Beautiful teenage schoolgirls doing experiment with chemical liquid in the lab
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Beautiful teenage schoolgirls doing experiment with chemical liquid in the lab

One of the dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is the crosscutting concepts. The National Research Council (NRC) Framework describes crosscutting concepts as those that bridge disciplinary boundaries and having explanatory value throughout much of science and engineering. In this sense, the cross cutting concepts, as identified by the NGSS, are selected for their value across the sciences and in engineering, and they provide students with an organisational framework for connecting knowledge, so as to develop a coherent and scientifically based view of the world (1). The emphasis here is the need for students to be able to engage in deep conceptual understanding, so as to make patterns and connections between and across disciplines. The role of the crosscutting concepts is also to enable students to enrich their application of scientific practices and their understanding of core scientific ideas in a conceptual manner, so as to facilitate deep higher order thinking.

The question then is how do we begin unpacking the standards without losing focus on the importance of conceptual engagement of the learner? (2) Erickson argues that facilitating conceptual understanding calls for a shift from the traditional two-dimensional model of curriculum and instruction to a three-dimensional model of curriculum and instruction. Traditional, two-dimensional models of curriculum and instruction focus more on the topics and delivering of factual content and most often assume that students acquire conceptual understanding, while a concept- based, three-dimensional model of curriculum and instruction uses the topics and facts as the foundation to support students in gaining a deeper conceptual understanding. (3) Anderson and Krathwohl argue that when we separate the factual and conceptual knowledge of a discipline, we are able to emphasise that teaching and learning need to facilitate deep conceptual understanding rather than just focusing on remembering isolated and small bits of factual information.

In a classroom environment, this can be facilitated through a structured inquiry-based approach. It is pertinent to note that part of the NRC’s intent is also to better explain and extend what is meant by ‘inquiry’ in the sciences, and the range of cognitive, social, and physical practices that it requires. The NRC framework also highlights the need for teachers to keep in mind that scientific inquiry involves the formulation of questions that can be answered through engaging in scientific investigation.

Erickson proposes that a teacher can scaffold student learning from the factual to conceptual domains by formulating ‘guiding questions’. Guiding questions help in directing students through their learning and are of three different levels: Factual Questions, Debatable/Provocative Questions, and Conceptual Questions.

Factual Questions draw on the factual domain of the discipline and have a right or a wrong answer. They are direct and content based.

Provocative/Debatable Questions, on the other hand, enable students to approach the responses through a variety of different perspectives and as the name suggests, often provokes student thinking. Provocative/ Debatable Questions also help in keeping the learner engaged and motivated in learning.

Conceptual Questions are broad open-ended questions that require students to use their understanding in a variety of disciplines, so as to engage in deep conceptual understanding.

Such a structured inquiry-driven approach will enable the teacher to unpack the standards collaboratively with the students. (4) Bransford et al point out that in order to develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge; understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework; and also be able to organise knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. It needs to be remembered that moving between the factual, provocative and conceptual levels of knowledge and inquiry should not be viewed as something to be practiced in a linear fashion. According to Erickson, teachers need to recognise the ‘synergy’ between the factual and conceptual domains. This is what makes the inquiry meaningful and powerful.

First presented at MENA Common Core Conference 2014.

References used in article:

1. NRC Framework, 2012 p. 233, NRC (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

2. Erickson, HL. 2007. Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, California, USA. Corwin Press.

3. Anderson and Krathwohl (2001, p. 42). Anderson, LW and Krathwohl, DR. 2001. A Taxonomy for Teaching, Learning and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York, USA – Addison Wesley Longman.

4. Bransford, JD, Brown, A and Cocking, R. 2000; How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC, USA… National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council.

By Dr Sudha Sunder

Dr Sunder serves as the Curriculum and Staff Development Coordinator at the Universal American School, in Dubai. She is a certified concept-based curriculum consultant and also serves as a Curriculum Reviewer for the IB Americas. More about Dr Sunder’s work can be found at:

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