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Using the Crosscutting Concepts to Scaffold Student Thinking

By Cindy Workosky

Posted on 2017-05-24

At the recent NSTA National Conference in Los Angeles, three-dimensional learning was, of course, a major topic of discussion. When those discussions focus on classroom instruction, though, the crosscutting concepts are often the forgotten dimension. Some educators argue that the crosscutting concepts should develop in students’ minds organically, and that it’s enough for a teacher to simply guide students to reflect on a learning experience to find connections to those concepts. Other educators see the value in making the crosscutting concepts more explicit for students, but they find it difficult to do so. We fell into this second camp. 

We realized the crosscutting concepts are valuable tools for helping students develop, understand, and connect disciplinary core ideas and practices across learning experiences.  However, we wondered how we could help students make these connections in effective ways.  We started to see the answer to that question after reviewing the plant growth and gas exchange unit developed at Michigan State University (MSU). The matter and energy process tool used in that unit provides explicit scaffolding for students as they apply the Energy and Matter crosscutting concept to phenomena ranging from a drying sponge to a growing tree. This scaffold helps students see the structure of the crosscutting concept, and it forces them to connect general, abstract ideas about matter and energy with specific, concrete phenomena. Once we considered this tool, we envisioned ways to help students develop their ability to apply the crosscutting concepts when analyzing phenomena.

With this model in mind, we developed a series of graphic organizers (available as Google Slides) that scaffold each of the seven crosscutting concepts for middle and high school students. As we did this, we wanted to be sure to address the most important aspects of each concept. To accomplish this, we referred extensively to the explanations of each crosscutting concept in the Framework for K–12 Science Education (ch. 4, pp. 83–102) and to the grade- band progressions on the NGSS@NSTA Hub.

Crosscutting Concepts Progressions

  1. Patterns
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
  4. Systems and System Models
  5. Energy and Matter
  6. Structure and Function
  7. Stability and Change

For example, the overall description for Cause and Effect on the Hub states, “deciphering causal relationships, and the mechanisms by which they are mediated, is a major activity of science and engineering.” As a result, the mechanism linking the two events in a cause-effect relationship is a central feature of our Cause and Effect graphic organizer.

As you review the remaining graphic organizers, you will see that we adapted MSU’s Matter and Energy Process Tool only slightly. You’ll also notice eight graphic organizers, one more than the seven crosscutting concepts. We believe Scale, Proportion, and Quantity had two key aspects that could not both be represented in a single graphic organizer. The Scale organizer is actually inspired by another tool from the same MSU unit.

You will also see that each graphic organizer prompts students to apply the crosscutting concept to a specific phenomenon. We want students to think not in generalities, such as how the structure of cell organelles promotes the cell’s function, but rather in more specifically grounded ideas, such as why a person with a mitochondrial disease experiences chronic fatigue.

Finally, you’ll see considerable overlap across the graphic organizers, particularly regarding the role of evidence in supporting claims. This reinforces the idea that the crosscutting concepts are not isolated ideas, but interrelated lenses that scientists and engineers use to understand and analyze phenomena and problems.

What does this look like in the classroom? Teachers have used the graphic organizers in scenarios ranging from students analyzing the cause and mechanism of swarming locusts after reading an article about the phenomenon to using a modified version of the Matter and Energy graphic organizer to analyze changes in matter that occurred during a reaction in a bag activity.

One of our favorite uses is in a storyline we developed to investigate the causes of land and sea breezes at the beach. After viewing a video of a flag at the beach blowing in different directions during the day and night, students engage in a series of investigations to help them understand the factors contributing to this phenomenon.

Students then use the Cause and Effect graphic organizer  to make sense of how these factors (differential heating of land and water, air pressure, convection, and so on) cause the flag to blow in different directions at different times. The key is that students are actively using the graphic organizer to help them comprehend the phenomenon. They are not simply taking notes about the phenomenon or about the general ideas of the crosscutting concept.

We encourage you to try out these graphic organizers, and we hope they will help you make the crosscutting concepts more explicit and more useful for your students. We hope your students will see the graphic organizers and the crosscutting concepts themselves as thinking tools that will help them make sense of the world around them and connect various phenomena and core ideas. As you use these resources with your students, we would love to hear about your experiences and welcome your feedback.

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.

Amy Peacock

Amy Peacock, Ph.D., is the K-12 Science Content Coach in the Clarke County School District in Athens, Georgia, and the outgoing President of the Georgia Science Supervisors Association. She is a former food scientist and high school chemistry teacher.  She provides professional learning, coaching, and support for science teachers in her district.


Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resources, professional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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