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Using the Crosscutting Concepts to Build Student Sense-Making and Reasoning

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The information presented in this evidence-based practice is adapted from Achieve; Council of Chief State School Officers; and Sharing Books, Talking Science. The questions presented reflect the range of questions across the K-12 progression and are not appropriate for all grades. Refer to the Crosscutting Concepts progression tables on the SDCOE Science Resource Center for the grade-band end points.

“The Crosscutting Concepts are useful tools for students to use in defining the systems of phenomena, seeking cause and effect relationships, and determining patterns that contribute to evidence-supporting practices.” –Using Crosscutting Concepts To Prompt Student Responses, Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)


Key Ideas

  • The Crosscutting Concepts become powerful when used as familiar touchstones of language, initially by the teacher to prompt students and then by supporting students as they reason with and communicate their explanations for the causes of phenomena.
  • The Crosscutting Concepts provide a consistent language for teachers to communicate with students. When prompts are structured with the Crosscutting Concepts, the focus of student thinking can be directed to key aspects of a phenomenon, the system being investigated, and/or patterns that may be used as evidence to support explanations or arguments for the causes of a phenomenon.
  • Crosscutting Concepts can have significant impact on the degree to which student thinking is developed and made visible to inform current or future instruction.
  • Student use of the seven Crosscutting Concepts builds in complexity over time.
  • Explicit use of the Crosscutting Concepts throughout instruction can help students develop a coherent and usable understanding of science and engineering.
  • As students move from one core idea to another within a class or across the science disciplines, they continually utilize the Crosscutting Concepts as a lens for engaging in sense-making.
  • Using Crosscutting Concepts to focus student thinking creates a productive way to help students explain specific aspects of a phenomenon (e.g., proportion of salt in water, scale of thickness of crust compared to the diameter of Earth, flow of energy into or out of the system of a chemical reaction) and promotes deeper understanding for all students.



Supporting Scientific Reasoning

How can the crosscutting concepts be organized by the function they play in reasoning?

Organizing the seven crosscutting concepts into 1) Causality, 2) Systems, and 3) Patterns supports conceptual understanding for teachers and students. As students explore phenomena, they are seeking patterns to support explanations for the causes of changes in systems in terms of matter, energy, stability, scale, and proportion.


Patterns, Causality and Systems


1. Causality

Looking for causality is essential to science. Students should have an explicit understanding that constructing explanations of the causes of phenomena are at the center of understanding the natural world and in solving engineering problems. Hence, science learning should center on students engaging in science and engineering practices that focus on making sense of the cause(s) of phenomena and/or the cause of one engineering design solution working better than another. If students can explain the causes using evidence, then they can better demonstrate their understanding of the world around them and provide explanations of how or why one engineered solution is better than another. Cause and effect as well as structure and function relationships should be used to initiate student reasoning.

2. Systems

Defining and using the concept of systems provides a way for students to logically analyze the boundaries of the phenomenon and describe the interactions occurring within the system, the relationship of the system being investigated to surrounding systems, and the causes of changes in the system. To investigate the cause of a phenomenon, students need a clear understanding of the system and interactions among components in a system.

3. Patterns

Students are good at observing and recognizing patterns (e.g., in data, in phenomena, in systems, frequency of observed changes, seasonal patterns of change). When instruction makes the crosscutting concept of patterns explicit, students become skilled at using patterns as evidence in science performances (e.g., using patterns as evidence for the cause of a phenomenon being investigated, supporting assertions, explanations, and/or scientific arguments). Students have successfully used patterns as evidence when they can accurately identify a pattern and use this pattern as evidence to support an explanation of the causes of the phenomenon. Often, phenomena are observable patterns occurring in nature (e.g., clouds often form near mountain tops, trees are smaller at higher elevations).

“Some important themes pervade science, mathematics, and technology and appear over and over again, whether we are looking at an ancient civilization, the human body, or a comet. They are ideas that transcend disciplinary boundaries and prove fruitful in explanation, in theory, in observation, and in design.” –Science for All Americans, American Association for the Advancement of Science



A pattern is defined as anything that repeats when there is cause for repetition. Identifying patterns helps students describe relationships and predict general outcomes of phenomena. Utilizing observations of patterns helps make meaning of the world, classify objects, and identify cause and effect relationships. Patterns prompt questions about relationships and factors that influence them. Patterns are useful as evidence to support explanations and arguments.

  • How do you know a ____ when you see one? What are the defining characteristics?
  • What patterns do you observe in the data presented in the [table, chart, graph, model output]?
  • Does the pattern in the data support the conclusion that ____ is caused by ____? Why or why not?
  • How is ____ changing over time?
  • What do you predict will happen to ____ in the future? Use the pattern you see in the data to justify your answer.
  • What kind of mathematical function best fits the pattern of data you see?
  • What are some similarities and differences among the ____ ?
  • What is one way you could classify these ____ to create groups of ____ that are similar to each other?
  • Describe the attributes (characteristics) you are using to classify the ____.
  • How similar or different are ____ at the microscopic scale?
  • How similar or different are ____ at the macroscopic scale?



Cause and Effect

If something happens there is a cause. Investigating and explaining cause and effect relationships and their mechanisms help students build an understanding of the rules that govern the natural and engineered worlds. What, why, and how questions can be used to determine the effect (what), the cause (why), and the mechanism (how). Mechanisms can be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain new contexts.

  • What happened? Why did it happen? How did it happen?
  • What caused the patterns you observed? How do you know that ____ caused ____?
  • Does the fact that the data showed that ____ happened [after/ whenever] ____ mean that ____ causes ____? Why or why not?
  • What [properties, entities, or rules] that aren’t described explain what you see happening?
  • Draw a diagram that shows how changes to one component of the system affects components that are not directly connected to that component.
  • How do ____ and ____ affect ____?
  • How do ____ and ____ affect each other over time?
  • How can a small change to ____ have a big effect on ____?
  • What evidence presented supports the claim that ____ causes ____?
  • Is the evidence presented sufficient to conclude that ____ caused ____? If no, what additional evidence is needed?



Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

Scale, proportion, and quantity are essential to describing and understanding the systems and processes that underpin phenomena or design solutions. Models can help students make sense of systems that are too small or too large to observe directly. It is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, distance, time, and energy. It is also critical to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.

  • How long is ____? How much does ____ weigh? What is the temperature of ____? What is the volume of ____?
  • What is the [ratio/proportion] of ____ and ____ in the data presented?
  • How do the [ratios/proportion] of ____ and ____ at [Time 1/ Sample 1] and [Time 2/Sample 2] compare?
  • What equation could be written to express the relationship between quantities of ____ and quantities of ____?
  • Is the model presented at a [smaller/larger/the same] scale than the phenomenon as you might observe it directly?
  • What scale of a model would allow you to gain insight into ____?
  • Why could [people in the scenario] see ____ when they observed it [under a microscope/through a telescope], but not when they looked just with their eyes?
  • How could we test whether ____ is changing, even though it looks like it is not?
  • Which of the patterns do you think could be observed at a [faster/slower, smaller/larger] scale? Why?



Systems and System Models

An understanding of systems is critical to making sense of phenomena and designing solutions to engineering problems. Defining and modeling the system(s) under investigation helps students focus on the interactions of the components within the boundaries of the system. A system model provides students a tool to understand and test ideas in science and engineering.

  • What are the key parts of the [natural object, designed object, or organism]? Draw the parts of the system.
  • How do the parts work together? Draw a picture to show how the parts work together.
  • What can the parts of [a natural object, designed object, or organism] do together, that the individual parts cannot do alone?
  • How do the different components of the system interact?
  • What would happen in this system if you increased [component of the system]?
  • What would happen in this system if you decreased [component of the system]?
  • How do you think [component] would respond to [change in another component of the system]?
  • What is the boundary of the system under study?
  • Draw a boundary to indicate what is inside and outside of the system.
  • How does [subsystem A] relate to [subsystem B]?
  • What feedback loops make this system [stable/unstable]?
  • How do [positive/negative] feedback loops in this system affect how it functions?
  • What energy flows [into/out] of the system?
  • What matter cycles [into/out] of the system?
  • What information is flowing [into/out] of the system?
  • How does energy flow within the system?
  • How does matter cycle within the system?
  • How does information flow within the system?
  • Draw a picture that shows how energy is flowing into, within, and out of the system.
  • Draw a picture that shows how matter is cycling into, within, and out of the system.
  • Draw a picture that shows how information is flowing into, within, and out of the system.
  • What properties emerge from the interaction of components in the system that can’t be seen just by looking at the interactions?
  • How does [emergent property] of the system affect interactions in the system, once [that emergent property] emerges?
  • If you could control [X] in the system would it stop [Y]? Why or why not?
  • What part of the system does the model show? Why are these parts shown?
  • What part of the system are not shown in the model? Why are these parts not shown?
  • What are the key assumptions of the model? How do the assumptions affect the reliability of the model?
  • What is estimated, rather than observed directly, in the model?
  • Could you use the model to reliably predict ____?



Energy and Matter

Students examine, characterize, and model the transfers and interactions of energy and matter to make sense of phenomena or to optimize design solutions. They track matter and energy into, out of, and within systems to understand that systems possibilities and limitations. Students use common language around energy and matter to facilitate understanding across disciplines.

  • Where are the [molecules/particles/objects] moving?
  • How do [molecules/particles/objects] move in the system?
  • How is matter cycling [into/out] of the system?
  • What evidence is there that matter is conserved in this cycle?
  • Where in this system are energy changes occurring?
  • What is happening to the energy in this system?
  • What forms of energy are involved in this system?
  • What energy transformations are taking place in this system? What energy is being transferred?
  • How much energy is needed to [make something happen]?
  • What energy is entering, staying, and leaving [the system]?
  • What energy is being conserved?
  • What energy is dissipating?
  • What evidence is there that energy is being conserved in this system?



Structure and Function

The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determine many of its properties and functions. The physical shape and properties of objects, molecules, and life-forms determine what it can do, its strength, and what they can interact with. Being able to see structure and function relationships is a key step in developing student understanding of how things work in the world.

  • What does [object, plant, or animal part] do? What is its shape? What are its physical properties? How do the shape and physical properties enable its function?
  • What structures are present in ____? What function does each structure have in ____? How do you think each structure behaves?
  • What is the relationship between the structure and its function?
  • Why does the shape of ____ matter for its function? What other properties of the structure might allow ____?
  • Describe the organization of substructures and how the spatial relationship matters for behavior and function.
  • What are the structures that make up the system? What are they shaped like? What behaviors do the structures have?
  • What do the individual structures do? What do the structures together allow the system to do?
  • Identify the properties of the environment that constrain behavior of organisms? What structures of an organism allow them to survive within the environment?



Stability and Change

For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and rates of change provide focus for understanding how a system operates and the causes of changes in systems. Stability and change are understood over different time and size scales and are used to investigate both natural and engineered systems. Students should recognize that many systems are both stable and changing depending on the time scale used.

  • Is something happening in the system? If so, what is happening?
  • Are the boundaries of the system or interacting components changing? If so, how are they changing?
  • What things stay the same in [the system]?
  • What things change in [the system]?
  • What things are changing slowly in [the system]?
  • Is the system stable or unstable? Present evidence to support your claim.
  • How was the system affected by [sudden event described]?
  • How was this system affected in the long term by [gradual change described]?
  • What are the factors causing the system to be stable or unstable?
  • How can you design the system to be more stable?
  • In which timescale is the system stable or changing?
  • What is the mechanism for triggering change or establishing stability?