Unpacking the standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a set of standards for science education in the United States, developed through a collaborative process led by states and organizations. They outline what students should know and be able to do in science at each grade level, from K-12, with a focus on three dimensions: science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.

Unpacking standards refers to the process of breaking down complex and broad standards into smaller, more manageable, and specific learning goals. This process helps to clarify the expectations for student learning and makes it easier for teachers to design lessons and assessments that align with the standards. Unpacking standards involves analyzing the language of the standards and defining the key DCIs, practices, and crosscutting concepts that students need to demonstrate mastery of the standard. The goal of unpacking standards is to provide a clear understanding of what students are expected to know and be able to do, and to support effective instruction and assessment.

When designing an MBI unit, we believe it is useful to begin with identifying the relevant disciplinary core ideas (DCIs). We often have a topic (e.g., cells or plate tectonics) that we need to teach. Identifying the specific DCIs helps us map our topic to the specific learning goals of the NGSS. For example, LS1 refers to the Life Science Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI) LS1. LS1 is one of several DCIs in the LS category, which covers life sciences and encompasses the study of living organisms and their relationships with each other and with their nonliving environment. LS1 specifically focuses on the idea that all living things are composed of cells, which are the basic units of life. This DCI provides an overview of the structure and function of cells and cell processes, including photosynthesis and cellular respiration. The DCI LS1 is also broken down into sub-DCIs. Below are the sub-DCIs for LS1 across the grade levels. Notice that the sub-DCIs begin with the grade level (e.g., 4, MS, HS) and are broken down into multiple parts. These sub-DCIs are important to narrowing down to the specific science ideas we need to engage students with in our unit. They also give us guidance in what ideas the phenomenon we choose needs to be able to incorporate.

Next, we look at the disciplinary band Progressions for each DCI. These are a set of learning progressions that outline the development of key scientific ideas across multiple grade levels. These progressions provide a roadmap for how students' understanding of science grows and deepens over time, from early childhood through high school. These are useful to put into context the ideas students should have been exposed to in the past and those they will be exposed to in the future. Looking at the image above, you can see how the development of LS1 occurs between grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 and where your unit fits into this progression.

Next, we move to identifying the specific performance expectations we want to target in our unit. Performance Expectations (PEs) are a key component of the NGSS. They define what students should know and be able to do in order to demonstrate mastery of a specific scientific concept or skill. Performance expectations are written as statements that describe the DCIs, crosscutting concepts, and practices that students should demonstrate in order to meet the standards. Each PE is designed to be specific and measurable, and to provide a clear understanding of the knowledge and skills that students are expected to demonstrate. The PEs are organized into grade-level bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12), and within each band they are grouped into Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), which represent the key scientific concepts and ideas in the standards. The PEs provide the best guidance for what will be assessed at the state level and thus provide a target for our unit. 

The example below shows the PEs for LS1 at the high school level. If we choose to focus our unit on the HS-LS-1 PE (i.e., Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the structure of DNA determines the structure of proteins which carry out the essential functions of life through systems of specialized cells), we are focusing on the DCI HS-LS1-1 (e.g., Systems of specialized cells within organisms help them perform the essential functions of life), the practice of constructing explanations, and the crosscutting concept of structure and function. This (and perhaps multiple others) provide our target for this unit.