January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Do We Really Need a Third Dimension?

Posted: Monday, February 8th, 2016

by Peter A’Hearn

The NGSS has defined science learning as three-dimensional. There are Core Ideas and Science and Engineering Practices, which seem similar to content from the old standards. Then there’s this new thing- the Crosscutting Concepts.

So… do we really need the crosscutting concepts? How important are they to science? Consider a few examples from the history of science:

Galileo used a new tool, the telescope, which let him observe the universe at a different SCALE. He observed PATTERNS which he tried to establish CAUSE AND EFFECT relationships to explain. He ended up supporting a new SYSTEMS MODEL of the solar system.

Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini

Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini

Cross Cut Symbol for Patterns. Used with permission from CrossCutSymbols. http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

Patterns in nature are often the starting point for science.
Cross Cut Symbol for Patterns. Used with permission from CrossCutSymbols. http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

Darwin observed PATTERNS in the distribution of living things. His reading of geology led him to understand the vast SCALE of time for change to occur. He connected a series of CAUSE AND EFFECT relationships that both explained STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION in living things and STABILITY AND CHANGE of species over time.

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Understanding global climate change required the observation of PATTERNS of climate over long and short time SCALES and identifying a CAUSE AND EFFECT relationship that could account for those patterns. To truly understand STABILITY AND CHANGE in Earth’s climate, complex SYSTEMS MODELS had be developed to account for the many ways that ENERGY AND MATTER flow and cycle through Earth’s SYSTEM.

Graph by NASA

Graph by NASA

Identifying Cause and Effect relationships is a major goal of scientific inquiry from the website http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

Identifying Cause and Effect relationships is a major goal of scientific inquiry
Used with permission from CrossCutSymbols. http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/.

I have found that the Crosscutting Concepts can be challenging to explain to classroom teachers, but are always easy to explain to working scientists and engineers. Dr. Dave Polcyn, on first seeing a presentation on the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts, said, “This describes how we [scientists] think, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it just listed this way!” I have had similar reactions from wildlife biologists, physicists, and engineers, who regard the crosscutting concepts as obvious, if usually unstated.

These encounters have led me to an easy shorthand for the three dimensions of NGSS:

The Disciplinary Core Ideas are what scientists and engineers KNOW

The Science and Engineering Practices are what scientists and engineers DO

The Crosscutting Concepts are how scientists and engineers THINK

To help keep your students and yourself thinking about the crosscutting concepts and how to apply them, I developed a series of classroom symbols that can be found at http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/ . There are free PDFs of small and large classroom posters and lists of questions that can be used to focus student’s thinking. I hope you enjoy thinking like a scientist!

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

One Response

  1. Finally someone voiced it out! Peter, thank you for saying it out without mincing your words. I have read the crosscutting concepts (CCC) over and over again and have asked ‘HOW DO I EMBED THESE IN THE THREE DIMENSIONS’ of teaching/learning? These CCC are not new – just a stretch from previous standards- and stated in the most confused way to be explicit to teachers. Just look at the ‘System and System Models’ Unlike others like patterns and cause and effect, this one continues to bug me. ‘Systems’ as in systems thinking is challenging at best. If this is the underlying thought in identifying system and system model as a crosscutting concept then there is so much to be desired with everything I have read so far on how teachers should embed it in their teaching.

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