Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) were included in the Framework for K-12 Science Education as one of the three dimensions of science even though the CCCs hadn’t been explicit in science and engineering education before. They were always implicitly there, of course, underlying the content students learned, but because they were rarely included in learning goals, only a relatively small handful of students noticed these cross-disciplinary ideas.
The Framework lays out a vision of CCCs as equally important learning goals as Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs). It talks about the importance of students explicitly learning these concepts:
“Although crosscutting concepts are fundamental to an understanding of science and engineering, students have often been expected to build such knowledge without any explicit instructional support. Hence the purpose of highlighting them as Dimension 2 of the framework is to elevate their role in the development of standards, curricula, instruction, and assessments. These concepts should become common and familiar touchstones across the disciplines and grade levels. Explicit reference to the concepts, as well as their emergence in multiple disciplinary contexts, can help students develop a cumulative, coherent, and usable understanding of science and engineering.”
The goal is for students to build and use CCCs as thinking skills. And like other thinking skills (e.g., the process of elimination), students become much more proficient using them when they realize they are using them.
Thinking skills can be used as tools, and the idea of tools is a relevant analogy for me since I’m in the middle of home improvement projects at the moment. I’m much more likely to think of using a drill to solve a problem around the house if I know what a drill is and the kinds of things it can do. Thank goodness for YouTube – I saw a video of someone walking through the process of using a drill to remove a stripped screw, so now I’m much more likely to think of using a drill if I encounter that problem in the future.
The same is true for CCCs. If students understand them and see how they’re useful in different contexts, they’ll be much more likely to think of reaching for that mental tool when trying to figure out a new phenomenon or problem. Imagine the questions that students would ask if they understood that
Imagine the issues and misunderstandings that could occur if people DON’T understand these concepts!
It may be important for students to understand and use these concepts, but do we really need to explicitly name them?
The importance of making CCCs explicit is similar to the research on logical fallacies, where we see that people are better able to recognize a logical flaw if they have learned a name for it. For example, a teacher might notice in one class that the four students who didn’t do well on a spelling pre-test in one class all have a home language other than English. If the teacher isn’t familiar with the fallacy of affirming the consequent (“If A then B, B therefore A”), she might assume that a multilingual student in the next class would also do poorly on the spelling test and might begin to develop a harmful stereotype. If she has learned this fallacy explicitly, though, she’s more likely to recognize it and use the situation to improve her thought process.
Likewise, students are more likely to recognize opportunities to use the CCC “correlation does not necessarily imply causation” if they have learned it explicitly rather than just having a gut feeling that an argument based on correlational data is not very strong.
Two-dimensional science instruction is already complicated enough. Could CCCs just be used as extensions?
The vision of the Framework was written as an aspiration, since very few classrooms already did everything described. Shifting curriculum and instruction toward that aspirational vision naturally takes a lot of time. As we move toward that vision slowly, though, we can’t ignore a whole dimension of a three-dimensional approach, just as we can’t ignore curriculum when trying to improve instruction. All parts of the education system work together and all three dimensions of science and engineering work together.
While not all classes will likely be implementing all of the grade-level elements from all three dimensions in their first year of standards implementation, every single studentdeserves to start moving down the path of developing crosscutting concept thinking skills. It’s difficult to justify providing this support to some students and not others. Equipping only some students with the mental tools that will allow them to approach new phenomena and problems in the world is like giving power tools and training to only some students while expecting all students to successfully accomplish the same tasks.
How is it feasible to integrate all three dimensions?
As we shift to instruction focused on figuring out explanations for phenomena and solutions for problems, it’s becoming more natural for students to incorporate sense-making tools in the classroom. Shifting to this instructional approach can be supported by teacher professional learning, high-quality instructional materials, and administrative support. More and more instructional materials are being designed for the NGSS and similar standards, incorporating CCCs as learning goals and supporting explicit classroom discussion and use of the CCCs by all students. A vignette from Critical Feature 2.4 of this recent publication shows an example of how explicit use of CCCs together with Disciplinary Core Ideas and Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) can support student sense-making:
Students have been working toward explaining the phenomenon of a tree gaining mass. They are prompted to think about the different CCCs they have used before and consider which one they want to use to help them start figuring out the phenomenon. When students talk about systems, they are facilitated to use the CCC element “systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems” to consider whether a tree interacts with a larger system, and if so, what the components of that system are. They also consider what sub-systems might operate within a tree. As students progress in their sense-making, the teacher calls out the different ideas and SEPs students use and asks students what role those components are playing in helping them figure out the phenomenon.
What do you think? How have you seen students learning to use CCCs as power tools?