For isolated or overwhelmed science teachers, it can be tough to take a step back and ensure that the daily lectures and experiments guide students to a cohesive understanding of the subject.
One expanding professional development program hopes to give rural teachers the support to examine their practice in depth through video collaboration with local and faraway peers.
The Science Teachers Learning Through Lesson Analysis program, or “STeLLA,” uses a “lesson study” model, in which teachers attend a two-week summer boot camp on science content. Then groups of five to seven teachers post monthly videos of their classroom lessons, analyze them together online or in person, and develop future lesson plans focused on tying classroom activities to threads of “big ideas” in science that are carried through the year. The approach evolved from the next generation science standards and from an international observational study of science classrooms.
For example, in one district’s standard 5th grade unit, a teacher might begin by introducing the three states of matter and the molecular models of solid, liquid, and gas.
“They begin with content representations of those very abstract ideas and progress from there,” said Jody Bintz, an associate director for BSCS Science Learning (formerly Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) in Colorado Springs, who leads STeLLA professional learning and leadership development.
Teachers in the training, by contrast, start by presenting students with a beaker of boiling water and a question: Can we make the water disappear?
“We begin with a phenomenon. ... Kids speak through the observation of that beaker of boiling water. Kids begin to talk about what they’re seeing. They make observations, they make their thinking visible through classroom dialogue,” Bintz said, noting the lesson aligns to the NGSS. Students learn about the concept of different states of matter by observing, creating, and talking through the changes they can make in the physical water.
A series of pilot studies on STeLLA and Reinvigorating Elementary Science through a Partnership with California Teachers (RESPeCT), a sister program applying the model to urban, high-poverty schools, found teachers who had been randomly chosen to participate in the training performed significantly better than a control group of teachers on tests of science content knowledge, and their students significantly outperformed their peers in assessments of scientific reasoning and the ability to apply scientific concepts in new contexts.
This summer, the program received a five-year, $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s innovation and research program to expand the training to rural elementary teachers and continue to study it with help from the American Institutes of Research. Part of that scale-up will involve creating more online training to make the current 88-hour professional development program more sustainable for cash-strapped districts.
“It’s less intensive in terms of that face-to-face time required of teachers. So while it’s still the same number of hours, it’s more accessible,” said Chris Wilson, director of research for BSCS.
“Initially, the lift for teachers is just adopting that student-thinking lens—creating a classroom culture that values student ideas, their experiences, what they bring to the classroom—and then the teachers need to take student ideas and experiences and leverage those in ways that help students better explain the natural world and come up with more scientific explanations about how the world works,” Bintz said.
As teachers begin to redesign their lesson plans, Bintz said the researchers saw a second challenge: “As they take on that role of lesson planners ... teachers have to think through a coherent science content story line and practices that will make sense to kids. That’s a second shift in teacher thinking and it’s quite powerful for teachers.”
Because teachers work together to understand and overhaul their lessons, they provide an outside perspective on how to link concepts into a larger narrative, she said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.