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Integrating Crosscutting Concepts into Science Instruction

This vital dimension of the NGSS can build on students’ everyday experiences in their homes and communities.

Science and Children—September 2019 (Volume 57, Issue 1)

By Marcelle Goggins, Alison Haas, Scott Grapin, Lorena Llosa, and Okhee Lee

Integrating Crosscutting Concepts into Science Instruction

Crosscutting concepts (CCCs) are all around us—patterns in flower petals and the phases of the Moon, a bicycle’s gears working together as a system, and the cause of moving water and the effect of erosion. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) recognize the importance of CCCs in science by identifying seven CCCs to be integrated into K–12 science instruction: patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity; systems and system models; energy and matter; structure and function; and stability and change. Although CCCs are not a new idea in science education (e.g., AAAS 1989), the NGSS ask that educators consider CCCs differently. Traditionally, CCCs have been thought of as common themes across science disciplines that serve “as background knowledge for students in ‘gifted,’ ‘honors,’ or ‘advanced’ programs’” (NGSS Lead States 2013, p. 6). In contrast, the NGSS expect all students to use CCCs in combination with science and engineering practices (SEPs) and disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) to explain phenomena.

While there is consensus in the science education community on the importance of CCCs for all students, teachers have been given limited guidance on how to integrate CCCs into science instruction. In this article we propose that teachers view CCCs as resources that students use in their everyday lives to make sense of the world and bring to the science classroom to help make sense of phenomena. When CCCs are viewed as resources that students come to school with and not just as outcomes of instruction, teachers can capitalize and build on students’ everyday experiences.

This view of CCCs as resources is especially important for diverse student groups, who have been traditionally marginalized in science education and who may not see science as real or relevant to their lives or future careers (Lee, Miller, and Januszyk 2014). By capitalizing on students’ “funds of knowledge” (González, Moll, and Amanti 2005) from their homes and communities, CCCs can serve as entry points to science learning. When CCCs are thought of as resources that students already have experience with and use regularly to make sense of the world, teachers demonstrate value for students’ cultural and linguistic resources. As a result, science is made real, relevant, and accessible to all students.

Classroom Vignettes 

In this section, we provide classroom vignettes of how a teacher integrated two CCCs into science instruction: (1) patterns and (2) systems and system models. Our research team is currently developing a yearlong NGSS-aligned fifth-grade curriculum with a focus on English learners. To develop the curriculum, we work closely with teachers in an urban school district who field-test the instructional materials and provide feedback on how to improve the materials to better meet the needs of all students. Each unit in the curriculum focuses on a local phenomenon that is real and relevant to students. The context for the two vignettes is a physical science unit anchored in the local phenomenon of garbage.

Patterns in Garbage 

The first vignette shows how a teacher capitalized on his students’ everyday experiences with the CCC patterns. On the first day of science instruction in the school year, fifth-grade students walked into their classroom and immediately saw something unusual: piles of garbage from the school cafeteria on tarps. In preparing the garbage materials, the teacher ensured that there was no broken glass or sharp objects in any pile (see Figure 1 for classroom recommendations for the garbage sort). He divided the class into groups of four or five students with varying levels of English proficiency and assigned each group to a pile of lunch garbage. Wearing gloves and goggles and using tongs to move the garbage materials around, students made observations of the garbage materials. Students had a range of reactions from “Ew! What’s that smell?” to “This is so cool!”—but everyone was excited to get to work.

Figure 1

Classroom safety recommendations for the garbage sort.

  • When assembling the piles of garbage for the activity, make sure not to include broken glass or sharp objects.
  • Ensure the garbage has as little liquid as possible.
  • Direct students to wear plastic gloves and protective goggles and to use tongs for handling the garbage. 
  • Direct students to wash their hands after handling the garbage. 
  • If students have allergies (nuts, mold, etc.), consult the school nurse before proceeding with the garbage sort.

The teacher instructed students to sort their group’s garbage pile into different categories (Figure 2). When working with each group, the teacher engaged in formative assessment by asking probing questions about similarities and differences in the garbage materials and providing contingent feedback (see Figure 3 for possible teacher prompts related to the CCC patterns). Groups sorted the garbage materials based on how the materials looked or what they had been used for before being discarded. For example, one group sorted their materials by color and texture, while another group sorted their materials into three categories: utensils, bowls, and food. Students recorded their observations in their science and engineering notebooks. The teacher recognized that his fifth-grade students were already using the CCC patterns by identifying similarities and differences in the garbage materials.

Students used patterns of properties to sort school lunch garbage into different categories.

Students used patterns of properties to sort school lunch garbage into different categories.

Figure 3

Possible teacher prompts to probe for students’ intuitive use of patterns before making the CCC explicit.

  • How did your group decide which materials go together?
  • What is similar about the materials in this category?
  • What is different about the materials in each category?
  • If you were given a new material, how would you know which category it belongs to?

After talking with each group about similarities and differences in the garbage materials, the teacher brought the class together to discuss their observations. Each group shared their categories of school lunch garbage. In this discussion, the teacher made students’ use of the CCC patterns explicit by describing how scientists look for and find patterns of similarity and difference in their observations, which can lead scientists to ask new questions or find new ways to organize their data. The teacher commended the students for using patterns, as scientists do, to categorize the garbage materials.

In this classroom vignette, the teacher capitalized on students’ everyday experiences with patterns to begin making sense of the phenomenon of garbage. In contrast to an “outcome approach” in which the teacher would highlight patterns only at the end of the lesson or unit, students in this classroom used their intuitive understanding of patterns to do the work of scientists. By framing CCCs as resources that students come to school with, the teacher encouraged all students to see themselves as scientists from the very beginning of science instruction in the school year. 

This view of CCCs is especially important for English learners, who benefit from opportunities to use all of their linguistic resources to make sense of phenomena. In this lesson, the opportunity to use more everyday language (“sort garbage into different groups”) at the beginning of instruction before progressing to more specialized language (“distinguish materials by patterns in their observable properties”) provided access to science learning. This view of CCCs departs from a more traditional approach of introducing specialized language (e.g., patterns) at the beginning of instruction before students have experienced and developed an understanding of science concepts. Language is a product of, not a precursor to, “doing” science.

Figure 4
Student homework identifying categories of home garbage based on patterns of properties.

Student homework identifying categories of home garbage based on patterns of properties.

For homework, students identified patterns of similarity and difference in their home garbage materials (Figure 4). The end-of-unit summative assessment task associated with this lesson’s performance expectation also involved the use of patterns. In this task, students analyzed data tables (provided as part of the task) to identify patterns in the properties of two garbage materials (a soda can and an orange), at the beginning of an investigation and after two weeks. Then, students wrote arguments based on evidence to answer the question, “Did the materials change after two weeks?” The arguments were assessed based on whether they included (1) a relevant and correct claim (e.g., “The orange changed after two weeks.”), (2) evidence from the data tables that identified a pattern in properties to support the claim (e.g., “At the beginning of the investigation, the orange smelled fruity and was orange in color, but after two weeks, the orange smelled rotten and was brown.”), and (3) reasoning that linked the evidence to the claim (e.g., “Materials are identified based on their properties, like smell and color, so if the properties of the orange changed, the orange must have changed.”).

Systems of Garbage Disposal

The second classroom vignette illustrates how the same teacher capitalized on students’ everyday experiences with the CCC systems and system models to figure out how garbage is disposed of in their school, home, and community. After sorting their school lunch garbage in the first lesson of the unit, students began to wonder where all of the garbage would go. The teacher called on several students to share their initial ideas. Student responses included, “the garbage can,” “garbage trucks,” and “landfills.” The teacher wrote student responses on sticky notes and posted them on the board. Then, the class connected the path of school garbage with arrows to show how the different parts worked together (Figure 5). By co-constructing the school garbage model with the class, the teacher differentiated instruction for students who may have otherwise struggled to develop models independently in the subsequent activity. Specifically, for students who needed guidance identifying the different parts and how they work together, the teacher asked questions, such as, “Where does the garbage go next? How does it get there? How could we represent that in our model?” For students who were able to construct the model with minimal support, the teacher asked questions that extended students’ thinking, such as, “What would happen if the custodians didn’t pick up our classroom garbage? What would change if our school garbage were collected less often?”

Figure 5
Co-constructed school garbage model showing where the garbage goes and how it gets to the landfill.

Co-constructed school garbage model showing where the garbage goes and how it gets to the landfill. 

Next, the teacher assigned each group to develop a model of garbage disposal in either the home or community. Each group wrote the different parts on sticky notes (e.g., garbage can, dumpster, garbage truck) and used arrows between the sticky notes to show how the parts interacted. As groups worked, the teacher engaged in formative assessment by asking probing questions and providing contingent feedback about how the parts worked together as a whole to do what the individual parts could not (see Figure 6 for possible teacher prompts related to the CCC systems and system models).

Figure 6

Possible teacher prompts to probe for students’ use of systems and system models before making the CCC explicit.

  • Where do you put your garbage at home?
  • Where in your neighborhood do you throw out garbage?
  • What would happen if a part, like the garbage truck, were missing?
  • Would the garbage end up in the landfill?

After circulating to each group, the teacher asked groups to place their models on the board in the front of the room (Figure 7). Students identified similarities and differences in the models, which allowed the teacher to reinforce the CCC patterns from the previous lesson, and students noticed that all of the garbage ended up in the landfill. In this discussion, the teacher made students’ use of the CCC systems and system models explicit by describing how scientists identify parts or components of systems and how those components work together or interact. The interactions among the components enable the system to carry out its functions that the individual components could not. The teacher commended the students for using systems, as scientists do, to figure out where garbage goes when it is disposed of.

Figure 7
Student models of school, home, and community garbage disposal systems.

Student models of school, home, and community garbage disposal systems.

In this classroom vignette, the teacher capitalized on students’ everyday experiences with systems and system models to make sense of how garbage in the school, home, and community ended up in a landfill. The teacher valued students’ “funds of knowledge” from their homes and communities as resources for learning science by viewing CCCs as resources that students come to school with. For English learners in particular, the opportunity to use more everyday language (“figure out where the garbage goes”) at the beginning of instruction before progressing to more specialized language (“identify the components and interactions of the garbage disposal system”) provided access to science learning.

The foundation with CCCs (Patterns and Systems and System Models) established in this first instructional unit promotes more intentional and sophisticated use of CCCs in subsequent units. For example, in the space science unit, students identify patterns in the appearance of falling stars over days, months, and years. In the life science unit, students investigate how an increase or decrease in different components of the vernal pool ecosystem could impact the tiger salamanders’ survival.

Conclusion

CCCs can be thought of as resources students come to school with. In the NGSS classroom, teachers can build on the resources students already have to meaningfully integrate CCCs into instruction. This perspective on CCCs that builds on students’ funds of knowledge is especially powerful for students from diverse backgrounds. CCCs offer points of entry to science and allow students to see themselves as scientists. From our work in classrooms, teachers find this view of CCCs applicable to their students and an approachable way to integrate CCCs into science instruction. The classroom vignettes demonstrate how a teacher built upon his students’ everyday experiences with CCCs by prompting for students’ use of CCCs to make sense of phenomena, before naming the CCC explicitly. The vignettes also illustrate how differentiation, rather than being an afterthought (e.g., creating alternative worksheets with simplified language), can be built into the design of instruction so that all students, and English learners in particular, are supported in learning science and language in tandem. By allowing students to make sense of phenomena first with the resources they already have and then reframing their resources as CCCs that scientists use, teachers can make science more real and relevant to all students because students see themselves doing scientific work. 


Marcelle Goggins (mlg13@nyu.edu) and Alison Haas are research associates, Scott Grapin is a graduate research assistant, Lorena Llosa is an associate professor of education, and Okhee Lee is a professor of childhood education, all at New York University in New York.

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards

Standard

5-PS1 Matter and Its Interaction

http://www.nextgenscience.org/dci-arrangement/5-ps1-matter-and-its-interactions

The chart below makes one set of connections between the instruction outlined in this article and the NGSS. Other valid connections are likely; however, space restrictions prevent us from listing all possibilities.

The materials, lessons, and activities outlined in the article are just one step toward reaching the performance expectation listed below.

Performance Expectation

5-PS1-3 Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.

Science and Engineering Practice

Developing and Using Models

Develop and/or use models to describe and or predict phenomena.

Students developed a model examining the interactions and pathways for common garbage disposal systems.

Disciplinary Core Idea

PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

Measurements of a variety of properties can be used to identify materials.

Students measure and observe properties of garbage materials (e.g., color, reflectivity, texture).

Crosscutting Concepts

Patterns

Students use similarities and differences in properties to sort and categorize garbage materials.

Systems and System Models

Students identify components and interactions in the garbage disposal system.

 

References

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1989. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University.

González, N., L.C. Moll, and C. Amanti. 2005. Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lee, O., E. Miller, and R. Januszyk. 2014. Next Generation Science Standards: All standards, all students. Journal of Science Teacher Education 25 (2): 223–233.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Crosscutting Concepts Curriculum NGSS Pedagogy Early Childhood Elementary

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