phenomena. Over a period of 3 years, Elizabeth returned to the summer institutes, and researchers tracked her teaching. Her experiences in the summer institute were systematically linked to the kinds of experiences and discussions she developed with her students. In the institute she learned central concepts of physical science, how to engage in scientific inquiries herself, and, through structured discussions with peers, how to enact such instruction in her own elementary school classroom.
In order to make sense of the natural world, children need to become aware of, build on, and refine their own ideas. Accordingly, their ideas about science become a central component of science instruction that teachers need to understand and act on. To support student sense-making in instruction, teachers need to know how students think, have strategies for eliciting their thinking as it develops, and use their own knowledge flexibly in order to interpret and respond strategically to student thinking. Teacher professional development can serve as a context for helping them understand students’ ideas about the subject matter to inform their teaching.
Although there is little research on science teachers’ opportunities to learn student ideas, there is strong evidence from mathematics suggesting that teachers can learn how to work productively with student ideas about the subject matter. A program of research on “cognitively guided instruction” at the University of Wisconsin has shown that teacher professional development designed to support understanding of student ideas can have profound effects on teachers’ knowledge and instructional practice and, importantly, that this knowledge translates to measurable learning gains for students (Carpenter et al., 1989; Fennema et al., 1996). The researchers supported these findings experimentally, tracked them longitudinally, and used case studies to learn how individual teachers acquire and utilize knowledge of student ideas to inform instruction.
Fishman et al. (2003) describe yet another way of thinking about supporting instruction through professional development. Rather than bolstering teachers’ experiences in science or explicitly building their understanding of student reasoning, they offer a pragmatic approach focused on instruction. In the context of a multiple-year study of local systemic reform in the Detroit Public Schools, Fishman and colleagues studied the implementation of new middle school curriculum over several years. Teachers received initial training in the new problem-based learning curriculum. The new curriculum depicted science in real-world contexts that were readily accessible and of