Crosscutting Concepts: The Bigger Picture

As teachers across America contend with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), many are no doubt asking themselves whether these are really any different from previous standards. One way to answer this question is to look at the crosscutting concepts: eight broad concepts that transcend disciplines in science.

As an example, look at the crosscutting concept, Patterns:

Observed patterns in nature guide organization and classification and prompt questions about relationships and causes underlying them.

The NGSS suggest that this crosscutting concept is useful for teaching topics as diverse as relationships in ecosystems, evolution, tectonic processes, and chemical reactions.

On the face of it, the crosscutting concepts look very similar to the unifying concepts and processes in the National Science Education Standards (NSES). However, an important difference between the crosscutting concepts and the unifying concepts and processes is that the crosscutting concepts are now integrated into the performance expectations in the NGSS.  This means that every lesson should combine disciplinary content with both crosscutting concepts and science and engineering practices as discussed in an earlier post.

The International Science Benchmarking Report, which led to the development of the NGSS, provides the reason for this integration. Achieve--an independent, not-for-profit education organization commissioned to write the report--examined science standards from 10 countries and linked these to student performance in these countries. One of the conclusions Achieve drew from their research was that "standards based on unifying ideas .... seem to confer more benefits than a discipline-based structure."  

According to the Achieve report, two of the countries in the study--Singapore and Canada (Ontario)--actually structure their standards on these broader concepts rather than on traditional disciplinary concepts from biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth and space science. Although the Achieve report only benchmarks national standards, there are other instructional frameworks based on crosscutting concepts. The International Baccalaureate's Middle Years Programme (MYP), for example, has a framework structured on both interdisciplinary (across all subjects) and intradisciplinary (within science) crosscutting concepts.

This table shows how the United States' crosscutting concepts for science compare to crosscutting concepts in other education frameworks. Although the relationships between crosscutting concepts are not perfect, it is evident from the table that there is a lot of overlap between crosscutting concepts internationally even though the terminology may differ.

In a position paper published by the International Baccalaureate in 2002, Lynn Erickson compares a traditional teaching model focused on facts and skills with a model that includes a conceptual framework. In the paper, Erickson emphasizes the need for both factual content and a conceptual framework in order for students to develop the higher-order thinking skills that will enable them to transfer knowledge to new situations.

A teaching model which combines disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts will certainly be challenging to American teachers not used to this way of teaching. It will require a strong concept-based curriculum, additional teacher training, and appropriate assessment materials. However, the benefit to America could be students who have a deeper understanding of scientific principles and who can compete more effectively with their peers on an international stage.

Learn more about the Next Generation Science Standards by visiting www.nextgenscience.org.  

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About the Author

Katya Vines, PhD

As a curriculum developer at SSEC Katya is responsible for writing new science publications for elementary and middle school students.