March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Crosscutting Concepts – Making Connections and Creating Tools for Student Thinking

Posted: Monday, February 8th, 2016

by Sue Campbell

Have you ever wondered how they make 3D movies and why some provide a thrilling experience for the viewers and others leave the audience disappointed and even a little sick? My curiosity led to me to do a little reading and research and I discovered that the difference comes in the planning and shooting of the film. 3D movies require different lighting, shooting angles, and more. So if the intent is to have a 3D movie, then the filming must be planned accordingly. Retrofitting a movie to be three dimensional is problematic and the results are usually disappointing.

This idea of 3D movies was running around my head as I have been thinking about the goal or intent of NGSS for three dimensional lessons. A well-made 3D movie intentionally brings the viewer into the experience. It is as if they are in the movie. The intent of our new standards is to have our students be personally involved in the lessons, personally constructing meaning, personally discovering, personally engineering, personally making decisions with scaffolded support along the way. This intention needs to be present in our planning at the beginning stages, not an afterthought. To plan a three dimensional lesson requires careful thought to include all of the dimensions. For me, the hardest to intentionally and explicitly include in a lesson are the crosscutting concepts. It is the area with which I wrestle, struggle, and sometimes just don’t quite get as I plan. I am able to plan three dimensional lessons but the crosscutting concepts area is weak and generally not student centered.

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As it is with many things that I don’t understand, I started reading, researching, talking with experts, and experimenting. Don’t worry. No students have been harmed in the process. My latest reading has been the CA NGSS Draft Framework. This is a massive document and I am so grateful for all those who have had a hand in writing it. Perusing through the table of contents I found the chapter covering the three dimensions: Scientific and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts. If you are looking for a good overview of the dimensions I suggest that you begin with Chapter 2: Overview of the California Next Generation Science Standards. There is a wealth of information in this chapter, and from it I gained a greater understanding of crosscutting concepts and ideas for including them in my lessons. You will also find information and examples in the chapters for the specific grade levels. Chapter 6 covers the middle school grade span.

Crosscutting concepts are more than the connective tissue between disciplines. They are also tools for students to use to learn and make sense of the science content and the world. Failing to help build the students’ understanding and use of the concepts, as well as the science and engineering practices, limits them to being a collector of information. The draft framework provides us with direction in building these concepts through questioning. To be clear, this type of questioning needs to be planned as the lesson is developed. To try to wing it as you go will likely result in something resembling a bad, retrofitted 3D movie.

Crosscutting concepts are also the connections to other content. Middle school teachers most frequently teach within a specific discipline which while it allows for a deeper level of expertise in an area, it creates other challenges. The nature of this approach means that content becomes more isolated and less connected. As the science teacher I don’t always know what is being studied in other classes. There are times when we are talking in the staff lounge that I get a glimpse. Sometimes we make a point to share what we are doing in our classes with each other. In those conversations vocabulary gets mentioned and then we all make a point of including it in our classes. Students are often surprised when I use a word that they learned in their history or language arts class. Crosscutting concepts bring another opportunity our way to help students to make connections in their world.

To make these connections, we need to spend more time with our peers who teach other content. If “cause and effect” is the main crosscutting concept in a unit of study in science, that same concept can be emphasized in a language arts or history class. This is more easily accomplished in a self contained classroom where one teacher is making all the lesson decisions. When many teachers are involved, it requires more planning. It will also take time on many levels. It will take time for us become comfortable with these new standards and approaches. It will take time for administrators to understand the new standards and changes that need to occur. It will also take time for our students to shift away from being passive in the classroom and become fully involved. And just like a well made 3D movie, it will be a magnificent experience as we see our students fully involved in learning.

Written by Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District, and is CSTA’s Middle School/Jr. High Director.

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For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

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Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.