Science Teacher Puts Standards’ ‘Cross-Cutting Concepts’ Into Pictures

By Liana Loewus — August 28, 2014 2 min read
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“Cross-cutting concepts” are a unique feature of the Next Generation Science Standards that are, to put it nicely, a bit tough to explain. But a California science teacher has created visual representations that clarify the concepts and remind students to connect big ideas across science topics.

Peter A’Hearn, a K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District, came up with the idea based on USC education professor Sandra Kaplan’s “depth and complexity icons,” used in many gifted education classrooms to get students thinking more deeply. He decided to create a similar set of symbols, which teachers could post in their classrooms and students could learn to draw in their own notes, to illustrate the science standards’ cross-cutting concepts.

As you may know, the cross-cutting concepts are one of three “dimensions” that make up the NGSS standards document (the other two being “scientific and engineering practices” and “disciplinary core ideas”). The seven concepts are meant to help students make connections across the science disciplines. Or as A’Hearn explained in an interview, they’re the many pairs of “glasses” scientists put on to view a problem differently. The concepts are: patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity; systems; energy and matter; structure and function; and stability and change.

A’Hearn began getting to know the science standards early on—well before his state even adopted them. Of the cross-cutting concepts, he thought, “They’re cool, I like them, but they’re really amorphous and hard to wrap my head around. What do they look like within classroom instruction? How do teachers get kids focusing on them, thinking about them, processing them?”

He designed seven symbols and asked an artist friend, James Jared Taylor, to draw them. “I wanted to make sure it was something a kid in 2nd grade could get ... but something that could be sophisticated as well.” The other catch was that students had to be able to draw them quickly. “I used my own children to see if they could whip them out. There were some symbols I had early on that got rejected.”

Here are a few of the drawings he ended up with.

This one’s stability:

And an example of a child’s rendering for stability:

And here’s patterns (since the phases of the moon are a pattern):

A child could draw:

PDFs of the drawings, known as CrossCutSymbols, are all available online for free here. He’s considering making posters and magnets at some point, which he would charge for. But for now, he just hopes teachers will print the PDFs and make use of them. (However, publishers who want to use them, he says, will need to pay.)

A’Hearn has been presenting the drawings at regional conferences and professional-development sessions. “I’ve even been presenting in audiences where scientists and engineers are in the audience, and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is exactly how I think and I’ve never had anybody lay out like that,’” he said. “That’s been really interesting to me.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.