Category Archives: Unit Planning

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:

Focusing a Crosscutting Concept Lens

In previous posts, I’ve written about integrating the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) in curriculum. The CCCs are a set of thinking tools, or epistemic heuristics, for science. Each CCC can be imagined as a lens through which we examine phenomena. Each lens reveals a different aspect of the phenomenon that should be included in an explanation of how the phenomenon works. In this post, I present a way to coherently integrate the CCCs into a curriculum unit.

I’ve used my graphic organizer to identify how each CCC applies to the phenomenon. The figure below is for the phenomenon of Makali’i rising at sunset each November, which is an indication for the start of the Hawaiian new year. In this post I will illustrate how to weave the CCCs into instruction over the course of a unit. Each of the CCCs is introduced in the unit as their investigations reveal related aspects of the phenomenon.

Systems and System Models is the Foundation

A key feature in the unit is student modeling. Systems and System Models is the foundational CCC (blue oval in the figure). At the beginning of the unit students create a system model that reflects their initial understandings. The model should include the important parts and how the parts interact. Students revisit the model two more times in the unit, at the middle and near the end. In the middle of the unit students refine the model using evidence from their investigations. Near the end of the unit students refine the model again to integrate their new understandings and explain the anchoring phenomenon. These refined models should address more CCC elements.

Begin Modeling with the Basics – Patterns and Cause & Effect

At the beginning, modeling should focus on the two first-order CCCs – Patterns and Cause & Effect (pink ovals in the figure). Students identify patterns in the phenomenon and attempt to explain the cause of the patterns. They do not yet know the cause and effect relationships that explain the phenomenon. This is a good time to elicit students’ ideas and create a class list. Teachers can offer sentence starters for students to record their ideas about the cause and effect relationships. After individual think time and small group sharing, teachers can gather ideas from the whole class into a list that is a class resource for modeling.

Next, students work in small groups modeling the phenomenon. Teachers can ask questions that help students use the other CCCs and focus their thinking. Based on the ideas a student has, teachers can focus a student’s thinking on a specific part of the phenomenon using focusing questions.

Focus Student Thinking with Remaining CCCs

The teacher should have a list of questions written in advance that target each of the CCCs as they apply specifically to the anchoring phenomenon. Let’s look at examples for the phenomenon of the rising of Makali’i. STEM Teaching Tool #41 is helpful for creating good focusing questions.

Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

  • Can an observer on Earth see the cause of the changes in the constellations that we see?
  • Is the cause too large or does it take too long to see directly?
  • How can a model make this cause easier to see?

Stability and Change

  • What explains why we see different constellations over a year?
  • What explains why the same constellation returns every year at the same time?

Energy & Matter

  • How does energy (light) travel in this system?
  • What causes an observer to see a constellation?

Structure & Function

  • How do the spatial relationships among the parts of the system cause the observer to be able to see a constellation?

Teachers should select which questions to ask based on what ideas students are trying to express in their models. The purpose of questioning is to elicit what students already know and help them express their ideas in models. The questions should not be used to try to change students ideas at this point. The teacher needs to use their judgement to determine which questions will help student thinking and which questions are not productive at this point in the unit.

Revising Models After Investigations

At the middle and near the end of the unit, students revisit their models to improve them. The focusing questions listed above can be refined to ask students to address how new evidence might be included in their models. For example, in the Makali’i unit students learn how Earth’s rotation makes the sun and stars appear to move over the day and night. They learn how the same motion can look different from different frames of reference. A person sees the Earth as stationary and the stars moving, while a person in space sees the stars as stationary the Earth rotating. Teachers can revise the focusing questions to help students examine how this finding affects their models. Here are some examples for two CCCS.

Stability and Change

  • How does the Earth’s rotation explain why our view of the sky from Earth changes?
  • How does the Earth’s rotation explain why constellation rise and set each evening?

Structure & Function

  • How does the Earth’s rotation affect our ability to see a constellation from Earth?

These revised focusing questions help student think about how to integrate their new knowledge into their models.

In this way, we can strategically integrate all the CCCs through iterative modeling and discourse tools. It may be that some CCCs are not helpful for certain phenomena. It may be better to introduce some CCCs later in the unit rather than at the beginning. Those decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.

What do you think about these ideas? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Transforming a Physics Lessons about Wave Properties

Are you transforming your physics course to NGSS? I took an old lesson of mine about properties of waves and transformed in to a phenomenon-driven storyline. The original activity was an inquiry-based lesson on wave properties. You can find it on the PhET website. I wanted to update this lesson to align with the NGSS…

Developing a Particle Model of Matter

On September 15, we started Lesson 2-3 of The Garbage Unit. This lesson develops the idea that solids and liquids are made of particles and uses this idea to explain sugar dissolving in water. The day before this lesson, students made predictions about what happens to sugar when we dissolve it in water. Most students…


On August 31 we investigated what happens to materials when they are crushed. Making Predictions I asked students to think about a soda can that gets crushed and a piece of paper that gets torn into 100 pieces. I asked them to answer these questions in their notebooks. When a material changes shape, Is it…

Planning Science Units with Equity in Mind

This post gets deeper into Chapter 2 of Ambitious Science Teaching. This chapter explains a systematic unit design process used to create a series of lessons that can build understanding coherently. What struck me the first time I read this chapter is how well this planning process supported creating units that embody the vision of science teaching and learning in the Next Generation Science Standards. This design process is also useful for creating problem-based learning units. This post describes the three practices in this process, how the process builds in some equity considerations, and how the process might be extended to address other equity issues.

The process consists of three major practices:

  • Practice 1: Identifying big ideas
  • Practice 2: Selecting an anchoring event and essential question
  • Practice 3: Sequencing learning activities that build specific understandings

Descriptions of each of the three practices are supported by detailed examples from work with teachers.

Practice 1 includes a whiteboard activity to help curriculum writers select the most important ideas that have the most explanatory power. Considering a tentative anchoring event can help guide this process. These important ideas become the conceptual threads that ties the unit together.

Practice 2 focuses on choosing the anchoring event. Curriculum writers should consider features that make the anchor context-rich and more compelling for their students, such as historical significance or issues of social justice that can motivate interest. See Angela Calabrese-Barton‘s Twitter feed for examples of how to incorporate social justice, such as this one about the water in Flint, Michigan. Students will model and explain the causes of an anchoring event over the course of instruction, and these explanations should integrate multiple science ideas. The anchoring event should be complex enough to provide space for students to create different kinds of explanations.

Practice 3 is a strategy for identifying and sequencing learning activities in a unit. A key part of this planning is a teacher-developed gapless explanation for the anchor event, which should be written just beyond the expectation for students at grade level. Learning activities are identified and sequenced to support development of the gapless explanation.

Although the planning process seems straightforward, there are a few other things we might consider in planning for equity. Equity is a key concept in AST (see my post on Chapter 1). The authors made strong connections between the anchoring event and equity, but they did not make connections between the gapless explanation and equity.

Who decides on the content of the gapless explanation?

Philip Bell raised an interesting question on Twitter about gapless explanations. From whose perspective are they gapless? It is important to consider explanations from multiple perspectives and not focus only the Euro-western perspective. How can different ways of knowing be recognized and developed in science teaching? There is much work to do in this area that has the potential to increase equity. We need to acknowledge and build upon the funds of knowledge that all students bring to school science. We need to expand our views of science as a way of knowing to be more inclusive of all cultures. There is a lot of work that remains to be done in this area.

I appreciate reading the posts from my science education colleagues on Twitter that help deepen my understanding. I look forward to working with members of the #ASTBookChat group as we explore AST together.

What are your thoughts about the AST unit design process? What other ways could the unit planning process be more attentive to equity? Share in the comments!

Planning for engagement with big science ideas

This is week two of a book study of Ambitious Science Teaching (Windshitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018) with a nationwide group of science educators. The study was organized by @sbottasullivan. We are working through one chapter of the book each week and I will blog about each chapter. This post is about Chapter 2, Planning for engagement with big science ideas. You can follow our book study using #ASTBookChat on Twitter.

This chapter describes a unit planning process. This unit planning process is very different than the methods in which most science teachers have been trained. The rationale for this process is compelling. A anchor-driven unit has advantages over traditional topic-driven units.

Manuel Keusch

Selecting a good anchor takes time and thought, but is essential to creating a high-quality unit. The anchor must be complex enough that multiple science ideas are needed to explain it. The anchor must also be relevant to studentsʻ  lived experiences. In this way, the choice of anchor contributes to equity and rigor, which were two of the major concepts in my Chapter 1 post.

Eneida Nieves

As we design a unit, we should identify the big ideas that have explanatory power. Which ideas shed light on the inner workings of the most phenomena? The observation that often the most important big idea in a unit is not even explicitly called out in a typical unit was striking. It is important for us to equip students with the ability to use ideas with great explanatory power that can be used in multiple contexts.


Modeling and explanation of the anchor event are key activities in a high-quality unit. Students engage in iterative cycles of evidence gathering and sense-making as they develop their explanations. Models make their thinking visible. Our teaching goals must include explanations that include the “why” of anchor events. Teachers develop the gapless model that is the explanation of the anchor activity before they design the unit.

Anchor events are the thread that holds together the activities in the unit. The activities help students answer questions about the anchor event and are arranged in a logical order. This chapter describes a process for deciding how to order unit activities.

I am looking forward to the weekly discussion from the #ASTBookChat group on Twitter and synchronously via Zoom each week.

For more about #ASTBookChat, see my previous posts: