Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 3:

How do we best prepare future and practicing K-12 teachers to engage in ESS to promote three-dimensional learning that involves the integration of disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts?


The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC, 2012), upon which the NGSS are based, reflect a new vision for K-12 teaching in science and engineering. Science is an interconnected enterprise encompassing three dimensions (Figure 3): science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas (NRC, 2012). Focus on an integration of the three dimensions into performance statements, or "three-dimensional learning," is based on decades of research on student learning and knowledge transfer. While not all states have formally adopted NGSS, many states have adopted standards that closely mirror NGSS. The practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas of the NGSS, and the Framework on which it is based, have received widespread acceptance in the science education community and serve as a defacto consideration when developing any program that serves a national, if not local, audience. The geosciences education community has a great deal to gain from engagement with NGSS, or at least the concept of 3-dimensional learning, regardless its is role in state and local curricula, including but not limited to collaborations with other discipline-based science education research in the physical and biological sciences and a common language with which to discuss curricular elements across the country.

To effectively teach ESS, K-12 teachers need to understand the geoscience concepts they teach. Teachers need to be able to engage in the types of instructional practices that will help students progress in their learning of ESS core ideas over time (Duschl, Maeng, & Sezen, 2011). However, K-12 science instruction as envisioned by the Framework is about more than teaching science content. There are important crosscutting concepts that cut across science disciplines (e.g., patterns; scale, proportion, and quantity; stability and change, etc.). Teachers must understand how these crosscutting concepts apply in the ESS and be able to embed them in instruction. The Framework emphasizes that science learning occurs as students engage in the practices of science and engineering (e.g., engaging in argument from evidence, developing and using models, etc.). Teachers must be able to engage in those practices themselves and be able to design instruction that will enable their students to develop facility with those practices. We know little at present about what effective three-dimensional teaching and learning looks like in ESS education or what pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) is needed to teach effectively in the unique space of ESS across K-12 (e.g., is there PCK for teaching in the field? for using big data? for visualizations?). There has been some research on students' use of model-based reasoning (e.g. Gobert, 2000; Rivet & Kastens, 2012) and argumentation (e.g. Kelly and Takao, 2002; Lee et al., 2014) in the earth and space sciences, but literature that explores how students develop facility with other science and engineering practices in K-12 classrooms is lacking. Also, while research exists on systems thinking (e.g. Raia, 2005) and thinking within and across scales (e.g. Libarkin et al., 2007), data on how students, teachers, or teacher candidates acquire crosscutting concepts is also lacking. It will be important to learn how struggles in teacher learning of ESS content, recognition of crosscutting concepts within science, and understanding of the nature of science impact instructional choices.

Recommended Research Strategies

Here we recommend short and long-term strategies that could yield insight into Grand Challenge 3 and ultimately drive forward both knowledge and practice. While short and long term strategies can both be approached immediately and simultaneously, short term strategies (#1-2) tend to focus more on synthesis of current literature, surveys of our current state of knowledge, or application of excising research to the field of teacher education. In contrast, the long term strategy (#3) requires more significant time and resource investment (such as support by external funding), focusing on more large-scale empirical students that can build the knowledge base.

  1. There is a need to identify teacher education instructional models that promote three-dimensional thinking in teachers, particularly as they relate to an understanding of the nature of the ESS. This is especially important as few K-12 teachers have strong backgrounds in geoscience (Wilson, 2016). A first step is a literature review to determine what teacher education models currently in use support three-dimensional learning, either specifically in the ESS or in science education more broadly. There is some literature exploring practicing teachers' use of scientific argumentation (McNeill & Knight, 2013; Sampson & Blanchard, 2012) and model-based reasoning (Miller & Kastens, 2018), but we are not aware of studies that have investigated the development of teacher expertise with other science and engineering practices. We do not know how teachers acquire crosscutting concepts nor how to help them infuse these important themes into instruction. Once current teacher education models that promote three-dimensional thinking have been identified, we call for qualitative research that investigates specific teacher education models in the ESS to determine their effectiveness in the promoting the nature of the ESS.
  2. As NGSS-aligned assessments are developed, geoscience education researchers will need to conduct a literature review of available assessments for measuring the "three-dimensionality" of classroom instruction that could be applied to ESS-specific instructional models. While many of these assessments are still in the early phases of development and evaluation (National Academies, 2018), continued research that examines the effectiveness of those models and their applicability for Earth & Space Science courses is called for.
  3. K-12 student achievement in science is linked to the content and pedagogical content knowledge of their teachers (Jin et al, 2015). A review of literature on the effectiveness of conceptual change instructional approaches in ESS found far more research on astronomical phenomena than on geological ones (Mills et al, 2016). What is lacking is data that connects conceptual change instructional practices to three-dimensional learning. Research that measures the connection between teacher education instructional models that promote three-dimensional learning in the ESS and the instructional practices K-12 teachers engage in in their classrooms will be important for both classroom teachers and ESS teacher educators.

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