Structuring science lessons with CCCs

In the quest to shift instruction to be NGSS-aligned, the crosscutting concepts have gotten the least amount of attention. Most curriculum and instruction focuses on the science and engineering practices rather than the crosscutting concepts. Although the focus on the practices makes sense because these are the things scientists and engineers do, another alternative is to focus on the crosscutting concepts to emphasize how scientists and engineers think.

CCCs are the Thinking Tools of Science

The crosscutting concepts are the thinking tools, or cognitive heuristics of science. How can we use these cognitive heuristics to structure teaching and learning? In Ambitious Science Teaching, the authors presented a three-part strategy for whole-class discussions. I noticed that each part aligned with a different kind of crosscutting concept. The first step focused on observing Patterns. The second step asked students to make inferences about Cause & Effect. The third step asked students to apply their new knowledge to the anchoring phenomenon in a System Model. The diagram below shows these three steps using a crosscutting concept model that I presented in a previous post, which evolved from a model of the crosscutting concepts created by Rehmat et al. (2019).

Using CCCs to structure a discussion (Andersen, 2020)

What does this teaching structure look like in practice?

PART ONE: Students identify the patterns in the focal phenomenon through a common experience of the phenomenon. Teachers engage students in a discussion about what they observed. This step elicits student knowledge and provides motivation to learn.

PART TWO: Students make inferences about the cause of the effect that they observed. They examine new science ideas. Students figure out how the science ideas explain the phenomenon and the patterns they saw. This step helps students gather evidence of the explanatory mechanisms within the phenomenon.

PART THREE: Students apply the science idea to the anchoring phenomenon that is the focus of the unit. This step engages students in modeling an explanation for the phenomenon.


Notice that in each of the three parts, we focused on a different set of CCCs. Part one uses noticing (patterns), part two uses sensemaking (cause and effect), and part three uses modeling (systems and system models).

Letʻs look at an example of this in practice. Consider a 5th grade lesson in which students examine why some stars are brighter than others.


The constellation Pleiades or Makaliʻi (Public Domain, NASA)

Students look at a section of the night sky and look for patterns. They notice that some stars are brighter than others. They notice that the sun is brighter than all of the stars. Students discuss why this might happen.


Students investigate cause and effect relationships related to the brightness of stars. They examine how the apparent brightness of a flashlight varies with how far away the flashlight is from us. Students identify a cause and effect relationship between distance and apparent brightness (i.e., farther away flashlight appears less bright). They also identify that bulb rating affects apparent brightness (i.e., bulbs with higher lumen ratings can appear brighter from farther away than bulbs with lower lumen ratings). Now students have two cause and effect ideas to use to explain variations in star brightness.

Simple spreadsheet of star data (Lori Andersen)


Students apply these ideas to the anchoring phenomenon. They use a simple spreadsheet to examine data for the 20 brightest stars (distance from earth, luminosity, apparent brightness). They compare pairs of stars and figure out if the cause and effect ideas can explain which one appears brighter. Students model the system of star and observer with a new conceptual model. They determine that two factors affect apparent brightness: luminosity and distance from the observer. A star that is closer might appear brighter, but a farther away star can appear brighter if it is more luminous.

Cause and effect diagram (Lori Andersen)

Connecting the Lesson to the Anchoring Phenomenon

A summary table is a structure for whole-class sense making that can help students understand how each lesson contributes to understanding an anchoring phenomenon. Class discussions culminate in consensus about what should go in the table.A summary table helps students keep track of the ideas they develop through each activity as they develop a complete model for the anchoring phenomenon. The entry in the table represents the lesson that was describe above.

Summary Table Example


(What we did)
What we observed

What we learned

(Cause of the pattern?)
How it helps us understand?

(System model)
We observed the brightness of stars in the night sky and examined data about distances, magnitude, and, luminosity.Some stars are brighter than others. Stars are much farther away than the sun. Stars are a large ranges of distances from Earth.Many bright stars are closer to earth than other stars, BUT some are not. Some bright stars are farther away from Earth and more luminous.Star brightness is affected by two things:
(1) how much light the star emits, and (2) how far away the star is from Earth.
Summary Table Example

NSM Framework for CCCs

The diagram illustrates the larger model of all seven CCCs with three functional groups — Noticing, Sensemaking, and Modeling. The three-step sequence in this post provides a way to use these three groups in lesson design and create a focus on the thinking tools of science. Of course, the science and engineering practices and the disciplinary core ideas are also integrated in the lesson, which makes it three-dimensional. A focus on modeling makes it easy to integrate many practices (e.g., Passmore et al., 2017). In this way the Noticing-Sensemaking-Modeling framework is an alternative teaching structure that shifts the emphasis from the science and engineering practices to the crosscutting concepts, and from a focus on what scientists and engineers do to how they think and decide what to do.

Related posts

The lesson in this post is part of a larger unit on fifth grade Earth and Space Science. You can find out more about this unit on other posts:

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