CSTA Classroom Science

Crosscutting Concepts Part 1: Patterns in K-2

By Valerie Joyner

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

As early childhood science educators, we are beginning to explore and gain understanding about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). We know that NGSS will require us to teach science through three dimensions: practices, disciplinary core ideas (i.e. content), and crosscutting concepts. In the past our main emphasis was teaching science through one or sometimes two dimensions with lessons focused on conveying factual content of physical, life, and earth/space sciences, with perhaps some practices added in (formerly known as science process skills). However, three-dimensional learning requires us to take an entirely new approach to science education, one that deliberately teaches with all dimensions.

This article will be the first in a series exploring crosscutting concepts and offering some ideas for applications in the primary grades. Crosscutting concepts “provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the different areas of disciplinary content and can enrich the application of practices and their understanding of core ideas (NRC, 2012, pg. 233)”. In other words, these fundamental conceptual tools are necessary for students to learn effectively, and must be specifically nurtured and referenced throughout all grade levels in all disciplines. 

There are seven crosscutting concepts: 1) patterns, 2) cause and effect, 3) scale, proportion, and quantity, 4) systems and system models, 5) energy and matter: flows, cycles, and conservation, 6) structure and function, and 7) stability and change. All students will need explicit instruction in these crosscutting concepts and these concepts must never be omitted. Our first introduction will be to the concept of patterns. It’s little surprise patterns are embraced by NGSS as one of seven fundamental crosscutting concepts because they play a crucial practical role in early childhood science education. They can also be a powerful tool to awaken curiosity with great visuals, hands on interactions, and interesting details to observe, and make a great starting point for our discussion of how crosscutting can look in primary classrooms.

In classrooms currently, students study patterns in math, reading, writing, and social studies. As an early childhood educator you’ve seen the importance of finding and using patterns in the everyday lives of your students. When students discover patterns they begin to make sense of the world around them. Such patterns are everywhere and observing and learning from them is critical to science literacy. For example, students can observe patterns such as that the sun rises, then the sun sets. It is usually colder at night than in the daytime. Leaves bud in the spring, change colors in the fall, and fall in the winter. In NGSS the core primary crosscutting concept is that observed patterns can be explained.

True to the crosscutting ideal, the NGSS framework puts more clarity and emphasis on these ideas as unifying threads that tie knowledge together across the disciplines. When we use consistent words throughout our teaching to signal the fundamental crosscutting concepts like patterns, we strengthen students’ understanding by connecting knowledge between each subject.

In kindergarten, students study local weather to find patterns over time. They make qualitative observations about the weather like, “It is a sunny day,” and then quantify their observations by recording the number of rainy, cloudy, and snowy days. Through their observations and data collection patterns begin to emerge.

In 1st grade, students look at the patterns in the sky (sun, moon, and stars) and the amount of daylight throughout the year. They notice that the sun is in the sky in the day and stars appear at night. They can record data over time to reveal daylight and nighttime during different seasons of the year. For example: “It is dark when I have dinner in the winter, but it is light when I eat dinner in the summer”.

In 2nd grade, students look at the patterns in shapes and kinds of land and bodies of water and that water on Earth can be solid or liquid. They learn that lakes are surrounded by land and rivers have banks and that lakes freeze where it is very cold or dry up when there is too much sunshine and not enough rain.

Understanding patterns serves as a basis for core ideas and practices in science and engineering, and the importance of establishing this understanding in the primary classroom cannot be overstated. As young students begin to recognize patterns in the natural and man-made world they then use them to reveal different ways things are organized, understand and describe phenomena, and gather evidence to support their findings. We have the extraordinary opportunity in our primary science teaching to confer lifelong benefits by encouraging young minds to apply pattern understanding as a tool in all areas of life to seek further information and understanding.

Thank you for reading this introduction to the crosscutting concept of patterns. Take these ideas into your classroom today, share them with your colleagues, and collaborate to cultivate the habit of referencing patterns consistently wherever they appear in all subjects.

Look for the next article in the series on another of the seven crosscutting concepts. We’d love to hear your ideas, challenges, and experiences around introducing and reinforcing pattern understanding in your primary setting, so share any feedback in the comments or via email. What crosscutting concept would you like to see us cover next?



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