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FOSSconnect Larry: Crosscutting Concepts: Are They Really Cross, and What Do They Cut?

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 11, 2014 | Observations by Larry

A Framework for K-12 Science Education identifies three dimensions of the science education enterprise—three instructional/conceptual arenas in which our students should be facile and competent. The scientific and engineering practices are familiar and pretty easily incorporated into our vision of the expectations for student accomplishment. Easy for FOSS; after all, the practices are what for decades we attempted to represent and accomplish with the ill-defined word inquiry. (Thank you Framework, for clarifying that.) The disciplinary core ideas are the scientific knowledge that we were comfortable referring to as science content—that which we felt confident we could communicate to students on a need-to-know basis. And finally, there are the crosscutting concepts, variously referred to previously as the unifying principles, themes, or big ideas of science. With the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we see that for students to demonstrate science competence, they will be expected to exhibit command of the subject that communicates the interplay of scientific/engineering practice, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.

Now here is the rub. We know some stuff about how the student mind grapples with and makes sense of things they learn. Essentially, small bits of learning (information) are cobbled by still-somewhat-mysterious processes into complex chunks of learning that we call knowledge in a process known popularly as construction. We can teach the simple bits (information) via a host of instructional methodologies, but we can't teach the chunks we call knowledge. Knowledge must be constructed by the learner. As educators we can provide the context, opportunity, and encouragement for students to engage in the sometimes painful process of constructing knowledge, but we can't teach it. We sometimes call this "sense making," and it is rigorous cognitive work that must be undertaken by students.

Knowledge is a pretty high order of cognitive achievement, but it is only a stepping stone to the next level of learning. The gold ring that we want students to strive for is understanding. Understanding gives knowledge far ranging power. Understanding puts learning into juxtaposition with the nature of science. Understanding a topic gives the "understander" a sense of connection to context. The learner can say to himself or herself, "I now see how this system or situation works and how it can be influenced by this, that, or the other variable." Understanding gives you confidence that your knowledge is useful and that it gives both insight into and reliable information about the world.

So how should we think about the crosscutting concepts? As more content to be taught in information bits, or should they be herded into the deep end with the other knowledge that must be constructed? Well, the answer is probably yes and yes. The crosscutting concepts are those really big conceptual threads that run through and among all of the sciences. Look at the list and you'll see what I mean.

  • Patterns
  • Cause and effect
  • Scale, proportion, and quantity
  • Systems and system models
  • Energy and matter: flows, cycles, and conservation
  • Structure and function
  • Stability and change

As suggested in the Framework, these crosscutting concepts have powerful connections between all disciplines at the advanced levels, but what do we expect 5, 6, 7, and 8 year olds to apprehend with regard to these monster concepts? Is there a progression of complexity through which we expect students to advance as their science studies progress? Certainly, but what is that progression? Too little research has focused on this area of cognitive growth; too few beacons for us to navigate by. But common sense and experience suggest that some early exposure to this vital connective tissue in the body of scientific knowledge would be appropriate.

For example, in kindergarten, when students are learning their basic shapes, we can introduce the shapes as patterns (a vocabulary introduction): square, circle, triangle, star, heart, etc. Then on a schoolyard field trip, you can mount a leaf hunt. Back in the classroom, debrief with a discussion about the patterns of the leaves. What pattern do they most resemble? Which pattern was the best representative of the greatest number of leaves? You might make a bar graph (scale, proportion, and quantity) representing the distribution of leaf patterns; possibly discovering that there are many more star-pattern leaves than square-pattern leaves. On your next field trip, when your goal is to inventory the different kinds of trees, students should be encouraged to make field sketches of their favorite tree in their science notebooks. Sketching calls on students to recognize a tree as a system—a set of interacting parts—including a trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves, possibly with the addition of flowers, fruit, and bark as additional components of a tree system. Sketching is a first step toward constructing a model of "treeness" (systems and system models).

In third and fourth grade, when students study crayfish, they are invariably fascinated by the pincers. Why do crayfish have those dangerous looking structures? Perfect time to introduce the vocabulary and concept of structure and function. And once students have had time to engage in a lively discourse about why crayfish might have pincers (defense, feeding, warning), a schoolyard field trip might provide opportunities to transfer the structure/function concept to other organisms or structures in the environment. A bird or squirrel might stimulate a good discussion, as might a question about the school building itself. You can point to and identify the steps, doors, and windows as school building (designed/engineered) structures and let students suggest functions to assign to each.

In fifth and sixth grades, students might investigate the interaction between solid materials and water. Students will observe that common table salt added to water results in an interesting situation; the solid salt disappears in the water. A minor mystery. A balance can provide evidence that the salt is still there, but is invisible; changed, but not lost. Evaporation of the solution brings the tangible solid salt back (stability and change).

The mini vignettes described above provide contexts in which crosscutting concepts can be introduced and made explicit (taught). But their power is not fully realized until students engage in their more advanced studies in middle school, high school, and university. When understanding of the crosscutting concepts achieves maturity through application and practice, they evolve into a set of cognitive lenses through which the entire universe is viewed. How else can a person think effectively about entities as diverse as the cosmos, climate change, evolution, sustainable energy, Earth history, ocean ecosystems, and Monarch butterfly migration. They all jangle the crosscutting concept nerves.

It seems to me that the essence of scientific literacy is the ability to experience all of science as a single fabric woven of multiple threads of different hue and heft. The crosscutting concepts are the lenses that allow the threads (disciplines and practices) to be appreciated as a beautiful, functional, unified fabric. Acquiring those crosscutting lenses is a joyful journey of a thousand kilometers, and the first steps are easy with the guidance of a FOSS teacher.

For additional information about crosscutting concepts, go to Chapter 4 of A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, National Research Council, 2012, "Dimension 2 Crosscutting Concepts."