Q&A on Unpacking Three-Dimensional Standards

We’ve recently heard discussions from colleagues about the need to “unpack” the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and how to do it. The term unpacking means a lot of things to lots of people so we thought we’d share our ideas about what it means and, specifically, what it means for science standards.

Q.1 What is meant by the term unpacking?

When standards are developed, there is an effort to carefully describe what students are expected to learn. But describing these outcomes is easier said than done. A great deal of care is taken to choose just the right words, but if educators aren’t careful, they can miss some subtleties in what the authors meant when they read the standards. Since so much of what happens in education is influenced by standards, it is very important to make sure that educators really understand the intent of the authors. Unpacking is the process of interpreting or clarifying what the standards really mean. Ideally, engaging in a well-designed process of unpacking should lead educators to a consensus on what the standards mean that is consistent with the intent of the authors.

Q.2 Why do I need to unpack the standards?

The standards, written as performance expectations, are statements of what students should be able to do at the end of instruction to demonstrate what they have learned.  It is guidance for assessment developers in designing an end-of-year assessment task and is not intended to drive instruction.

More importantly, the information in the foundation boxes is really the description of what is to be learned and is much more informative and useful for planning instruction.  However, there is a lot of meaning packed into the foundation boxes. The bullets, which we call elements, can be better interpreted by carefully thinking about them, examining support documents such as the Framework, and discussing them with colleagues. In my experience, two educators will initially have different interpretations of what a given element means but through careful study and discussion, they will both gain insights into the goals and reach a consensus.

Q.3 Instead of unpacking, why don’t I just teach students to do what the performance expectation says?

While the way the performance expectations are phrased sounds like they describe what students should do in class to learn the standard, but that is not the intent. To prepare students to successfully achieve what is described in the performance expectation requires thoughtful learning of everything described in the foundation boxes. Mastery of the practice described in the foundation box requires that it be used to learn many different core ideas, not just the one that appears in the performance expectation.  And, mastery of the core idea and crosscutting concepts requires engaging in multiple practices. So, rather than being limited to teaching just what is in one performance expectation, teachers need to mix and match the three dimensions in a coherent effort to explain phenomena or to solve problems.

Furthermore, if teachers limit instruction only to those ideas described in a performance expectation, it is unlikely that students will be successful in an assessment task that targets the performance expectation. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but keep in mind that there are many different contexts in which a given performance expectation can be assessed. Rehearsing a performance expectation can lead to rote performance in a particular context rather than true achievement of the performance expectation. 

Q4. If I know students will be doing a specific practice, why is it important to look at the elements of the practice in the matrix?

The title of the individual practices give a general sense of what students do when they engage in the practice, but there is a lot that can be open to interpretation. Just as a disciplinary core idea, such as matter and its interactions or energy, is made clearer by many more specific elements (the bulleted statements in the foundation box) a practice is made clearer by providing more specific descriptions of what we want students to be able to do in a given grade range.

textQ5. Is it best to use only the single practice that is listed in the performance expectation?

No. It’s better to use multiple practices. 

The research described in the Framework indicates that the most effective way for students to develop understanding of science ideas is to study phenomena by engaging in multiple practices. While it is not necessary to engage in every practice in every learning sequence, the majority should be used within a unit. Engaging in just one practice would not give students the experience of constructing knowledge the way that scientists do it.

Furthermore, practices are not designed to be used in isolation, but tend to flow together. For example, asking questions can lead to planning and carrying out investigations, which can lead to analyzing data, developing models, and/or constructing explanations. Throughout the process, opportunities pop up to use mathematics; engage in argument from evidence, and obtain, evaluate, and communicate information. And, the results of any investigation can also be a place for asking new questions and planning new investigations. The process is far from linear and in some cases students can engage in two or more practices nearly simultaneously.

Q6. What if I think another crosscutting concept is a better fit for my lesson?

Just as there is no mandate to use a single practice (as noted above), there is no mandate to use a particular crosscutting concept. Instead, teachers are encouraged to target whatever crosscutting concept seems most relevant to the phenomena being investigated. Applying all of the crosscutting concepts multiple times as students study different disciplines is the best way to help them appreciate the universality of the crosscutting concepts and the special role they have in science.

Q7. I didn’t see ____ in the standard.  I don’t think you can teach ____ without an understanding of that concept. How do we account for this?

This is a very tricky question to answer because it is often very context dependent. It emphasizes why it is so important to carefully unpack the standards and understand what is truly expected. The unpacking process is a great opportunity to reevaluate what is important about a given concept. At the same time, the standards aren’t so explicit that they detail each concept that students need to understand. If your unpacking leads you to conclude that students do in fact need a particular concept, it is perfectly reasonable and appropriate to include it in the progression of understanding. My caution is to make sure that you are adding it because you need to, not because you want to.  All teachers have their favorite topics, so we need to be aware of our personal biases. Time is a tremendously valuable instructional resource, and we have very little to waste.

Q8. How will I have enough time to teach all of this?

It’s important that we not let the ambitiousness of NGSS overwhelm us. I think teachers should keep several things in mind as they begin implementing the standards.

  1. NGSS is new. Anytime teachers try a new curriculum, each topic takes longer to teach the first time it is taught than it does once the teacher is experienced with the curriculum.
  2. The students in our classrooms today haven’t had NGSS instruction throughout their K-12 career. They, most likely, do not have the prerequisite knowledge of the core ideas that students should now have at a given grade. Additional instructional time will be needed to address this missing knowledge.
  3. An even greater challenge that students (and teachers) face is the lack of experience students have in engaging in the science and engineering practices. Not only are elementary students unfamiliar with practices, but middle and high school students are too. Their lack of proficiency will require more time and support. On a positive note, imagine what a 9th– or 10th-grade student will be capable of once he or she has engaged in science and engineering practices from the first day of kindergarten!

Everyone in the education system needs to acknowledge these three factors and accept that when NGSS is first implemented, teachers will not be able to “cover” the entire curriculum they are expected to address. But, what everyone also needs to keep in mind is that if educators commit fully to the vision of three-dimensional instruction, students will be capable of much more in the years to come. The shift to three-dimensional standards is a process that will take a number of years. We therefore need to give teachers the freedom to struggle as they begin to implement the standards and encourage them to take risks and improve each year.

Q9. Okay, I’m ready to start unpacking, what resources should I look at?

NSTA has developed a set of worksheets that can help with unpacking each of the three dimensions. You can find these tools (and many others) on the NGSS@NSTA Hub. Each worksheet features a set of questions to consider as you unpack the core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science and engineering practices.

An essential resource is the Framework for K-12 Science Education. The Framework is available in print, as a downloadable pdf and online document. It includes sections on each practice and crosscutting concept and offers descriptions of each of the 12 core ideas (such as PS1: Matter and Its Interactions) as well as the component ideas (such as PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter). In addition, there is a list of the grade-band endpoints for each component idea that was used to make the disciplinary core idea elements in NGSS and other three-dimensional standards. I’ve developed a web page that gives you one-click access to the descriptions of each of the sections in the online document.

Another great resource for unpacking the standards are the K-12 Progressions.  Appendix F of the NGSS contains progressions for Practices and Appendix G contains progressions for Crosscutting Concepts. The best resource for progressions for DCIs can be found on the NGSS@NSTA Hub online and as a PDF.  All of the progressions, as well as the descriptions of Practices and Crosscutting Concepts are contained in The NSTA Quick-Reference Guide to the NGSS, which is a very useful tool.

Other useful resources include the following book chapters and journal articles:



Finally, particularly when considering students’ current level of proficiency, I encourage teachers to make use of their own experience and expertise. Teachers can use that information to help them in their plans for ways to help students become more proficient. The trick is to really focus on what students have said and done, rather than what the curriculum has called for.

Q10. I’m the only _____ teacher in my building.  How can I collaborate with colleagues to unpack standards?

Even if you are the only teacher in your building teaching a given subject, you are not alone! Teachers across the country—in fact, about two-thirds of them—are wrestling with new, three-dimensional standards. If you live in a state that has adopted the NGSS, more than a third of teachers in this country are using the exact same standards.  And for those not in a state that has not formally adopted, there are still lots of other teachers in your state with the exact same standards.

NSTA has listservs for members and discussion forums in the Learning Center devoted specifically to NGSS. There is a Twitter group called #NGSSchat that “meets” on two Thursdays every month and many science teacher associations have Facebook groups. Unpacking standards is similar to swimming; it should always be done with a buddy. Just as we want our students to engage in meaningful discourse during lessons, educators should engage in meaningful discourse when planning them.

Q11. Is there a place for performance expectations in the Unit Storyline? We’ve started unit development by bundling PEs, unpacking DCIs, SEPs, and CCCs, identifying an anchor phenomenon, and developing a storyline with lesson level phenomena.

Use of the performance expectation is tricky because it is a combination of the three dimensions. Teachers need flexibility in planning what students do in class. As I have noted above, focusing too much on the performance expectation can lead to rote learning where students are trained to do a specific task rather than being able to engage in three-dimensional learning. It’s good to keep the performance expectation in mind during instruction, but it’s important to remember that it describes what students should be able to do at the end of the unit. It’s not what they need to be doing during the unit.

The process that I find works best is to focus on the core ideas, and as part of the process of unpacking them, I consider what phenomena are there that require that core idea to understand. Once I have phenomena selected, I think about how students are going to interact with that phenomenon. The nature of that interaction leads me to a practice. With the core idea and practice selected, I look carefully at the list of elements for the crosscutting concepts and select the one that most naturally fits. I also try to articulate what students will figure out during each lesson and what new questions they may ask.

With a great deal of thought, discussion, and reflection, I sequence encounters with phenomena in a way that transforms a group of lessons into a coherent unit. The key is trying to make sure that students’ questions at the end of one lesson provide reasons for students to engage in the next lesson. I also try to identify a phenomenon that can act as the overall anchor for the unit, which is given the clever name of the anchor phenomenon.

Of course, this process assumes that I have a strong understanding of all of the practices and crosscutting concepts in addition to the core ideas I am addressing. I continually work to deepen that understanding by multiple rounds of unpacking and discussing these dimensions with other educators. One thing I love about the teaching profession is that there are always new things to learn.

Final Thought

I have yet to hear anyone describe three-dimensional teaching and learning as easy to do, but I have heard many educators describe it as worth doing. We know that the way we have been teaching for the last century has not led to the successes that we want for all students. NGSS is not a smooth and easy road to travel, but it is heading in the direction that we want to go.


Editor Note: A similar version of this Q&A also appeared in eObservations, a newsletter published by the Georgia Science Teachers Association. 



Jeremy Peacock

Jeremy Peacock, Ed.D., is Director of 6-12 Science at Northeast Georgia Regional Education Service Agency in Winterville, Georgia, and an NGSS@NSTA Curator.  He is also a past President of the Georgia Science Teachers Association and a former environmental scientist and high school biology teacher. He is currently focused on supporting Georgia teachers in implementing their new state-developed three-dimensional science standards.




Ted Willard

Ted Willard is Director of NGSS@NSTA for the National Science Teachers Association. In this role, he supports implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and three-dimensional learning more broadly by creating resources such as web seminars, conference sessions, workshops, books, and journal articles. In addition, he edited NSTA’s Quick-Reference Guide to the NGSS and oversees the content of the NGSS@NSTA Hub, a website that offers dynamic browsing and searching of the NGSS, tools to support curriculum planning and professional learning, and classroom resources focused on the standards.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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