The Key to Good Science Teaching
Professional development for science teachers requires more than time
Think back to learning about science in your early school years. What experiences stand out? What excited you or shut you down? What inspired you to learn more?
I often use these questions to launch professional learning with administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers. Some have exceptionally vivid memories of engaging science at school, from experimenting with pill bugs to blowing something up. But just as many remember reading uninspiring textbooks and answering end-of-chapter questions.
The takeaway from such anecdotes is clear: Good teaching matters, and it's tough to teach science well. An effective science lesson requires planning engaging activities, navigating tricky science concepts, anticipating and working with students' preconceptions and misconceptions, and making difficult decisions on the fly. Good teaching is an art-one performed by those with specialized knowledge and skills.
The adoption of new standards in many states-such as the Next Generation Science Standards-adds greater complexities for teachers. These standards shift expectations for how students learn science and often bring significant changes in curriculum and classroom practices. Many science teachers already lack "sufficiently rich experiences" with content in the science discipline they currently teach, according to a 2015 National Academy of Sciences report. This problem is especially significant both at the elementary level and in schools serving predominantly low-income student populations. But the problem is by no means limited to the elementary grades. Currently, two out of every five high schools aren't offering physics because they don't have qualified teachers.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act calls for top-notch science teachers for all students. But how can we get there? The key is continuous learning. And the quality of that continuing education matters every bit as much as the duration.
The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education have championed rigorous research and development efforts to understand how best to support science learning for teachers and students alike. The 2015 National Academy of Sciences report concludes the most effective professional learning for science teachers focuses on content rather than just pedagogy; entails active learning; provides consistency across learning experiences and with school, district, and state policies; has sufficient duration to allow repeated practice and reflection on classroom experiences; and brings together teachers with similar experiences or needs.
Understanding the ingredients of high-quality professional learning is essential. But many districts and schools lack the in-house expertise to ensure teachers are thoroughly grounded in life, earth, and physical science. To make up for this deficit, many local education agencies have successfully partnered with outside organizations to provide content expertise that complements inhouse support from district instructional coaches, lead teachers, and staff developers.
How do we ensure that all students have access to well-trained and qualified science teachers? Education Week Commentary invited teachers, professors, and teacher-educators across the country to weigh in on this pressing challenge. This special section is supported by a grant from The Noyce Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors' own, however.
In my own work at one such nonprofit educational organization, I direct Making Sense of SCIENCE-a professional-learning project that has a proven record of deepening teacher knowledge, transforming classroom practices, and measurably increasing student achievement in science.
The secret sauce is offering teachers first-hand learning experiences that are science-rich, cognitively challenging, collaborative, and fun-not unlike what we want for our K-12 students. Many teachers have never learned science in this way, so reading a book, listening to a webinar, or attending a workshop is inadequate. Instead, teachers benefit from actively engaging in scientific practices, such as asking questions, gathering and analyzing data, and engaging in scientific argumentation. We use written cases of practice-similar to those used in business, medicine, and law-to foster peer-to-peer conversations about students and develop teachers' professional decisionmaking. Finally, we empower teachers to take responsibility for their own learning and to develop their identities as lifelong learners who are part of a professional community.
For their part, regional groups-such as county offices of education or other intermediate agencies-and states can also invest in building capacity in science education. Michigan is already taking such an approach. The Michigan Mathematics and Science Centers Network deploys science leaders from 33 regions across the state to provide science professional development to educators, serving large urban districts such as Detroit as well as more rural remote counties in the north. A number of other states, including New Mexico and Texas, are also appropriating legislative funds earmarked to train a network of science leaders who, in turn, provide quality science professional learning at the local level.
This effort is absolutely worthwhile. Research suggests that teachers who feel successful and supported in their work are more likely to stay in the profession-yielding significant fiscal advantages. The researcher Richard Ingersoll has calculated that the revolving door of teacher turnover costs school districts upwards of $2.2 billion a year. More importantly, our students deserve high-quality science education that is inspiring, memorable, and prepares them for college, career, and life. Ensuring more professional-learning opportunities for teachers will go a long way toward helping us realize these successes.
Vol. 36, Issue 10, Pages 22-23Published in Print: October 26, 2016, as Good Science Teaching Requires Continuous Learning