as explanations of any sudden change” (page 101).  

It would therefore be unfair to students if they only had opportunities to practice a related elementary-level CCC idea over and over in multiple contexts:  

“Some things stay the same while other things change.”  

However, this is something we see in instruction. Even when more complex SEP and CCC ideas are claimed as learning goals, students are only supported and expected to use the elementary-level ideas. This would be like telling my parents that my piano teacher was going to teach me to play Für Elise but then during the lessons only drilling the scales over and over, in multiple different keys.  

Instead, students in any subject need opportunities and support to “develop” new understanding. 

Science instruction almost always aims to help students develop new understanding of DCI-related content, as it has traditionally been the focus of science learning goals. However, that hasn’t always been the case with SEPs and CCCs. Even though most learning goals now are written using all three dimensions, students might only be supported to apply their prior knowledge in two of the dimensions while progressing in the third dimension.  

“In past science education reform efforts SEPs and CCCs have often been treated as static knowledge and skills (e.g., “inquiry” skills) that students apply in an identical manner from kindergarten through grade 12, or conversely, materials reintroduce exactly the same SEP and CCC knowledge and skills in every instructional unit. Neither applying the same ideas nor repeating the same instruction will allow students to develop the deep proficiencies described for the end of grade 12 in the Framework.” Critical Features of Instructional Materials Design for Today’s Science Standards 

In contrast, most state science standards now lay out a vision of students developing deep proficiencies in all three dimensions throughout K–12. Instructional materials, teachers, peers, families, and both in- and out-of-school experiences can play a role in this work, helping guide students to increase their understanding little by little through the years. Nobody wants to be stuck playing only scales for years. All students deserve rich opportunities to both use and develop new skills and knowledge, building toward the ambitious goals described in the Framework. 

Case 2: “Using” grade-appropriate SEPs and CCCs without support for learning first 

In addition to seeing elementary-level SEPs and CCCs show up without added complexity in later grades, we also see grade-appropriate SEPs and CCCs applied in instruction without any opportunities to develop them. For example, when students enter Grade 3 on day one, they often seem to be expected to show full proficiency on the Grade 3-5-level SEPs and CCCs, leaping up to the next level of performance without supportive scaffolding to get them there. 

What does it look like when students are expected to have full proficiency of an SEP on day one of science instruction? Below, I pasted a table from the first blog in this series, showing development of an SEP element at the middle school level. It is contrasted with another table that shows how SEP elements are often used in instruction, asking students to apply the full SEP element on day one.  

In the table on the right, the goal is not developing new SEP knowledge but rather using existing knowledge as a tool. This is helpful, but also needs to be balanced with opportunities to learn more. 

What do you think? Since students need opportunities to BOTH develop new understanding and practice prior learning, how often should students be supported to develop new understanding of SEPs and CCCs? 

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