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  • Writer's pictureNathan Belcher

Science Teachers' Learning

Updated: Jan 11, 2019

Summer as a teacher brings time without students, and for me this means time to read material I find interesting and reflect on my practice. A book I recently finished is Science Teachers' Learning from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and this report discusses information related to K-12 science educators. The writing committee identified 13 "conclusions about the gap between what science teaching and learning could be and the reality of the current practices" (p. 2-5) and created 7 recommendations that "highlight how districts and schools can improve the learning opportunities available to science teachers. These recommendations are intended to help both in determining science teachers' learning needs and in developing a comprehensive approach to meeting those needs, with particular attention to the ways that the current education system needs to be changed in order to support teachers' ongoing learning as they respond to the demands placed by current reforms in science eduction" (p. 5-9). The entire report is worth reading--especially if you are a science teacher, science curriculum leader, or administrator at a school, district, or state--because we as a science education community must continuously evaluate and improve our practice.

As I read the report, I highlighted my copy so that I could write this post and discuss with others about science teachers' learning. Here are some highlights:

"Without personally engaging in [the practices of science], students cannot come to understand the nature of scientific discovery; instead, they see science as abstract and far removed form the real world. It is difficult for students to see the relevance of scientific ideas and concepts unless they learn how to use them in building their own arguments and explanations. Thus, a major goal associated with the current vision for science education involves greater emphasis on immersing students in doing science rather than simply learning about science" (p. 29). Science is a process, and the writing committee--along with information in A Framework for K-12 Science Education and the South Carolina Academic Standards and Performance Indicators for Science 2014--is adamant about students working with science and engineering practices within the context of the science content. I believe wholeheartedly with this method, and my current pedagogy (Modeling Instruction) has a theoretical and practical foundation in this approach.

"A major animating idea of this new vision of science learning is that students’ understanding of any idea or concept is intimately related to their having engaged with phenomena through practices. The vision also emphasizes students’ understanding that scientific knowledge is generated by scientists who engage in experiments, field work, and archival research; that the knowledge derived from this work is the result of hypothesizing, testing, and arguing; and that scientists’ explanations of the natural world are revised as new evidence is generated. It follows, then, that science instruction needs to engage all students with a broad array of natural phenomena, support rigorous intellectual work, and facilitate full immersion in scientific and engineering practices over long periods of time. However, such practices include a broad range of intellectual habits—asking questions, developing and using models, analyzing data, and constructing explanations from data. Thus science practices are not synonymous simply with “hands-on” activity" (p. 37). The term 'inquiry' has been used often in the last 30+ years of science education, but the term has lost its meaning. I prefer the theoretical ideas of Modeling Instruction whereby students create, refine, and break models to perform scientific practices and give meaning to the content.

"As professionals, it is important that teachers use their professional discretion in selecting and adapting curriculum. However, given the fact that many elementary teachers have not had an opportunity for substantial engagement in science content and practices, this finding suggests the need for significant opportunities for elementary teachers to enhance their content knowledge as well as their pedagogical content knowledge" (p. 58). I have been encouraged by the work of the science coordinator of Charleston County School District to improve the science education in elementary schools, and I am excited to have students in physics that had a great background in science during their elementary and middle school careers.

"In the best of circumstances, teachers’ schools are carefully sustained learning organizations in which teachers and leaders collaborate regularly on improving instruction" (p. 80). Is this happening in your school, district, or state? I have an affinity for helping teachers get better at what they do, and there are many techniques that exist. However, I challenge each leader reading this to help their teachers be better at theory and practice; it is important to bring new people into the teaching profession, but it is equally important to help current teachers be the best version of themselves.

"In summary, many science teachers have weak grounding in the subjects they teach and few opportunities to deepen their professional knowledge or extend their teaching practice. This situation is not the fault of the individual teachers who constitute the workforce. Rather, it is a result of the educational system, as embodied in both policies and practices that fail to support the initial and ongoing preparation of teachers in ways that lead to deep science knowledge for teaching or enhanced practice. Achieving the aspirations for a very different vision of science instruction in U.S. schools will require a systematic strategy that entails making changes in preparation and professional development programs, supporting changes in the culture of U.S. schools, and creating a policy system that is aligned in terms of curricular vision and educator expectations. It will depend heavily on leveraging partnerships with organizations that have established programs such as NSF, NSTA, and other institutions that have been exploring how to create and support cadres of knowledgeable and skillful science teachers and leaders. This is an ambitious agenda, but anything less will leave teachers where they long have been: trying their best to meet the needs of their students and the instructional mandates of their schools with little support in acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to do so or to transform their schools into cultures of learning for both students and themselves" (p. 88). Oof, this statement hurts. Again, what are we doing to help teachers get better?

"While experts have identified varying comprehensive lists of such competencies, the committee highlights three foci, each of which is discussed in turn below:

  • the knowledge, skill, and competencies that enable all students to learn next-generation science, including the development of practices that are responsive to a diverse range of students;

  • the knowledge, skill, and competencies associated with scientific practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts;

  • and the pedagogical content knowledge and teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential learning of science" (p. 94-95).

These are a good set of foci, and they represent everything that we hope a teacher can do. I am still working on these in my own practice--and will until I stop teaching--and I can help others understand where they are within this set of foci. This quote brings another question: What are our professional development sessions doing to help teachers develop in these areas?

"Understanding language is central to supporting diverse student populations in learning science. Classrooms are rich in writing, in talk, and in public speaking, challenging teachers to help students bridge the gap between their home languages and the language of science. The new vision of science teaching is language-rich: students read authentic scientific prose, and during investigations, they engage in such writing themselves. They also participate in small- and large-group discussions, hypothesizing about phenomena, investigating them, and debating alternative explanations for what they are learning" (p. 99). Engagement in language is important for all students because it allows them to act as scientists, which gives students confidence as they continue with their career in science.

"We refer to this as the consensus model of effective professional development:

  • content focus—learning opportunities for teachers that focus on subject matter content and how students learn that content;

  • active learning—can take a number of forms, including observing expert teachers, followed by interactive feedback and discussion, reviewing student work, or leading discussions;

  • coherence—consistency with other learning experiences and with school, district, and state policy;

  • sufficient duration—both the total number of hours and the span of time over which the hours take place;

  • and collective participation—participation of teachers from the same school, grade, or department" (p. 118).

How do our professional development programs fit with this consensus model?

"Scher and O’Reilly (2009) located 18 studies that provided sufficient evidence for inclusion in their meta-analysis (8 of these were in science, and 3 included mathematics and science teachers). The researchers found a positive effect on student achievement, stronger for mathematics than for science programs. They also report that mathematics professional development taking place over multiple years had a more pronounced effect on student achievement than 1-year programs; they did not find the same result in their analysis of the science professional development evaluations. Among the mathematics professional development programs, the researchers also found a more pronounced effect on student achievement for those programs that focused on content and pedagogy, not pedagogy alone. A similar trend was noted for science, but not as strong statistically. Mathematics professional development programs that included coaching as part of the intervention also had a more pronounced effect. None of the science professional development programs studied included a coaching component" (p. 126). This quote raises two questions: How much are our professional development programs committed to extending beyond one year? How is the professional development focusing on both the content and pedagogy?

"Such external ties—active participation in university-based professional development, collaboration in university-led research projects, and membership in mathematics teacher networks—were a key factor in the strong professional community forged by the teachers within the school and in the student outcomes they were able to generate" (p. 151) Are K-12 teachers encouraged to collaborate with university professors and professional communities? I feel this is a missing piece in many school districts because it takes money and time for teachers and district personnel, and districts are less willing to fund these endeavors.

"One way to support collective learning is by developing policies that provide teachers with time to work together and that value collaboration, such as by offering incentives for engaging in collaboration. Providing such support for collaborative learning would lend needed structure to efforts now emerging along these lines in many schools and districts. Also critical is for teachers to have access to others with greater expertise, such as science specialists, lead teachers, or outside consultants. Meeting this need requires identifying the expertise among colleagues in a building, across the district, in those associations and organizations that surround school communities, and in online environments and then providing mechanisms for teachers to access that expertise" (p. 179). This quote inspires two questions: How are schools and districts providing the time for teachers to work together? How are schools and districts providing access to those with expertise?

"Learning opportunities for science teachers should have the following characteristics:

  • Designed to achieve specific learning goals for teachers.

  • Be content specific, that is, focused on particular scientific concepts and practices.

  • Be student specific, that is, focused on the specific students served by the school district.

  • Linked to teachers’ classroom instruction and include analysis of instruction.

  • Include opportunities for teachers to practice teaching science in new ways and to interact with peers in improving the implementation of new teaching strategies.

  • Include opportunities for teachers to collect and analyze data on their students’ learning.

  • Offer opportunities for collaboration.

Designers of learning opportunities for teachers including commercial providers, community organizations, institutions of higher education and districts and states, should develop learning opportunities for teachers that reflect the above criteria" (p. 224). These are good characteristics for professional learning in any subject, and the challenge is to develop programs that align with these.

The information highlighted in this post has raised many questions about professional development for science teachers (and teachers in general), and I plan to raise these questions with colleagues in my school and district. The development of teachers is something about which I am passionate, and this book has improved my thinking to become better at helping teachers progress.

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