National Academies Press: OpenBook

Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 (2007)

Chapter: 10 Supporting Science Instruction

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Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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10
Supporting Science Instruction

Main Findings in the Chapter:

  • Student learning of science depends on teachers having adequate knowledge of science. Currently, K-8 teachers have limited knowledge of science and limited opportunities to learn science. Furthermore, undergraduate course work in science typically does not reflect the strands of scientific proficiency, focusing instead primarily on Strand 1 and, in a limited sense, on Strand 2.

  • In order for K-8 teachers to teach science as practice, they will need sustained science-specific professional development in preparation and while in service. Professional development that supports student learning is rooted in the science that teachers teach and includes opportunities to learn about science, about current research on how children learn science, and about how to teach science.

  • Achieving science proficiency for all students will require a coherent system that aligns standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, teacher preparation, and professional development for teachers across the K-8 years.

We have described four intertwining strands of scientific practice that almost all K-8 students should be able to master given well-structured opportunities to learn. Robust opportunities to learn science exist when students are presented with challenging academic tasks that draw on these four strands. What would it take to ensure that all students have regular access to such opportunities to learn science? The factors impinging on the quality of

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

classroom instruction in science include powerful influences outside school (e.g., Lareau, 2000), within school systems at the state or district level (Spillane, 1996, 2000), and at the school and classroom level (Cohen, Raudenbush, and Ball, 2001). We acknowledge this broad range of factors and choose to focus here primarily on the conditions that support student learning at, and immediately surrounding, the classroom level.

In this chapter we review what researchers have found about the influence of three critical components—teacher knowledge, teachers’ opportunities to learn, and instructional systems—on students’ science learning. Two questions guide our discussion of the literature in this chapter. First, what are the implications of research on student learning for school and classroom-level supports for instruction? Second, where do empirical links between classroom and school-level supports for instruction and student learning exist?

KNOWLEDGABLE SCIENCE TEACHERS

It is a truism that teachers must know the content that they are to teach. While no teacher could adequately support student learning without first mastering the content of the curriculum herself, effective teaching requires more than simple mastery. Quality instruction entails strategically designing student encounters with science that take place in real time and over a period of months and years (e.g., learning progressions). Teachers draw on their knowledge of science, of their students, and of pedagogy to plan and enact instruction. Thus, in addition to understanding the science content itself, effective teachers need to understand learners and pedagogy design and need to monitor students’ science learning experiences.

Knowledge of Science

Research findings generally support the notion that higher levels of teacher subject matter knowledge contribute to higher student achievement (Chaney, 1995; Goldhaber and Brewer, 1997, 2000). This finding holds across a range of measures of teacher knowledge. Having a major or a graduate degree in a subject contributes to a teacher’s effectiveness and higher student achievement (Goldhaber and Brewer, 1997, 2000; Chaney, 1995). Monk (1994) found that the number of postsecondary courses that mathematics and science teachers have taken is associated with incremental gains in student scores. Although there has been less research on the knowledge of science teachers (and of elementary science teachers in particular), the existing evidence supports this pattern. In a meta-analysis of 65 studies, Druva and Anderson (1983) found that student science achievement was positively related to both the number of biology courses and the overall number of science courses

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

their biology teacher had taken. Monk (1994) found similar effects in mathematics and physical sciences but not in the life sciences. Goldhaber and Brewer (2000) used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 to conduct a multiple regression analysis of 6,000 high school seniors and 2,400 mathematics and science courses. They found a relationship between teachers holding a mathematics degree and student performance, but no relationship between teachers holding a science degree and student performance. These results may have been affected by the high percentages of high school science teachers who teach out of their field, that is, a teacher with a biology degree teaching chemistry or physics.

The optimal level of subject matter training for a teacher is unclear, and there is some evidence suggesting a threshold effect—a point after which further course work provides no additional measurable impact on student learning. For example, Monk (1994) found that after a teacher had taken five college mathematics courses or four physical science courses, additional courses were not associated with additional gains in student achievement. Findings from several studies suggest that the impact on students of having a teacher with a subject matter major might vary with the level of the grade taught; the achievement of middle and high school students appears to be affected more by the amount of subject matter preparation of their teachers than that of elementary students (Rowan, Correnti, and Miller, 2002; Hawkins, Stancavage, and Dossey, 1998). Interpretation of these results, however, must consider the generally poor alignment of the content of college courses taken by teachers with the curriculum that they are expected to teach as well as by the ceiling effects in the achievement measures used in the studies. If college courses were aligned with school curriculum and if higher quality measures of student achievement were available, one might find that there are no threshold effects or that they must be higher than suggested by these studies.

There is also evidence from case studies of science teachers that teacher knowledge influences instructional practice and, in particular, that classroom discourse—an integral component of science learning environments—is sensitive to teachers’ knowledge of science (Carlsen 1988, 1992; Hashweh, 1987; Sanders, Borko, and Lockard, 1993). For example, Sanders and colleagues (1993) conducted an in-depth analysis of three secondary science teachers teaching inside and outside their areas of certification. They reported that when teachers had limited knowledge of the content, they often struggled to sustain discussions with students and found themselves trying to field student questions that they could not address.

Even more than quantity of knowledge, the qualities of teachers’ understanding of science are also important. If teachers are to help students achieve science proficiency, they too need to achieve proficiency across the four strands. Yet undergraduate science curricula, like those in K-12 science, tend to be biased toward conceptual and factual knowledge and reflect impover-

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

ished views of scientific practice (Trumbull and Kerr, 1993; Seymour and Hewitt, 1994). Not surprisingly, undergraduates’ and prospective science teachers’ views of science reflect this emphasis on science as a body of facts and scientific practice as mechanistic applications of a sequential scientific method. Hammer and Elby (2003) in their analysis of undergraduates’ perspectives on learning physics found that, in contrast to the “modeling game” of practicing physicists, many undergraduate students “view physics knowledge as a collection of facts, formulas, and problem solving methods, mostly disconnected from everyday thinking, and they view learning as primarily a matter of memorization” (p. 54; see also Elby, 1999).

Prospective teachers typically view scientific practice in a similarly narrow light (e.g., Abd-El-Khalick and BouJaoude, 1997; Aguirere, Haggerty, and Linder, 1990; Bloom, 1989; Pomeroy, 1993; Windschidtl, 2004). For instance, Windshitl (2004) studied the views of pre-service science teachers as they designed and conducted studies in the context of a secondary science methods course. Study participants included 14 pre-service teachers with earned bachelors’ degrees in a science. Windschitl tracked their thinking about science through regular journal entries for one semester and conducted interviews with them on their experiences in science from middle school forward. He analyzed their efforts to develop inquiry projects (beginning with formulating questions through presentations to peers) and found that they had a common folk view of science. Among other features, folk science entails construing hypotheses as guesses that have little bearing on how problems are framed and examined. Furthermore, scientific theory assumes a peripheral role in this view of science, relegated to the end of a study as an optional tool one might use to help explain results.

Observed limitations in K-8 teachers’ knowledge of science are not surprising given the mixed and generally low expectations laid out in teacher certification policy at the state level. Although 80 percent of states require demonstration of subject matter competence for obtaining an elementary school certificate, most states do not stipulate what that means in terms of the content that teacher candidates should study, nor the clusters of courses they should take. Delaware, Maryland, and Maine register on the high end of requirements. Delaware and Maine both require 12 semester hours in science. In Maine, which offers a K-8 certificate, teachers must have at least 6 semester hours in science. In contrast, Hawaii and Kansas are states that do not require credit hours in science or other subject areas. Other states use tests to assess subject matter knowledge. In Arizona, for example, elementary school certified teachers must take and pass a subject knowledge assessment—although it is not possible to ascertain what proportion of any state assessment test covers science.

There is scant evidence on how elementary and middle grade teachers are typically prepared in science, as well as few controlled analyses of how

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

teacher knowledge and skill influence student learning. Without such knowledge, we must rely on credentialing standards to characterize what base-level proficiency means in current practice.

Elementary teacher preparation accreditation standards provide a sense of the base-level expectations that certified programs hold for prospective elementary teachers’ knowledge of science. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education standards call for elementary preparation programs to attend to candidates’ knowledge of science and technology (and how they differ), inquiry, science in personal and social perspectives, and the history and nature of science, and they stipulate that candidates should be able to use and apply concepts and inquiry. These categories are defined quite vaguely and suggest very modest expectations for prospective elementary teachers’ knowledge of science. For example, the “inquiry” standard indicates that an “acceptable” elementary candidate would “demonstrate an understanding of the abilities needed to do scientific inquiry” but provides no further definition of what inquiry is, the attendant abilities, nor descriptions of performances that would be indicative of satisfactory understanding.

Science specific standards for middle school level credentialing are not typical. However, we can consider the state standards of those that do have such standards to discern what states expect middle grade teachers to know about science. Most of these states require a certain number of credit hours in the subject area of assignment (National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, 2004). Illinois, for example, requires 18 credit hours in the subject area of assignment. Other states are less specific about teaching assignments and instead require prospective teachers to choose from a range of subjects when satisfying subject matter requirements. For instance, Georgia requires 30 semester hours in at least 2 of the teaching areas applicable to middle school, but it does not require teachers to take science courses in order to be assigned to a science teaching assignment. Similarly, in Mississippi, teachers who hold a Middle School Interdisciplinary Endorsement must complete 2 areas of content concentration consisting of a minimum of 18 credit hours in each area. Only about 15 percent of states require a major in the subject area taught as part of requirement to obtain a middle school certificate.

Clearly the scientific knowledge of K-8 teachers is often quite thin. Factors likely to contribute to this pattern are narrowly focused undergraduate course work, insufficient teacher professional development, and a credentialing process that requires little of prospective K-8 science teachers. If they are to help students reach national and state standards in science, teachers will need substantial supports in the form of better pre-service training, as well as professional development that will bolster their knowledge of the science they teach.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Understanding Learners and Learning

Beyond knowledge of science, effective science teachers need to understand the process of learning itself. This report provides substantial evidence that student learning can be harnessed when classrooms are cognizant of students’ ways of thinking, their experience base, and provide challenging problems for them to engage in. Teachers’ understanding of how students learn has important implications for how they structure learning experiences and make instructional decisions over time. We have described learning science as a process that entails developing self-awareness of, and building on, one’s own knowledge of the natural world; participating in scientific practices; and building new understanding in a community through argumentation. Teachers, as instructional designers, need to understand student learners to make good decisions about how to teach them. They need to understand what students do when they learn, as well as the types of experiences that produce engagement and conceptual understanding. They also need to understand the unique qualities of their particular students and the unique demands of particular groups of students in their classrooms.

Teachers’ Beliefs About Student Learning

Are teachers’ perceptions of student learning commensurate with the learning processes we’ve described? The research on this matter is scarce and of uneven quality, and careful analyses of teachers’ understanding of student learning are rare in the science education research literature. Limited evidence suggests that teachers’ conceptions of student learning are highly dissimilar to contemporary research perspectives.

One source of evidence on this question is a large body of research on “teachers’ dispositions,” which examine teachers’ espoused beliefs about science teaching and their instructional practices to make inferences about their views on learning. This research base offers very limited guidance, however. Despite decades of research, studies tend, almost exclusively, to use very small sample sizes (e.g., 1 to 3 teachers) and propose no clear research design (see, e.g., the review by Jones and Carter, in press). What is worse, the research is hobbled by a conflation of learning and teaching, falsely suggesting that good teaching requires highly interactive and “student centered” instruction. While we think that good science teaching necessarily includes student investigations, we reject the idea that teachers who understand learners will necessarily consistently create interactive, student-driven teaching experiences, as this research implies.

There is emerging work on “folk pedagogy” or popular belief systems about how others learn and what teachers can do to cause learning in others (Strauss, 2001), which provides some insight into how people generally, and

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

some teachers, think about learning. This work rests on the proposition that teaching is an inherently human practice, that people all continuously are teaching one another, and in so doing they develop working (although often tacit) notions of pedagogy. Much like the folk science of children and adults, folk pedagogy is evident across age spans and diverse populations and represents a shared, working notion of learning. Individuals may not be aware of their own folk pedagogy, and it may even be incommensurate with their own espoused views of teaching and learning, constraining the range of pedagogical moves they will make.

An important component of folk pedagogy is a mental model of the learner (Strauss, 1997). In a series of studies, Strauss and colleagues have examined teachers’ “explicit espoused” and “enacted” mental models of learning to try to describe what they believe students do when they learn. For example, in one study of espoused mental models, Strauss administered semi-structured interviews to science and humanities teachers, who explained their strategies for teaching material that is difficult for students. They found a common mental model of learners across teachers. Irrespective of subject matter area (e.g., science, language arts) and level of subject matter knowledge, teachers conceived of learners as consuming small portions of information in relative isolation and trying to link this to their extant prior knowledge. Strauss encapsulates the mental model metaphorically: “the entrance to the children’s minds has ‘flaps’ that are open when children are attentive. If children are uninterested or unmotivated, the flaps go down and the material cannot enter the mind” (Strauss, 1997, p. 380). Given this view of learners, teachers saw instruction as an “engineering problem” in which their task was twofold. First, the teacher needs to get information into the mind of the child. Second, once the information is there, the challenge is how to move it to a place where it will be “stored.”

Teachers’ beliefs about student mental models, as described in this research, contrast with research on student learning that we have described in this report. The mental model Straus and colleagues describe calls for teachers to break the subject matter into “chunks” that can be mastered sequentially and made more enticing by manipulating an affective response. In contrast, we have argued that learning science includes participating in scientific practice in which learners engage in meaningful problems over time. In the practice view of student learning, these chunks are framed, from the outset, as important pieces of a whole that, when understood and organized, provide learners with leverage to explain, manipulate, or further explore the natural world. It is this leverage—the promise of new, meaningful ways to act—that entices students to work hard at complex scientific problems. Although there is no empirical research that examines how the teachers’ mental model of students influences student learning, we draw attention

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

to this finding because it points both to a potential stumbling point for instructional reform and a topic worthy of further research.

Teachers’ Perceptions of Diverse Student Learners

Another aspect of teachers’ knowledge of learners that can have real consequences for teaching is their appreciation and understanding of student diversity. Teaching that will help all students make sense of science also requires that teachers understand the particular students and the student groups they teach, including those who come from cultural backgrounds different from their own. Both societal and classroom-level factors inform students’ beliefs about science and the degree to which they identify with science. Although it is not always clear how teachers would optimally manage these factors, it is clear that they can play an important role in either limiting or expanding students’ understanding and appreciation of science.

In a literature review, Eisenhart, Finkel, and Marion (1996) addressed several societal factors that impinge on students’ views of science. Some of the factors that they identify as contributing to the underrepresentation of women, working-class men, and people of color in science include media stereotypes of scientists, the lack of connection with female and non-Western interests and backgrounds, and the climate of degree programs and high-status scientific professions that systematically exclude women from some fields (Eisenhart et al., 1998). It is important to note that while patterns of underrepresentation and stereotypes may have a negative impact on many students, students’ responses to them are not predetermined. In light of these broad societal factors, some students may position themselves to resist stereotypes by showing their capabilities in science, whereas others may appropriate the messages they receive and conclude that science is just not for them (Brown, Reveles, and Kelly, 2005; Ritchie, 2002; Smardon, 2004).

At the classroom level, the teacher may fail to recognize cultural differences or understand how they can impact students’ interactions with science. In their review of the literature on prospective teachers’ beliefs about multicultural issues, Bryan and Atwater (2002) conclude that most prospective science teachers enter their teacher preparation programs with little or no intercultural experience and with beliefs and assumptions that undermine the goal of providing an equitable education for all students. Furthermore, many graduate without fundamentally changing their beliefs and assumptions, despite their experiences in teacher preparation programs.

Furthermore, most teachers feel unprepared to meet the learning needs of English-language learners (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999). The research findings that draw attention to the importance of vocabulary and discourse in science practice and science learning heighten the chal-

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

lenge of teaching these students. Most teachers assume that English-language learners must acquire English before learning subject matter, although this approach almost inevitably leads such students to fall behind theirEnglish-speaking peers (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1997).

The research on how to effectively teach science to diverse student populations is inconclusive (see Chapter 7), yet there is little disagreement that teaching science to diverse student populations presents immense challenges, and that teachers need to be knowledgeable about both classroom-level and broader societal factors that influence students’ science learning.

Subject Matter Knowledge for Teaching

More than the sum of knowledge about science, learners, and learning, teacher knowledge is qualitatively distinct from that of mature nonteachers and disciplinary experts. Expert teachers have knowledge of subject matter that is peculiarly suited for instruction (Shulman, 1986, 1987; Wilson, Shulman, and Richert, 1987).1 While scientists will understand the canon of accepted scientific theory deeply, the range of questions that are “in play,” and the modes of inquiry in the field, they will not necessarily know how to make this knowledge accessible to children and other nonexperts. That is, “knowing subject matter” is a different form of knowledge than “knowing how to teach subject matter.” The expert teacher must therefore master the fundamental forms of the discipline and combine these with knowledge of students and learning.

Although broad in scope, research on subject matter knowledge for teaching is primarily focused on two areas—teachers’ knowledge of students’ preconceptions and misconceptions of science and instructional strategies or representations for teaching science—and these categories are frequently used to describe the literature base (see, e.g., Grossman, Schoenfeld, and Lee, 2005; Hill, Rowan, and Ball, 2005; Smith, 1998; van Driel, Verloop, and de Vos, 1998).

Consider how this dual focus on content and how it is learned inform the identification of meaningful questions. In Chapter 9 we argued that quality science instruction includes exploration of meaningful scientific problems, and that teachers actively structure and guide students’ learning experiences through these (even when excellent curriculum materials are available). In order for students to be engaged with meaningful scientific problems,

1

For consistency we use the term “subject matter knowledge for teaching” throughout this section, although others may also use the terms “pedagogical content knowledge” (PCK), “professional knowledge,” and “event-structured knowledge for teaching.”

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

teachers must understand science from the standpoint of the learner, selecting and structuring problems that are meaningful in two senses of the word. The problem must be meaningful from the standpoint of science and be clearly connected to a body of knowledge. It also must be meaningful from the standpoint of the learners; that is, it must require something they can do (or are learning to) and they must be able to work on the problem in a purposeful manner.

Of course, subject matter knowledge for teaching is not absolute but can be understood as situated. That is, students’ sense of what constitutes a meaningful problem and their approaches to making sense of scientific phenomena are not universal but reflect the varied social contexts and communities (home, school, classroom, etc.) they inhabit (Lave and Wenger, 1991). What is meaningful and stimulating to one group of students may not be for another. Furthermore in any given classroom, students will have a range of ideas and understanding of science and scientific concepts. Accordingly, skillful teachers need to apply their knowledge flexibly in practice in response to this variability (Putnam and Borko, 2000). A skillful teacher is able to draw on a range of representations of scientific ideas, select those that suit the specific instructional setting, and use her knowledge as an interpretive framework to make sense of the diverse ideas and perspectives that students express about science and scientific phenomena.

While the logic of subject matter knowledge for teaching is persuasive, there is almost no research on the empirical link between specialized teacher subject matter knowledge and student learning.2 More than three decades of research have resulted in distinct portraits of expert/novice teachers’ knowledge (Munby, Russell, and Martin, 2001) and case studies of teachers’ acquisition of PCK (e.g., Zembal-Saul, Blumenfeld, and Krajcik, 2000; Smith and Neale, 1989). We can point to only one study that examines the influence of subject matter knowledge for teaching on student learning, and it is in mathematics (Hill, Rowan, and Ball, 2005).

Hill and colleagues developed measures of teachers’ mathematical knowledge for teaching, which they defined as “the mathematical knowledge used to carry out the work of mathematics” (p. 373), such as explaining terms and concepts, interpreting students’ statements and solutions, judging and correcting textbook treatments of topics, using mathematical representations correctly in class, and providing students with examples of mathematical con-

2

Lee Shulman, one of the originators of this line of work, made this point in his introduction to Gess-Newsome and Lederman’s (1999) science-specific edited volume on teacher subject matter knowledge. Shulman pleaded: “I hope that those who use these ideas now and in the future give more attention that I did to the connections between teachers’ knowledge and the ultimate consequences for students’ learning and development” (p. xi).

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

cepts, algorithms, or proofs (Rowan et al., 2001). They found that mathematical knowledge for teaching was a significant predictor of student gains and a stronger predictor than all other teacher background variables (mathematics and mathematics education course work, certification) as well as time spent on instruction (Hill, Rowan, and Ball, 2005).

This important area of emerging research is in its infancy, but it may ultimately provide important guidance for policy and practice. Research in science is even less developed than research in mathematics. However, science educators could follow the same path: operationalizing scientific knowledge for teaching, developing and validating measures, and carefully designing studies to examine its influence (although science presents an additional complexity in that multiple scientific fields and disciplines make up the science curriculum). In fact, Olson (2005) is working on a small part of this lofty challenge and has begun developing measures of subject matter knowledge for selected topics in physical science.

TEACHERS’ OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN

Current research on K-8 science learning suggests a model of instruction that contrasts starkly with current instructional practice. To move toward instruction that is consistent with the research base we review in this volume, teachers will need substantial, ongoing, and systemic supports for their own learning. In the previous section we described the forms of knowledge that excellent science teachers draw on to inform instruction. In this section we describe how teachers’ experiences can be structured to support their learning, which in turn enables them to provide quality science instruction.

Teachers learn continuously from their experiences in the classroom, their interactions with colleagues, and their professional development activities. Our discussion of teacher learning opportunities reflects this reality. We describe opportunities to learn that take place in the naturally occurring functions of the school, as well as through programs specifically designed to support teacher learning and improved instruction. We first review the evidence for supporting teacher learning and the general qualities of teachers’ opportunities to learn. We then discuss research on organizing teacher learning in the organizational context of schooling and in professional development programs. Next we review the literature on teachers’ opportunities to learn with regard to student diversity. Finally, we discuss the use of science specialists as an alternate means of bolstering science instructional capacity.

Effective Teacher Learning Opportunities

Well-designed opportunities for teacher learning can produce desired changes in their classroom practices, can enhance their capacity for contin-

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

ued learning and professional growth, and can in turn contribute to improvements in student learning. In a general sense, a great deal is known about the characteristics of such opportunities for teacher learning. There is a general consensus about these characteristics among researchers and among professional and reform organizations (National Staff Development Council, 2001; American Federation of Teachers, 2002; Elmore, 2002; Knapp, McCaffrey, and Swanson, 2003). Among the more rigorous studies of professional development for teachers are those of mathematics reforms in California (Cohen and Hill, 1998, 2001; Wilson, 2003); studies of District #2 in New York City (Elmore and Burney, 1997; Stein and D’Amico, 1998); a longitudinal study of sustained professional development by the Merck Institute for Science Education (Corcoran, McVay, and Riordan, 2003); the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded studies of systemic reform in mathematics and science (Supovitz and Turner, 2000; Weiss et al., 2003); and evaluations of the federal Eisenhower mathematics and science professional development program (Garet et al., 1999).

Drawing heavily on three previous attempts to synthesize this literature (American Educational Research Association, 2005; Elmore, 2002; Odden et al., 2002), we point to seven critical features of teachers’ opportunities to learn. Research suggests that well-structured opportunities for teacher learning:

  1. Reflect a clear focus on the improvement of student learning in a specific content area that is grounded in the curriculum they teach.

  2. Focus on the strengths and needs of learners in the setting and evidence about what works drawn from research and clinical experience.

  3. Include school-based and job-embedded support in which teachers may engage in assessing student work, designing or refining units of study, or observing and reflecting on colleagues’ lessons.

  4. Provide adequate time during the school day and throughout the year, including considerations of the time required for both intensive work and regular reflection on practice. Furthermore, the overall span of time for teacher professional development is several years.

  5. Emphasize the collective participation of groups of teachers, including opportunities for teachers from the same school, department, or grade level.

  6. Provide teachers with a coherent view of the instructional system (e.g., helping teachers see connections among content and performance standards, instructional materials, local and state assessments, school and district goals, and the development of a professional community).

  7. Require the active support of school and district leaders. School leaders who participate in creating and sustaining teacher learning opportunities are better positioned to support teachers’ use of new knowledge and skills.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

These features provide a frame for describing, comparing, and analyzing the infrastructure of teacher learning across schools, districts, and programs of support. They imply a purpose and rigor, suggesting that teacher learning is serious business, a product of thoughtful design and collective system-wide participation, and that the rationale for participation and learning should be clear and compelling.

In the next two sections, we extend our discussion of teachers’ opportunities to learn in the organizational context of schools and departments and in professional development programs. We use examples to illustrate how the features listed above are enacted in professional development and to provide further evidence of the teacher and student learning effects of well-designed teacher learning opportunities. It is important to note that the above features are derived from a diverse body of research, much of which is not specific to science. Wherever possible we draw on science-specific examples.

Teacher Learning in the Organizational Context of Schooling

For several decades, researchers have reported significant benefits of organizational changes that facilitate teacher collaboration, including increased student achievement in schools characterized by strong patterns of collaboration among teachers (Corcoran, Walker, and White, 1988; Ingersoll, 2004). When teachers work collectively in teams, work groups, or as a department, their efforts can yield important instructional results and measurable effects on student learning. Collective work and learning in groups is what Wenger (1998) and other researchers refer to as “communities of practice.” A community of practice involves much more than the technical knowledge or skills associated with the work. Members of a community of practice work collectively on core tasks that members learn to execute at increasing levels of proficiency over time, drawing on support and feedback from the group. Common tasks (and the underlying knowledge that supports them) serve as the focal point of the community. In a community of teaching practice, individuals engage in the shared work of teaching. For example, they collaborate in preparing units of study, analyzing student work or videotaped lessons, developing assessments, and coaching and mentoring one another.

When teacher teams, work groups, and departments function as communities of practice, numerous studies have shown strong, desirable effects on faculty willingness to implement instructional reforms, teacher relationships with students, and student achievement outcomes. For example, the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative works at the district, school, and classroom levels to promote systematic and continuous education improvement through building and sharing professional knowledge and fostering

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

mutual accountability and collaboration. BASRC evaluators (McLaughlin and Talbert, 2000) reported statistically significant relationships between measures of teacher community and gains in students’ SAT-9 scores between 1998 and 2001, as well as strong correlations between teacher community and student survey measures of teacher-student respect, student initiative in class, and students’ academic self-efficacy.

Newmann and associates (1996) reported that strong norms of teacher collaboration in schools were associated with more effective implementation of reforms and continuous improvement of practice. They found five elements to be critical to the effectiveness of professional learning groups: (1) shared norms and values, (2) focus on student learning, (3) reflective dialogue among teachers, (4) deprivatization of practice through public discussions of instructional cases and problems among colleagues, and (5) collaboration on curriculum and instruction (Louis and Marks, 1998). Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider (2002) studied relational trust in schools and found that building social trust among faculty and between faculty and students pays dividends in the levels of engagement around reform initiatives and improved student achievement. They argue that this is especially critical in urban settings, where the work is especially hard. While organizing groups of teachers to work together can result in functional communities that focus their efforts and resources on instructional improvement and teacher learning, merely creating group structures by no means guarantees such positive outcomes. Supovitz (2002) found that simply making structural changes that support school-level teacher groups (e.g., providing release time) may not result in collaboration around instruction or improved pedagogical decisions. Groups may develop that are not engaged in instructional improvement. McLaughlin and Talbert (2000) reported similar findings in their study of high school departments.

Developing teacher groups focused on improvement of instructional practice requires intentionality and support. For groups to work toward instructional improvement, they require time for individuals to work together, for example, shared planning periods. However, the expectations about the use of this time must also be clear. DuFour (2000) also noted the importance of active leaders who help the group identify critical questions to guide their work, set obtainable goals, monitor progress, and ensure that teachers have relevant information and data (e.g., measures of student learning).

Connecting teachers to work groups, teams, and departments that are focused on instructional reform can be an effective means of improving learning environments for students, but it will require leadership, time, and resources to develop. Collaboration, critique, and analytic discussion of practice are essential aspects of a functional teacher group, but these features are often antithetical to existing school and teacher cultures.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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There is some evidence that the resources needed to develop such groups in schools may be subject matter specific. A recent study by Spillane (2005) suggests that the resources drawn on by these groups may vary across subjects, be affected by the level of teacher expertise in the subject, and be influenced by teacher perceptions about where expertise lies. Spillane found that elementary school teachers tended to have stronger group affiliations and collaborative activities around literacy. These were somewhat less well developed in mathematics and were least developed in science. He found that teachers believed that the expertise in literacy was available among their colleagues but that to access expertise in mathematics or science they had to go outside the school. As scientific capacity in the K-8 teacher workforce is often quite thin, professional communities that will support science instructional improvement may require recruiting local science teaching experts to work with teachers, or building relationships between schools and other organizations (informal science learning institutions, universities, industry) that have expertise in science and science teaching.

The evidence of science-specific subject matter specialists is less clear. In part, this reflects the lower status of science in the lower grades, where mathematics and language arts are emphasized. Here, as in previous sections, by and large, the research base is not specific to science but was drawn from studies in the context of literacy and mathematics. There may be additional features and challenges of building science teacher teams or work groups, but to date, these are not well documented in the science education literature.

Professional Development Programs

Besides the school structures and norms that support quality science instruction, professional development programs also support teacher learning and instructional improvement. We know that supports for science teacher learning should be grounded in the work teachers do in schools and informed by local policies, constraints, and resources. However, the faculties of many K-8 schools lack the science-specific expertise necessary for instructional improvement—deep knowledge of science, learning, subject-specific knowledge for teaching. Accordingly, in order for groups of teachers to engage in instructionally meaningful science-specific learning activities, they will require substantial guidance and input from external support providers.

Building on our characterization of student learning and the instruction that promotes it, we describe specific programmatic efforts to ignite improvements in K-8 teachers’ knowledge of scientific practice and understanding of students’ subject matter ideas, as well as efforts to provide them with focused lessons honed to address students’ learning challenges.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Research on teacher learning in professional development is at an early phase and is arguably lagging in science compared with mathematics and literacy (Borko, 2005). However, there is a handful of case studies (e.g., Crawford, 2000; Rosebery and Puttick, 1998; Smith and Anderson, 1999) that describe the features of high-quality science teacher professional development that engages teachers in doing science, as well as some analyses of its impact on instructional practice and student learning. These serve as examples for researchers to build on and as food for thought for policy makers and professional development providers.

Doing Science

Many, perhaps most, K-8 science teachers have limited science backgrounds and have had little or no direct experience “doing science.” An important trend in teacher professional development is to provide teachers with intensive firsthand experiences in the disciplines. Researchers have documented such programs across the core school subjects, including science (Wilson and Berne, 1999). Providing K-8 science teachers with unique learning opportunities that involve the “doing” of scientific activities is particularly interesting, as many report very limited exposure to science course work and inquiry experiences in particular. In science these experiences provide teachers with opportunities to think scientifically, to analyze phenomena, and to engage in meaningful discourse with peers. Moreover, in these settings, science teachers gain experiences with a broad range of scientific issues, including the generation of researchable questions and working as a community to interpret evidence and determine what counts. All the while, these experiences are connected to instructional practice as they are situated in K-8 curricula.

Rosebery and Puttick (1998) describe an example of long-term teacher professional development that is rooted in teacher inquiry experiences. They present an in-depth longitudinal case study of how one novice elementary school teacher, Elizabeth, developed her understanding of physical science topics and science itself through her participation in workshops that engaged groups of K-8 science teachers in doing science. Elizabeth, like many elementary school teachers, had no postsecondary science experience to speak of. She joined a group of teachers in a professional development program that took place during the summer and was run by educators and researchers from the Cheche Konnen Center. She and her peers, over a period of 3 years, worked on explaining qualitative phenomena such as “Why do helium balloons float?” This was a question taken up early in Elizabeth’s first summer workshop. For Elizabeth and her peers, it served as the basis of ongoing discussion, generation of a range of experimental trials, and practice at organizing and interpreting evidence to characterize physical

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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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.

Understanding Student Ideas

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.

Engineering Instructional Improvement

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

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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interest to students, drew on computational technologies, and provided “benchmark lessons” for especially difficult content. Researchers then monitored whether teachers taught the new units and collected student performance on relevant exam items to determine how successful the instruction in those units had been.

Their research entailed analyzing pre- and post-instruction student assessments over multiple years of instruction. In year 1, researchers analyzed student data to identify key concepts in which students made modest or no gains (postinstruction). Once these were identified, researchers developed and presented teacher workshops that showcased benchmark lessons designed to ensure student learning of those identified areas. In year 2, researchers again analyzed student learning of those key concepts, as well as instructional practice and teachers’ perception of their own understanding of the content. They compared year 1 gains with year 2 gains.

In analyses of the first year of student learning data in a unit on water quality, researchers noted that students struggled with problems asking them to refer to two-dimensional maps, a fundamental skill for many of the concepts they wanted students to master, including representing water sheds, envisioning and describing points of contamination, and characterizing directional patterns of effluence. In the summer that followed, the research staff provided explicit training on teaching mapping skills, and had teachers do benchmark lessons in professional development workshops. In the following year, researchers found that these focused interventions on key topics resulted in positive changes in teachers’ self-report of understanding and comfort with the topic, observed changes in instructional practice (the teachers enacted the benchmarking lessons), and statistically significant improvements in student learning in the second student cohort on key topics.

These studies provide a glimpse of some emergent and promising approaches to science-specific K-8 teacher professional development. Although the evidence base for professional development that is specific to science is less developed, we have inferred from the broader body of professional development research to point to practices that show promise and are worthy of further analysis. The studies we have described highlight important features of teacher professional development: these approaches are rooted in subject matter that teachers teach, focused on student learning, rooted in activities of teachers’ work, take place over extended periods of time, and are actively supported by school system administrators.

Despite emerging evidence that the continuous improvement of practice and student performance requires sustained high-quality opportunities for teacher learning, few school districts provide teachers with curricular-based institutes, mentoring and coaching, and opportunities for examination of and reflection on classroom practice required to deepen their subject-matter expertise and pedagogical content knowledge. Far too many providers of

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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professional development—from school districts to textbook publishers to professional organizations to reform groups—continue to rely on stand-and-deliver, one-shot workshops, and menu-driven conferences and conventions. While most of them acknowledge that the transfer of new skills and knowledge into practice requires more than what they are providing, too few teachers have access to the kinds of learning opportunities they need (Porter et al., 2000).

Teacher Learning Opportunities That Focus on Diverse Student Groups

A small number of studies examine the professional development of science teachers of racial/ethnic minority or low-income students in innercity schools and urban school districts. As noted previously, while there is broad agreement that diverse student populations bring distinct experiences and identities vis-à-vis science to the classroom, there is little agreement in the field as to the most effective means of teaching diverse student populations. Accordingly, the content of teacher learning described in this section is varied. Some of these interventions focus on the unique qualities and challenges of working with diverse student groups (e.g., Lee et al., 2005), while others reflect approaches that are not specialized to diverse student groups per se (e.g., Boone and Kahle, 1998). Across approaches, professional development for teachers of diverse student populations shows promising results, including positive impact on students’ science and literacy achievement, and on narrowing of achievement gaps among demographic subgroups (Amaral, Garrison, and Klentschy, 2002; Cuevas et al., 2005; Lee et al., 2005).

Teachers of English-language learners need to promote students’ English-language and literacy development as well as academic achievement in subject areas. A limited body of research indicates that professional development efforts have a positive impact on helping practicing teachers expand their beliefs and practices in integrating science with literacy development for these students. As part of an NSF-supported local systemic initiative, Stoddart et al. (2002) involved elementary school teachers of predominantly Latino English language learners. After their participation in the 5-week summer professional development program, the majority of teachers showed a change from a restricted view of the connections between inquiry science instruction and second language development to a more elaborated reasoning about the different ways that the two could be integrated. Hart and Lee (2003) provided professional development opportunities to elementary school teachers serving students from diverse backgrounds. The results indicate positive change in teachers’ beliefs and practices in teaching science to language-minority students. At the end of the school year, these students

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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showed statistically significant gains in science and literacy (writing) achievement, enhanced abilities to conduct science inquiry, and narrowing of achievement gaps (Cuevas et al., 2005; Lee et al., 2005).

Amaral, Garrison, and Klentschy (2002) examined professional development in promoting science and literacy with predominantly Spanish-speaking elementary school students as part of a district-wide local systemic reform initiative. Over 4 years, the inquiry-based science program gradually became available to all teachers at all elementary schools in the school district. They were provided with professional development, in-classroom professional support from resource teachers, and complete materials and supplies for all the science units. Results indicated that the science and literacy (writing) achievement of language-minority students increased in direct relation to the number of years they participated in the program.

Kahle and colleagues conducted a series of studies to examine the impact of standards-based teaching practices (i.e., extended inquiry, problem solving, open-ended questioning, and cooperative learning) on the science achievement and attitudes of urban black middle school students (Boone and Kahle, 1998; Kahle, Meece, and Scantlebury, 2000). As an NSF-supported statewide systemic initiative, the Ohio professional development programs consisted of 6-week summer institutes and six seminars during the academic year. The results indicate that professional development designed to enhance teachers’ content knowledge and use of standards-based teaching practices not only improved science achievement but also reduced inequities in achievement patterns for urban black students.

These studies suggest that, despite disagreement among researchers on the specific qualities of science instruction that advance student learning with diverse student populations, given opportunities to learn a range of new strategies for teaching these students, teachers can improve their practice and improve student learning. However, the relative benefits of one approach over another are not clear and will need to be examined.

Science Specialists

School leaders may opt to invest in a cadre of specialized science educators—science specialists, teacher leaders, coaches, mentors, demonstration teachers, lead teachers—rather than, or in conjunction with, organized forms of teacher opportunities to learn described above. We use the term “science specialist” to capture varied arrangements of organizing and distributing teacher expertise (Loucks-Horsley et al., 1998; Lieberman, 1992). District staff or principals may make decisions about how they spend their time and what responsibilities they assume, or science specialists themselves may use their own professional judgment in determining to do so. Subject matter specialist teachers may serve as leaders of groups of teachers—working with

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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individual teachers in classroom settings, working with groups of teachers in professional development settings, or working with teachers, administrators, community members, or students on issues or programs that indirectly support classroom teaching/learning experiences (Lord and Miller, 2000). Alternately, they may assume instructional duties for a subject, in this case science, for an entire K-5 school or certain grade level. This practice is not common in U.S. elementary schools, although some countries typically rely on science specialists from as early as second grade.

Evidence of the effects of subject matter specialists is limited and the results are mixed. Teacher leaders, for example, were a central component in 14 of 19 districts included in Kim and colleagues’ (2001) evaluation of the urban systemic initiatives. In this context, teacher leaders did a range of things, including planning, instruction, and working in the classroom with teachers, as well as organizing and running professional development activities. Kim found that the urban systemic initiatives had demonstrable effects on teacher practice and student learning outcomes in both mathematics and science. The role of teacher leaders in this sense was correlated with student learning effects. However, it was part of a systemic approach to reform, and specific contributions of the teacher leaders were not identified. Although evidence suggests an important role for teacher leaders in influencing peers’ practice and there is correlational evidence of an effect on student learning, there has been little careful analysis of the effects of teacher leaders on student learning. The research does suggest that positive outcomes of teacher leaders are contingent on a carefully crafted role in the education system, as Lord and Miller (2000, p. 8) observed:

Teacher leadership is part of an entire district infrastructure for mathematics and/or science reform. Districts with coherent curriculum programs, professional development that supports teachers’ thoughtful and skillful use of curriculum, accountability systems that hold all teachers and administrators responsible for teaching the curriculum, and assessments that provide appropriate measures of what students are expected to learn are most likely to have effective teacher leadership.

We identified no studies that examined the use of science specialists who assume instructional duties in grades K-5. We also call attention to the fact that science specialists are commonly used internationally from early elementary grades onward. This is a common practice in high-performing nations in international comparisons such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment. Using science specialists may be a particularly useful strategy in schools and systems in which current K-5 teachers lack knowledge and comfort with science.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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COHERENT INSTRUCTIONAL SYSTEMS

Marc Tucker (2004) has observed that one of the key differences between the U.S. education system and systems in countries whose students regularly outperform U.S. students is that they are instructionally coherent. He describes these educational systems as follows (p. 203):

They had instructional systems that could properly be called systems. The list is now familiar: clear standards; high-quality examinations designed to assess whether the standards had been met; curriculum frameworks specifying what topics and concepts were to be taught at each grade level; a standard required curriculum (with very few electives), typically through the ninth or tenth year of school; instructional materials that fit the curriculum frameworks; and training designed to prepare teachers to impart the official curriculum successfully.

Tucker labels these conditions coherent instructional systems, and he goes on to say that true coherence requires more than formal alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessments. He says that coherence occurs when the culture of schools and all the elements of practice, large and small, are “in harmony with one another” (p. 208). He continues (pp. 208-209):

[Coherence] is what happens when the school makes sure that the parents know what standards the students are expected to meet, how their children are doing, and what they can do to help where the help is most needed. It is what happens when the master schedule is set up so that student time is allocated to the tasks on which they are furthest behind and so that teacher time is allocated to the students who need the most help. Finally, it is what happens when tests or examinations are designed to assess whether the students learned what they were supposed to learn from the courses they took, which were in turn derived from a curriculum that is referenced to the standards they are supposed to meet. It is a matter of making sure that every aspect of the school’s functioning is organized to advance its stated purposes.

This argument has a persuasive logic, and there is some empirical support for it. Beginning with the effective schools studies, researchers have found that focus, unity of purpose, and a shared vision of outcomes are related to gains in student learning (Smith and O’Day, 1991; Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993; Hill and Celio, 1998). However, no one had examined the importance of instructional coherence at the school level as defined by Tucker until Newman et al. (2001) investigated whether elementary schools in Chicago that had improving instructional coherence showed improvements in student achievement. They found that such schools made higher gains over multiple years than schools that were lower on measures of instructional coherence.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Do public schools have coherent instructional systems in science? The available evidence suggests that overall they do not, but that they are making some progress toward creating them. Banilower et al. (2006) reported that the schools and districts participating in NSF-funded local systemic change initiatives made some progress toward providing teachers with more support for reformed classroom practice in science and also made limited progress with aligning policies with science standards. Progress was limited because so many external factors—state and federal policies, private funding, etc.—influenced local policies. This section elaborates two core components of an instructional system: curriculum materials and benchmarking assessment systems.

Curriculum Materials

As we have discussed, the current store of curriculum materials for K-8 science teachers is quite uneven. Analysis of science textbooks suggest that, by and large, those used in American classrooms are of a low quality. These texts typically lack coherent attention to concepts in favor of including many topics, and they rarely provide teachers with guidance about how students think about science (Kesidou and Roseman, 2002). Full-scale K-8 or K-12 systems of science curricula do not typically provide the coherence or teacher guidance that is necessary to support high-quality instruction. Short of comprehensive curriculum packages, many primary and middle schools use commercially available science modules or kits for select units or in particular grades. These kits can facilitate teaching science as practice, although they are limited in some important respects.

Designed to teach major concepts and the scientific process by engaging students in guided inquiry, curriculum kits or modules are aligned with the national standards. Ideally, local decision makers would have at their disposal a plethora of reliable data and guidance to make decisions about selecting and using modules. Useful information would include evidence of their effectiveness with similar student populations, careful analysis of apparent alignment with state standards, and clear indications of the skills and training their teachers would need in order to use these materials effectively. Such information is not widely available.

Although rich empirical data on the effectiveness of curriculum modules is not available, both the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061 and the National Research Council have produced useful guides to facilitate curriculum materials selection. Selecting Instructional Materials (National Research Council, 1999), for example, describes how school districts, schools, or groups of science teachers can systematically develop internal capacity to make informed decisions in selecting instructional materials. It also provides processes and tools that can guide their

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
×

collective work: description of the facilitator role, methods for training reviewers, how to carry out reviews, as well as forms that can be used in these processes. Involving teachers in systematic analysis of curriculum materials can have real benefits, including identifying high-quality materials, providing teachers who participate in the review process with knowledge of the curriculum and bolstering their capacity to critically analyze curriculum materials.

Managing curriculum modules may also present challenges. Modules typically include consumable materials that must be replaced after they are used. Since the modules are expensive, schools often ask teachers to share them, and replenishing the supplies becomes a problem. Teachers often have trouble finding the necessary supplies and either do not use the modules or use them inappropriately. A solution to this problem is for districts or schools to set up systems for replenishing the modules and distributing them across classrooms or “materials resources centers.” These centers shift the burden of preparing materials from the individual teacher to a specialized unit in the system. They provide space, deliver materials to schools, and ensure that both reusable and consumable materials are included and adequately stocked before they are delivered to teachers.

One potential limitation to shared kits is that reliance on them can limit the degree of school and district-level coordination of instruction as kits are frequently shared within or across schools. For example, if four schools share two sets of kits, it would be difficult to teach the units in a clearly defined, developmental learning progression across classrooms. What is more, when teachers at a given grade level are working on topics asynchronously, it can complicate efforts to pool the intellectual resources of the group. Science teacher learning communities that collaborate on planning, teaching, and assessing science instruction will typically work on a common set of tasks that are relevant to their current unit of instruction. Working on different modules at different times of the year could complicate and weaken collaborations.

Benchmarking Assessment Systems

There is growing interest in improving the means by which teachers monitor the progress of their students. Policy makers, school leaders, and teachers are becoming interested in the use of benchmarking assessments that provide practitioners with regular feedback on student learning, so that their progress can be judged either continually or periodically, and information about student learning can inform instructional decisions in a timely fashion. By providing teachers with feedback in the short term about student learning, these systems are designed to influence teaching in ways that other testing systems (e.g., high-stakes testing) do not.

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Benchmarking assessments or curriculum-embedded formative assessments created in the context of a curriculum are designed to elicit student thinking and are referenced specifically to an interpretive framework. While few science-specific studies of benchmarking assessments have been completed, there is a large research base on benchmarking assessment systems in other subject matter areas. Some well-developed programs that are based heavily on benchmarking assessments have shown positive student learning effects. Success for All, for example, uses reading tests at 6-week intervals to determine the effectiveness of reading instruction and to regroup students for subsequent instruction. Instruction based on the principles of mastery learning, a system developed by Benjamin Bloom in which students are allowed to progress on the basis of demonstrating proficiency on a set of formative assessments, has been shown to have a significant positive effects for lower achieving students and for inexperienced teachers (Block and Burns, 1976; Guskey and Gates, 1986; Whiting, Van Burgh, and Renger, 1995).

There are a few published studies of science-specific benchmarking programs and others are in progress. Currently the Berkeley Evaluation and Assessment Research Center (BEAR) (2005) is creating embedded assessments for the Full Option Science System. The assessments are being developed to help teachers of students in grades 3-6 assess, guide, and confirm student learning in science. These assessments make use of construct maps, which model levels of student understanding of a particular construct (e.g., students’ ability to reason with evidence) on the way to developing proficiency (Wilson, 2005). BEAR has helped to develop and refine the associated assessment frameworks, items, scoring guides, and other elements of the system and will later provide support in the process of psychometric data analyses.

In a recently completed study, the Stanford Education Assessment Laboratory explored Black and Wiliam’s (1998) contention that formative assessment would increase student learning by developing curriculum-embedded assessments for the Foundational Approaches to Science Teaching (FAST) curriculum (Yin, 2005). The first unit of FAST guides students through a series of investigations to culminate in an explanation of floating and sinking on the basis of relative density. Assessments were embedded at key conceptual “joints” in the curriculum, following a developmental trajectory of understanding density that students were expected to experience. Twelve sixth and seventh grade teachers were selected from a pool of FAST-trained volunteers. Teachers were matched in pairs according to school characteristics, and one member of each pair was then randomly assigned to a control group, which would teach FAST as they normally did, while the other was assigned to an experimental group, which would implement the curriculum-embedded assessments. The experimental group teachers attended a 5-day

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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workshop, where they were trained to implement the curriculum-embedded assessments following the interpretive framework for formative assessment. Multiple measures of student learning were administered to all students of teachers in both the control and experimental groups. Pretests consisted of a multiple-choice achievement test and a science motivation questionnaire. Posttests included the achievement test and the motivation questionnaire, as well as a performance assessment, a predict-observe-explain assessment, and an open-ended question assessment.

Results of the study indicated that the teachers and their contexts were extremely influential on students’ motivation, achievement, and conceptual change; teacher effects overshadowed the treatment effect. Possible interpretations suggest that some experienced teachers implemented their own informal formative assessment strategies regardless of the treatment group they belonged to; some experimental teachers, despite the 5-day workshop, could not implement the curriculum-embedded assessments as intended.

Although benchmarking assessment systems show promising student learning results, the quality of assessment systems is uneven. Stern and Ahlgren (2002) analyzed assessments provided in middle school curriculum materials. The study included only comprehensive middle school science programs—that is those that covered 3 years of instruction and were in wide use by school districts and states. Two two-member teams independently analyzed the curriculum materials and accompanying assessments. With respect to curriculum-embedded assessments, the analysis revealed that all materials received poor scores in terms of providing guidance for teachers to use students’ responses to modify instruction. Those curriculum-embedded assessments that were aligned with the curriculum materials usually focused on terms and definitions that could be easily copied from the text. Few questions were included that were able to sufficiently elicit students’ understanding, and even when those questions were included, the materials failed to provide interpretive frameworks for the teachers to interpret students’ responses.

The use of benchmarking assessment is clearly not a silver bullet. Effects are highly dependent on a number of factors. Bangert-Drowns et al. (1991) found in a meta-analysis of 58 experiments that while periodic feedback generally improved student performance, the type of feedback students received had the largest effect. Feedback that helped students to correct errors and reflect on the original learning goals had the greatest positive impact. Comments unique to a particular student’s performance relative to an absolute standard appear to motivate students to achieve at higher levels, while responses that include solely grades or praise (or no feedback at all) seem to have little effect on student achievement, and some evidence would indicate a small negative effect from these types of feedback (Butler, 1987, 1988).

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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In a meta-analysis of 21 studies, teachers who had specific instructional processes to follow based on test outcomes and who had received explicit directions about how to share information with students based on the data from the assessments demonstrated significantly higher growth in student achievement than those teachers who used their own judgment about how to respond to the data (Fuchs and Fuchs, 1986).

Teachers may need clear guidance about how to use evidence from benchmarking systems, but there is no “teacher proof” curriculum. Well-designed benchmarking systems are closely integrated with instruction and may lighten its immense cognitive load. But they require informed, professional teachers who make key decisions to structure and support student learning. For benchmarking assessment systems to support quality instruction and improvements in student learning, teachers must understand the desired stages of progression for students of varying ages and skill levels in the particular discipline being taught.

CONCLUSIONS

Advancing high-quality science instruction that supports student understanding across the strands of science proficiency will require teachers and schools to take action to improve teacher knowledge and practice, support and focus instruction in productive directions, and build systems that measure and sustain ongoing improvement in teaching and learning. Research can guide practice to some extent, although important questions require additional research.

Researchers have identified, in general terms, what expert teachers know about their discipline, how to teach it, and, to a lesser extent, what they understand about student learning. Empirical links between what teachers know and student learning, however, are emergent and can be complicated to establish. As research advances in this area, more precise definitions are needed of the knowledge that is necessary for teaching and the aspects of knowledge that provide the greatest student learning return. With this understanding in hand, educators will be better positioned to craft teacher credentialing policy and design teacher learning experiences.

There is broad agreement that well-designed opportunities for teacher learning can produce desirable changes in instructional practice and improved science learning for students. Furthermore, research has identified features of quality teacher learning opportunities that can be realized through a diverse array of organizational structures (mentoring and coaching, teacher work groups, expert- and teacher-led programs of professional development) combined with distinct learning outcomes (topic-specific learning strategies, conducting and teaching inquiry science, conducting science discussions, analyzing student work, planning instruction). Well-designed

Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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opportunities for teacher learning can benefit diverse student groups, including those that have traditionally been underserved.

Although there is abundant evidence to support subject-specific teacher learning opportunities, the comparative advantages of one approach or another are not clear. There may be unique learning potential or capacity to influence practice that arises in teacher work groups, or programs that focus on analyzing student work, for example. Future research will need to examine the potential and comparative advantage of distinct approaches. Given the consensus view that teacher learning should be framed in the context of the science that teachers actually teach, approaches should probably be considered in light of local resources and constraints. For example, given the dearth of K-5 teachers who specialize in science, most elementary schools will benefit from the participation of qualified expert teachers and other science teacher educators.

In addition to significantly bolstering K-8 science teachers’ opportunities to learn, schools and school systems can benefit from developing and refining instructional systems that focus and support science instruction. It may be some time before schools have and can use a comprehensive K-8 (or K-12) learning progression like that described in Chapter 7 as the basis of curriculum. However, they can begin to make important steps in that direction by carefully selecting and modifying curricular materials so that they present central scientific ideas across grades. In addition, schools can use existing benchmarking assessment systems that provide teachers with timely feedback on students’ ideas and guidance on structuring instruction in order to build on and advance students’ thinking toward intended learning outcomes.

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Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Suggested Citation:"10 Supporting Science Instruction." National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11625.
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Next: Part IV - Future Directions for Policy, Practice, and Research: 11 Conclusions and Recommendations »
Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 Get This Book
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What is science for a child? How do children learn about science and how to do science? Drawing on a vast array of work from neuroscience to classroom observation, Taking Science to School provides a comprehensive picture of what we know about teaching and learning science from kindergarten through eighth grade. By looking at a broad range of questions, this book provides a basic foundation for guiding science teaching and supporting students in their learning. Taking Science to School answers such questions as:

  • When do children begin to learn about science? Are there critical stages in a child's development of such scientific concepts as mass or animate objects?
  • What role does nonschool learning play in children's knowledge of science?
  • How can science education capitalize on children's natural curiosity?
  • What are the best tasks for books, lectures, and hands-on learning?
  • How can teachers be taught to teach science?

The book also provides a detailed examination of how we know what we know about children's learning of science--about the role of research and evidence. This book will be an essential resource for everyone involved in K-8 science education--teachers, principals, boards of education, teacher education providers and accreditors, education researchers, federal education agencies, and state and federal policy makers. It will also be a useful guide for parents and others interested in how children learn.

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