Science Opinion

How San Francisco Is Transforming Science Education

By Urban Education Contributor — June 04, 2018 6 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership (@StanfordSFUSD). This post is by Janet Carlson (@JCarlson_CSET), Associate Professor and Director of the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET, @CSETStanford) at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education (@StanfordEd).

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

Five years ago, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) made a commitment to invest in the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) through a multi-year solution strategy that combined developing and adapting new curriculum materials with an integrated professional development plan so that the persistent inequities in student learning would be interrupted. Seeing an opportunity in the disruptive nature of the NGSS to alter science teaching and learning in ways that improved learning for all students, the SFUSD Science Team partnered with the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) at Stanford University to ensure that the curriculum and professional development work was guided by best practices and research.

The idea of having a districtwide curriculum was a dramatic departure from a decade-long policy that focused on very autonomous, site-based decision making, thereby creating a need to bridge this newer, centralized approach with some aspects of a site-based orientation. The partnership between the district Science Team and CSET was uniquely positioned to address this challenge due to the teams’ complementary strengths: The CSET team included researchers with a perspective on using curriculum and professional development within science education to shift practice and improve student learning, while the district team understood the history of district practice and policy well, included master teachers and coaches, and knew the school sites and teachers that would be open to pilot testing this new approach.

Together we are engaged in work that tackles the large challenge of the inequity of student learning in science. We created a centralized core curriculum, aligned with NGSS standards and designed specifically to support student meaning making, and a long-term professional learning program to support truly student-centered classrooms in which all students are empowered to learn science. Our early research efforts focused on examining how teachers were enacting the core curriculum by collecting data in classrooms.

What The Research Is Examining

The SFUSD Science Team chose to organize their curriculum materials and their instructional approach around the BSCS 5E Instructional Model. The five Es provide a way to think about how students develop a conceptual understanding of key ideas: First they must engage with the idea, then they explore it, next they work to explain the idea so they can elaborate their understanding and finally they evaluate their understanding of the idea. This structure provided an overall approach that aligned with the district’s recently adopted “Dimensions of Teaching and Learning.” As the science team developed or adapted materials, they were able to incorporate this student-centered focus. But what did actual classroom enactment look like? Was the instructional model being implemented effectively at the pilot test school sites?

To better understand the enactment of the 5E instructional approach, we asked 13 fully engaged science teachers (6 chemistry, 6 biology, and 1 physics) to collect daily videos for the duration of a 5E cycle, usually about two weeks of instruction. We viewed the videos from the lens of the 5Es by focusing on the teacher and student behaviors aligned with each “E” of the instructional model using a 5E Instructional Model tracking sheet. The presence of the teacher behaviors and student behaviors in each “E” was recorded for all of the teacher videos.

What The Research Is Finding

Student-centered instruction that focuses on meaning making requires a variety of discussion structures:pairs, small groups, and whole class. But these structures alone are not sufficient for students to generate meaning from their discussions—teachers’ instructional practices matter. In our analysis of the videos, we found that the majority of the videos included student discussion in pairs, in small groups, and as a whole class; however, the majority of the discussions were at a relatively low level of cognitive demand for the students.

For example, in the Engage phase of the cycle, the idea is to use novel images or scenarios to engage students’ prior knowledge to build connections to the key idea of the unit. These discussions should be short and held by student pairs to increase the opportunities for all students to share their ideas. Too often we saw teachers conducting these discussions with the whole class and using an IRE (initiate, respond, evaluate) model in which the students were reporting out to the teacher, rather than developing their own ideas. Similarly during the Explain phase of the cycle, whole class discussions were typically dominated by the IRE pattern with very few opportunities for student-driven discussion.

In these IRE versions of whole class discussion students did not have to bear much of the cognitive load. When teachers shift their practice so students are asking each other questions, challenging their own and other’s understandings as they explain scientific phenomenon, then the cognitive load shifts and the students begin to make meaning from their experiences in science class.

Implications for Practice

These analyses of classroom practice helped drive the emphasis in the plans for professional development (PD) for the next three years. This plan includes roles for instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and site-based professional learning communities. While it was obvious that some portion of the PD needed to focus on the structure of the new curriculum, we also needed to target core instructional practices that would make the implementation of the curriculum more effective in terms of student learning. This year we began working with the teacher leaders on the core practice of facilitating academic discussions in science that focus on students developing their ideas and making meaning from the science phenomena they are experiencing. The goal is to have students who are fluent in making evidenced-based claims and articulating their reasoning. These students will be supported by teachers who are expert in facilitating academic discussions that empower students to have access to rigorous content and develop agency, authority, and identity as science learners.

Previous blog posts by the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.