Crosscutting Concepts

Crosscutting Concepts

Key Takeaways:
  • Fostering students’ use of crosscutting concepts allows teachers to strengthen their NGSS-based instruction while simultaneously building and supporting student motivation in two ways:
    • MDPs supporting CCC proficiency: MDPs can help teachers design instruction that engages students in using the CCCs
    • CCCs as a context for MDP enactment: Instruction designed to support students’ proficiency with the CCCs affords rich opportunities to enact strategies aligned with the MDPs, which may affect students’ motivation for science

The crosscutting concepts (CCCs) of the NGSS are ways to think across disciplinary domains to make sense of a phenomenon or to solve a problem. There are seven CCCs: patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity; systems and system models; energy and matter; structure and function; and stability and change. There are four functions that CCCs can play in science understanding: as a lens for identifying relevant aspects of a phenomenon, as a bridge from one area of understanding to another, as a tool for building on prior knowledge or abilities, or as a generalized rule that governs a wide set of phenomena.1 Students develop a more coherent and science-based understanding of the world through the repeated use of the CCCs in making sense of phenomena or coming up with solutions to problems. The CCCs work synergistically with the science and engineering practices (SEPs) and the disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) to develop students’ ability to think and act in authentic ways, akin to the methods of “doing” science practiced by real-world scientists and engineers.

The Motivation Design Principles (MDPs) can help teachers design instruction that helps students develop proficiency with CCCs as part of three-dimensional science learning. Likewise, instruction designed to support students’ proficiency with the CCCs affords rich opportunities to enact the MDPs within the context of science learning, fostering students’ motivation for science. This positive feedback loop allows teachers to strengthen their NGSS-based instruction while simultaneously building and supporting student motivation. We discuss each half of this feedback loop below.

The MDPs can support teachers in selecting the phenomena and/or design problems to support the development of student proficiency with CCCs. They also support designing learning tasks that support student motivation as they develop proficiency in a CCC. Readers can refer to the Activities section of each MDP chapter for specific strategy ideas, but we broadly outline below how strategies aligned with the Relevance, Belonging, and Confidence MDPs support the selection of appropriate phenomena and design problems for CCC use, while strategies aligned with the Confidence, Learning Orientation, and Autonomy MDPs can support students’ engagement with the CCCs as authentic scientific practice.

Students are likely to be more engaged in using CCCs if the phenomenon or design problem is relevant to them and at an appropriate level of challenge for them. Accordingly, the Relevance and Confidence MDPs can guide the identification of CCCs for instruction. Many of the CCCs are concepts that students might use both in their everyday lives and in their science classrooms. For example, students may engage in reasoning around patterns, cause and effect, and systems and system models as they make sense of day-to-day events, the reasons why things occur, and interrelationships among peers. The nature of the CCCs also allows students to make connections between prior science learning, concurrent science learning, and lived experiences.

However, it is important to remember that what is relevant to a group of students will vary from class to class and between individuals within the group, making it important for teachers to consider the complex identities of their specific students [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. The Belonging and Relevance MDP sections include strategies for learning about students and their communities and reflecting on the cultural relevance of phenomena, design problems, and tasks in science class, ensuring that students have the opportunity to connect the CCCs to science ideas they are familiar with, either from prior or current learning in school or from their experiences outside of school. Examples of how the MDPs help students use the CCCs are provided in the table below.

Crosscutting Concepts
Motivation goal Strategy for using CCCs Example
Make CCC use more relevant to students and give students confidence that they can be successful in using the CCC, supporting their sense of belonging as science learners Leverage CCCs that students might use both in their everyday lives and in their science classrooms to make sense of phenomena or solve problems Leverage the patterns students have noticed when observing and participating in social interactions as a bridge for understanding how characteristic animal behaviors affect the survival and reproduction of animals (MS-LS1-4)
Ask students to use CCCs in ways that leverage students’ familiarity with a phenomenon and/or design problem from their lived experiences Use the CCC of cause and effect as a tool to build on students’ knowledge of colliding objects from their experience with play (e.g., sports and toys) while designing a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects (MS-PS2-1)
Ask students to use the CCCs to better understand phenomena and solve design problems that students are familiar with (either from prior or current learning in school or from their experiences outside of school) and/or that are important to them or their community Leverage students’ experiences with local flooding phenomena or examples of local sound pollution in order to promote relevance when studying how structure influences the function of different materials in reflecting, absorbing, or transmitting waves (MS-PS4-2)

The MDPs can help teachers design the associated learning tasks to support students’ meaningful engagement with the CCCs as an authentic component of scientific practice. Strategies aligned with the Confidence MDP can help teachers to frame clear expectations for the CCC-related activity, including the objectives of the activity and connections to prior learning (e.g., students will be able to identify how the water cycle can help us better understand how matter and energy move through an ecosystem). Additionally, strategies aligned with the Confidence MDP help teachers reflect on ways to set an appropriate level of challenge for students as they work to use the CCCs to figure out phenomena or solve problems. Although the NGSS assign CCCs to performance expectations across grade levels, students may enter a given science classroom with varying levels of prior experience and proficiency with the CCCs, especially if they have not previously had access to high-quality science instruction [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. It is important to support students’ confidence by helping them use the CCCs to make sense of familiar phenomena and design problems so that they view it as a skill they have mastered, then challenge them to extend their sense-making to novel phenomena and design problems.

Strategies aligned with the Learning Orientation MDP can help students recognize CCCs as a means to further develop understanding of a phenomenon or design problem rather than a task to complete for a grade. Strategies aligned with the Autonomy MDP can help teachers give students the space to apply the CCCs in a manner that makes sense to them, which is essential for developing students’ proficiency with and understanding of the CCCs. For example, teachers might ask students to use the matter and energy CCC as a lens throughout several learning sequences (e.g., forces and motion, seasons, and ecosystems). In each learning sequence, teachers can ask students to identify the matter and energy and their flow and cycle in order to understand the phenomenon or design problem. A think-pair-share2 can be used to give students time to process their thoughts individually and then with a partner before sharing their thinking with the class. At the end of the school year, the teacher can ask groups of students to create a poster where they use the matter and energy CCC as a bridge to compare the matter and energy, and the flows and cycles of matter and energy in two of the examples studied previously. After a gallery walk3 of the different posters, the class can engage in a discussion about what they can learn about matter and energy across all of these examples.

Furthermore, working with the CCCs provides teachers with additional opportunities to create a rich learning environment for enacting the MDPs. Using the CCCs can help students develop a learning orientation, exercise cognitive autonomy, choose tasks or procedures that are relevant to them, feel a sense of belonging in a community of scientists and engineers, and feel more confident in their ability to make sense of phenomena and/or design problems.

Each of the four functions of CCCs affords different opportunities for teachers to enact the MDPs and thereby support student motivation. Examples of each CCC function are provided below. For each CCC function, one of the seven CCCs is included as an example; however, all seven CCCs can be used for all four functions.

  • As a lens, a CCC like cause and effect can help students to focus on whichever factors may be affecting the observed phenomenon and, in turn, how the observed phenomenon may be affecting outcomes. Using CCCs over time as a lens to better understand a variety of phenomena supports students’ development of a learning orientation, as they come to view science learning not as a series of disconnected facts or tasks but rather an ongoing process of developing deeper scientific understanding. Students are also able to to make connections to their lived experiences, supporting the development of a sense of belonging in science and engineering
  • As a bridge, a CCC like systems and system models can help students carry their understandings of a system into a new scenario by drawing analogies and connections between the two. For example, students may have previously studied the hydrosphere as a system, but have not had an opportunity to investigate the geosphere as a system. Students can better understand the geosphere as a system of flows of earth matter within and across reservoirs by bridging from their understanding of the hydrosphere as a system of water flowing between reservoirs. By identifying analogous parts and their functions within the system of the hydrosphere, they can then identify these relationships in the geosphere. Using CCCs in this manner supports students’ confidence and adoption of a learning orientation by showing students that something they previously learned can help them to understand something new. CCCs can also be used as a bridge to phenomena and design problems that are more interesting and meaningful to students, making learning feel more relevant to them
  • As a tool, a CCC like structure and function can help students to build on prior understandings and experiences. Students may have experienced learning about the parts of a plant in elementary school. They can build on their prior knowledge by understanding how plants have specialized structures that help perform unique functions to ensure the survival of the whole plant (e.g., “How does the waxiness of a cactus help it survive and reproduce in a dry region?” as part of MS LS1-4). Using CCCs as a tool supports students’ confidence by providing an opportunity to build on something that is already familiar to them
  • As a rule, a CCC like matter and energy can help students to understand that certain principles regarding the transfer of matter or energy between reservoirs apply to a large set of circumstances. For example conservation of matter as discussed in MS-PS1-5 governs relationships among substances before and after a chemical reaction takes place (e.g, the types and numbers of atoms in substances before and after a chemical reaction takes place are conserved). Applying this rule to new contexts (such as when asking “how does photosynthesis drive a cycle of matter through earth’s bio-systems?” in MS-LS1-6 ) can help students have confidence that they will be successful in understanding the new context because the rule gives them an entry point to that understanding. This can also give students opportunities to exercise autonomy in new contexts when they might otherwise need more guidance