A Close Look at the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts

October 19, 2016

Over the next several weeks we’re going to take a close look at Crosscutting Concepts, one of the three pillars of the NGSS, which are the science standards developed by the National Research Council and others (now adopted by 17 states and counting). We’ll break down each of the 7 concepts, put them in context, and give examples of how they can weave their way into classroom activities. But first, we’ll start with this introduction to three-dimensional learning and how Crosscutting Concepts fit in. Happy learning!

About Three-Dimensional Learning

When we talk about three-dimensional learning in the science classroom, what we mean is that we are striving to teach students not only science and engineering content, but also the underlying scientific principles and the real-life practices that are fundamental to scientific study. The NGSS identifies these three dimensions as Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI), Crosscutting Concepts (CCC), and Science and Engineering Practices (SEP). These three dimensions intertwine to support mastery of the NGSS performance expectations.


As an instructional framework, three-dimensional learning acknowledges that these three strands provide the overall learning objectives in the classroom and cannot be taught in isolation from one another. Rather, they should be integrated into a multi-faceted approach to teaching science.

For example, when teaching students to describe interactions within the geosphere, it’s also relevant to teach the role of water in Earth’s surface processes (DCI), the concept of systems (CCC), and how to develop and use models (SEP). These ideas and practices not only enhance understanding of the performance expectation, but are also better learned in context rather than in isolation.

About Crosscutting Concepts

Seven Crosscutting ConceptsCrosscutting Concepts are not new to the science classroom. In fact, they have been included as features of science standards and curricula for decades, and sometimes are referred to as “themes” or “principles.” Ultimately, they can be thought of as fundamental, underlying concepts that inform how scientists and engineers understand and engage with phenomena in the natural world.

Together, these concepts form a framework to help students put disciplinary core ideas in context, trace connections across disciplines, and help students see the world from a scientific point of view.

The Crosscutting Concepts identified by the NGSS are

  1. Patterns
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
  4. Systems and System Models
  5. Energy and Matter
  6. Structure and Function
  7. Stability and Change

As one of the strands of three-dimensional learning, Crosscutting Concepts are not meant to be taught separately from the other two dimensions. Instead, they are meant to be interwoven throughout instruction. Teaching Crosscutting Concepts in the context of a curriculum’s subject matter is key, because they reinforce key ideas and provide a common vocabulary for science and engineering. It’s also important to note that Crosscutting Concepts are essential for all students to learn, not only for high achievers who require extension activities. In the context of the NGSS, Crosscutting Concepts help students make connections and build knowledge, benefitting every student regardless of their starting point.

Despite the fact that Crosscutting Concepts aren’t new, the instructional philosophy for integrating them into three-dimensional learning is a new approach. As schools adopt the NGSS and teachers begin to implement the standards in their classrooms, it’s important to remember that many may already be integrating Crosscutting Concepts into instruction. By being more intentional in lesson planning and actively engaging with students during instruction, teachers can identify how they are already incorporating the concepts and work to highlight them throughout the year.

student of science

Ready to Dive In?

Over the next several weeks, we’ll take a look at each and every one of the 7 Crosscutting Concepts and give real examples of the concepts in context. You’ll see how they can be woven into investigations, activities, or assessment items that simultaneously engage students with all three dimensions in addition to Math and ELA standards.

Side note: All the examples will be drawn from Total Motivation Science for the Next Generation, Level 5, which also happens to support the 5E Instructional Model, a framework for teaching and learning that progresses through five phases: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate/Extend, and Evaluate.

Stay tuned!

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