What is a Crosscutting Concept?

Crosscutting concepts are one of the three dimensions of science teaching and learning that are included in the performance expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards. In this post, I will explain crosscutting concepts and share ideas of how teachers can help their students engage with them. 


What is a crosscutting concept?

The National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education states that crosscutting concepts are “concepts that bridge disciplinary core boundaries, having explanatory value throughout much of science and engineering. These concepts help provide students with an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from the various disciplines into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world.”


There are 7 crosscutting concepts that the National Research Council has outlined, which appear in the Next Generation Science Standards. They are:


  1. Patterns

Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.

  1. Cause and effect

Mechanism and explanation. Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.

  1. Scale, proportion, and quantity

In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.

  1. Systems and system models

Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.

  1. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation

Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations.

  1. Structure and function

The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determines many of its properties and functions.

  1. Stability and change

For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study.


How can teachers help their students make connections between these overarching concepts?


Defined Learning can provide instructional support for teachers who want their students to make connections between these overarching concepts, real-world contexts, and core ideas across all disciplines.


Defined STEM includes elements of all three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards in its performance tasks. Every task is developed to address one or more core ideas and students engage in the science and engineering practices as they work through the task process. Crosscutting concepts will now be searchable on the site and teachers may select tasks that address a particular concept within a grade level. Connections to the concepts can also be seen in the product descriptions, research questions, and rubrics. Reviewing each of these pieces can help teachers select tasks that will best support student engagement not only with specific core ideas but with associated crosscutting concepts as well.


Additionally, crosscutting concepts are reinforced for students through Learning Objects associated with each task. Some learning objects reinforce the idea of the concept itself, for example, Stability and Change, while others reinforce core ideas that connect to specific concepts.


How does completing a performance task support student interaction with the crosscutting concepts?


As students work through a performance task, they are engaging in the same practices scientists and engineers use. Students use these practices to create authentic products that demonstrate an understanding of how concepts and disciplinary knowledge connect to a real-world problem or situation. As their students work through a task, teachers can use and build upon the product descriptions, constructed response stimuli, and list of research questions to prompt and encourage conceptual student thinking in context. When the teacher facilitates student discussion around the rubric traits, (s)he can also use those as an opportunity to reinforce connections between the concept(s), real-world phenomena, and the core ideas being applied through the work of the task.


Defined STEM offers hundreds of performance tasks that support student engagement with the crosscutting concepts within a grade band and across grade bands. Teachers have choices for how students will interact with a concept and explore its relationship to a variety of science disciplines and real-world contexts. For more specific examples of how the crosscutting concepts tie together with the core ideas in a real-world context, please see the tasks listed below. Each example highlights a unique way for students to explore the concept of cycles, flows, and conversion of energy and matter in the middle school grade band:


Examples of Defined Learning Performance Tasks that Support Crosscutting Concepts:


Solar Power: Photovoltaic Cells

In this task, students explore the idea of conservation and transfer of energy as they act as advisors to a local school board that is thinking about installing solar panels to help meet their electricity needs.


Botanist: Photosynthesis and the Rainforest

In this task, students explore the idea of matter and energy flow in ecosystems as they make policy recommendations for South American governments looking to find the balance between economic advantages and environmental impacts of deforestation in their rainforests.



In this task, students explore how the transfer of energy from the Sun is connected to the cycling of water throughout Earth systems as they prepare a presentation for a global summit on climate change.



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