Teacher is sitting at the table in her classroom with her primary school students. They have built a car from recycled objects and crafts equipment and are testing that it works.

The Oft Misunderstood Crosscutting Concepts

How 3-D science’s powerful second dimension informs instruction over time.

Ask teachers which of the Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS) dimensions they struggle with in integrating three-dimensional science into their teaching, and they will most likely respond, “crosscutting concepts.” Crosscutting concepts (CCCs) are a way of linking different domains of science together (NSTA, n.d.). These are the ideas and practices that cut across science disciplines and are the least familiar to educators.

“My experience with teachers is that crosscutting concepts are the most feared of the three dimensions,” Bridget Hughes-Binstock says. As director of curriculum products and development for Carolina Biological Supply Company, Hughes-Binstock has extensive knowledge in educational trends and curriculum development of standards-aligned content. She explains that because of the STEM movement, teachers are well versed with the other dimensions: science and engineering practices (SEPs) and disciplinary core ideas (DCIs). “But the idea of using this lens through which you view problems and phenomena is just more than they can wrap their heads around. Therefore, I’ve found that it tends to be the least used of the three dimensions in any three-dimensional classroom.”

“This other dimension, the CCCs, is kind of regarded like the frosting on the cake, but it needs to be a main ingredient.”

Bridget Hughes-Binstock

There has been confusion among educators about the purpose of CCCs, how they lack clear commonalities and initially may appear as a collection of disparate things, and how to incorporate them into learning (Cooper 2020, 904). But in A Framework for K–12 Science Education—the basis for the NGSS and other state science standards—the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies states that CCCs “help provide students with an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from various disciplines into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world” and are critical to developing “a cumulative, coherent, and usable understanding of science and engineering” (NRC 2012, 83).

Educators are really strong on the two dimensions of SEPs and DCIs,” Hughes-Binstock reiterates. “This other dimension, the CCCs, is kind of regarded like the frosting on the cake, but it needs to be a main ingredient.”

Understanding CCCs

The Framework names seven concepts that the NRC determined to be fundamental to understanding science and engineering, stating that the “concepts should become common and familiar touchstones across the disciplines and grade levels” (NRC 2012, 83). Beginning in kindergarten, these are the connections and intellectual tools that provide a language for students to articulate questions, observations, and explanations across disciplines while solving problems or making sense of phenomena. Their consistent use can build familiarity, help focus student reasoning, make students’ thoughts visible to inform further instruction, and pave the way for the concepts to grow in complexity and sophistication. The familiar vocabulary also can enhance engagement and understanding for English language learners as well as students with language processing difficulties and limited literacy development. As a result, when repeatedly integrated into teaching and learning, the concepts potentially raise the bar for all students (NRC 2013, 80–81).

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The Seven Crosscutting Concepts

1. Patterns
2. Cause and effect: mechanism and explanation
3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
4. Systems and system models
5. Energy and matter
6. Structure and function
7. Stability and change
(NRC 2012, 84-85).

“When you start out with kids and tell them they should be asking questions about what they’re looking at, they don’t know what kind of questions to ask,” Helen R. Quinn, chair of the Framework committee, explains during a National Science Teaching Association–sponsored webinar (NSTA 2021). “Having these tools helps them ask questions that are productive . . . a question that leads you to think further about the problem, leads you to look at something you might not have looked at otherwise, or leads you to have an idea about what do you need to include in your model that you hadn’t included.”

To visualize CCCs’ function within the three dimensions, Hughes-Binstock suggests a garden analogy. What you plant represents the DCI. How you plant and the tools you use—a hoe, spade, and watering can—represent the SEPs. But to ensure the garden grows, it must further connect to nature’s gardeners—such as bees and worms—that cut across the flowers and the soil to give the “what” the best chance to grow to its fullest potential. Sure, you can plant and grow a garden well with the seeds and tools, but what the bees and worms bring to the garden’s growth is what connects the garden to what has been planted in other gardens, fields, and environments. “These CCCs are often overlooked as not completely necessary, but when they are intentionally added to the garden, the growth potential multiplies,” she says. “You can plant the plants and tend to them too, but you have to consider more than just weeding and watering as the only things helping the garden grow. The crosscutting concepts are the final piece of the trifecta that, without their use, would only take the garden so far.” Each CCC is a critical piece that can inspire a novel approach to sensemaking, inviting a different scientifically based view of the world and a deeper understanding of how it all works together.

The NGSS supports that CCCs provide the mental tools that help students develop a deeper understanding of phenomena, noting that in carrying out science and engineering practices, students may naturally integrate CCCs (NRC 2013, 83). But to fully build understanding of the concepts, CCCs need to be an intentional part of scientific investigations and engineering where they are explicitly referenced to support core ideas to demonstrate that the same concept is relevant across disciplines.

“You can’t speak about the disciplinary core idea without using the crosscutting concepts as part of your explanation,” Hughes-Binstock says. “And it’s just not one and done. You don’t check it off in second grade saying, ‘I did patterns and cause and effect,’ for example. Crosscutting concepts are meant to be cycled over and over and over again.”

Elementary School Science Classroom: Cute Little Girl Looks Under Microscope, Boy Uses Digital Tablet Computer to Check Information on the Internet. Teacher Observes from Behind.
Crosscutting concepts give students the tools that help them ask questions that are productive in understanding phenomena.

She explains that CCCs offer students a lens through which to investigate the world using the unique perspective of each concept, enabling them to understand phenomena more fully and then more readily transfer that understanding to additional scenarios and situations. “It’s both a horizontal and vertical articulation not only within a grade but across grades,” Hughes-Binstock says. “So you build on CCCs in every lesson, every unit, every grade, and every grade band so students become more and more familiar with them.”

Additionally, organizing the concepts around causality (cause and effect, structure and function), systems and systems models (stability and change; scale, proportion, and quantity; matter and energy), and patterns can provide students with an approach to collecting relevant evidence needed to support their explanations of phenomena. (Moulding and Bybee 2017, 72).

Integrating CCCs into Lessons

By consistently referencing the concepts in lessons and in framing prompts relating to core ideas, teachers lay the groundwork that focuses student sensemaking through the lenses of CCCs.

“Thinking about the CCC, the metacognition about the use, is something the teacher has to introduce, so the student recognizes, ‘Oh, that’s a good thing I should think about—patterns or cause and effect,’” Quinn says. “Notice it, talk about it, reflect on how useful it was—that helps the student be ready to use it again” (NSTA 2021).

While not all CCCs lend themselves to every phenomenon, they each offer cognitive tools that help students explore phenomena from varying perspectives for a richer and deeper understanding (Cooper 2020, 907). For example, students may look at the core idea of mass through the lens of scale and proportion. “Understanding that mass, in proportion to other masses in a scale that may be monumental—like the solar system—helps ground students and gives them that magnifying glass that lets them look at the world specifically from that perspective,” Hughes-Binstock explains. “You need to make sure you’re looking through the lens of the CCC, because that’s the way you integrate the three dimensions.”

Crosscutting Concepts Across Disciplines and Time: Looking through the Lens of Patterns

Science curricula developed to support three-dimensional science teaching and learning can guide educators by identifying the CCCs that pair with the lessons’ core ideas to achieve performance expectations and then come back to those concepts as they relate to the investigation at the lesson level, which in turn relates to the anchor phenomena.

But it’s also important that, through discourse and science and engineering practices, students are prompted to explicitly articulate and apply the CCCs, making their thinking visible and informing instruction.

Hughes-Binstock cites examples:

⁕ In grade 1, students might begin the exploration of structure and function through the life science phenomenon of the Venus flytrap. Students consider the idea that the plant, which cannot travel to get its food, relies on external structures (the leaf shape, “teeth” on the leaf, and trigger hairs) to attract and then trap prey as food is discovered. Additionally in grade 1, students explore the physical science idea of light and how the presence or absence of light on an object makes it visible or unable to be seen (cause and effect), but they will most likely not address the structure and function of the eye and how it helps animals see an object when it is illuminated by light (middle school concept). But if in grade 4, a life science phenomenon related to light and structure and function is introduced, the combination of cause and effect and structure and function might collide with the goal that students will connect that plants and animals have external and internal structures that, because of light, help them see what is necessary for both to survive. This connection across disciplines in a relevant context can become the basis for cellular organization and the wave model of light for color in middle school. Without the explicit connection across the disciplines and the grade levels, the gap in understanding is detrimental to the deeper sensemaking required of NGSS. The crosscutting concepts provide the bridge.

⁕ In discussing cause and effect of deforestation, kindergartners think about how cutting down trees means animals won’t have a place to live anymore (cause and effect). But by grade 5, the foundational understanding of photosynthesis leads students to realize that deforestation affects oxygen. “So cause and effect in grade K is ‘I cut down trees, and animals don’t have a place to live,’” Hughes-Binstock explains. “Cause and effect in grade 5 is ‘I cut down trees, and I eliminate a certain percentage of producers of oxygen.’”

In the NSTA webinar, Quinn recognizes that one of the struggles is which CCC should the teacher focus on and why. “Often there are two or four you could use,” she explains, “So as you teach, you can combine them in any which way. What you really want is repeated use in multiple contexts so it’s something the student knows how and when to use.”

Within their investigations, students also may integrate CCCs that aren’t specifically in a lesson’s performance expectation. “There is, what I call, the sub CCCs,” Hughes-Binstock says. “The lesson might be focusing on structure and function, but there could be an underlying pattern that I’m hoping the kids through their prior use of patterns are going to be able to see and articulate.” This further helps the teacher in assessing student understanding as they’re considering the three-dimensional standards they’re trying to achieve.

Teacher helping teenage schoolgirl with tablet computer.
When students articulate and apply CCCs, it makes their thinking visible and informs instruction.

Evidence of understanding is when the student can transfer a concept to other events and scenarios. Hughes-Binstock cites fractions in math as an analogy. Students may successfully identify pieces of a pizza as fractions, but if they don’t understand how to apply the concept of parts of a whole in other scenarios, such as an acre in a forest, they haven’t developed a conceptual understanding of fractions in a way that is transferable. Likewise, with CCCs, “if you get to that elemental level of what that crosscutting concept is, it grounds them and allows for a deeper understanding, which then in turn supports transfer,” she says.

The hope, Quinn says in the NSTA webinar, is that students recognize the value of using CCCs as tools when investigating phenomena that they don’t yet understand, which is the way scientists use the concepts. “It’s really something that is useful for the sensemaking work that we want the students to do,” she says, “which helps them understand the science concepts and helps them make them their own in a way that they’ll be able to use them in their future lives.”

References

Cooper, Melanie M. 2020. “The Crosscutting Concepts: Critical Component or ‘Third Wheel’ of Three-Dimensional Learning?” Journal of Chemical Education. 2020, 97, 903–909. https://par.nsf.gov/servlets/purl/10183604.

Moulding, Brett D., and Rodger W. Bybee. 2017. Teaching Science Is Phenomenal: Using Phenomena to Engage Students in Three-Dimensional Science Performances Consistent with the NRC Framework and NGSS.Washington, UT: Elm Tree Publishing.National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13165.

National Research Council. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Appendix G. Washington, DC. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18290.

National Science Teaching Association. 2021. “Crosscutting Concepts: A Professional Book Study for K–12 Educators.” May 12, 2021: https://zoom.us/rec/play/Bx_DjujQgKLZDCPY6Vqooj5JPUuuv4ERJZt-GIcbPNC64iDFIAUV8_ApTamfvN6DDHosqgBJieCLJDWn.2_jsPlSFGVqkEo1t?startTime=1620946916000&_x_zm_rtaid=Pg0s2-4bRA6NVTW2vzdz3Q.1632937884389.9f3c7b0d2aa3a28a98989e372fb945ca&_x_zm_rhtaid=45.

National Science Teaching Association. n.d. NGSS@NSTA: Stem Starts Here. “Crosscutting Concepts.” Accessed January 18, 2022. https://ngss.nsta.org/CrosscuttingConceptsFull.aspx.

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Carolina Biological Supply Company is a leading supplier of science teaching materials. Headquartered in Burlington, North Carolina, it serves customers worldwide, including teachers, professors, homeschool educators, and professionals in health- and science-related fields. Carolina is the exclusive developer and distributor of the Building Blocks of Science® 3D curriculum and the new BBS3D@Home digital component.

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The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) aims to transform and improve the teaching and learning of science for K–12 students. It developed the grades K–5 Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™ and grades 6–8 Science and Technology Concepts™ Middle School(STCMS™) programs to engage students in three-dimensional, hands-on learning that incorporates science and engineering practices in every unit.

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