How to Use the Crosscutting Concepts – Simple Teacher’s Guide

April 3, 2024

Let’s explore the often-overlooked yet crucial element within them: Crosscutting Concepts. As educators, we understand the challenges of engaging students in science, connecting diverse scientific disciplines and deepening their understanding of science. That’s where Crosscutting Concepts come into play. In this comprehensive teacher’s guide, we’ll unveil the secrets to harnessing the power of Crosscutting Concepts, providing you with practical strategies, real-world examples, and easy-to-use tips. Whether you’re a seasoned educator or just beginning your teaching career, this guide will empower you to transform your science classroom, ignite curiosity, and equip your students with the tools they need for a brighter future. Let’s embark on this journey together and discover how to effectively utilize Crosscutting Concepts in your teaching.

If you want to learn how to use the Crosscutting Concepts in your classroom, check out this resource.

Navigating the Crosscutting Concepts

I believe the Crosscutting Concepts are the unsung heroes of the NGSS. They are easy to use, deepen students’ understanding of science, and help them to clearly articulate the big ideas in science. But, the three-dimensional nature of the NGSS is confusing for teachers. So, the CCCs don’t get the recognition they deserve. That’s why I’ve created this post to help demystify this important dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards. I’ll address common questions as well as misconceptions. And, I’ll show you how to utilize them to bring value to your classroom.

What are the Crosscutting Concepts?

In the context of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Crosscutting Concepts are fundamental themes that apply to multiple scientific disciplines. They are overarching ideas that serve as a unifying framework for exploring various scientific concepts and phenomena. These concepts are essential because they help students see the connections between different areas of science, fostering a deeper understanding of the natural world and scientific principles.

The Seven CCCs Defined

There are seven Crosscutting Concepts. They connect to each of the science and engineering disciplines an. Each are found in all grade levels from kindergarten through high school As students learn about them, they build a interconnected web of ideas about themes in science. The Crosscutting Concepts are:

  1. Patterns: Identifying recurring patterns and trends in data and natural phenomena to make predictions and connections.
  2. Cause and Effect: Investigating relationships between variables and events to understand the cause-and-effect mechanisms in scientific systems.
  3. Scale, Proportion, and Quantity: Deepen understanding of relative an quantitative values observed in systems.
  4. Systems and System Models: Examining the interactions within complex systems and developing models to represent them.
  5. Energy and Matter: Investigating the transfer, transformation, and conservation of energy and matter in various systems.
  6. Structure and Function: Understanding the relationship between the structure and function of components in biological and physical systems.
  7. Stability and Change: Analyzing the factors that contribute to the stability and changes occurring within systems over time.

How are the Crosscutting Concepts different from the Science and Engineering Practices?

While the SEPs provide a deeper understanding of science, and occur in each grade level band, these dimensions are very different. The Science and Engineering Practices engage students in the exercise of science. In contrast, students use the Crosscutting Concepts serve to explain connections between disciplines and to explain phenomena in a more meaningful way.

The Vital Role of the Crosscutting Concepts in Scientific Vocabulary

Crosscutting Concepts play a pivotal role in helping students develop a shared and comprehensive vocabulary that transcends the boundaries of individual scientific disciplines. By introducing concepts such as patterns, cause and effect, scale, systems, energy and matter, structure and function, and stability and change across various scientific contexts, students become familiar with a consistent language used to describe and analyze scientific phenomena.

This common vocabulary enhances their ability to communicate effectively. Also it fosters a deeper understanding of the connection between scientific principles. As students apply these concepts in different areas of science, they gain the tools to bridge the gap between disciplines.

Challenges in Using the Crosscutting Concepts

While Crosscutting Concepts in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer an invaluable framework for enhancing scientific education, their implementation can pose several challenges for educators. Integrating CCCs into the curriculum requires a thoughtful approach and a shift in teaching practices. Many educators find themselves grappling with questions about how to effectively infuse these overarching themes into their lessons, align them with specific content, and assess students’ understanding. Additionally, misconceptions and the need for tailored instructional strategies can present hurdles.

Its also important to note that training in the area of the Crosscutting Concepts has been poor. In this section, we’ll delve into these challenges and explore solutions to navigate them successfully.”

5 Common Mistakes Teachers Make with the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts

The NGSS is so much different than traditional teaching methods.  So, mistakes are common.  Here are a few common mistakes to look out for so that you can avoid them in your classroom.

1. Introducing all of the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts at Once

Front-loading is something that we see often in science education. This most often occurs when teachers use a “scientific method unit” to start the school year. But, as teachers make the transition to NGSS, other practices are taking the place of this one. For example, I often see teachers introducing the Crosscutting Concepts all at once.

Unfortunately, introducing the Crosscutting Concepts all at once removes the context and takes the meaning out of the activity. This wastes valuable class time and reduces student buy-in.

Instead, introduce the Crosscutting Concepts one at a time in context during your instructional sequence.  Consider devoting a place in your classroom to the Crosscutting Concepts.  I have Juli Cannon’s Crosscutting Concept posters in my room.  When I introduce a new concept, I refer to the spot in the room where the posters are located.  As a result, reviewing connections to previous lessons is quick and easy.

Scale Proportion Quantity Crosscutting Concept Poster that describes the concept and has sticky notes attached that provide examples.
Here is an example of how Juli Cannon explicitly shows students connections to the Crosscutting Concepts in her classroom.

 2.  Assessing the Crosscutting Concepts by Themselves

The NGSS are three-dimensional standards.  Each dimension has equal importance.  Each performance expectation addresses one Science and Engineering Practice, one Crosscutting Concept, and a single component of the Disciplinary Core Ideas.  Performance expectations assess students on their ability to use the three dimensions together.

Ideally, I’d prefer that teachers assess all three dimensions at once..  However, for small informal assessments, it’s okay to assess students on just two dimensions.  For example, I like to use exit tickets to assess students on their understanding of a Crosscutting Concept in the context of the Disciplinary Core Idea that we are focusing on.  Adding in Science and Engineering Practices could overly complicate these short, informal assessments.

3. Focusing Too Heavily on Vocabulary

The Crosscutting Concepts include considerable vocabulary.  We want the CCCs to provide a common vocabulary that students can use across disciplines. But, teachers who are new to using the CCCs in their classroom might mistakenly over-emphasize vocabulary and fail to use the CCCs to make higher-level connections.

What does this look like in the classroom? Often, I see teachers over-emphasizing vocabulary on assessments and in projects. While we want students to learn to use specific vocabulary, this isn’t the primary target of the standards. Also, I see teachers spending so much time teaching vocabulary in ways that aren’t meaningful for students. Again, this isn’t the best use of time in your classroom.

Remember that context is incredibly important. The emphasis should be on the application of the CCCs.  So, in addition to using this vocabulary terms, its important for students to apply this vocabulary to the explanation of disciplinary core ideas. And, hopefully students use these terms to see connection to the science and engineering practices as well.

Ideally, students make connections to the CCCs often in the classroom. As a result, they become more familiar with targeted vocabulary and begin using it authentically on their own.

4. Only Using the Crosscutting Concept from the Performance Expectation

Each performance expectation includes a Crosscutting Concept. Initially, I only looked at the performance expectation to make connections to the CCCs. This can be a very limiting practice.  The Performance Expectations only assess students on the basic ability to make connections to the CCCs.  In addition, some parts of Crosscutting Concept Matrix don’t appear in the performance expectations . So, students end up with an incomplete understanding of the concepts.

The CCCs provide the ability to make connections across disciplines and practices. As previously stated, these connections are more apparent each time students are given the opportunity to use the CCCs.  So, introducing more CCCs within a unit only makes these connections more clear. Therefore, you don’t have to limit yourself to only using the CCCs in the performance expectation.

That being said, its overwhelming if you try to do to much at once.

5. Only Addressing Subcomponents from your designated grade band

Students are assessed on the subcomponents of the CCC matrix at THE END of the grade level band.  However, many teachers only stick to the components within that grade level band.  Many students come to us without a strong understanding of the Crosscutting Concepts from the previous grade-level band because the NGSS is so new.  From my experience, it is often a good idea to start at the grade-level band below their current grade level.

For example, incoming 6th graders may not have had exposure to the concept of Systems and System models in grades three through five.  This CCC is complex and has many ties to other CCCs so students will likely struggle with picking it up at the middle school level when seeing it for the first time.  Instead, consider focusing on the third through the fifth-grade band until the majority of your class has shown mastery at this level.  The idea is that they will move toward mastery of the middle school components by the end of their 8th-grade year.

This is also a great way to differentiate your instruction.  You can provide your students with scaffolds, such as graphic organizers so that they are able to work at different grade-level bands within the same classroom.

However, its important that we spend as much time within the grade band as we can. This is an excellent way to scaffold the concepts. But, please remove these scaffolds as soon as possible to ensure student growth.

6. Assuming Students Will Make Connections on Their Own

The Crosscutting Concepts are far more complicated than we often realize. Therefore, we need to provide explicit instruction on the CCCs in order to make sure students are using them as intended. Otherwise, they won’t be impactful in the classroom.


Erin Sadler

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