Category Archives: elementary

Planning Coherent Curriculum

I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about Grade 5 science curriculum. How do we make sure that we are creating opportunities for students to learn what they need to progress to higher grades? The K-12 Framework has learning progressions that we need to carefully consider in curriculum design. We need to use them effectively.

We have three NGSS dimensions with many components: 11 disciplinary core ideas, seven crosscutting concepts, and eight science and engineering practices. The performance expectations tell us what will be assessed by suggesting how the components can be combined, but they are not curriculum. However, most curriculum development approaches begin by grouping PEs into logical clusters, such as described in the front matter for NYU SAIL’s Garbage unit. Therefore, the combinations of dimensions in the PEs often affect what is emphasized in curriculum and instruction.

Let’s look at Grade 5. I analyzed the content of the PEs, which revealed:

  • Of 16 crosscutting concept elements, 56% were not addressed.
  • Of 7 crosscutting concepts, 2 crosscutting concepts were not addressed at all (structure & function, stability & change)
  • Of 40 science and engineering practice elements, 73% were not addressed.

Curriculum developers need strategies for addressing elements that are not in performance expectations in a way that is coherent within and across grades. In curricula that focus on students’ modeling of phenomena, the science and engineering practices are naturally integrated. For example, see this figure from Passmore et al. (2017). When students are actively developing and using models, the other SEPs inform and are informed by Developing and Using Models.

Passmore et al. (2017)

But what about the crosscutting concepts? There has not been a strategic way to integrate the crosscutting concepts. In my last blog post, I introduced a graphic organizer adapted from Rehmat et al. (2017) and used it to apply all the crosscutting concepts to a phenomenon. This could be a way to systematically address the CCCs, just as model-driven curricula are a way to address the SEPs.

Lori Andersen (2020). Adapted from model in Rehmat et al. (2019)

The CCCs are the epistemic heuristics, or “thinking tools” of science (Krist et al., 2018). They help students figure out the mechanistic explanations that are needed when modeling phenomena. If we apply all the CCCs to the phenomenon in curriculum planning, we might ensure that students have opportunities to learn about all the CCC elements in the grade band.

More to come as I explore this idea in my work. Do you have any comments about this approach? Please share here or on Twitter.


Krist, C., Schwarz, C. V., & Reiser, B. J. (2019). Identifying essential epistemic heuristics for guiding mechanistic reasoning in science learning. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 28(2), 160–205.

NYU SAIL. (2019). Garbage Unit Front Matter.

Passmore, C, Schwarz, C.V. & Mankowski, J. (2017). Developing and using models. In C. V. Schwarz, C. Passmore, and B. J. Reiser (Eds.), Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices, pp. 33–58. NSTA Press.

Rehmat, A.P., Lee, O. Nordine, J., Novak, A.M., Osborne, J., & Willard, T. (2019).  Modeling the role of crosscutting concepts for strengthening science learning of all students. In S. J. Fick, J. Nordine, & K. W. McElhaney (Eds.), Proceedings of the summit for examining the potential for crosscutting concepts to support three-dimensional learning. University of VA.

Crosscutting Concepts

By Dr. Lori Andersen, June 2020

The crosscutting concepts are the “thinking tools” of science. These seven big ideas help us describe and explain our world. Why is it important to use them as a set rather than individually, as they are presented in the standards?

A phenomenon is an object, process, or event. A phenomenon can be something very ordinary. It doesn’t have to be anything phenomenal. All phenomena are either a system or a part of a system. This is why systems and system models is the foundational crosscutting concept (Rehmat et al., 2019) and the arrow in the diagram points from phenomenon to systems and system models.

Systems and system models are tools for describing and explaining systems. A system model is a representation of the components and how they interact. The systems model can include pictures and text. The most important feature of the systems model is that it explains how the phenomenon happens.

Patterns are tools for describing what happens. There are many different kinds of patterns we might notice. We describe patterns using two other crosscutting concepts — scale, proportion, & quantity and stability & change.

Cause and effect is a tool for explaining why something happens. Cause and effect relationships can be simple or complex. We explain cause and effect using two other crosscutting concepts — matter & energy and structure & function.

The diagram provides a way to think about how the CCCs operate together as we create system models. In phenomenon-driven instruction, we are going to use many CCCs rather than just one or two. The idea for this diagram came from Rehmat et al. (2019) and I modified it to include phenomenon and adjusted the representation of systems and systems models in the diagram.

By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Public Domain,

Let’s apply the set of CCCs to an example. One phenomenon is the rising of Makali’i every November, which is used to mark the beginning of the Hawaiian new year.

Makali’i is a group of stars. We see the stars because light from the stars travels to our eyes. Our system model needs to include the stars, sun, and Earth to explain why we see them.

I developed this diagram using the templates on Paul Anderson’s website, Wonder of Science. These are great tools because they are already Google Draw editable documents. I added my system components and supporting text.

This system model explains how we can see Makali’i in November. Components include: Makali’i, sun, Earth, and observer. Makali’i emits light, which travels to Earth so we can see Makali’i in November. How do we use the other CCCs in the model?

Patterns are what happens in the phenomenon. There is a time pattern of specific months of the year when Makali’i can be observed in the sky. The time is measured with units (Scale, Proportion, & Quantity). Constellation patterns stay consistent over shorter periods of time, such as a month, while changing quite a bit over longer periods of time, such as a year (Stability & Change).

Cause & Effect is why the phenomenon happens. There is a cause, or reason, for the effects we observe. We observe Makali’i because the light can reach our eyes. The light can reach our eyes because the arrangement of sun, earth, stars, and the observer creates an unobstructed path for starlight. Light is a transfer of energy (Matter & Energy). The unobstructed path happens because of the structure within the system (Structure & Function). The Earth itself blocks light from reaching our eyes depending on its position in its orbit and its point in the rotation on its axis.

In the example of observing Makali’i, we see that all the crosscutting concepts play a role in describing and explaining the phenomenon. This diagram shows the role of each crosscutting concept.

So, how would you decide which to leave out? How can we use them together without overwhelming students and teachers?

What do you think about using all the crosscutting concepts in creating systems models that describe and explain phenomena? Leave your ideas in the comments!


Rehmat, A.P., Lee, O. Nordine, J., Novak, A.M., Osborne, J., & Willard, T. (2019).  Modeling the role of crosscutting concepts for strengthening science learning of all students. In S. J. Fick, J. Nordine, & K. W. McElhaney (Eds.), Proceedings of the summit for examining the potential for crosscutting concepts to support three-dimensional learning. University of VA.

How do we know the Earth is moving?

This post is my musings about transitioning 5th-grade students from an Earth-based perspective to a space-based perspective. Research literature shows that students need experiences to make sense of a space-based perspective to be able to explain the patterns caused by Earth’s motion. Here’s a sequence we could use.

One of the first patterns that children notice is the sun rising and setting. We can explain this pattern with a conceptual model of the sun moving around the Earth. However, other phenomena are not explained well by this model. The moving–sun–stationary–Earth model has limitations. When new evidence cannot be explained by our model, we must revise it.

What evidence do we have about Earth’s motion? Consider the following video that is an astronaut’s view of the Earth from space.

Video taken by Galileo spacecraft in 1990

This video is clear evidence that the Earth is moving. What other phenomena are caused by Earth’s motion?

Here’s a time-lapse video of stars near the North Celestial Pole.

How does a spinning Earth cause what we see in this video? How can we use a model to explain it?

The next example is a little more abstract. How could gravity be related to Earth’s spinning?

Gravity can be evidence that the Earth is spinning. Let’s think through this. Remember the last time you rode on a spinning ride? Maybe it looked something like this one. What did you feel? You feel pulled to the center. Like the girl in this picture who is pulled to the center.

The spinning of the Earth causes objects to feel pulled toward the center of Earth. At the equator, the surface of the Earth is spinning at 1000 miles per hour. So observing a force pulling an object towards the ground is evidence of Earth ʻ s rotation.

After considering these three phenomena, students may be more willing to consider that the Earth is moving. Then they can start using a space-based perspective and we can explain a lot more phenomena, such as why the path of the sun is different at different times of year. This is needed to explain the reason for the seasons, which is a middle school expectation.

Integrating ELA, math, and science

In this post, I continue a thought experiment. Can a lesson really integrate ELA, math, and science in a meaningful way?

In my previous post, I showed how to choose standards in science, ELA, and mathematics for an integrated lesson. Here is the lesson objective I wrote: Students will be able to write an argument about the effect of gravity on a falling object that uses real-world data as a source of evidence.

I base this lesson on an Exploratorium activity. I am only using the idea for how to gather evidence for the argument in this lesson.

Gathering evidence using mathematics skills

The data sources that we have to use to gather evidence for this argument are the data table and the video of the falling object.


What evidence can students gather? We have visual evidence and numeric evidence. In the video, students should notice that the object moves down. In the data table, students should notice that the object moves down 0.51 meters in 0.330 seconds.

A very simple argument could be made with that evidence. However, if students use their mathematics skills with number and operations in base ten to look at the data table a little more closely, they can notice more. What can we notice about how far the object falls between each video frame?

By using Google Sheets, we can calculate the how far the object fell from one frame to the next. We can use Google Sheets to calculate the difference. By creating a formula and copying it down the column, the spreadsheet calculates the differences for us.

Lori Andersen

Students can look for patterns in data. They notice that the time between each frame is the same (0.033 seconds is 30 frames per second), but the distance the object falls between each frame increases. Students can relate the increasing distance to how the object gets faster as it falls. The data shows that in the last two frames, the object falls about 20 times farther than it did in the first 2 frames. This kind of thinking requires students to build a solid understanding of number and operations in base ten. This brings in another mathematics standard that I did not include in my previous post. My original idea was that the most important math skills would be representing and interpreting data.

(Side note: The mathematics became a little complicated for Grade 5. In another post, I explore a different way to represent data for falling objects.)

Writing the argument using ELA skills

In the argument, we want students to make a claim that Earthʻs gravity pulls on the object. What could a studentʻs argument look like? In ELA, students learn to write opinion pieces. Four ELA standards focus are related to this task.

    Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
    Provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details.
    Link opinion and reasons using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., consequentlyspecifically).
    Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

So we see that there is a close link among these standards in science, ELA and mathematics. If we know what students are learning in the other content areas, we should be able to do some integration.

What do you think of this integrated approach? What integrated approaches have you used in your teaching? Tell me in the comments.

For more about this idea, see my next blog post

Integrating Science, ELA, and Mathematics

In my post No Time for Science?, I presented a way to increase the amount of science time in elementary school. We can use the overlaps in the practices among ELA, mathematics, and science to create integrated lessons. In this post, I present a thought experiment using one standard, 5.PS2-1, about gravity.

5.PS2-1 Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is down.

Letʻʻs start by identifying the standards in ELA that focus on argumentation. One ELA standard is about supporting a point of view with reasons and information in writing.

Miguel Á. Padriñán

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.1 – Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.

There are four more standards related to this one about the skills students should be using as they write to support their point of view with reasons and information that can inform the lesson. Other standards in Grade 5 ask students to identify which reasons and evidence support which points. So we see that Grade 5 ELA skills can be practiced in the context of written arguments about the effect of Earthʻs gravity on objects.

What about mathematics? Mathematical Practice 3 is about constructing arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others and is clearly connected to this NGSS Performance Expectation. However, none of the CCSS for Grade 5 mathematics specifically call out this practice. It is up to the teacher to decide how to incorporate arguments and reasoning in mathematics instruction. We could decide to connect this to a standard about data.


CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.MD.B.2 – Represent and interpret data.

This combination of standards makes sense because students could look at distance data for a falling object to argue about the effect of gravity.

Now that I have a standard from each domain. I proceed to creating an objective for an integrated lesson. I found this lesson idea from The Exploratorium. I modify it to make it more appropriate for Grade 5 by focusing on the data table only and ignoring the calculations. The activity describes how to collect data about a falling object with video. I can drop an object alongside a meter stick and record it on video. I can go through the video frame by frame to collect distance and time data. Or, I can use the sample data provided on the website.


Lesson Objective: Students will be able to write an argument about the effect of gravity on a falling object that uses real-world data as a source of evidence.

Notice that my lesson objective includes content from all three subjects.

ELA: Students will create a written argument.

Science: Students will argue about the downward effects of gravity.

Math: Students will interpret data.

What do you think of this as a Grade 5 activity? What examples do you have of integrated lesson objectives? Share in the comments.

For more about the development of this lesson, see my next post.

No time for science?

A new report on elementary science was released this month. The findings were not very surprising given similar reports, such as this one that was released one year ago. The time spent on science in elementary school continues to be very low compared to ELA and mathematics.

The average number of science minutes per day falls far short of the 60 minutes per day recommended by the National Science Teaching Association. Often, teachers do not have a choice on how to allocate instructional time among content areas. Most states, districts, and schools prescribe a number of minutes of instruction for each content area and science has a lower priority than English Language Arts or mathematics, which are tested more frequently.

Perhaps the answer to getting more science time into the elementary school day is interdisciplinary teaching. Several years ago, Tina Cheuk created a Venn diagram showing the overlaps among ELA, mathematics, and science.

Cheuk, T. (2013)

These overlaps could be used to create curricula that coherently integrate the three domains. For example, the practices in the intersection have great promise in lessons that facilitate students bringing together skills from ELA, mathematics, and science as they use the practice of argumentation from evidence. Integration leads to questions about coherence. How similar or different are the approaches to argumentation across the three disciplines? There is a need for coherence among the content domains if we are to use integrated approaches.

If you use any integrated curricular materials, please share in the comments!

For more on how to integrate science, mathematics, and ELA, see my next post.