Teachers’ learning is a dynamic process. Science teachers do not follow a uniform path through initial preparation, an early-career program, and formal professional development activities, facing predictable learning challenges along the way. Rather, they prepare for varying lengths of time, in a variety of settings, following a growing number of alternative paths into teaching. Once they are in the classroom, their learning is shaped not only by formal professional development opportunities but also by the demands of particular teaching contexts, the materials and human resources available to them, educational reform efforts, and policy mandates from their schools and states. Teachers’ learning also is significantly affected by their students and by how much they need to learn in order to to meet students’ needs. Against this backdrop, this chapter addresses the individual and collective learning needs of K-12 science teachers. Given that the new vision set forth in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework) and the Next Generation Science Standards (hereafter referred to as NGSS) represents a significant departure from current teaching approaches, all teachers—regardless of their preparation or experience—will require some new knowledge and skills.
The committee’s charge was to consider what is known about teachers’ learning over the course of their careers and how that knowledge might bear on current efforts to improve science teaching and learning in schools. As noted earlier, the committee views teacher learning as a long-term process: dynamic, iterative, ongoing, and contingent both on
the contexts in which it unfolds (e.g., formal and informal policies, practices, school cultures, and norms) and on the characteristics and needs of individual teachers.
The committee’s view contrasts with ways of thinking about a learning continuum that are oriented only around teachers’ years of experience in the classroom. While useful in some regards, focusing solely on time in the classroom fails to acknowledge teachers’ varying strengths and needs, both throughout the course of their careers and as contextual factors shift and change. One first-year teacher, for example, may have substantial scientific knowledge but not the expertise needed to support her students in engaging in productive scientific conversations. Another, more experienced teacher may be expert at supporting productive academic talk—helping students attend carefully to one another’s ideas and construct new knowledge together—but needs support in developing accessible representations of scientific ideas. An elementary teacher who has long used teacher-centered instructional methods can feel like a novice when presented with a reform that calls for problem-based, student-centered approaches. What teachers need to know about science, teaching, and students is always changing, and no one teacher will be expert in all relevant domains (e.g., National Research Council, 2002, 2007, 2010).
Further, the committee was persuaded by recent research suggesting that teacher quality is dependent not only on individual teachers but also on their communities (e.g., Bryk et al., 2010). Thus, instead of a sequential conception of teacher learning, the committee identified expertise essential for both individual teachers and the collective workforce. In contrast to the view of teacher learning as an individual accomplishment along a linear continuum, our view is that science teachers build this expertise as they teach in classrooms; engage in professional learning; and work in systems that can support, accelerate, or constrain learning. Central to our thinking is the observation that the quality of individual teachers’ instruction is shaped not only by their own capabilities and experience, but also by the leadership of their school, the professional community of teachers with whom they work, and the instructional resources available to them. We understand practice as contextualized and situated work enabled or constrained by the ecology in which it is embedded. Thus we think of teacher expertise in individual, collective, and contextual terms.
To achieve the vision outlined in Chapter 2, science teachers will need to develop professional knowledge and practices that include but extend well beyond disciplinary content. While experts have identified varying
comprehensive lists of such competencies, the committee highlights three foci, each of which is discussed in turn below:
- the knowledge, skill, and competencies that enable all students to learn next-generation science, including the development of practices that are responsive to a diverse range of students;
- the knowledge, skill, and competencies associated with scientific practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts; and
- the pedagogical content knowledge and teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential learning of science.
Box 5-1 presents a hypothetical example of how these foci intersect in providing learning experiences for students.
Each of these foci involves an array of knowledge, skills, competencies, habits of mind, and beliefs; each is crucial for designing science teaching and learning for the 21st century. These foci also are not static. Rather, the committee conceptualizes the expertise required of teachers as “adaptive” (Ericsson, 2007; Ericsson et al., 2009); that is, teachers must learn how to adapt their methods and strategies to their learners and other features of the environment in which they are working. As opposed to “routine” or “classic” expertise, adaptive expertise involves flexibility and the ability to draw on knowledge to invent new procedures for solving unique or fresh problems, rather than simply applying already mastered procedures. Adaptive experts are continuously upgrading their competence through experience-based learning.
Supporting Diverse Student Populations in Learning Science
The committee anticipates that the vision of science education set forth in the Framework and NGSS—where implemented well—stands to be highly motivating to students. Because it is substantially different from the typical fare of U.S. classrooms, however, it may prove challenging for all students. Students who traditionally have been successful with memorizing facts and reciting formulas may find it challenging to work on investigations, collaborate with other students, and generate models and explanations for their developing understanding. The substantial language and intellectual demands of the new vision also are likely to be challenging for students who are learning English as a new language. Teachers will need not only to understand the new standards but also to have a fluid and robust understanding of how to adapt curricular content to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.
The United States has always been a country of expanding differ-
Teaching Condensation: An Illustration of the Expertise Needed to Teach Science
The following hypothetical example illustrates how expertise in support for diverse learners, knowledge of science and its practices, and pedagogical content knowledge and instructional practices work together as teachers create learning experiences for students.
An elementary teacher is planning to teach a lesson on the phenomenon of condensation (the change of state from water vapor to liquid water), in which students are to engage in the scientific practice of developing and using scientific models. To meet the needs of all of her students, she would need to know the students’ history of involvement with this phenomenon. Do they have prior experiences with phase changes on which she could build? She would need to know what kinds of supports are needed to help students leverage their repertoires of practices toward new ends. For example, in what ways are the students’ everyday experiences with modeling likely to connect to the scientific practice of modeling? In what ways are they likely to need careful bridging? (Children often, for example, think of a model car—a smaller replica—as a “model,” and overgeneralize the idea of smallness as a key characteristic of a model, neglecting the more scientifically important idea of helping someone explain or predict.) The teacher would also need to understand the significant diversity among students from different cultural communities and their varying needs. For example, a range of decisions—from simple ones, such as what kind of container to use for illustrating the phenomenon of condensation forming, to much more complex ones, such as which analogies and representations to use to make the phenomenon meaningful—have cultural ramifications that the teacher would need to think through in light of her actual students.
In terms of her scientific knowledge, the teacher would need to understand the mechanism of the process of condensation (that when water vapor in the surrounding air cools, its molecules lose energy, and thus it forms liquid water on a cold surface). She also would need to be able to anticipate and recognize typical alternative ideas that students may have about condensation (such as thinking that water leaks through a can of ice water), an aspect of pedagogical content knowledge. She would need to be able to plan a set of experiences with the phenomenon that could help address specific alternative ideas (such as putting food coloring in the water or showing condensation forming on a cold mirror). She should be
ences, and the committee views difference and diversity not as a deficit in need of remediation but as the starting point for planning instruction. Unfortunately, results from the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME) (Banilower et al., 2013) show that teachers at all grade levels feel less prepared to engage students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and racial or ethnic minorities in science relative to students of higher socioeconomic status and white students (see
able to draw on existing lesson plans to help her devise these experiences. And because she would want to integrate the students’ learning of this disciplinary core idea related to the nature of matter with the scientific practice of developing and using models, she also would need to have strong specialized content knowledge around the scientific practice of modeling. In addition, she would need to know typical problems her students are likely to encounter as they engage in scientific modeling, as well as techniques she can use to support them in developing and using models of this phenomenon.
What teaching practices would the teacher need to employ, informed by and building on her content knowledge? She would need to identify a lesson plan to use and adapt it to meet her students’ needs. She might launch the lesson by eliciting students’ ideas about the source(s) of the condensate; to do so, she would need to develop and ask appropriate questions.
The teacher might then have her students investigate the phenomenon; thus, she would need to employ teaching practices related to the management of small groups conducting an investigation. Toward the end of the lesson, she might engage the students in whole-class sense-making discussion, during which she would again need to elicit students’ ideas, as well as compile the groups’ data (perhaps recording the data in a public space in a way that would allow students to see patterns across the groups) and move toward supporting the students in constructing explanations and models. This sense-making discussion would be an opportunity to foster and/or reinforce the discourse norms of science, such as supporting claims with evidence and reasoning. The teacher might also draw on individual students’ written work, including their written explanations and drawn models, in a meeting with the students’ parents or guardians.
This hypothetical example illustrates how creating authentic science learning experiences for students requires the integration and application of multiple kinds of professional knowledge. The professional knowledge needed for teaching is expansive, and here we have highlighted three dimensions of that knowledge: understanding how to support diverse students, understanding the content and how to teach it, and being able to draw on those understandings to enact a set of powerful instructional practices. Each dimension interacts with the others: a teacher’s content knowledge shapes and is shaped by her instruction, and her ability to use high-leverage practices depends on her understanding of both students and science. Drawing on this range of professional knowledge and practices is essential to ambitious teaching.
Chapter 4). In addition, few teachers feel well prepared to teach science to students with learning or physical disabilities or those who are English language learners (Banilower et al., 2013, p. 27).
This lack of confidence is a matter of preparation, for there is evidence that all students can master high-quality science curriculum and that professional development can be designed to help teachers adapt their
practices to all learners (Heller et al., 2012; Lee et al., 2008). However, state-wide studies of elementary and middle school science education in California (Dorph et al., 2011; Hartry et al., 2012) indicate that students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches are substantially less likely than their more affluent counterparts to have well-qualified science teachers, although their schools generally enjoy access to basic science materials and equipment (see Chapter 4). Low-income students also are more likely to be enrolled in low-performing schools, where the allocation of time to mathematics and literacy instruction is most likely to compromise science instruction. The research base on differential opportunities and outcomes linked to student characteristics remains modest and focused mainly on English language learners, and to a lesser extent on low-income students. Less is known about the learning experiences and outcomes for other populations of students, such as those with learning disabilities. Nonetheless, student characteristics are likely to be a factor in teachers’ perceptions of their needs for professional development and other supports.
Making science available to all students requires knowing how to provide access to meaningful science instruction, as well as a range of academic and social supports students may need. This integration of substance and supports is particularly important because the new vision of science teaching in the Framework and NGSS requires a new pedagogical conceptualization of how to support students’ engagement with new scientific practices, disciplinary ideas, and discourse practices. Providing an equitable science education requires that teachers listen carefully to their students, crafting instruction that responds to their diversity in meaningful ways.
All students also come to school with experiences and knowledge that offer starting points for building science knowledge and skills (National Research Council, 2011; Next Generation Science Standards Lead States, 2013, Appendix D). While all have learning challenges, students from nondominant communities often have an additional set of developmental needs resulting from disparities in social and economic conditions, including health problems that may bear on school attendance and performance. Instead of focusing primarily on what students do not know, effective teachers focus on what they do know that is relevant to the content being taught. Louis Moll and colleagues (Gonzalez et al., 2005; Moll et al., 1992) have argued that students have “funds of knowledge”—experiences at home and in their community—that can be rich resources for teachers if they are supported in learning strategies for uncovering those experiences and integrating them into instruction in meaningful ways. The challenge for teachers is to acquire a full appreciation of how young people learn
and the essential role of everyday knowledge in developing robust science understandings.
Understanding language is central to supporting diverse student populations in learning science. Classrooms are rich in writing, in talk, and in public speaking, challenging teachers to help students bridge the gap between their home languages and the language of science. The new vision of science teaching is language-rich: students read authentic scientific prose, and during investigations, they engage in such writing themselves. They also participate in small- and large-group discussions, hypothesizing about phenomena, investigating them, and debating alternative explanations for what they are learning. Research on the cultural dimensions of learning has shown that both regularity and variance characterize language practices within and across groups of learners, including those who share a common language or country of origin (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003; Rogoff, 2003). Authors of language socialization studies (Ochs, 1993; Ochs and Schieffelin, 2008, 2011; Schieffelin and Ochs, 1986) have long argued that children are socialized to particular language practices through their participation in the valued practices of the home and community. Such studies help the education community challenge simplistic and overly general conceptions of young people and their linguistic practices. Teachers need to be able to recognize and be responsive to differences in how children use language and engage in discourse.
Often, educators fail to recognize that the linguistic demands of dual language learners’ everyday practices are far more complex than is commonly acknowledged (Faulstich Orellana, 2009). As an example, children who are learning English or who have bilingual capacities often serve as language and sociocultural brokers for their non-English-speaking family members across a range of financial, medical, and educational institutions. Yet these children’s classroom experiences neither recognize nor make use of such important cognitive literacy activities and sociocultural accomplishments. The economic and educational consequences of failing to leverage these accomplishments are considerable.
The implication of these observations is that teachers need to develop classroom discourse practices that socialize students to new science practices and understandings. Research has shown that good curriculum materials and sound professional development opportunities can help teachers improve learning for diverse learners, including English language learners and low-performing students (e.g., Cuevas et al., 2005; Geier et al., 2008).
Knowledge of Science
Teaching science as envisioned by the Framework and NGSS requires that teachers have a strong and robust understanding of the science practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts they are expected to teach, including an appreciation of how scientists collaborate to develop new theories, models, and explanations of natural phenomena. Science teachers need rich understandings of these ideas and concepts. Perhaps equally important, they need to be able to engage in the practices of science themselves and know how to situate this new knowledge in learning settings with a range of students.
Such opportunities for working as scientists do require very different approaches to and emphases in undergraduate study of the sciences, teacher preparation, and ongoing opportunities for teacher learning. For example, fluency in scientific practices develops from continuing and extensive research experiences. Recognition of this fact has led to many calls for reform of undergraduate science education (e.g., Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, 1998; National Research Council, 1999, 2003; National Science Board, 1986; Project Kaleidoscope, 2006), all of which emphasize the need for more active engagement of students in research activities.
Complicating matters more is the fact that the content knowledge one needs to understand and teach K-12 school science is not necessarily the same as content identified as central to undergraduate majors in various sciences. Some scholars have called the former “content knowledge for teaching” (e.g., Ball et al., 2008) in an attempt to distinguish between content knowledge for liberal arts education or a disciplinary major from the content knowledge needed to deeply understand the crosscutting concepts, disciplinary core ideas, and scientific practices that are central to the new vision of science teaching and learning.1 Recently, educators at TeachingWorks have begun identifying what they call “high-leverage content,” which they define as “the particular topics, practices, and texts that are foundational to the K-12 curriculum and vital for beginning teachers to be able to teach skillfully.” As they note, “even when adults know this content themselves, they often lack the specialized understanding needed to unpack and help others learn it.”2
1The concept of content knowledge for teaching combines content knowledge with pedagogical content knowledge (discussed below). Science education researchers have not yet widely adopted this frame, so here we use the distinction between content knowledge (which includes crosscutting concepts, disciplinary core ideas, and scientific practices) and pedagogical content knowledge and teaching practices).
2See http://www.teachingworks.org/work-of-teaching/high-leverage-content [November 2015].
Disciplinary majors in higher education are not designed with teacher preparation in mind. Rather, they prepare students for a wide array of careers. In most universities, for example, multiple biology majors now exist. Consider Cornell University, where one can concentrate in animal physiology, biochemistry, computational biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, general biology, genetics, genomics and development, human nutrition, insect biology, marine biology, microbiology, molecular and cell biology, neurobiology and behavior, plant biology, or systematics and biotic diversity. Multiple units—Biological Statistics and Computational Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Entomology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Neurobiology and Behavior, Plant Biology, Biomedical Sciences, and the Division of Nutritional Sciences—participate in these majors. At universities where future science teachers are prepared, advisors from teacher preparation programs often work closely with disciplinary departments to identify courses that are aligned with state teacher certification requirements and the content of state teacher tests. Teacher preparation and certification programs that work with prospective teachers who already have undergraduate degrees conduct transcript analyses to ensure that prospective teachers have studied the content of the K-12 school curriculum.
In the case of elementary teacher preparation, a small number of science content courses usually are required for all prospective teachers. In some universities, these are specialized courses designed to expose elementary teachers to the content of the K-6 curriculum. In other cases, elementary teachers satisfy their science requirements by taking one or two general education courses in the sciences. In some states, elementary teachers can elect to have an elementary teacher science major, which entails taking more courses in the sciences. There is no centralized source of information on how much content preparation the average elementary teacher has, save for the information summarized in Chapter 4.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge and Science Teaching Practices
The concept of pedagogical content knowledge (e.g., Shulman, 1986, 1987) has been widely adopted and elaborated by numerous science educators and teacher educators (e.g., Berry, Friedrichsen, and Loughran, 2015; Gess-Newsome and Lederman, 1999; Lederman and Gess-Newsome, 1992; Pardhan and Wheeler, 1998, 2000; van Driel et al., 1998). Pedagogical content knowledge encompasses three domains: knowledge of content and students, knowledge of content and instruction, and knowledge of content and curriculum.
Knowledge of content and students includes how likely students are to understand particular concepts during instruction and how integrated
their everyday knowledge and practices are with their science learning. Many concepts in science are difficult for students to understand, and students often bring ideas to the classroom that are not consistent with scientific explanations and can pose obstacles to learning (diSessa, 2006). Teachers need to be aware of such ideas and which of them may be productive starting points for building scientific understanding. They also need to consider the kinds of questions students may ask during the course of an investigation or discussion and what the most challenging ideas or practices may be. In a diverse classroom, this includes being aware of the range of experiences students may have had outside of school that are relevant to the science classroom.
Knowledge of content and instruction includes the strengths and limitations of instructional representations or strategies that are likely to support students in understanding particular ideas and concepts or their engagement in science practices. Recent years have seen growing interest in identifying a core set of instructional practices—based on criteria distilled from research and careful examination of teaching practice—to emphasize in teacher preparation and for which teachers would be held accountable in educator evaluations. Ball and Forzani (2009) use the term “high-leverage practices” for this core set of teaching skills. Key criteria for high-leverage practices are that they support student work that is fundamental to the discipline, and that they improve the learning of all students (Ball and Forzani, 2009; Grossman et al., 2009). Examples include choosing and modifying tasks and materials for a specific learning goal, orchestrating a productive whole-class discussion, and recognizing patterns of student thinking (Davis and Boerst, 2014).
As discussed in Chapter 2, research on science teaching suggests a set of instructional strategies that are most effective for supporting students’ science learning and might be considered high-leverage practices. These include carefully framing students’ relationship with the intellectual work of science, anchoring teaching and learning activities around specific concepts and topics, and carefully mediating students’ learning activity (Windschitl and Calabrese-Barton, forthcoming; see also Chapter 2). Windschitl and colleagues (2012) have further specified these strategies in a proposed a set of core practices for beginning secondary science teachers, including selecting big ideas to teach and treating them as models, attending to students’ ideas, choosing activities and framing intellectual work, and pressing students for explanations. Identifying such core practices could enable precision in conceptualizing teachers’ learning needs in moving toward the new vision for science education.
Identifying these core instructional practices is especially important in light of the limited experience of the current science teaching workforce and the expectations embodied in the new vision of science teaching. To
teach to these new standards, all teachers need to know how to create learning opportunities that engage students in scientific practices while at the same time imparting crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas. They need to know how to support students’ discourse, both in small-group investigations and in whole-class discussions. For example, elementary and secondary science teachers need to be able to use their pedagogical content knowledge to lead whole-class discussions that help students make sense of data collected by different small groups as part of their investigations. They need to be able to use a range of instructional representations to illustrate, for example, the flow of electric current in a circuit and help students recognize the strengths and limitations of each representation (e.g., water flowing through pipes, teeming crowds, passing hand squeezes). They also need to employ strategies for connecting science to mathematics and literacy in meaningful ways. Finally, given the central role of ongoing assessments in informing instruction, teachers need to master a range of formative and summative assessment strategies.
Knowledge of content and curriculum includes awareness of the instructional materials teachers can use to support student learning and how existing curriculum materials can be adapted to students’ historical involvement with science. Teachers need to be able to use existing textbooks or curriculum materials for support in working with their students on developing rich understandings; indeed, a key teaching practice is being able to use one’s own resources and those in extant curriculum materials to make productive adaptations to the curriculum materials for use in one’s classroom (Brown, 2009). Similarly, teachers need to be able to identify, select, and employ effective technologies, such as visualization or data collection or analysis tools, in their teaching (for examples, see Ryoo and Linn, 2012; Shen and Linn, 2011; Zhang and Linn, 2013). This capability encompasses computer-based learning environments for science investigations (Donnelly et al., 2014). Teachers need targeted support to use these tools and environments effectively (Gerard et al., 2011, 2013).
This list of knowledge and skills is daunting, even more so when one considers the fact that the above are but three domains of professional teaching knowledge and do not encompass all the knowledge, skills, and competencies that inform effective teaching. This observation serves as evidence for the need for ongoing, continuous professional learning. It also illuminates why support for and improvement of quality science teaching are best understood as a collective enterprise. Teachers are stronger for the professional communities to which they belong, and good schools strategically cultivate varied expertise across individual teachers so that the school can meet the learning needs of a diverse student population in an age in which the vision of science teaching and learning
is increasingly ambitious, and knowledge of content and of pedagogy continues to expand.
Although no single set of learning needs defines every teacher, certain groups of science teachers are likely to have overlapping learning needs. For example, teachers with similar backgrounds—regardless of whether those backgrounds include science—or who teach the same grades or subject areas, or whose student populations share similar characteristics likely will share some of the same learning needs. But just as certain features of context facilitate or impede science teachers’ effectiveness, so, too, does context affect their learning needs. In the discussion that follows, we pay particular attention to aspects of context that are likely to bear directly on the classroom and shape the nature and intensity of teachers’ professional learning needs. Some of these contextual conditions affect teachers at all grade levels; others apply specifically or mainly to teachers at particular levels.
Special Issues for Beginning Teachers
As already noted, the K-12 science teaching workforce comprises many beginners. These beginners have varying needs for professional learning opportunities. In terms of content knowledge, beginning secondary teachers may need to learn disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, or practices that were not part of their disciplinary preparation. Teachers who may not have a strong science background or the confidence to teach science will need to learn the content and how to teach it in ways that lead to increased self-efficacy. Given their very limited opportunities for studying science in initial preparation, beginning elementary teachers likely have extensive needs for learning science content and practices (e.g., Davis et al., 2006). As Feiman-Nemser (2001) notes, beginning teachers have much to learn about practice-based knowledge, including knowledge of students’ needs and interests and students’ learning of science, as well as pedagogical content knowledge (e.g., Luft, 2009; Luft et al., 2011). Across the board, many new K-12 teachers have themselves never participated in the kinds of K-12 classrooms they are expected to lead, nor have they had extensive immersion in doing science. These general trends present significant challenges in designing professional learning opportunities for teachers as they are asked to teach to new, more challenging standards.
In addition, experienced teachers who are new to teaching a different discipline of science or to a new grade level can feel like beginning
teachers. They may need support in learning the core ideas of the discipline, as well as how students learn in this content area (e.g., Watson et al., 2007).
Special Issues in the Elementary Grades
As noted in previous chapters, elementary teachers may have more limited content knowledge in science relative to teachers at higher levels (Davis et al., 2006), and they may have had limited opportunities to focus on science teaching and learning (Banilower et al., 2013; Dorph et al., 2007, 2011; Hartry et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2002) and improve their instructional practices in science. Thus, they will likely need to bolster their content knowledge in addition to their teaching practices. This is neither a simple nor straightforward task: in learning instructional practices that enhance students’ learning of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific practices, elementary teachers will need to continuously adapt instruction in ways that support all students’ learning, including students will special needs, those for whom English is a second language, and those with diverse cultural backgrounds. Finally, as teachers of multiple subjects, elementary teachers need to balance the demands of developing expertise in English language arts, mathematics, and science, and often in other areas as well. Taken together, these conditions create a particularly challenging set of needs for elementary teachers in science.
By all accounts, then, elementary teachers will need considerable support to develop the expertise needed to achieve the new vision for science education. However, supports and resources for elementary teachers in science are currently lacking (Banilower et al., 2013; Dorph et al., 2007).
Special Issues in Middle Schools
As discussed earlier, middle schools are more likely than elementary schools to dedicate daily time to science instruction and to employ teachers who have majored in and/or have some additional training in science. However, the challenges for middle schools should not be underestimated. Middle school teachers experience several constraints on more ambitious and authentic science teaching. Science teachers’ content knowledge may be matched only weakly to the array of science fields and topics in the middle school curriculum. Teachers may be asked to teach a discipline-specific class for which they have little preparation or an integrated science class that spans fields beyond those they have studied. Many middle school teachers likely will need extensive learning opportunities in disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific practices if the new vision for science education is to be realized.
Teachers often report that students currently arrive at middle school having had little experience of science in elementary school, and the lack of prior scientific knowledge or experience with scientific inquiry is particularly pronounced for students coming from low-performing elementary schools in which instruction is focused heavily on mathematics and English language arts. Once in middle school, those same students may be required to enroll in extra classes of remedial mathematics or language, further limiting their opportunities to learn science. Given these circumstances, as discussed earlier, teachers need to learn a great deal about the background, experiences, and interests of their students and to acquire considerable pedagogical content knowledge to support students’ learning of science, sometimes for the first time in any kind of depth.
Here, too, supports are lacking. In the NSSME (Banilower et al., 2013), more than half of middle school teachers surveyed reported that access to professional development was a moderate or major problem—perhaps not surprising when only about half of the districts surveyed employed staff dedicated to supporting science instruction in the middle schools. In addition, Hartry and colleagues (2012) note an overall erosion of the professional development infrastructure over the last decade as county offices of education also have lost science specialists, while at the state level, funding for the state-wide California Science Project declined from more than $9 million in 2002 to $1.2 million in 2011. The findings of a study by Learning Forward echo this trend: the authors found that there were fewer professional development resources (and policies) than in the past to support quality long-term professional development.
Special Issues in High Schools
Science enjoys a relatively secure and valued place in the high school curriculum, with 85 percent of high schools requiring a minimum of 3 years of science for graduation (Banilower et al., 2013). Nonetheless, the push toward greater depth on core ideas and topics, understanding of crosscutting concepts (such as cause and effect), and experience with authentic science practices presents special challenges for high school teachers. Apart from sufficient access to well-qualified science teachers, achieving the new vision for science education will likely require high schools to examine current course configurations, and to consider integrated courses or resequencing and both the time and resources needed for investigation-centered instruction. The new vision of science curriculum and instruction will call for a kind of articulation across grades and disciplines that teachers generally describe as uncommon and for which they have little time, support, and resources.
Banilower and colleagues (2013) found that nearly all high schools
surveyed for the NSSME offer at least introductory courses in biology (98 percent), chemistry (94 percent), and (to a somewhat lesser degree) physics (85 percent), but fewer than half (48 percent) offer courses in environmental science or in earth and space science. Fewer than one-quarter of high schools offer courses in engineering, and only 5 percent offer a second year of more advanced study in that discipline. Approximately two-thirds of high schools offer a second year of advanced study in biology and life sciences, but fewer than half offer advanced study in chemistry (44 percent), physics (34 percent), environmental science (18 percent), or earth and space science (4 percent). Overall, high school course offerings appear to be inadequately reflective of contemporary problems and advances in the sciences and engineering. High school teachers will need extensive content preparation in these advances, as well as support in reconceptualizing the organization of school knowledge, to achieve the new vision.
In addition, as discussed earlier, instruction at the high school level remains textbook-dominated, with relatively little use of technology and little opportunity for students to engage in scientific inquiry and reasoning (in the NSSME, for example, 61 percent of high school teachers reported asking students to use evidence in developing claims even once a week). That is, while calls for the reform of science teaching are not new in this country, science instruction remains largely didactic, with curriculum coverage taking priority over substantial inquiry-oriented experiences for students. Rising to the challenge of the new vision will require shifting away from traditional instruction and toward instruction that is more student- and practice-centered.
Although block scheduling could give teachers greater opportunity to design a more interactive and inquiry-oriented approach to science learning, the use of this form of scheduling was reported by only about one-third of high schools surveyed for the NSSME. Most teachers, even if inclined toward inquiry-oriented instruction and prepared to employ it, face the constraints of the common 50-minute class period.
While organizational structures may account for some of the failure to reform science education, it is also likely, as discussed earlier, that high school teachers will need to acquire more knowledge of how to meet the needs of diverse learners, including how to adapt instruction in ways that tap into students’ funds of knowledge. They will also need opportunities to enhance their pedagogical content knowledge, including how to use new technologies to engage in activities that integrate disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific practices. As new curricula emerge that are aligned with the new vision, teachers will need extensive experiences with trying these curricula out and adapting them to their contexts.
The School Context: Leadership, Support, and Opportunities for Collaboration
Administrative leadership and access to colleagues are important characteristics of the school context that shape teachers’ learning opportunities. The significance of administrative leadership and support is a common refrain in the research on policy implementation and school reform (e.g., Bryk et al., 2010; Sykes and Wilson, in press). In the most recent national survey conducted by Horizon Research, the principal’s support was the factor in promoting effective science instruction cited most frequently by both middle school (Weis, 2013) and high school (Banilower et al., 2013) teachers, and was the second most important factor (after students’ motivation, interest, and effort) cited by elementary teachers (Trygstad, 2013). A state-wide study of science education in California elementary schools found that virtually all school principals attach a high value to science instruction for all students (99 percent), and nearly as many (92%) believe that science instruction should begin as early as kindergarten (Dorph et al., 2011). In the present accountability and funding climate, however, principals and other school-level administrators may struggle to translate their support into material resources and professional opportunities for teachers.
Research dating back decades shows that gains in schools’ academic performance and teachers’ successful implementation of new curriculum or instructional practices are furthered by a collaborative and improvement-oriented culture (e.g., Bryk et al., 2010; Little, 1982; McLaughlin and Talbert, 2001, 2006; Stein and D’Amico, 2002). Yet science and mathematics teachers generally lack opportunities to observe their colleagues teaching (Smith et al., 2002). Peer observation has never been a frequent and systematic phenomenon in U.S. schools, even though it has been found to spur teacher learning and innovation (Little, 1982; Little et al., 1987). In 1993, only 11 percent of teachers in grades 1-4 and 5-8 reported regularly observing their colleagues teaching classes; by 2000, that percentage had fallen to 4 percent for grades 1-4 and 5 percent for grades 5-8 (Smith et al., 2002). Only one in four teachers had time during the week to collaborate with colleagues in their school, and even these discussions were not devoted to decisions about curriculum. Items related to peer observation and collaborative practices were dropped from the most recent iteration of the NSSME, but one-quarter of teachers surveyed reported that the allocation of their time during the school week actively inhibited their ability to plan for their science classes either individually or with colleagues, and fewer than 60 percent reported that time allocation promoted such planning opportunities during school time (Banilower et al., 2013, p. 120).
The extent to which teachers have administrative support for effec-
tive science instruction and opportunities to work with and learn from colleagues influences their learning needs. Teachers in schools that have placed relatively less emphasis on science or where teachers have had little opportunity to work with colleagues with science expertise will likely need more opportunities to develop expertise for science teaching than teachers who work in settings where science has received more emphasis.
Of course, teacher support is not limited to a teacher’s specific classroom or school, and there are myriad learning opportunities that teachers both encounter and actively seek out in the larger ecology in which they work. These issues are discussed in greater depth in Chapter 7.
This chapter has considered both what teachers need to know and be able to do to teach to high and rigorous standards and their associated learning needs. A number of specific issues will need to be addressed to support teachers in achieving the vision of the Framework and NGSS.
As noted in the previous chapter, many science teachers have not had sufficiently rich experiences with the content relevant to the science courses they currently teach, let alone a substantially redesigned science curriculum. This is especially true in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, where teachers are often newer and less qualified.
Furthermore, science teachers lack a coherent and well-articulated system of learning opportunities to enable them to continue developing expertise for teaching science while in the classroom. Such opportunities are unevenly distributed across grade bands, schools, districts, and regions, with little attention to sequencing or how to support science teachers’ learning systematically. Access to learning experiences related to science is particularly limited for elementary teachers.
Conclusion 4: Science teachers’ learning needs are shaped by their preparation, the grades and content areas they teach, and the contexts in which they work. Three important areas in which science teachers need to develop expertise are
- the knowledge, capacity, and skill required to support a diverse range of students;
- content knowledge, including understanding of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices; and
- pedagogical content knowledge for teaching science, including a repertoire of teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential science learning.
Teachers have unique learning needs depending on the context in which they teach: who their students are, how well resourced their school is, the average level of experience of teachers in the school, access to supportive cultural institutions, and the like. Teachers will learn more in schools that are organized for their learning (as well as the learning of students). They also will have more human resources available to them in schools in which there are seasoned, veteran teachers who have deep knowledge of the students in the community, the content to be covered, and ways to connect that content to the lives and experiences of the students. Thus, designing the optimal learning opportunities for teachers in a particular school will require careful attention to those details and others, a point to which we return later in this report.
While this tailoring is important, research also has identified some important trends that warrant attention. As previously noted, elementary teachers have spent little time teaching science, and helping them prepare for more intensive science instruction will take time and resources. Middle and high school teachers typically have a greater understanding of science than their elementary school colleagues but may not know how to teach it in ways that help students connect ideas through crosscutting concepts or engage in the scientific practices to bring content alive and make it relevant to students’ lives.
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