Planning Your Science Curriculum Using NSTA's Quick-Reference Guides to the NGSS

covers of the 4 NGSS reference guides

Science teachers frequently ask for help using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in their work planning curriculum and instruction. As the curator of materials for the NSTA Press book series Quick-Reference Guides to the NGSS, I thought about how NSTA could best help with this broad task. The good news is, we have targeted this series to educators at specific grade levels (K–4, 5–8, 9–12, and K–12), so teachers can find the information packaged in ways that best fits their immediate needs.

The NGSS is made up of four basic parts:

  • Practices are the activities in which scientists engage in to understand the world (such as planning an investigation or constructing an explanation).
  • Core ideas are useful in understanding the world (such as the laws of motion, phases of the moon, and inheritance of traits).
  • Crosscutting concepts, such as patterns and systems, are not specific to any one discipline but cut across them all.
  • Performance expectations describe what students should be able to do at the end of instruction. They are specific combinations of the three dimensions upon which the NGSS are built—practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.

When planning instruction, it is important to integrate the three dimensions because the research that prompted the writing of the NGSS (as described in an earlier document called the Framework for K–12 Science Education) indicates that the most effective lessons are those that combine the three dimensions. Because the performance expectations combine the three dimensions, some educators have mistakenly assumed that the performance expectations describe exactly what teachers are expected to do in the classroom. This is not the case! Students need to engage in multiple practices to master the goals of the NGSS, so teachers should develop their own combinations of core ideas and crosscutting concepts for each lesson they teach; they are not limited to the particular combinations of practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts described in the performance expectations. The NGSS gives teachers the flexibility to plan learning experiences that best meet their style of teaching and their students’ needs.

Practical Planning

Page 92 of the elementary guideTo streamline your planning and guide you in selecting practical combinations, each book in the Quick-Reference Guide series has tables customized for a particular grade or level. A kindergarten teacher, for example, can find all of the performance expectations for Kindergarten on pages 92 and 93 of the for elementary school guide (and these are also included in the K–12 guide). The relevant elements of the disciplinary core ideas are listed alongside each performance expectation. All of the practices on which a kindergarten teacher would need to focus are listed on pages 88 and 89 of the guide, and all of the crosscutting concepts he or she would need are on page 90. Thus, everything a kindergarten teacher would need to have at hand in planning lessons is in a set of tables on six pages.

For example, imagine Kathy, a kindergarten teacher who is focused on performance expectation K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.” In planning a lesson, Kathy wants to be sure that her students can use their understanding of the needs of organisms to make explanations about events they experience in the world around them (what scientists call phenomena).

On page 91 of the guide, Kathy would find the performance expectation and the corresponding disciplinary core idea: “All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow.” She starts by planning a lesson focused on the needs of plants. She happens to have a plant that has wilted after being left in dark room during vacation. She decides to have students try to figure out what happens to plants if they don’t have the water or light they need. She therefore examines the practices on pages 89–90 and selects one involving explanation: “Use information from observations (firsthand and from media) to construct an evidence-based account for natural phenomena.”

Page 90 of the elementary guideFinally, because Kathy wants students to understand that this as a cause-and-effect relationship, she flips to page 90 and chooses the crosscutting concept “Events have causes that generate observable patterns.”

Pulling these three dimensions together, she writes a learning performance that describes her goal for students in the lesson: Construct an explanation based on observations from experiments and an understanding of what plants need to survive, that explains what happens to a plant if it is kept in a dark closet for several weeks. Within the lesson, she shows students the plant that was kept in a dark room for several weeks and asks them to come up with ideas as to why the plant died.

In later lessons, Kathy would encourage students to use other plants to test their ideas for what happened to the plant they initially observed. In planning each lesson, she consults the Quick-Reference Guide for the practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts to help her construct a learning performance for the lesson. The overall set of these lessons is designed to prepare students to successfully achieve an assessment targeting the performance expectation.

Everything about NGSS a kindergarten teacher needs in just six pages. A similar collection of tables exists for every grade (or grade span) and every discipline in NGSS.

As you develop your curriculum, we encourage you to share your ideas, send us your questions, and stay up to date on new NGSS developments by visiting the NGSS@NSTA hub. We have a devoted team of teacher-curators who are in the trenches with you, and we welcome your feedback!

Ted WillardTed Willard is the Director of NGSS@NSTA at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Reach Ted at or via Twitter at @Ted_NSTA.

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

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