CSTA Classroom Science

Crosscutting Concepts: Outcomes From Action Research

Crosscutting concepts are the lens through which students can find connections across content. Yet, how to implement effective instruction with crosscutting concepts and the impact it has on student learning seem to be the least understood of the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Due to my experiences as a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative and my work with San Diego State’s Noyce Project LEARN program I realized I wanted to know how using the crosscutting concepts would impact student thinking and reasoning. Through the Noyce program, I undertook an action research project with the students in my classroom. Using past research about the nature of science, which suggests implications for instruction and student learning when larger conceptual understandings are paired with science content, I explicitly taught to the crosscutting concepts and throughout the year I purposefully incorporated crosscutting concepts in our inquiry lessons. I evaluated student work, conducted surveys, and asked the students to reflect on their use of crosscutting concepts. I found that student reasoning and writing about content was greatly impacted as a result of emphasizing the crosscutting concepts in our lessons and discussions.

Three Dimensionality of NGSS
Components of the crosscutting concepts (CCC) have previously existed in other standards documents as “unifying concepts” or “common themes” (NRC, 2012, pp. 85), NGSS elevates its stature to be equivalent to the disciplinary core ideas (DCI) and science and engineering practices (SEP). What is the impact on student learning of elevating these concepts and providing a common language and the progression of student learning? In the conclusion of Appendix G of the Next Generation Science Standards by States for States, it is acknowledged that “[t]he crosscutting concepts’ utility will be realized when curriculum developers and teachers develop lessons, units, and courses using the crosscutting concepts to tie together the broad diversity of science and engineering core ideas in the curriculum to realize the clear and coherent vision of the Framework” (NGSS Lead States, 2013, App G, pp. 12). Clearly, there is a need to investigate how the implementation of CCC will impact students and their understanding of science.

The implementation of NGSS crosscutting concepts is so new that there is no direct research about its impact on student learning. The NRC Framework even states “[t]he research base on learning and teaching the crosscutting concepts is limited” (NRC, 2012, pp. 84). I, therefore, turned to lessons learned from research conducted on teaching the nature of science. The CCC Appendix, Appendix G, articulates that nature of science (NOS) concepts should not be confused with the crosscutting concepts and, the NOS Appendix, Appendix H, further articulates how NOS is integrated into NGSS. Research on instruction and student learning of NOS has implications for teaching the crosscutting concepts. Three key ideas emerged: 

Idea 1: Student shifts are made when critical thinking, inquiry-based instruction, and higher level questioning are maximized in a risk-free classroom. (Lederman, 1992).
CCC Implication: CCC’s may provide a “target” for making connections and higher order thinking and questioning that will help drive student shifts in an inquiry-based classroom.

Idea 2: Students who understood the NOS had a deeper understanding of science content. (Peters, 2009).
CCC Implication: Just as understanding the nature of science improves student overall content understanding, understanding the crosscutting concepts may also improve student overall understanding. Since the CCC’s are, themselves, concepts that span the disciplinary core ideas, similar to how NOS spans science content, when students learn and have the ability to apply CCC’s, it may also result in improved overall student conceptual understanding.

Idea 3: NOS is not simply absorbed as part of inquiry instruction. Explicitly planned NOS as part of inquiry and process skills (practices) results in improving students concepts of NOS. (Khishfe and Abd-El-Khalick, 2002).
CCC Implication: If students are to use and know CCCs, teachers need to plan for it to show up explicitly in classroom instruction and discussion.

Indeed, each of these three implications is also presented in the Guiding Principles of Appendix G


Protocol—How I Used CCC in the Classroom
John Spiegel, from the San Diego County Office of Education, used the phrase “forefronting the crosscutting concepts” and it really stuck with me. I began to plan purposeful instruction that not only highlighted the crosscutting concepts but explicitly required the students to engage in utilizing them to analyze activities and explain their understanding of a concept. I started by introducing the students to the CCC in order to develop a common language and experience. I borrowed the “Name that CCC” professional development activity from the California Academy of Science and modified it for my classroom. I gave the students reference sheets (the printable PDFs along with the critical questions for each crosscutting concept from the CrossCutSymbols site to use while investigating each content box from the activity.) 

During each inquiry activity, students were prompted to respond to an analysis question that highlighted a feature of the CCC for the lesson. Some examples were: 
o    Finding coal in the Arctic surprised scientists. What did this discovery tell scientists about the ice layers in the Arctic in terms of stability and change? 
 o    What patterns on the Earth’s surface can help scientists identify or predict where volcanoes are most likely to occur? Provide evidence.
 •    Why is time scale a factor for studying plate tectonics? 

I ensured that we addressed the relevant CCC(s) in each of our class discussions and debriefs of our classroom activities. This was an important step as discussion length can often be dictated by a school’s bell schedule. I took care to revisit discussions that may have been cut short and tried to use the crosscutting concepts as a lens for students to view and understand the DCIs. 

The students were explicitly taught how to write an explanation in the form of a claim-evidence-reasoning statement (CER) that explicitly utilizes crosscutting concepts in the reasoning. The goal was to move student reasoning from a circular argument (student A) to a more robust explanation of student thinking (student B).

Student A: “How the data supports the theory of seafloor spreading at the mid-oceanic ridges is because on Table 1 it explains the ages and distances of the mid-oceanic ridges and from what I see, I see that the numbers have changed over time.”

Student B: “This data from the drill cores shows that the seafloor near the mid-oceanic ridge has separated and spread. We can infer this from the data received from the drill cores. When looking at the data we notice a pattern. As the drill cores get further and further from the ridge, the older they get. This is likely because the plates at the ridge separated, and this allowed magma to seep in from the crack. Them magma would then cool and this was how the new sediment is formed...”

Given these examples, I was able to assess that student A recognizes that the data shows change but does not describe the pattern that supports the idea of seafloor spreading. Student B identifies that there is a pattern and describes it to provide their reasoning for their claim, they went on to reference an additional map as evidence of their claim. Student 2’s explanation would be further strengthened by including supporting data points. 

In How People Learn, a synthesis of decades of educational research, it was noted that “metacognitive approaches to instruction have been shown to increase the degree to which students will transfer to new situations without the need for explicit prompting” (NRC, 2000, pp. 67). Therefore in order to improve student ownership of the CCC students were also asked to engage in metacognition activities to examine their own understanding of the CCCs. In one activity they were required to go back through their notebooks and locate a time during the unit that they used a CCC to explain a science concept; if they couldn't find one they were to identify a time that they could have used a CCC. They then needed to explain why they thought this was an example of a CCC and explain what they knew about the CCC. In later units, students were asked to engage in a similar metacognitive reflection focused on specific analysis questions. A day or two after students wrote a response to an activity they were asked to reread the response and identify the CCC they used to explain their understanding of the concept. If they did not use one, which one could they have used and why. I used these particular activities to measure student growth in their use of crosscutting concepts.

At the conclusion of each learning sequence, students engaged in a performance task in which they were required to write an explanation (CER statement) utilizing new sets of data that supported concepts we had learned in class. Students were not prompted to use a CCC in their reasoning. I used these writing pieces to gauge whether or not students would begin to independently use the Crosscutting concepts in their reasoning statements. Would the forefronting of CCC in our instruction translate to student ownership?

Data and Findings:
I analyzed the work from three of my classes of 7th-grade students from San Diego. The three classes represented a cross-section of student populations in my school and included a mix of all levels of English Learners, students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and students classified as gifted (GATE). Students worked with the CCC throughout the year, the data came from two different units of study separated by four months and a follow-up survey three months later. Due to the focused use and instruction in the crosscutting concepts, students showed growth overtime in three areas:   
1.    Growth in student understanding and independent use of the CCCs 
2    Growth toward grade-level expectations for reasoning statements 
3.    Growth in student confidence in their understanding of the CCCs and in their ability to explain their reasoning

Growth in Student Understanding and Use of the CCCs
An analysis of the student’s metacognitive responses revealed that they became more adept at their use and understanding of crosscutting concepts.
o    Unit 1 - Only 36% of the students were able to use and/or recognize a CCC when prompted. 
30% were struggling in use of or understanding of the CCCs as evidenced by the fact that although they could name a CCC, their explanation revealed some misunderstandings. Finally, about 34% of the students did not use or identify a CCC they could have used in their responses.
•    Unit 2 - Four months later, 68% of the students were able to use and/or recognize a CCC when prompted. 11% were still struggling in use of or understanding of the CCCs. Finally, 20% of the students did not use or identify a CCC in their responses.


Growth Toward Grade Level Expectations for Reasoning Statements
To evaluate if the students were mastering using CCC as part of their reasoning, I evaluated whether or not students used a CCC when writing an explanation (CER statement) without being prompted to do so. I found that in the span of four months the number of students who used a CCC unprompted grew from 36% to 63%.


How had using a CCC in the reasoning affected student writing? In looking at student scores for their responses I found that students who did not use CCCs in their reasoning were more likely to score below grade level, it is important to note that use of a CCC was not a requirement for the task. In Unit 1, 100% of the students who did not use a CCC scored below grade level. In Unit 2, only two students who did not use a CCC scored at grade level. 87% of students who did not use a CCC scored below grade level. One possible interpretation is that the CCC provides a context through which students can articulate their understanding of the disciplinary core ideas. In addition, the context the CCC’s could provide students additional insight into understanding the DCI. Either way, students who can use the CCC in their reasoning are more likely to meet grade-level expectations.

Not surprisingly, there is also a correlation between students who can identify or use a CCC when prompted and their independent use of CCC’s when writing reasoning statements. In Unit 1, 36% of the students could identify or use a CCC with prompting; 38% then used a CCC independently when writing their reasoning. In Unit 2, 68% of the students could use or identify a CCC with prompting, and 63% used a CCC independently when writing a reasoning statement. In other words, as the students became more effective at using the CCC in the unit of study they were also more effective at owning the skill in a performance task and using it independently.

Growth in Student Confidence in Their Understanding of the CCCs and in Their Ability to Explain Their Reasoning
After working with the CCC for several months, students were asked to take a survey regarding their view of the crosscutting concepts. I then followed up with several of the students by conducting interviews based on their responses. Overall, students reported that they saw value in using the crosscutting concepts and were feeling more confident in their ability to use them. During the interview two students shared the following:

“I found them [CCC] helpful because, … when I was starting to do the claim I didn’t really understand how to do it, but when I thought about cause and effect it helped me finish the sentence and it gave me more evidence to put in and the reasoning was really easy after that…” 

“...crosscutting concepts are really helpful when writing a reasoning statement because you think, like, more in-depth about the whole topic...before let’s say we when we were learning about the states of matter I would come up with something like when matter has different states it does different things, but with the crosscutting concepts you can make a larger claim and come up with more evidence like when energy is added or removed then the matter changes form and acts differently and then you would go more in-depth into that.”


The second dimension of NGSS, when used in concert with content and practices deepens student understanding and their ability to communicate ideas. This is achieved with purposeful planning and explicit instruction about each CCC and integration throughout instruction during which the CCC are forefronted. Along the way, student reflection on their work with crosscutting concepts can be used as a formative assessment to monitor student progress toward mastery of CCC. This consistent focused practice and metacognition results in greater student confidence in owning the CCC and using crosscutting concepts independently when reasoning in science. In short, crosscutting concepts can be used as a tool to improve student reasoning and teachers should carefully consider these implications when creating curriculum and vetting instructional materials to use in the classroom. Finally, the students in this study were exposed to the CCCs in their sixth-grade year, however, this was the first time that they participated in explicit learning experiences designed to forefront the CCC’s. Moving forward, the teachers at our site plan to continue giving students in-depth exposure to the crosscutting concepts across multiple years by collaborating across grade levels in order to maximize the benefits to student learning, and I encourage others to do the same.
Rachel Poland is a middle school teacher at Innovation Middle School, a member of the Core Leadership Team for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for San Diego Unified School District, a NOYCE Master Fellow at San Diego State University, and a member of CSTA.

A’Hearn, P. (2013). CrossCutSymbols. Retrieved from: https://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com

Khishfe, R., & Abd-El-Khalick, F. (2002). Influence of Explicit and Reflective versus Implicit Inquiry-Oriented Instruction on Sixth Graders’ Views of Nature of Science. Journal Of Research In Science Teaching,39(7), 551-578.

Lederman, N. G. (1992). Students’ and Teachers’ Conceptions of the Nature of Science: A Review of the Research. Journal Of Research In Science Teaching, VOL. 29(4), 331-359.

National Research Council (NRC) (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press https://doi.org/10.17226/9853

National Research Council (NRC) (2012). A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press https://doi.org/10.17226/13165

NGSS Lead States (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press

Peters, E. (2012). Developing Content Knowledge in Students Through Explicit Teaching of the Nature of Science: Influences of Goal Setting and Self-Monitoring. Science and Education,21, 881-898. doi:10.1007/s11191-009-9219-1



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