Increasing Science Teacher Candidates’ Ability To Become Lifelong Learners Through A Professional Online Learning Community

Introduction

What is the purpose of a science methods course? It would seem logical that a science methods course would increase the ability of the candidate to learn science content and pedagogy for that content. The actual methods for helping candidates learn to teach science are diverse and include different learning objectives, ‘student’ learning outcomes, and approaches within the classroom. A brief search of syllabi for elementary and middle grades science methods courses at the university level on the Internet yields vastly different approaches to teaching these courses and the reasons why. Science methods courses can be taught to “build fundamental knowledge of elementary science teaching and learning,” teach “strategies to bring scientific inquiry to the elementary classroom,” “increase confidence and enthusiasm for teaching elementary science,” “develop competence and confidence needed to teach science in elementary classrooms,” and “teach science skills and content.” Teacher candidates do not have the time nor training to be able to learn all of the content needed and experience the methods necessary for becoming an ‘experienced’ teacher in their first year of teaching. This article reviews how several university professors focus on a common approach to teaching a science methods course using an online learning community to guide teacher candidates to become lifelong science educators.

The Content of Learning and the Learning of Content

Methods courses are teacher preparation courses designed to prepare teacher candidates to teach a particular content area. There are typically elements of the course that boost content knowledge, but the crux of these courses is allowing teacher candidates to learn and/or practice pedagogical strategies to teach that content effectively. Methods instructors must be thoughtful about not only the activities they employ in their courses to support this knowledge and skill acquisition, but also about the materials and resources they use to support the activities in the course. Moreover, methods instructors must acknowledge they cannot possibly teach everything one needs to know to teach in their content area. Consequently, instructors must also set the foundation for teacher candidates to strategically utilize resources, many of which may be online, so they will be lifelong learners.

Table 1 provides a comparison of common goals of online syllabi from elementary and middle grades science methods courses. The search terms “elementary science methods syllabus” and “middle school science methods syllabus” were used in the Google search window. The first 40 results were downloaded and examined. Three main themes emerge from the syllabi: learning pedagogical skills to teach the science content, developing a set of habits of mind about science, and knowing the science content. In terms of the K-6 student impact, teacher candidates had to translate those skills to the students so that the students could essentially develop the same habits of mind and science content knowledge. Syllabi for courses that included the middle grades (5-8) demonstrated a change in the tenor of the language. When the middle grades course was combined with an elementary science methods course, the middle grades language, goals, and outcomes were very similar to that of the elementary methods course. At many universities, the middle grades science methods courses were combined with the secondary or high school science methods courses. The main differences between elementary and secondary science methods courses were the emphasis on depth of content knowledge and the lessening emphasis on developing habits of mind. Secondary science teachers are considered to have already developed significant content expertise and scientist’s habits of mind.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Sample Science Methods Goals and Outcomes on Syllabi

Science teachers need science content knowledge and the appropriate pedagogical knowledge to teach at their respective levels. Elementary school teachers usually focus on pedagogy and multiple content areas, especially at the younger grade levels where classes are self-contained. In terms of elementary teacher candidates, it is well documented that they often feel unprepared to teach science or have negative attitudes towards science due in many cases to their own personal experiences with science education (Tosun, 2000). At the middle grades level, most teacher candidates have more preparation in one or two science content areas and as a result typically have greater content knowledge depth than elementary teachers. At the secondary level, science teachers have certification to teach one, two, or multiple content areas and are considered to have significant content expertise. Typically, secondary teachers hold at least a Bachelor’s degree in the content they teach. This system of silos can be summarized with a question asked to each level of teacher, “What do you teach?” The elementary teacher might say “children,” the middle school teacher might say “adolescent kids” or “science”, and the secondary teacher would say “chemistry” or “biology.” Content knowledge is needed by all science teachers at all levels. College does not prepare teacher candidates to teach all the content, concepts, and facts that teachers will encounter while in the classroom. Teacher candidates need examples of convenient approaches to learning more science content and pedagogy that can become part of their lifelong learning as professional educators.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

In addition to knowing the content, science educators at all levels also need the pedagogical skills to teach the content, which is often referred to as pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). As Bailie (2017) noted, “PCK has…become a ubiquitous word in the preparation of teachers” (p. 633). Science methods instructors have consistently devised activities and lessons to guide teacher candidates to develop the necessary skills for teaching science. For example, Akerson, Pongsanon, Park Rogers, Carter, and Galindo (2017) implemented a lesson study activity in their science methods course that resulted in the early development of PCK for teaching the nature of science. Hanuscin and Zangori (2016) asked teacher candidates to participate in an innovative field experience that led to the beginning development of PCK for teaching in ways consistent with the NGSS. Finally, Hawkins and Park Rogers (2016) added in video-based group reflections to lesson planning and enactment to support the development of teacher candidates’ PCK. And although Davis and Smithey (2009) state that teacher educators may only be able to support the development of ‘PCK readiness’ because teacher candidates do not have much teaching experience to draw upon, it is widely agreed that strong science PCK is a necessity for successful science teaching.

Abell, Appleton, and Hanuscin (2010) state that the “main aim of a science methods course is to produce graduates who…have a ‘starter pack’ of PCK for science teaching” (p. 81). They go on to suggest that teacher candidates in methods courses should not only learn about science content, curriculum, and the nature of science, but also how to elicit students’ understandings of science, use that data to make informed decisions, and have the knowledge and skills to design instruction that support student learning. These results draw upon the foundational characteristics of PCK that science teachers should have (Veal & MaKinster, 1999). However, as Magnusson, Krajacik, and Borko (1999) and Veal and MaKinster (1999) note, content knowledge is the foundation for PCK. This leads science teacher educators to ask, how does one support the simultaneous development of science content knowledge, pedagogy, and science PCK?

Professional Learning Community

Teacher candidates at all levels learn science content and pedagogy so that they are able to teach the concepts in the appropriate manner to K-12 students. While in college, teacher candidates have the opportunity to enroll and complete science and pedagogy courses, but what happens once they begin their professional career? How do teachers maintain relevancy and stay current with new content or pedagogical practices throughout their career? Lifelong learning of science content and pedagogical strategies should be an emphasis in all methods courses. This is often accomplished by establishing and/or participating in a professional learning community (PLC) or communities of practice. One outcome of a PLC is to increase teacher candidates’ self-efficacy in science by exposing them to inquiry in science during their methods course (Avery & Meyer, 2012) as well as help them to learn more science content. A properly formed PLC can connect and scaffold the teacher candidates’ transition from pre to inservice educator establishing them as lifelong learners (e.g., Akerson, Cullen & Hanson, 2009). Without a proper transition, the elementary teacher candidates with low self-efficacy can become in-service teachers who are less likely to seek out professional development that would support improved science teaching (Ramey-Gassert, et al, 1996). In addition, it has been found that if elementary teacher candidates are uncertain about science then they are less likely to use inquiry oriented pedagogy (Appleton & Kindt, 1999; Ramey-Gassert, & Shroyer, 1992) and the performance of their students can be affected (Bybee et al, 2006).

One method to break the continuous cycle of unprepared elementary (K-6) teachers to teach science is to connect them to a community of practitioners during their science methods class as well as throughout their career. One such community could begin in a science methods course and exist as an on-line platform that allows them easy access to content, new pedagogical techniques, and classroom activities that they can rely upon throughout their career. This community could become a source of guidance as they continue to grow as professional educators of science no matter what grade level they end up teaching. The learning community that the methods instructors establish in their science methods courses must involve the learning of pedagogical strategies and content. Dogan, Pringle, and Mesa (2016) conducted a review of empirical studies investigating PLCs and determined that PLCs increased the science teachers’ content knowledge, PCK, and collaboration about student learning. Educator preparation programs are increasingly using the Internet to deliver and supplement their science methods courses with science content projects, courses, articles, and professional networks/forums. For example, Eicki (2017) studied how Edmodo could be used to create an online learning community for learning to teach science. Part of this learning community involved the communication and exchange of lesson plans and opinions about lessons in an online platform.

Given the vast nature of the Internet, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge the quality, applicability, or ‘user-friendliness’ of Internet resources. To help instructors with this problem, there are multiple legitimate educational organizations that have sites for teachers, videos of instruction, and student- and teacher-based content. For example, in this article, we present multiple cases regarding the use of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Learning Center (LC) as a website in which teacher candidates can learn more about science content, find pedagogical tools that match the content, and begin to see the NSTA LC as a learning community. While this article is not an endorsement of the NSTA Learning Center, we are using the Learning Center as an example of how this site can support teacher candidates in developing the dispositions to become lifelong learners in the science education community.

Context

In science methods courses, instructors try to bring together pedagogy that is appropriate to the science content at the level in which the teacher candidates will teach. The problem with developing one course that fits all students is that science methods courses are often geared toward the developmental level of the future K-12 students. Research evidence suggests that if elementary teachers feel unprepared or negative towards science then they are less likely to teach science to their students (Ramey‐Gassert, Shroyer, & Staver, 1996). The disposition to teach science content using appropriate pedagogy is needed. At the elementary level – which can span pre-kindergarten to eighth grade in some states – most methods courses are focused on broader PCK because it is nearly impossible for the teacher candidates to know the science content across all four science disciplines. However, while elementary standards at each grade level require more integration of concepts and less depth of science-specific knowledge, to choose the appropriate pedagogy to teach content well, one must first know the content itself well. Unfortunately, most elementary teacher candidates only take 2-3 science courses as part of their general education requirements that do not prepare them to teach the breadth nor the depth of science concepts in the standards.

Many middle level certificates overlap grade spans with elementary and secondary, so there exists the potential to have a pedagogically strong teacher needing to teach depth in a science or multiple science areas. For example, in South Carolina elementary certification includes grades 2-6 and middle school includes grades 5-8. On the other extreme, a science discipline teacher may be called upon to teach other courses at the middle school. Middle schools across the country may require science teachers to be proficient in all areas of science (e.g., biology, physics, geology, Earth science, astronomy, and chemistry) since the state or national standards are more integrated or each grade level requires multiple science areas. For example, many states have a general middle grades certificate for science, but Oregon has middle level certificates in each of the science disciplines. How can a middle grades teacher be proficient in all disciplines of science? Just taking the introductory courses in each of the four major disciplines would equate to 32 hours of science (lecture and lab for all courses); and, of course, none of these courses would likely teach how to teach these content areas. In addition, even if they successfully completed these courses, odds are the courses do not cover the basic science content they will teach.

The NSTA Learning Center is an online resource that can be utilized for preservice and inservice teaching and learning by providing a professional learning community in which teachers learn from one another by sharing content knowledge, lesson plans, and strategies. The NSTA Learning Center is an online repository of articles, book chapters, webinars, and short courses aimed at improving the content and pedagogical knowledge of preservice and inservice teachers, connecting teachers through online chats, and delivering depth and breadth of science content for primary, middle, and secondary teachers. The science content, interactive learning modules, and articles are peer reviewed and vetted by content and pedagogical experts. The implementation of this type of content has been described as blended learning by Byers and Mendez (2016). Blended learning involves using online resources with “on-site efforts” to teach students. The case studies in this article show how blended learning, inquiry, project-based learning, and independent learning can be supported to provide science content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and PCK to teacher candidates. While elementary and middle school science methods courses cannot provide all the science content and pedagogical strategies they will teach and use, these science methods courses can provide an opportunity to demonstrate and model effective lifelong learning skills.

Early Childhood Teacher Candidates

Case 1

One university offers certification through an early childhood (K-3) Masters of Education (MEd) program. The science methods course is designed to support teacher candidates learning of 1) pedagogical content knowledge, 2) science content knowledge; and 3) connect them to a community of elementary teaching practitioners to support their life-long learning of the teaching of elementary science. The learning experiences provided them with an understanding of science teaching and learning from the perspective of both learner and teacher. Though this is not a science content course, the class does utilize model lessons that exemplify science standards elementary teachers are expected to teach as outlined in national science standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

In order to foster long-term and sustained improvement in standards-based science teaching and learning in elementary schools the teacher candidates are asked to demonstrate their understanding of these standards documents by engaging in lesson development during the semester that exemplifies not only the content standards but also exemplary science pedagogical methods grounded in scientific inquiry. The NSTA LC allows the teacher candidates to encounter the use of the 5E method within classroom activities via articles in Science & Children as well as Science Scope, two practitioner publications from NSTA. In addition, NSTA LC e-book chapters are regularly utilized throughout the course. The elementary teacher candidates are required to use the online site as a source of articles about teaching science, as well as basic educational research supporting practice. These NSTA LC resources are used by the teacher candidates to help them develop lesson plans that are based on activities that excite students as well as connect to science content standards.

One aspect of the NSTA LC that the teacher candidates find the most rewarding is the ability to find articles written by other elementary teachers in practitioner journals that have great ideas for their classrooms. For example, when designing lessons focused on the Engineering Design Process many teacher candidates base their lessons on articles and lesson plans found on the LC.  During focus group interviews after the course, one teacher candidate stated that she found the “…readings were relatable and things that we could see doing in our classrooms. So it was really interesting to like keep going in the article.”

The teacher candidates in this M.Ed. program must complete at least one SciPack, read 5 Science Objects, watch two Webinars, listen to two Podcasts, and participate in online discussions with science teachers outside of their class. Teacher candidates also post comments and read the forum to look at past interactions between educators. The Webinars allowed them to listen to educational researchers and scientists discuss new educational policies. Teacher candidates’ use of these resources within the NSTA LC were easily checked on the site as the Learning Center tracks the use of all the resources by students. Thus, the science teacher educator can see if they have used assigned resources such as the SciPacks. The best part of the LC in the teacher candidates’ view is that they were able to put all of the resources they use into a section of the center called “My Library” and those recourses became theirs for the rest of their career! During the post course focus group interviews, teacher candidates mentioned that one down side of the NSTA LC was the cost for a year subscription. But as one teacher candidate said, “Textbooks are sometimes even pricier but with these articles you could save them. Every article I read I saved because I liked the activities that they had.”

The teacher candidates were required to use the Science Objects and SciPacks to learn science content new to them or review content that they were uncomfortable teaching. One goal of the online communities is to illustrate to them that the SciPacks could not only support their content background but usually contain a list of the most common alternative conceptions held by students thus supporting their lesson planning. At the beginning of the class the teacher candidates had voiced concern about not knowing their students’ alternative conceptions due to their own limited science background so this practice alleviated this concern. As one teacher candidate stated, “The articles were very practical and could be used directly in our classroom.  Science is the subject I am most hesitant to teach but the readings made me see how I could teach it.” Several teacher candidates mentioned that they would buy the subscription in future years so they could continue as a member of this community of practice as in-service teachers.

Elementary Teacher Candidates

Case 2

At one Texas university, the NSTA LC has been adopted as the textbook for the Elementary Science Methods course and has been used for the past five years. Teacher candidates have access to the LC during their final methods block of courses prior to student teaching and during student teaching the following semester. Teacher candidates seeking the elementary teaching credential (EC-6) are required to complete four courses in science that must include one course in introductory Biology, Physical Science and Earth Science in addition to pedagogical courses. Typically, teacher candidates seeking elementary certification enroll in science courses for non-science majors. As these are general science courses, there are no guarantees that these courses prepare future elementary teachers in the science content they will be required to teach their future students in the EC-6 classroom.

One of the goals of the course is to prepare teacher candidates to use assessment data to plan and deliver targeted instruction. On the first day of class, teacher candidates complete the latest released version of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness 5th grade science assessment to develop familiarity with the state assessment and to assess their understanding of the elementary science content they are accountable to teach upon completion of their degree.   Preservice teacher results on the 5th Grade STAAR (state level assessment in Texas) released assessments tend to be disappointing in spite of earning passing grades in the university level science courses. The disconnect between scores on the 5th grade STAAR is in part due to lack of alignment of university science courses that elementary teacher candidates complete and the content they will teach. This creates a dilemma for the science methods instructor. Should class time be utilized and designed to prepare elementary teacher candidates in PCK to remediate content knowledge or stay focused on pedagogy? Future teachers need to be prepared in both content and pedagogy. One without the other is problematic.

To address this issue, the teacher candidates analyze the results of their personal STAAR score. Questions on the released test are categorized by science discipline, and as a PLC they work together to identify the state standard and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) each item addresses (Texas Education Agency, 2017). During this process, teacher candidates identify their areas of science content weakness and complete the appropriate NSTA Indexer in the LC for each content area in need of further development. The course instructor identifies and suggests NSTA Professional Development Indexer assessments that align to the content subsections of the STAAR assessment to help guide teacher candidates. Table 2 shows the science content TEKS and the appropriate corresponding Indexer Assessment.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Relationship between TEKS and NSTA Indexers

Typically, teacher candidates complete 3-4 of the NSTA Indexer assessments as a result of the STAAR analysis. The number of Indexer assignments has ranged from 1 to 6, which depends upon their background content knowledge. For the purpose of this course, the teacher candidates were required to complete both the pre and posttests. While the STAAR was used due to contextual location of the university, the NSTA Indexer can be used nationally. Once teacher candidates complete their Indexer assessments, the methods professor works with each candidate to select up to two NSTA SciPacks to remediate their content knowledge in the targeted areas. SciPacks are online modules that are completed outside of class. On average, the teacher candidates improve their content scores on the NSTA Indexer by 40% when they take the posttest compared to the initial indexer score. Elementary teacher candidates have shared anecdotally that the SciPacks are very challenging. Using the Indexer and SciPacks allows the instructor to focus on PCK in class and improve teacher candidate content knowledge without sacrificing class time that is dedicated for pedagogy. The analysis of personal assessment data from an online science teacher site provided the scaffolding for these teacher candidates to become lifelong learners.

Case 3

In 2012, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction sent three representatives to Washington, DC to consult on the development of the Next Generation Science Standards. As representatives for one of the lead states for standards adoption (NGSS Lead States, 2013), the representatives were also charged with curricular development for K-12 science classrooms in North Carolina and by extension, science teacher education and professional development.  NGSS considers science learning within a 3-dimensional framework: disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts. Shortly thereafter in preparation for NGSS standards adoption, the elementary science methods course was reconceived, using the NSTA LC. The use of NSTA LC addressed a number of concerns.

The elementary undergraduate teacher candidates in the university’s programs are extremely diverse. They have attended all manner of public, private, parochial, and home schools. As a result, their level of science pedagogical understanding is not uniform. Before enrolling in the science methods course, all teacher candidates had to pass at least one college-level life science and one physical science course. Performing well in these courses provided no guarantee of attainment of the extensive science content needed to support K-6 science content knowledge.  These teacher candidates also take the NSTA Indexer, content pretest, as the first step in designing a self-study program that will fill the holes in each teacher candidates’ science content knowledge. Teacher candidates take the same Indexer posttest to determine how well they have developed their content knowledge through self-study over the semester.

The teacher candidates must contend with having to complete their studies in light of securing and sustaining employment, and using the NSTA LC allows them the course schedule flexibility to become a certified teacher. In other words, if they cannot work, they cannot complete their studies. For many, maintaining employment interferes with their studies. Using the NSTA LC allows the teacher candidates to continue to work on their classroom assignments in between their employment responsibilities. By being able to access their assignments using their e-textbook and having access to other preservice and inservice professionals, they can study, ask questions, and share their concerns without carrying heavy textbooks or waiting for office hours. The PLC emerged from the need to find a different pedagogical approach to science methods due to the personal nature of the candidates.

The University’s motto is, ‘Enter to learn, depart to serve.’ The responsibility to promote social justice and lifelong learning is palpable throughout the campus. The teacher candidates are required to buy access to their NSTA LC e-textbook for a year. This allows them to use this resource through their methods course and student teaching field experience in which they have time to strike up online discussions of national and regional social justice issues.

Course evaluations and online data about the teacher candidates’ usage of the NSTA LC indicated that teacher candidates who demonstrate the highest level of science efficacy, as measured by course grades and use of the online resources, were also the ones who have taken greatest advantage of participation in the online learning community. For example, several teacher candidates mentioned how they increased their excitement and comfort with searching for and learning about science content and science lessons. Those who have less science efficacy are reluctant to communicate and ask questions with practicing teachers in the online forums despite knowing its value. Data gathered through the NSTA LC administrator’s page, indicated that as science efficacy increased over the span of the science methods course, teacher candidates took advantage of the online science learning community. Since all teacher candidates were required to maintain an online ‘portfolio’ (Professional Development Indexer or Learning Plan), there was an increase in the amount of online artifacts (downloadable chapters, articles, lesson plans, podcasts, and videos) from the beginning of the year to the end.

The adoption of the NSTA LC supports teacher candidates to conceive science from a 3-dimensional, national perspective, rather than a 2-dimensional, state perspective. It allowed the diverse teacher candidates to personalize their learning of science content with the accessible 24/7 access to content, pedagogical strategies, and online discussions of various social justice issues. The improvement of lifelong learning through the use of an online professional development community requires continued study, but the outcomes are most promising.

Elementary and Middle Level Teacher Candidates

Case 4

In one university in Idaho, teacher candidates seeking an elementary (K-8) certification take one science methods course, typically at the junior or senior level, one or two semesters before they embark on their year-long field experience. Prior to taking this course, PSTs must have taken two natural science courses with labs (for a total of 8 credit hours); these prerequisites run the gamut from geosciences to astronomy and from biology to chemistry. On the first day of class, teacher candidates are asked to describe their feelings about teaching science at the elementary level. The responses are typically split evenly, with half providing some version of “scared” and half providing some version of “excited.” The case describes a journey into how the implementation of NSTA LC evolved over a year of teaching a science methods course.  The NSTA LC was first implemented into this elementary science methods course in the Spring of 2016 with three goals in mind: 1) to introduce teacher candidates to a supportive professional community; 2) to provide science content knowledge support when needed; and 3) to use practitioner articles to illustrate topics in the course.

As previously noted, the NSTA LC houses lesson plans, books and book chapters, and even opportunities for conferences and professional development. By introducing teacher candidates to the NSTA LC, the goal is to motivate them to find NSTA to be a useful resource and become a lifelong learner. These hopes seemed to bear out, as evidenced by the comments received from teacher candidates in course evaluations over five semesters that they appreciated the LC because they could keep documents in their library forever and refer back to them and the LC when teaching. One teacher candidate stated her appreciation of the resource by stating, “The NSTA LC had so many more resources and articles (written by a variety of authors) that we would not have read in a book,” while another teacher candidate said, “I like that I can keep this account and use the information in my own classroom.”

Given the wild variations in content knowledge encountered in the teacher candidates in the course, the implementation of the NSTA LC resources were used to immediately support teacher candidates in their science understandings for the course, and also demonstrate how one could use the LC to learn/review content for future teaching. Throughout the semester, the teacher candidates were required to complete three Science Objects that related to elementary science centers (Kittleson, Dresden, & Wenner, 2013) they taught during the semester. Unlike the case studies discussed above, candidates in this class were not required to complete the entire NSTA PD Indexer for the course, but rather strongly encouraged to complete this and ‘brush up’ on content prior to their science PRAXIS tests. Indeed, some candidates did recognize the usefulness of the LC in terms of boosting content knowledge that then enabled them to better structure their science centers, and by citing how it could support “individual learning” for the PRAXIS tests and in their careers. Beyond qualitative responses on course evaluations, downloaded statistics from each class cohort on the NSTA LC paint a promising picture: The majority of candidates downloaded at least ten Science Objects and SciPacks throughout their semester in the course. While downloading these resources does not necessarily mean that candidates completed/intend to complete them, anecdotally, teacher candidates shared that they often download the Science Objects and SciPacks as a preventative measure of sorts, thinking about what they may need to learn/review once they have their own classrooms. It is certainly encouraging that PSTs acknowledge they may have gaps in their content knowledge and see that the NSTA LC may be a way to help fill those future gaps.

The use of practitioner articles found in the NSTA LC brings the realities of science activity implementation into the classroom. The articles connect theory and practice and illustrate what elementary science can look like. On average, 30 NSTA practitioner journal articles (from Science and Children and Science Scope) are assigned for teacher candidates to read throughout the semester. These readings cover topics such as integrating the NGSS and Common Core State Standards (CCSS, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) , argumentation, science for all students, assessment, and engineering at the elementary level. Many teacher candidates commented on the usefulness of these articles, stating, “The articles that we read were beneficial and related to the discussions we had in the classroom,” and “I will refer back to all the articles when I am teaching.” And while the majority of articles downloaded by teacher candidates were the assigned readings, nearly all of them downloaded additional articles related to other assignments in the course (lesson plans, student misconceptions, etc.), indicating that teacher candidates found the articles to be useful resources. The ensuing discussions about content from the articles helped to establish an atmosphere of professional exchange of ideas to teaching science concepts that they intend to use well into their careers as lifelong learners.

Case 5

This elementary and middle level science methods course is taught at a university in the southeast. The course focuses on the PCK necessary to teach science, which includes science content knowledge and instructional strategies. Since the focus is on teacher candidates who will become certified to teach from grade 2 to 8, the focus is on general science pedagogy with content-specific examples so that activities and demonstrations can show the depth of concepts at different grade levels within the spiral curriculum. For example, two weeks are spent discussing misconceptions related to seasons and moon phases. The content is appropriate in that the activities relate the content at the fourth and eighth grade levels due to the science standards in the state. While discussing how to introduce and conduct activities, teachers need to know depth of knowledge so that they can address potential and real misconceptions. The teacher candidates must learn the content of why there are seasons and why there are different phases of the moon not just the facts of seasons and the names of phases of the moon.

The course emphasizes learning appropriate science content knowledge for specific lesson plans so that inappropriate activities and misconceptions are not taught. While the course grade and objectives cannot require the students to know all science content knowledge in the grade 2-8 standards, it is a learning outcome that the teacher candidates can research the content needed for that lesson plan. Reading book chapters and articles and communicating with classroom teachers in an online platform helped teacher candidates understand how to teach specific topics better as evidenced by their graded and implemented lesson plans over the course of the semester. The NSTA LC was chosen for its ease of use and type of activities that could be used by teacher candidates so that they could learn content, develop pedagogical skills, and participate in a community of teachers who share ideas.

The teacher candidates in the combined elementary and middle grades science methods course subscribe to the NSTA LC for six months. During this time period they download any content they feel they can and will use in the future. These downloaded resources are theirs for a lifetime. The NSTA LC is integrated into a project for integrating science content and pedagogy. The project requires the teacher candidates to take a pre-test exam, gather online resources from the site’s resources, complete mini-courses about the science topic, and complete a posttest after six weeks. While not part of the course grade, participating and engaging in the online professional discussions and posts is encouraged so that the teacher candidates learn to become part of an extended PLC. Besides the use of the NSTA LC as a project assignment, the website is used during normal instruction to show other possible activities, lesson plans, and explanations of concepts. The project and use of the NSTA LC is more of a self-guided endeavor because when they become classroom teachers they will have to learn more science content on their own and this is one effective method for doing it. Online learning of science content within a community of science teachers is how current teachers develop and grow the depth of their topic-specific PCK. This project and use of the NSTA LC allows teacher candidates to learn this process in a controlled environment in which the content is controlled and other professionals can assist in the learning to implement science content.

Concluding Thoughts

In summary, this article showcased multiple ways to use the online NSTA Learning Center as part of pK-8 science methods courses. The LC has been used as a method to learn topic-specific PCK in multiple contexts as well as an interactive tool for teacher candidates to investigate general pedagogy. In all of the cases there is anecdotal evidence concerning the effectiveness of using the LC either as an addition to one’s course or in lieu of the course textbook. However, as can be seen in a number of the cases the LC is not just a tool one can use in the science methods course but can become part of the teacher candidates’ journey as professional educators to become lifelong learners as they develop PCK. The authors feel that these benefits far outweigh the cost of the use of the LC and put the teacher candidates on the road to becoming highly efficient teachers of science. As one teacher candidate stated:

I found the resources provided for us….like we got NSTA. Most of those articles were pretty applicable. They had ideas you could use in your own classroom. It is so beneficial. It was pricey but it was worth it as we used it every week. The site had very valuable information that I would use in the future.

Part of establishing a community of lifelong learners is to develop the context in which teacher candidates can learn from multiple resources, participate in active dialogue about teaching and learning science, and develop appropriate lesson plans and activities using diverse sources of science content and pedagogy. The introduction and discussion of forming a community of lifelong learners necessitates the need for research to determine the benefits of using online, interactive, and collaborative sites in developing science teacher candidates. The idea and implementation of a single textbook and downloaded articles are gone. The new generation of teacher candidates need more dynamic and interactive methods for developing science content and pedagogy. Online sites for promoting lifelong learning of content, pedagogy, and PCK will become the standard in the near future.

Rigorous Investigations of Relevant Issues: A Professional Development Program for Supporting Teacher Design of Socio-Scientific Issue Units

Introduction

Socio-scientific issues (SSI) are complex problems with unclear solutions that have ties to science concepts and societal ideas (Sadler 2004). These complexities make SSI ideal contexts for meaningful science teaching and learning. The benefits of SSI instruction have been widely documented in science education literature and include gains in the understanding of science content (Klosterman and Sadler, 2010), scientific argumentation (Dawson and Venville, 2008; 2010), and epistemological beliefs about science (Eastwood, Sadler, Zeidler, Lewis, Amiri & Applebaum, 2012). Although the student benefits of SSI in the classroom have been established, there is a literature gap pertaining to teacher preparation and support for SSI teaching and learning, and the design of SSI units.

A few studies have characterized some challenges associated with SSI teaching in classroom contexts. When teachers included SSI in their classrooms, they used SSI as a way to get students interested in and motivated to learn a science topic, but they tended not to include ethical concerns or biases about the issue or the science, resulting in a lack of awareness of the interdependence between society and science (Ekborg, Ottander, Silfver, and Simon, 2012). Teachers also struggled to incorporate evidence and critical evaluation of evidence through media literacy and skepticism in their teaching about SSI and informed decision-making (Levinson, 2006). Even after a targeted intervention focusing on the social, moral, and ethical dimensions of issues, teachers struggled with effectively incorporating these dimensions in their classrooms (Gray and Bryce, 2006).

In order for successful and meaningful SSI incorporation in science classrooms, teachers need professional development (PD) experiences that scaffold their understanding of the complexities associated with SSI teaching and learning (Zeidler, 2014). Additionally, teachers need explicit examples of SSI teaching and learning to support their adoption of instructional techniques for incorporating new ideas in science classrooms, such as media literacy, informed decision-making, and highlighting social connections to an issue (Klosterman, Sadler, & Brown, 2012). As such, our team designed and implemented a PD program with explicit examples and design tools centered around our SSI Teaching and Learning framework. To support teacher learning about SSI teaching and learning, we engaged teachers in 1) SSI unit examples and experiences as learners; 2) explicit discussion and unpacking of the approach; and 3) designing in teams with active support from the research team. Our PD program supported teachers as they designed their own SSI units for classroom implementation with various tools developed by our team, including the SSI-TL framework, a framework enactment guide, the planning heuristic, an issue selection guide, and unit and lesson design templates. We describe our PD process for supporting in-service secondary biology, chemistry, and environmental science teachers as they learned about SSI instruction and co-designed their SSI units.

PD Audience & Goals

To ensure effective teacher participation in the PD program, we identified and invited 30 science teachers from diverse geographic locations throughout the state who met the following criteria:

  1. Currently teaching secondary biology, chemistry, or environmental science.
  2. Receptive to learning about socio-scientific issue instruction and curriculum design.
  3. Commitment to teacher learning and professional growth.

Eighteen teachers accepted our invitation to participate in the workshop. Participant teaching experience ranged from 1 to 32 years. Seven (39%) were early-career teachers with 1-5 years teaching experience. Five (28%) mid-career participants had taught for 6-10 years. The remaining six (33%) participants were veteran teachers with 10 or more years of teaching experience. Over half of the participants (55%) taught at schools within urban clusters as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, with populations of 2,500-50,000 people. Just over one fourth (28%) of participants taught in urbanized schools within cities of 50,000 or more people, and 17% of the teachers worked in rural districts.

Socio-scientific Issue Teaching and Learning Framework

Our research group has developed a framework for SSI teaching and learning (SSI-TL) for the purpose of designing SSI based science units (Figure 1). An overarching goal of SSI-TL is to provide students with a context for developing scientific literacy through engaging in informed and productive negotiation of complex societal and scientific issues. The SSI-TL framework is composed of three sections, the first of which is Encounter the Focal Issue. In this section, students encounter the SSI and make connections to the science ideas and societal concerns. In the second section of the model, where a majority of classroom activities take place, students Develop science ideas and practices and engage in socio-scientific reasoning (SSR; Sadler, Barabe, & Scott, 2007; Romine, Sadler, & Kinslow, 2017) in the context of the SSI. Learning activities in this section focus on science content embedded within opportunities to engage in science and engineering practices. In terms of focal practices, our group emphasizes modeling, argumentation, and computational thinking because of the potential for these practices to promote sense-making. To facilitate socio-scientific reasoning, we emphasize opportunities for learners to consider the issue from multiple stakeholder perspectives and to consider consequences of potential decisions and actions from a range of vantage points (e.g., economic, political, ethical, etc.). The last section of the SSI-TL framework calls for student Synthesis of ideas and practices and reasoning about the SSI through engaging in a culminating activity.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Socio-scientific issue teaching and learning (SSI-TL) framework.

The SSI-TL framework aligns with various essential learning outcomes, which include awareness and understanding of the focal issue, understanding of science ideas, competencies for science and engineering practices, and competencies for socio-scientific reasoning. As teachers utilize this model, they may choose to focus on various discretionary learning outcomes, such as competencies in media literacy, understanding of epistemology of science, competencies for engineering design, and interest in science and careers in STEM. We leveraged this SSI-TL framework during a series of PD sessions to support teachers as they designed SSI units for their classrooms.

The PD Process

An initial meeting of the teachers and our research group took place in December, 2015. At this brief meeting, the participating teachers and the research group members introduced themselves and discuss their interests and experiences regarding SSI teaching. We provided a brief overview of the PD program and our expectations for the participating teachers. The teachers were also given a brief overview of SSI teaching and learning to introduce them to examples of issues they would be choosing in their design teams.

A second full group meeting took place over two days in March, and a third meeting occurred over three days in June. These in-person meetings were used to engage teachers in SSI teaching and learning and to provide structured planning and design time with the help of the PD team. Initially, teachers were grouped by content and assigned a mentor from our research group to aid in SSI learning and the design process. Teachers then chose design partners from their content groups and worked in groups of two to three to design SSI units for their classrooms during and in between the formally organized meetings. To maintain communication between meetings, we used an online community to share content readings and exchange ideas. Teachers read two articles and responded to prompts by commenting on each post (Figure 2; Presley, Sickel, Muslu, Merle-Johnson, Witzig, Izci, and Sadler, 2013; Duncan, and Cavera, 2015). More reading resources can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/going-further/related-reading.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Reading response prompts.

Experiencing SSI & Examples

To familiarize teachers with SSI learning, we engaged them as learners in a portion of a fully developed SSI unit. The unit explored the issue of the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria with a focus on natural selection as science content and the practice of scientific modeling. The unit was developed for high school biology classes and had been implemented in several classrooms (Friedrichsen, Sadler, Graham & Brown, 2016). The learning experience was led by one of our teacher partners who had used the unit prior to the workshop. She introduced the issue as she did in class by having participants watch a selection from a video about a young girl who contracts methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). After being introduced to the issue, teachers engaged in a jigsaw activity in which each group was given a different source with information about MRSA to begin the discussion of credibility of different sources and the ways in which scientific information is used by different stakeholders interested in an issue. The groups read over their source and presented to the whole group. Sources included blog posts, a USA Today article, and Centers for Disease Control fact sheets. This activity was followed with a discussion of the different sources and their varying levels of credibility. After these learning activities, the teachers were given an overview of the full unit and shown student work samples, including student models of antibiotic resistance and natural selection, and synthesis projects which called for students to develop and advocate for a policy recommendation to stem the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The full antibiotic resistance SSI unit (Superbugs) can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/ri2modules/Superbugs/intro.

During the June meeting, teachers were provided with an overview of an SSI unit related to water quality that had been developed and implemented in a high school environmental science class. This unit focused on a local water resource issue with conceptual links to ecological interactions, nutrient cycling, and water systems. The scientific practices emphasized in the unit were modeling and argumentation. One of our team members who was the lead designer and teacher implementer of this unit led a presentation of an overview and key aspects of the unit. The full water quality unit (the Karst Connection) can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/ri2modules/The%20Karst%20Connection/intro.

Including SSI in science classrooms can be challenging because science teachers are often unfamiliar with or uncomfortable addressing the social connections to the issue. To help scaffold this addition to science curricula, we engaged the teachers as learners in an activity highlighting social and historical trends from an SSI unit related to nutrition and taxation of unhealthful foods (a so called “fat tax”). In this activity, groups of teachers were assigned different historical events that had to do with nutrition and nutrition guidelines. Each group investigated their event and wrote the key ideas on a sheet of paper. These papers were placed along a timeline at the front of the room (Figure 3). Each group shared out to the full group about their event, and as each group presented, they drew connections between historical events and nutrition guidelines of the time. For example, one event was a butter shortage, which resulted in the nutrition guidelines urging people to exclude butter from their diet. This activity allowed teachers to see and experience an example of making social connections to an issue while exploring how the social and science concepts impacted each other over time. The full description of this learning exercise can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/ri2modules/Fat%20Tax/intro.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Nutrition timeline activity.

Unpacking the SSI Approach

After experiencing SSI as learners in our March meetings, we introduced the teachers to the SSI-TL framework (Figure 1) with emphasis on the three main dimensions of the framework: Encounter the focal issue; Develop ideas, practices, and reasoning; and Synthesize. Using the antibiotic resistance unit as an example prior to introducing the framework allowed us to make connections between the framework and what they experienced as learners. Along with the framework, we introduced a framework enactment table, which depicts student and teacher roles and learning outcomes associated with each dimension of the framework. The enactment table allowed teachers to develop a more in-depth understanding of what each section of the framework entails. The framework enactment table can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/content/RI%C2%B2-Framework-Enactment.

Focus on NGSS Practices. At the time of the PD program, our state had recently adopted new science standards that are closely aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Like NGSS, the new state standards prioritize 3-dimentional (3D) science learning, which calls for integration of disciplinary core ideas (DCI), crosscutting concepts (CCC), and science and engineering practices. Due to the interwoven nature of the two, our team has chosen to combine CCCs and DCIs into a single construct of “science ideas”, as seen in the SSI-TL framework (Figure 1). There are eight science and engineering practices outlined in the NGSS, but our team has chosen to focus on a subset of practices: modeling, argumentation, and computational thinking. We chose these practices because they are high leverage practices, meaning that in order to engage in these practices at a deep level, the other practices, such as asking questions or constructing explanations, are being leveraged as well. For example, we posit that in order to create a detailed model, students engage in constructing explanations and analyzing and interpreting data. Our SSI-TL framework calls for 3D learning by engaging students in science ideas and high leverage science practices in the context of an SSI.

Because 3D science learning and practices were new to all of the teachers in the PD, our team offered breakout sessions focusing on a specific scientific practice: modeling, argumentation, or computational thinking. Teachers chose which of the three sessions to attend based on their interests and the practices they planned to feature in their own units. In each session, teachers were engaged in the practice as learners, and then were shown examples of student work pertaining to each practice. Examples were from prior unit implementations and depicted 3D learning through the incorporation of the science practice with science ideas. For example, in the computational thinking session, teachers were shown student generated algorithms of the process of translation, which incorporated computational thinking with the science ideas of protein synthesis. These practice-specific sessions allowed teachers to get an in-depth look at modeling, argumentation, and computational thinking in order to support the incorporation of high leverage practices into their SSI units.

Socio-scientific Reasoning & Culminating Activity. Socio-scientific reasoning (SSR) is a theoretical construct consisting of four competencies that are central to SSI negotiation and decision-making:

  1. Recognizing the inherent complexity of SSI.
  2. Examining issues from multiple perspectives.
  3. Appreciating that SSI are subject to ongoing inquiry.
  4. Exhibiting skepticism when presented potentially biased information (Sadler, Barab, and Scott, 2007).

SSR competencies are key to the SSI teaching and learning approach; therefore, we highlighted them in a demonstration and discussion during the PD. Teachers were introduced to the four SSR competencies, and they explored examples of activities designed to strengthen student SSR competencies. For example, engaging students in a jigsaw activity where they explore an issue from the perspectives of different stakeholders encourages students to engage in SSR because they deal with the complexity of the issue, bring up questions that remain unanswered, analyze information with skepticism about biases, and recognize the limitations of science pertaining to the issue. This session supported teachers in their understanding of SSR and provided them with multiple examples of how this construct can be used in the classroom within SSI contexts.

The culminating activity called for as a part of the Synthesis section of the SSI-TL framework was challenging for the teachers to conceptualize after the first PD session. To support teachers in their understanding of the culminating activity, we presented sample activities and student work from the units we previously developed and implemented. The goal of the culminating activity is to give students a final task where they can synthesize and reason through their ideas about the science behind the issue, the social connections to the issue, and the science practices employed in the unit. This session presented teachers with specific examples and ideas for culminating activities to be used in their SSI units. Teachers engaged in a jigsaw activity and each group examined a different culminating activity example and shared out to the whole group. Teachers discussed how they could alter activities for their classrooms and their units to support the inclusion of culminating projects in their SSI units. An example culminating activity can be accessed in “Lesson 6” at http://ri2.missouri.edu/ri2modules/The%20Vanishing%20Prairie/sequences.

In order to further support teachers as they designed their SSI units, we held a panel discussion where various members of our team (SSI unit designers and implementers) shared information about their units and experiences. In particular, panelists discussed the issue they chose and why they chose it, the science practices featured, and their culminating activities. After each panelist shared, the teachers asked questions about the units and experiences; they were particularly interested in hearing more details about ways in which SSR was incorporated in the units and the culminating activities. They also posed several questions about assessment generally and the scoring/grading of culminating activities more specifically. To further address these questions, we provided the teachers with samples of student work and a rubric that was used in one of our implementations for assessing the culminating activity. Through the various sessions and panel discussions, teachers were supported in their understanding of the overall SSI teaching and learning approach.

Teacher Work & Tools

As the teacher design teams worked through the PD program, the goal for each team was to develop a complete SSI unit ready for implementation in their classrooms. By the end of the June PD session, the expectation was for teams to have completed a unit outline and two lesson plans. The full units were due by the end of the summer. Teachers were responsible for choosing an issue, science ideas, and science practices for their units. In order to support teachers as they designed their unit overviews and lesson plans, we scaffolded their design process with various group techniques and planning tools as described in the following sections.

Group Work & Processes. Initially, teachers worked individually to brainstorm ideas for their units, including possible issues, science ideas, and relevant science practices. Teachers then presented their ideas within their content groups (i.e, biology, chemistry, and environmental science) in order to find shared interests. Based on these discussions, teachers formed design teams, which consisted of two or three teachers who worked together on the design of a unit for the upcoming school year. The composition of design teams ranged from groups with teachers from the same building to groups made up of teachers from different parts of the state.

Planning Heuristic. To scaffold the design process, our team introduced a Planning Heuristic: a table outlining a simplified process for beginning the design of an SSI unit. It describes design steps, products associated with each step, and examples of products from one of the units our team designed. For example, the first step of the heuristic is: explore possible issues, big ideas in science, and target practice(s). The products from this step are a large-scale issue, science themes and focal practices. Examples of these from one of our sample units are climate change as the issue, ecology as the science theme, and modeling as the focal practice. Teachers were encouraged to use the planning heuristic to aid them in their design process. The full Planning Heuristic can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/planning-heuristic.

Issue Selection Guide. Choosing an issue to center a unit around can be a daunting task. To support teachers in their issue selection, our team designed an Issue Selection Guide. Each design team worked through the guide resulting in narrowing their ideas about possible issues, and ultimately deciding on an issue. The guide poses several reflective questions about the issue to help teachers decide on the appropriateness of that issue. Prompting questions fall under three main questions: 1) Is the issue an SSI? 2) Is the issue a productive SSI for the intended audience? and 3) What instructional moves should be considered in presenting the issue? The Issue Selection Guide can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/issue-selection-guide.

Design Templates. To align teacher units with our example units for ease of planning and designing their units, we provided teachers with unit design templates. We provided teachers with a Unit Plan Template, which was used to outline the unit and the key ideas within the unit, such as science ideas, science practices, and the issue. We provided teachers with a Lesson Plan Template that presented a basic structure for each lesson, including time the lesson will take, goals for the lesson, lesson assessments, resources needed for the lesson, and an instructional sequence. These templates can be accessed at http://ri2.missouri.edu/templates.

Teacher Reactions & Feedback

The goal of producing SSI units was met because every design team was able to select an issue and complete design of a unit. Table 1 depicts the teams, the issue they selected, whether or not they completed their unit, and whether or not they implemented their unit in their classrooms the following year. Although implementing their units was not a requirement of the PD program, 12 out of 18 teachers implemented the units they designed in their respective classrooms. Six teachers did not implement their units for various reasons. The food additives, made of up a first and second year teacher, did not feel that their unit was far enough along in its development so they decided to wait until the following year to try it. A few of the other teachers experienced changes in their teaching assignments, which made implementation of their units difficult.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Design Team Products and Unit Details

Issue Selection Challenges

Interviews were conducted with all of the teachers after the final PD session in June. During these interviews, teachers were asked a series of questions about what they learned and the extent to which the developed tools helped them. Teachers identified the Issue Selection Guide as one of the most useful tools because it helped them narrow down their ideas about issues and allowed them to determine if it was appropriate for their unit. Multiple teachers said that selecting an issue was the most challenging aspect of designing their units:

“[We] had a real issue finding an issue, and [it] was difficult… I had a lot of ideas” (T2, June Interview).

“I had no idea what could be a social and science issue… I used the topic selection paper, that chart thing that you guys made to help work up to picking an issue after – I had a whole bunch of ideas storming around, and it helped me narrow it down and select one that would work for this unit.” (T3, June Interview).

The Issue Selection Guide was useful to the teachers who were struggling with selecting an issue because it helped them narrow their issue ideas and choose an issue that would fit the instructional needs of their classes.

The Value of Examples

When asked what the most valuable part of the PD was, teachers identified the SSI unit examples and experiences as the most helpful:

“Seeing the variety of lesson topics and ideas, working through some of the lessons.”

“The sample SSI units were very helpful in seeing [SSI] in action.”

“The parts of model lessons where we participated in the student portion of the lesson” (Teacher Responses, Anonymous Post Survey, June 2016).

Teachers found the explicit examples of SSI-TL implementation to be the most helpful when learning about SSI and designing their units, indicating that the PD design supported teacher engagement in SSI teaching and learning.

Lesson Planning Challenges

In addition to selecting an issue, teachers identified writing lesson plans as a challenge in their design process:

“I never actually had to sit down, and write a lesson plan before… so going through and planning something start to finish, is not something that I have had to do… that was a challenge for me” (T1, June Interview).

“[The] process of putting it [unit plan] together is a challenge. Because most of the time I just sort of do it internally, I don’t really write it down” (T4, June Interview).

Most of the teachers were experienced teachers, so they didn’t need to write out every lesson because they felt comfortable with what they were teaching and how they were going to teach it. Because the SSI teaching and learning approach was new to the teachers, we were explicit in the structure of these units. The provided unit plan and lesson templates helped the teachers work through a planning and documentation process that was more formal than most of the participants were used to, and it resulted in materials that could be shared with other teachers.

Increases in Comfort with SSI and Science Practices

Teachers also responded to a Likert scale survey before and after the PD with questions about their comfort in teaching SSI, designing SSI units, and utilizing science practices. Ten survey items yielded statistically significant increases from before the PD to after the PD (Table 2). The first two items deal with teachers’ abilities to teach SSI in the classrooms. After the PD more teachers agreed they knew enough about SSIs in their area to design instruction using them, indicating teachers felt more comfortable with SSI design after the PD. More teachers also agreed they were able to negotiate the use of SSIs in their classrooms when talking to community members and parents with concerns, indicating an increase in comfort level with using SSI in their classrooms. The remaining items related to the teachers’ comfort level with scientific practices. Teachers increased in their comfort with the scientific practices of modeling, explanations, argumentation, and evaluating information.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Survey Items with Statistically Significant Increases from Pre to Post PD

Conclusion

Teachers are important agents of change, and, given proper supports, they can successfully facilitate SSI learning experiences for their students. Before our work with this group of teachers began, our research team designed and implemented SSI units, and these results informed development of the SSI-TL framework. The SSI-TL framework has been helpful as we continue to design and structure new SSI units, so we made it a central aspect of the PD to guide what SSI teaching should entail. This framework and other tools were used to support teachers as they designed their own SSI units.

The PD employed a blended model of face-to-face meetings and communications with an online networking tool. During the PD we alternated among three sets of activities to support teachers: 1) SSI unit examples and experiences as learners; 2) explicit discussion and unpacking of the approach; and 3) design teams working together with active support from the research team. Throughout the PD we provided design supports with various tools developed by our team, including the SSI-TL framework, the framework enactment guide, the planning heuristic, the issue selection guide, and unit and lesson design templates. The PD was successful in that all groups designed SSI units, and many were able to implement in their classes. The teachers indicated the PD was effective from their perspective and they learned about issues and practices. Specific feedback around scaffolding tools we provided indicated the tools helped teachers navigate the design process.

As we consider ways of advancing this work, we are interested in exploring ways to work with school-based teacher professional learning communities (PLCs). Bringing together teachers from across widely varying school contexts and facilitating their work together was a challenge. We think that supporting communities of teachers familiar with the same local affordances and constraints may be a more effective way to bring about more lasting incorporation of SSI teaching into science classrooms. We are also interested in extending our investigations to learn more about the ways in which teachers implement their units. In the current project, we were able to elucidate some of the challenges teachers faced in designing SSI units (like selecting issues) and presented tools to help teachers navigate these challenges (e.g., the issue selection guide). We think that it would be a productive step for the SSI-TL agenda to do this same kind of work (understanding challenges and designing tools to address them) for implementation.

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange Revisited: Using Literacy Strategies to Support and Enhance Teacher Candidates’ Understanding of NOS

Introduction

It is more important than ever that teacher candidates have a clear understanding of why scientists do what they do and what science is all about. Science methods courses are opportunities to help students develop tools and skills to engage with and deepen their understanding of the nature of science (NOS), a necessary skill set for teaching at the elementary and secondary grade levels.  Dynamic activities, such as Cobern & Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange encourage teacher candidates’ inquiry, and critical thinking about NOS and the incorporation of cross-curricular literacy strategies promotes cooperative, collaborative interactions between students.

The consensus among science organizations is that developing an understanding of NOS should be one of the primary objectives of science teaching and learning. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993), National Research Council (NRC) (2013), National Science Foundation (NSF) (1996) and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) (2012) recognize that understanding NOS is as essential to student success in science as scientific knowledge and skills. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) (2008) has also called for the restructuring of teacher preparation programs to ensure science teachers are confident in both their science content knowledge and ability to engage students in the NOS.

Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange “works well,” explains Cobern (1991), “because it begins with students getting up, moving around, and talking to each other, things almost all students like to do” (p. 45). The card exchange is an engaging and non-threatening method of introducing NOS to teacher candidates.  It allows for students to reflect upon their conceptions of NOS that lead to both small group and class-wide discussion on NOS.

Teacher candidates have commented that the card exchange was not only fun but also gave them a better understanding of how and why we do science. Students comments on the card exchange noted the activity broadened their perception of science, enhanced their ideas about science, and increased their appreciation the role of philosophy in science. They have also reported increased confidence and science teacher self-efficacy. However, despite enjoying the overall experience and providing positive reviews about the card exchange, some teacher candidates have had difficulty with the vocabulary and card statements used during the exchange.

This article explores how integrating simple, constructivist cross-curricular vocabulary and literacy instructional strategies teacher candidates needed tools and skills to engage with Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange.  It also describes the integration of simple, yet powerful, vocabulary and literacy instructional strategies. The incorporation of dynamic literacy strategies encouraged students’ inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills and has transformed the card exchange into a broader and more impactful activity for teacher candidates.

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange

The game is run as described by Cobern and Loving (1998) with some minor changes. While Cobern and Loving (1998) describe running the card exchange in classes of 30 to 40 students, I run it in classes of 15 to 25 students with each student receiving six cards.  I have also taken to numbering the cards and card statement categories consecutively.

Cobern and Loving’s (1998) process takes students from an internal dialogue on the card statements towards building group consensus (first in groups of two and then in groups of four) and finally a whole class discussion. The overall structure of the exchange allows students to debate the merits of some statements over others and share their thoughts on statements with others in the class.

1) Six to eight cards are distributed randomly to students.  They have 5 minutes to read their cards and think about what the statements mean and rank their cards from their most to least favorite statement.

2) Stage I (10 minutes): Students trade cards (one-for-one) with each other to try to improve their hands.  Their goal is to gain more cards with which they agree while discarding cards they do not like.

3) Stage II (10 minutes): Students pair up and compromise to reach eight cards on which both can agree.  During this process, students must contribute at least three of their cards.  Students return extra cards to the instructor.

4) Stage III (15 minutes): Students form groups of four, (two pairs) and compromise to reach a total of eight cards on which all four students can agree.  During this process, each pair must contribute at least three of their cards.  Students return extra cards to the instructor.  Students then rank the cards in order of importance and write a paragraph statement answering the question “What is Science?” based on their cards.

At the conclusion of the game, groups share their statements aloud and other groups comment.  What follows is a discussion as to why a group chose some cards and rejected others and cross-group discussion.  Students debate the merits of some statements over others and share their thoughts on statements with which they agreed but were not chosen by the group and vice versa. Additionally, Clough (2011) suggests questions relating NOS and science education such as “how does the work of [insert scientist(s)] illustrate that data does not tell scientists what to think, but instead that creativity is part of making sense of data?” (p. 58) that can be used to create classroom discussion and debate.

Card categories and statements of their meanings are revealed at the conclusion of the activity as part of an overall group discussion on NOS. This revelation has led to exciting student insights into biases that exist concerning NOS and individual versus group preferences for statements during the card exchange activity. Finally, I allow time to address questions and comments students might have about the game or NOS in general.

Reflections on The Card Exchange

During the card exchange, teacher candidates often experienced difficulties with the vocabulary and the wording of card statements.  The students’ inability to unpack the meaning of the cards in the time allotted prevented the game from flowing the way it was supposed.

While not technical, the card statements can be confusing. Students found the concepts described in non-technical and procedural vocabulary on the cards to be abstract and lacking in contextual detail. The words and phrases “operate with expectations,” “strive,” “refined,” “logical construct,” “dogmatic,” “pragmatic,” “social negotiations,” “Nature has nothing to say on its own behalf,” and “infallible propositions” on cards 1, 2, 5, 12, 31, and 38 respectively were sources of confusion and frustration for some students. The dense wording on some cards also proved to be a source of student frustration. On more than one occasion, after I explained a card statement, students responded “Well why doesn’t it just say that!” or “Why do they have to use all these big words?  Why can’t they just say what they mean?”

One of the factors that make the card exchange work is the pace. Momentum builds throughout the game as students move from working individually to pairs to groups of four and finally to the broad class discussion. This pacing gets lost when the game is put on hold to address vocabulary and phrasing of the statements. These types of discussions are still teachable moments and can improve student literacy and can eventually lead to a better understanding of NOS. However, valuable class time was spent defining terms and unpacking the meanings of card statements instead of thinking about and discussing the statements to advance their understanding of NOS. What should be an exciting experience becomes frustrating to students and teachers and a tool that can help gain a better understanding of NOS is ignored and discarded.

Literacy Strategies for NOS Learning

The adoption of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is changing the way teachers and students approach and engage in science content through crosscutting concepts that connect core ideas in different disciplines.  It is also, to a certain extent, changing the language that teachers are using.  Science already relies heavily on the use of specific vocabulary.  Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) note “a pressing need for all students to master the academic language and vocabulary” (p. 252).  This includes science-specific technical terminology (e.g., ‘photosynthesis’), non-technical vocabulary (e.g., ‘component’), procedural/signal vocabulary and general academic vocabulary (e.g., ‘the result of’) (Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017; Harmon, Hedrick, & Wood, 2005; Taboada, 2012).

Researchers such as Miller, Scott, and McTigue (2016), Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), and Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2016) believe literacy activities and strategies aid to encourage students’ interest, inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving in disciplines such as science. Reading and language ability has been shown to be factors that impact student achievement in science (Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2016; Taboada, 2012).  Like my students, Collier, Burston, and Rhodes (2016) have noted that science-specific vocabulary is akin to learning a second, or for some students a third, language.

Integration, repetition, meaningful use (Nagy, 1988; Nagy & Townsend, 2012) and scaffolding (Jung & Brown, 2016; Van Laere, Aesaert, & van Braak, 2014) can be applied to the Card Exchange to support student achievement in both literacy and NOS. Research by Harmon et al. (2005) describes independent reading, providing context, student self-selection of terms, and teaching targeted vocabulary words as strategies that support students struggling with the science-specific academic language.

The literacy strategies implemented in the NOS statement review for the Card Exchange promote cooperative, collaborative interactions among students.  The idea is to generate a more authentic form of hands-on and student-centered instruction, along with the possibility for a more meaningful, genuine, and personal kind of learning. Additionally, integrating literacy strategies with science concepts demonstrates how to integrate seemingly content-specific learning strategies across the curriculum (Moje, 2008).

Both the expansion from a one to three-week activity and introduction of the statements prior the card exchange game uses the principle of repetition – providing multiple exposures to targeted terms. “While this practice may seem obvious, it is an essential one, especially for those readers who need more time and repetition to learn key vocabulary than other students” (Harmon et al., 2005, p. 276). Rather than pre-teaching the statements, this solution offers students the opportunity to highlight, draw attention to, and then discuss difficult terms.

The structure of NOS statement review also utilizes the principle of meaningful use.  Students engage in individual reflective thought followed by small group and class-wide discussion of card statements. The students’ active involvement in this process, particularly their thinking about and discussing word meanings and using the new words meaningfully, leads to more learning and deeper processing of the underlying concepts of the card statements (Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017; Nagy, 1988).  Talking about ideas and concepts in a text can improve vocabulary, academic language development, helps students make sense of their thinking, and can foster academic language development.

The long-term goal is for students to learn science-specific technical vocabulary and integrate new words into their vocabulary. However, before the integration of unfamiliar words and phrases, it is necessary to scaffold science-specific academic language by presenting targeted terms in a way that is more familiar and contextual to students (Ardasheva, Norton-Meier, & Hand, 2015; Jung & Brown, 2016; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012; Vacca et al., 2016).

The NOS Statement Review

The NOS statement review gives students time to examine the statements individually, think about their meanings, self-identify words and phrases they find confusing, and discuss the statements in small groups and later as a class. Early introduction of the statements makes use of ‘powerful’ vocabulary instruction principles such repetition and meaningful (Nagy, 1988).  Additionally, the transformation of the Card Exchange from a once-and-done activity to a multi-class exercise encourages both independent reading and learning by allowing students to self-select words and phrases (Harmon et al., 2005).

The overall goal of the NOS statement review is threefold: 1) to help students unpack the card statements and gain a better understanding of their meanings, 2) the come to class-wide understandings on the meanings of the different statements, which could include rephrasing, and 3) to prepare students to participate in the Card Exchange activity.

The review is run in four phases over two class periods and mirrors the structure of the Card Exchange, which is run during the next class following the review.  During phase 1, students receive a graphic organizer (see Figure 1) with card statements from each of the card topic categories as a homework assignment at least two weeks ahead of the card exchange activity. The graphic organizer has the prompts “What do you think this statement means?” and “What word(s) or phrase(s) do you find confusing?”  Assigning it as homework allows students to read and reflect on their particular statements at their own pace. As students read through the cards, they are encouraged to answer the prompts and to circle or underline parts of the card statements (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Graphic organizer for students with assortment of card statements and reflective prompts.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Student work sample.

Phases two through four occur during the following class.  During phase two, students use their completed graphic organizers and are given ten to fifteen minutes to have several small group discussions.  First, they are grouped (two to three students) based on the number in the upper right-hand corner of their worksheets. This ensures that students with the same card statements have the opportunity to share their thoughts and comments with classmates that read and reflected on the same statements.

Phase three involves students moving around and meeting with classmates who were assigned different card statements.  Students have ten to fifteen minutes and can meet one-on-one or in small groups of no more than four students.  The groups must consist of students with different card statements, and each member of the group must have the opportunity to share.

As the instructor, both phases two and three are opportunities to circulate work with students individually or within the small groups.  It is a time to listen to student conversations, ask guiding questions, address individual concerns and questions.

During the fourth phase of the NOS statement review, all of the students come together to engage in a class review and discussion. Students receive a second worksheet (see Appendix) with all of the card statements and students are invited to share their respective statements with the entire class.  Cross-group discussion is encouraged with the instructor as moderator.

At the conclusion of the NOS statement review, we try to come to some understandings about specific terms used in the card statements and what they mean in and out of science.  Sometimes the discussion involves the rewording of a statement.  For example, in one class statement 12 (see Appendix) was reworded to read “Science is never opinionated; it is practical and open-minded – always subject to adjustment in the light of solid, new observations.” In another class, statement 32 (see Appendix) was reworded to say “When scientists work together they can be influenced by each other.  Therefore, it can be hard to identify alternative ways of thinking.” Finally, students are then encouraged, but not mandated, to look over all the statements before the card exchange activity during the next class (week 3).

Discussion

Introducing and discussing NOS is still tricky and finding active methods to engage students in NOS discussion can be a challenge.  Herman, Clough, and Olson (2013) lament that “much is understood about effective NOS teaching and learning, but while the phrase nature of science is widely recognized by science teachers, accurate and effective NOS instruction is still not widespread” (p. 2). Since language ability is quickly being recognized by both NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012) and NGSS (2013) as a critical component of student success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) the integration of literacy strategies can help address both NOS and literacy skills for students of all ages.  Integrating simple, yet effective, literacy strategies in the form of a NOS statement review before Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange transforms the activity into one that emphasizes both NOS and literacy skills.

Early Introduction: A Double-Edged Sword?

The introduction and repetition of the card statements benefit students by providing them with time to reflect upon and discuss the meanings of the NOS statements.  However, there was a fear that a review could take away from the trading aspect of the game. By reading, reflecting, and discussing the statements, students could have already made up their minds about the statements before the actual activity.

Since implementing the NOS statement review, I have asked students to provide feedback on whether the review enhanced or took away from the Card Exchange.  Students (n = 64) were asked to fill out a short online survey at the conclusion of the card exchange that asked them to rate two statements about the NOS statement review and card exchange on a four-point Likert-like scale (1 = strongly disagree:4 = strongly agree).  The voluntary survey has an average response rate of 87.7%. In response to the statement “Reading, reviewing, and discussing the card statements ahead of the card exchange enhanced the card exchange game” 81.8% responded that they “strongly agree.” Conversely, 78.2% “strongly disagreed” that reading, reviewing, and discussing the card statements “took away” from the card exchange game.

One of the more difficult aspects of the NOS statement review, mainly during phases three and four, was keeping students focused.  During both small group and class-wide discussion, students kept veering away from focusing on the meanings of the statements instead wanting to debate the merits of the statements.  While appreciating their enthusiasm, they were reminded throughout these phases that they would have the opportunity to debate the merits of the statements and whether they agreed or disagreed with them, during the Card Exchange.

Conclusion

The importance of understanding NOS is important to the science and science education community.  However, there is still a need to find interesting and exciting methods of engaging teacher candidates as well as elementary and secondary students in discussions about NOS. Cobern (1991) concluded his original article stressing the card exchange activity’s effectiveness at hooking his students into discussing and considering NOS – a subject, according to him, they had previously avoided. Speaking about science teacher candidates, he noted that the card exchange “capitalizes on the innate gregariousness of students and the diversity of opinion among students” (p. 46) and stressed the need for “creative instructional strategies” for NOS instruction to be effective.

Despite the issues cited earlier with vocabulary and phrasing, the Card Exchange is still a creative and effective introductory NOS activity for both elementary and secondary teacher candidates.  Integrating cross-curricular literacy strategies, such as a NOS statement review, enhances the Card Exchange without taking away from the initial focus of the Card Exchange activity. Instead, it creates a deeper more meaningful learning experience for students.

Personal Science Story Podcasts: Enhancing Literacy and Science Content

Introduction

I think my science teaching methods courses must feel like “drinking from a fire hose” for teacher candidates at times. These preservice teachers are often balancing a full course load, a field placement, and a job or two; meanwhile, I am trying to give them opportunities to practice teaching science as inquiry, when they might still be struggling with their own grasp of the science content. Many of the elementary preservice teachers in my methods classes struggle to see the connection between their lives and science. On the other hand, many of the secondary preservice teachers in science methods classes struggle with the need to teach literacy while they teach science. One assignment that has given me an opportunity to enhance these connections– between students and teachers’ lived experiences and science, and literacy, and between themselves– is the personal science story podcast. This assignment can be used with elementary or secondary preservice teachers, and a modified version is available for students.

Stories are “at the heart of how we make meaning of our experiences of the world” (Huber et al., 2013, p.214). As a teacher explains in Lisa Delpit’s (2005) Other People’s Children, “teaching is all about telling a story. You have to get to know kids so you’ll know how to tell the story…” (p. 120). The stories we tell can show others who we are and what we value, and giving our students opportunities to tell their own stories shows them that we value them and their stories, and that we want to learn more. In modeling teaching methods for my preservice teachers, I seek to show them that their stories matter, so that they may do the same for their own students. First, however, I need to help them figure out how to tell their stories, and why their stories are worth sharing. The stories come first, and then they connect the science.

Digital Storytelling

Digital storytelling is the process of using multimedia to tell a story, and is used in many different fields, including education, public health, and law. As Dip (2014) wrote, digital storytelling is useful for “giving a voice to the vulnerable and enabling their story to be told,” (p 30). In science methods courses, we seek to empower our teacher candidates to share their lived experiences and seek to learn from others’ experiences. As a way of learning about teacher candidates, modeling methods by which these candidates can learn about their own students, and giving candidates an opportunity to practice connecting science to a real-life context, I designed the personal science podcast assignment. In collaboration with other methods colleagues, I have used the assignment with both preservice elementary and secondary teachers. These teacher candidates have used the assignment to reflect on their connections to science, and how they use language with their students (Frisch, Cone, and Callahan, 2017).

Engaging in the process of creating a digital story can help students collect information, organize their conceptions, and become more motivated to learn (Burmark, 2004; Hung, Hwang & Huang, 2012; Robin, 2008). Much of the research on digital storytelling includes an approach of integrating photos, videos, and other images along with audio narration to tell a personal story (e.g., Couldry, 2008; Robin, 2008), and the approach detailed in this paper has a primary focus on the audio narration. This focus was intentional: observations during other technology-related studies have provided evidence that students spend a great deal of time and effort on finding and editing the “perfect” image when presented with a digital storytelling assignment, and writing the script and polishing the narration were given much less attention. One focus of this assignment is to encourage teacher candidates to think about the language they use: written and spoken. This led to the podcast vehicle to frame the assignment. Despite the auditory focus, the assignment can still be placed under the umbrella of digital storytelling because it includes each of the seven “elements of digital storytelling” (Lambert, 2002): point of view, dramatic question, emotional content, gift of your voice, pacing, soundtrack, and economy.

To frame lessons in methods courses, we refer to Social Justice Standards developed by Tolerance.org and based on Derman-Sparks’ (1989) four goals for anti-bias education: identity, diversity, justice, and action. The personal science story podcast assignment provides teacher candidates an opportunity to engage with and reflect on the domains of identify and diversity as they relate to science teaching. The digital storytelling skills of remembering, creating, connecting, and sharing are interwoven within the assignment, and each of these practices can help teacher candidates deepen their understanding of their own cultures and identities as well as give them an opportunity to learn about and show respect for the stories of others (Willox, Harper, & Edge, 2012).

Academic Language

Much as teacher candidates feel time pressure to “cover” large amounts of science content when they teach, those of us who teach science methods courses feel pressure to discuss a wide variety of topics in a limited amount of time. My own efforts to meet teacher preparation standards and make sure that my candidates are equipped with a wide variety of research-based best practices for teaching science inquiry has sometimes meant that I have not given my candidates much of an opportunity to think about how they will support science literacy and language development in their classrooms. The widely-used teacher candidate assessment, edTPA, as well as efforts to give teacher candidates more tools to support English Learners in science classrooms, have made me more aware of the need to provide opportunities to think about academic language and science literacy.

We want our teacher candidates to feel prepared to let their students do science; equally important is that they are ready to support their students in writing, reading, speaking, and listening to science talk (Pearson, Moje, and Greenleaf, 2010; Silva, Weinburgh, and Smith, 2013). Science reform efforts can sometimes result in a de-emphasis of these literacy skills, but reading and writing about science does not have to mean less time for inquiry. The type of science inquiry that involves doing science– making predictions, designing investigations, and collecting and analyzing evidence—can be enhanced by conceptualizing science literacy as a form of inquiry (Pearson et al., 2010). The process of composing an appropriate, science-based question to ask and reading through and paraphrasing science texts and journals to communicate what is already known about the answer can be thought of as components of science inquiry (Frisch, Jackson, and Murray, 2017).

Academic language includes both the vocabulary and the syntax that we use primarily in a school-based setting, rather than conversational language. Scientific language is not the same as academic language, though there is some overlap in that both forms of communication require formality, conciseness, and a “high density of information-bearing words” (Snow, 2010, p. 450). Preservice teachers initially focus on these information-bearing words—the vocabulary of science—rather than on the words and concepts that are still academic in nature but not strictly science-based. For example, teacher candidates might make the assumption that their students already understand the difference between “analyze” and “interpret” rather than explicitly teaching these ideas. By giving teacher candidates a chance to analyze their own language use, both academic and conversational, we can model the process of explicitly teaching academic words and skills like “analyze” and how analyzing data is different from simply displaying data. The language analysis component of this assignment supports this kind of reflection.

Teacher-created podcasts are one way to use the assignment; once created, teacher candidates can use the podcasts with their students. Audio podcasts can be an effective way to reinforce academic language, both in terms of vocabulary and in language function and fluency. Putman and Kingsley (2009) found that fifth-graders who used teacher-prepared podcasts that focused on science vocabulary performed significantly better on vocabulary tests than students who received classroom instruction alone. Student responses indicated that students both enjoyed the podcasts and found them helpful in terms of reviewing words they had forgotten. Borgia (2009) found that fifth-grade students who were given access to teacher-created podcasts as a supplementary tool were able to increase their vocabulary retention.

An extension of the assignment, in which teacher candidates give their own students opportunities to create podcasts, has the potential to be even more powerful, both for learning language and inquiry. Dong (2002) observed that effective biology teachers provide English Learners (ELs) with assignments that offer authentic practice in speaking, reading and writing in the context of biology learning, and this additional practice (especially if done in groups) can reduce speaking anxiety and enhance students’ ability to communicate about science. Another goal of the assignment is to give teacher candidates skill in creating the kind of podcast that can enhance understanding of both scientific and academic language, and to gain self-efficacy in supporting their students to make literacy gains.

In this podcasting assignment, teacher candidates are encouraged to use their own language, in the context of their own stories. We want to value the story as we value the person that tells it (Hendry, 2007). Transitioning between the conversational and the academic in a podcast requires a kind of code switching, and teacher candidates can use this assignment to reflect on different uses of spoken and written language, how they are useful, and what they might miss. The process of using the kind of “real life” language to think about more academic topics can be useful to help students increase understanding and skill in how they use language (Amicucci, 2014), and possibly how they go on to teach language use.

Procedure for Facilitating the Personal Science Story Podcast

Engage: Listen to Some Podcasts

To introduce the assignment to the audience (whether that audience is teachers, teacher candidates, or K-12 students), engage them by giving them an opportunity to listen to an example personal science story podcast. I have produced two podcasts to use as examples: one is 5 minutes (http://bit.ly/ISTE_worms) and another is 10 minutes (http://bit.ly/ISTE_helicopter). These examples are available on SoundCloud for public use, and the accompanying teachers’ guides (discussed later) and podcasting resources are available on this website: http://storiesandatoms.weebly.com. Each semester, we ask our teacher candidates for permission to post their podcasts on the SoundCloud channel, and we now have several other example podcasts available with permission (https://soundcloud.com/jennifer-frisch).

Another option is to share episodes from The Story Collider (http://www.storycollider.org/podcasts/), a podcast that allows scientists to share personal experience stories and connect these back to science. We note, however, that this podcast series was designed for adult audiences, and as such, some episodes are labeled “explicit” (usually for language and sometimes content). StoryCorps is another podcast that can be used in a variety of ways with students or teachers to demonstrate the idea of personal story podcasts; it uses an interview format to tell stories, and there are some examples of stories that reflect on personal science as well.

Explore: The Story Circle

The “story circle” is a small group discussion in which students share ideas for their stories, listen to other students’ stories, and provide constructive criticism. When we started doing this assignment, we noticed that many of our teacher candidates (particularly elementary preservice candidates) were struggling with connecting their real lives to science, and their stories started out either heavily expository (explaining a science concept in somewhat stilted language) or without any connections to science (e.g., a personal story without explicit connections to science concepts). Using a structured story circle early in the process has helped strengthen both the science and the narratives in candidates’ story podcasts, while also increasing their collaboration skills and sense of their class as a scientific community.

Students come prepared to participate in the story circle by bringing two ideas for stories from their lives that they want to tell; encouraging candidates to think of a story or stories that tell the audience something about their identity (who they are as a person, where they come from) can be helpful. Some prompts from the “Digital Storytelling Cookbook” (Lambert, 2010) may be provided for those students that are struggling to think of a story. Although students can write down some notes if they wish, the objective is to have them tell the stories, briefly, in a conversational tone to the group. For example, a teacher candidate participated in the story circle by saying, “I was thinking about two different things, but I’m not sure. One story was about this time when I got sleep paralysis, but then I have another story when I broke my arm falling out of a tree.” The other participant-listeners in the story circle then asked questions about the stories, helping her to tell a little more about each incident, and giving her feedback on which story they wanted to hear more about. As a natural part of these discussions, other candidates started coming up with ideas about the science concepts that might be connected with each story.

An important rule of the story circle is that each participant comes prepared to listen to colleagues’ stories and ask respectful questions. A facilitator should be present in the story circle to help remind participants to be respectful of others’ stories and work, and be receptive to suggestions of others. The guidelines posted by Roadside Theater found at https://roadside.org/asset/story-circle-guidelines?unit=117 (Roadside Theater, 2016) can be helpful to review with students before the circle begins.

After participating in the story circle, teacher candidates begin writing the script for their story. Although this process should be iterative, with opportunities for feedback and revision, some teacher candidates may need some initial support in constructing the backbone of their stories. To this end, one could use Ohler’s expansion of Dillingham’s (2001) “Visual Portrait of a Story” (Ohler, 2013; also available online at http://www.jasonohler.com/pdfs/VPS.pdf). The Visual Portrait of a Story diagram can help the writer map out her story’s problem, conflict, and conclusion. For some students, having this structure in place will lead to writing a full draft of the story, but others will prefer to begin working on the science portion before fleshing out the rest of the story.

Explain: Researching the Science

Once students have begun to map out the general structure of their stories, the next step is to decide on a science concept they would like to research and connect to the story. This step typically comes much easier for secondary science teacher candidates and those elementary candidates who are already enthusiastic about science content: in fact, these candidates often have to be cautioned to focus on just ONE science concept to connect to their story, rather than turning their podcast into a lecture on the science concepts and their connections. I reinforce the idea that the language function for the podcast is primarily to ENGAGE the audience, and secondarily to EXPLAIN the science. This reminder serves several functions: 1) to help explain and reinforce the idea of language function; 2) to help students who might be more inclined to write more exposition remember that an engaging story is the more important part of the podcast; and 3) to reassure those students who do not have strong self-efficacy in their own abilities to learn and explain science that the personal story itself is valuable and important.

Teacher candidates identify one or two ideas that their story makes them wonder about. I ask the teacher candidates to stretch themselves and think about a connection they would like to learn more about, rather than a science concept that they already feel comfortable explaining. For example, if a teacher candidate has decided to tell a story about how she broke her arm, she might feel comfortable relating that story to a description of the names and sizes the bones in the arm. With some guidance, an instructor could help her think of some connections that she will have to do some research to answer: how much force would have to be applied to break a bone? How do bones repair themselves? The focus of this part of the assignment is on questioning: find a question you want to know more about, and then research the answer to the question. This is a good time to discuss (or review) the difference between science questions that can/should be answered using experimentation and science questions that are better answered with library-based research.

During this part of the project, talk about how to identify valid and reliable internet sources to help with research, and how to cite sources appropriately. As the candidates conduct their research, they often find more information than they need to answer their question. The next step is to add the science to the story podcast script. Examine the Next Generation Science Standards and identify standards that fit the science focus– these could be disciplinary content standards, science and engineering practices, or integration. Then the candidates can do their research on the science ideas, and work on putting their findings into appropriate language for the grade level band(s) they are targeting. At this stage it is helpful to reinforce the idea that the primary language function for the podcast is to engage the audience. Although we want the science concept to be well-connected to the story, the podcast story itself will only introduce the concept, and the Teachers’ Guide will expand on the concept.

Elaborate: Language Analysis, Justification, and Teachers’ Guide

After teacher candidates have revised their podcast script to include both the story and the science, they analyze the language in their script in two ways: 1) they examine the vocabulary present in the script, and 2) they examine the reading level of their script.

The academic vocabulary is analyzed using AntWordProfiler (Anthony, 2014), an open-source program that is available for free at (http://www.laurenceanthony.net/). Students input their script as a text file, and the output is color-coded (Figure 1), showing the number and percentage of words that are Level 1, or in the first 1000 most common words (red font color) in the English language according to the General Service List (GSL, West & West, 1953); Level 2 words, or the second 1000 most common words (green font color) from the GSL, Level 3 words (blue font color), or words on the Academic Word List (AWL, Coxhead, 2000); and Level 0 words (black font color), which are not found on any of previously mentioned lists. AntWordProfiler also allows you to program your own lists of words, so if an instructor or candidate would like to target Dolch words or words from a particular science language list, that can also be done. A ten-minute script is short enough that we can ask teacher candidates to look through the words identified as “level 0” and select those words that they feel would be classified as “scientific” for the analysis (other “level 0” words could be proper names, slang, misspelled words, or other uncommon words: candidates have to determine which words they think are “scientific” and justify their responses).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample output from the AntWord Profiler (Anderson, 2014) program after teacher candidate input her draft script.

The next part of the analysis uses readability-score.com to gather data on the readability of the script. Teacher candidates can copy and paste their text into the site (the free version will analyze the full text of a ten-minute podcast script, but one can only enter three files a day for free). The output includes readability grade level scores including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Gunning-Fog score, Coleman-Liau Index, SMOG index, Automated Readability Index, and an “average grade level” that takes each of the above indices into account. The site also provides assessment of text quality, syllable counts, adverb counts, and reading and speaking time (Figure 2). Although I note that students can often hear and understand text at a higher level than they can write or read, this step is helpful to get candidates thinking about some of their assumptions about what level of language they are using with students; secondary teacher candidates, in particular, often assume that students will understand complex words even if they are English Learners. The language analysis worksheet (Appendix A in the Appendices) guides teacher candidates in reflecting on the extent to which this language-based evidence reflects the grade level they are targeting with their podcast, and justify whether they think they should change some of their language. One goal of this portion of the project is both to get our teacher candidates to reflect on how they use language and to model the process of analyzing data and justifying reasoning. In this case, the data is in the form of the information provided by the software: percentage of words at each level, readability scores based on different criteria, text quality and syllable counts. Based on these data, candidates make decisions while editing their script, and they must also justify their decisions using data. For example, a candidate that noticed that her script had 6 sentences in passive voice and 27 sentences with more than 20 syllabus decided to re-write all sentences to be in active voice and break up her long sentences to make the language both stronger and more accessible to her target group of students. Making and justifying decisions based on data are skills we are also trying to teach candidates to support in their students.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample output from the readability-score.com website after candidate submits the text of a draft of her planned story.

The Teachers’ Guide is an extension of the podcast for teacher candidates. While the audience for the podcast should be a class of students, the audience for the Teachers’ Guide is the students’ instructor. If the podcast is used as an “Engage” activity, the Teacher’s Guide can guide the “explore,” “explain,” and/or “elaborate” portions of a lesson: it provides a teacher with activities connected to the concept (explore) that students could do as well as background information about the concept (explain). Throughout the methods course, candidates have been practicing how to teach science by incorporating aspects of the Essential Features of Inquiry, and this framework is used to guide candidates in creating or adapting an appropriate activity for students that could connect science concepts with their story. Additional guidance provided to preservice teachers through the course includes practice with language supports such as graphic organizers, sentence starters, and sentence frames that could be used to enhance their students’ developing science literacy. While developing their Teachers’ Guides, candidates apply their skills in planning both inquiry-based activities that allow students to collect and make sense of data and language supports in the context of their science story. Required components in the teachers’ guide include connections to Next Generation Science Standards, background and supplemental information on the science concept, vocabulary with definitions, and activities that could be used to allow students to explore and expand on the concept by collecting and/or analyzing data. Teacher candidates are asked to cite sources they used for enhancing their own understanding of the concept and any sources they used to develop the activities.

Evaluate: Assessment

For the final step in the project, candidates will record, edit, and ‘produce’ their podcasts, including (creative commons) sound effects or music to enhance the soundtrack if they wish to do so. Students are encouraged to use Audacity to edit their podcasts, because it is free and easy to learn with a variety of tutorials that are updated often on YouTube (one current favorite is http://wiki.audacityteam.org/wiki/Category:Tutorial). If students have the access (e.g., through university computer centers) and the desire to use different software such as Adobe or Garageband, they are encouraged to do so, with the caveat that they will have to find their own tech support, and that the school they teach in may not have access to the software they are gaining skill in using.

The rubric used to assess the personal science story podcasts (Appendix B in the Appendices) is designed to support both the product and the process. At each part of the process, candidates are given extensive feedback to use for revision of the final project. The assignment integrates a variety of skills and objectives, so it is spread out through the semester, in connection with other methods being taught: for example, the story circle can be connected to an introduction to culturally responsive pedagogy, the language analysis component is connected to talk moves, and the Teachers’ Guide construction is done in conjunction with practice with language and literacy supports. At the end of the semester, we have a “science story listening party” where students share their final podcasts in small groups, and those that are comfortable doing so can submit their podcasts and teachers’ guides for me to post online.

On Sharing Student Stories

Many teacher candidates that have completed the assignment have found it to be meaningful in helping them gain skill and self-efficacy in using technology, in learning about science concepts and the Essential Features of Inquiry, and in language analysis. In addition, the process of creating and reflecting on individual (rather than group-created) digital stories can help preservice teachers show increased evidence of self-awareness and emotional engagement (Challinor, Marin, and Tur, 2017), and we have seen this in candidates completing this assignment through their final self-assessments, in which students report increased understanding of their identities and those of some of their colleagues. For some projects in the course, candidates express a strong preference to work in a group, but the “personal” aspect of the story podcast encourages them to push themselves, while still giving them a group “comfort zone” when making use of the story circle idea.

It goes without saying that posting podcasts online should only be done with the consent of the authors. If doing this activity with K-12 students, you will also need parent permission. Although voice-only podcasts are less problematic than posting video, voices and the stories they tell can be individually identifiable so care should be taken to make sure that authors are aware of that possibility.

There are a variety of different platforms one can use to post a podcast series online, and these come with advantages and disadvantages. If you want to make your podcast episodes private (so that only the students in your class can listen to them), it is easiest to just use a learning management system (e.g., Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, etc.). Universities that have an iTunes U account often have tech support for uploading class-created podcasts to that platform. Another option is to develop a website that you can use to host your podcast (e.g., WordPress, Weebly), although if you plan to upload audio you will generally need to pay an additional fee to accommodate the extra storage. Each website builder may have a media hosting service it recommends (e.g., Blubrry, SoundCloud) and these, too, will come with an additional fee. One newer app/service, http://anchor.fm, shows promise for creating and publishing story podcasts using phones or tablets, including unlimited storage of episodes, analytics, and transcription, and it is free.

The preservice teachers with whom we have shared this project have found it engaging and valuable. Different teachers enjoy different parts of the project: some like the process of constructing a story, some enjoy researching and communicating about a science concept, and some are most engaged by getting a chance to record and edit their stories. The listening parties give the teachers a chance to share their work in their story circle. I ask them to reflect on what they learned from the project: many students reflect on the extent to which the project has taught them something about their colleagues, something about their connections to each other and to science, and something about the power of story to enhance or bring these connections to light.

Designing a Third Space Science Methods Course

Introduction

Science methods courses for preservice teachers (PSTs) can be redesigned not only for the benefit of these university students, but also for inservice mentor teachers (MTs). Embedding a methods course at a local elementary school creates a hybrid or “third space” (Zeichner, 2010) in teacher education with the opportunity of helping guide both preservice and inservice teachers toward inquiry-based teaching practices and three-dimensional science instruction as envisioned by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Three-dimensional science instruction involves designing lessons and units around disciplinary core ideas from science content, scientific and engineering practices that these fields of inquiry use, and crosscutting concepts that are themes found in all of science. This article will describe how this model was implemented and revised over six academic semesters with a vision of improving science education for both current and future teachers.

The Third Space of Teacher Education

The traditional model of preservice teacher education in the United States consists of methods courses in which PSTs learn pedagogy in university classes. Then, PSTs apply what they have learned in field experiences in schools (Cochran-Smith, & Lytle, 2009; Korthagen & Kessels, 1999). Thus, the first two “spaces” of teacher education are the academic college classroom and the field practicum/student teaching site. A “third space” approach to teacher preparation seeks to break down the divide between the practical knowledge of the K-12 school and the academic knowledge of the university during the early and mid-stage “methods courses” (Zeichner, 2010).

Zeichner argues that third spaces in teacher education move away from the view of academic knowledge as the authoritative source of knowledge. He states that in the traditional college classroom, academic knowledge is privileged over practical knowledge. A third space reduces this privileging. One of Zeichner’s categories of third spaces includes mediated instruction and field experiences in which methods courses can be taught in an elementary or secondary building in such a way as to leverage the practical knowledge of the inservice teachers. An effective third space methods course requires that university faculty develop collaborative relationships with teachers so that university faculty also engage in learning (Taylor, Klein, & Abrams, 2014). Also, the course schedule needs to be designed for the benefit of PSTs being in classrooms rather than convenience of scheduling the activities and discussions led by the university instructor (Sanderson, 2016).

Third space methods courses have been shown to have positive effects on PSTs and MTs. Examples of third space methods courses were found in the literature related to math methods more than examples of science methods. These examples guided the work of the university-school partnership being studied in this paper. While from math education research, the focus on reforming the instructional practices of preservice and inservice teachers toward methods that engage students in understanding concepts more than procedural knowledge make them relevant to the design of a third space science methods course.

Bahr, Monroe, and Eggett (2014) argue for the importance of structural interweaving and conceptual interweaving when designing a third space course. The five structural elements are (1) an immediate application of methods in clinical settings, (2) gradual increase in teaching responsibility in clinical work, (3) methods instructor supervision of clinical work, (4) relationships between inservice and preservice teachers that enhance mentoring, and (5) partnering preservice teachers with each other in shared clinical placements. Conceptual interweaving involves ensuring that the inservice teachers understand and use methods that preservice teachers are taught in their methods coursework. These elements have all been used in the design of the science methods course for this paper.

PSTs showed significant positive change in their beliefs about reform-based mathematics instruction in a third space methods course (Bahr & Monroe, 2008). PSTs also showed positive changes in their beliefs toward teaching math with reform practices when taking the course alongside inservice teachers (Bahr, Monroe, Balzotti, & Eggett, 2009). Wood and Turner (2015) used a shared task of analyzing problem solving interviews with elementary students between PSTs and inservice teachers to create a third space with rich pedagogical conversations between PSTs, inservice teachers, and the university instructors. University instructors labeled inservice teacher statements and findings with appropriate academic pedagogy to link academic and practical knowledge.

Another study (Bahr, Monroe, & Shaha, 2013) compared a math methods class that was followed by a practicum against a methods course that had college-peer teaching. Both groups had statistically significant changes in their beliefs toward teaching math with a reform pedagogy, but the greatest change was by those who had the integrated practicum, even though the teachers used traditional practices. If science methods MTs teach with non-inquiry-based practices, this suggests that the placement will still benefit the PSTs.

Overview of a Third Space Elementary Science Methods Course

The methods course described by this paper is a semester-long (14-15 week) course which consists of a single meeting time each week for 150 minutes. The course meets approximately 10-12 times at a local elementary school with the other course sessions being conducted asynchronously online. There are no on-campus meetings. The online class periods are a practical measure to deal with scheduling conflicts with the elementary school (e.g. book fairs or assemblies) and student preference to reduce overall driving requirements since the site is about 35 minutes away from the college campus. Pedagogical instruction occurs in the school library, led by the university professor. PSTs spend time each week with an inservice MT in his/her classroom.

This course evolved from a traditional campus-based science methods course that consisted of two 75-minute sessions per week that included four class periods in a local elementary school at the end of the course. Groups of PSTs taught a sequence of four lessons to apply their knowledge from the methods course. The third space course balances pedagogical instruction and application-oriented fieldwork each week. The third space course readings were basically the same as the traditional methods course, given the continual updating of articles used. The assignments also began being the same as the traditional course but evolved to mostly be lesson plans that required application of different pedagogical concepts.

The principal initially recruited nine teachers to serve as MTs for the first semester of the third space methods course. Of these nine, three had served as MTs under the previous model of the course. Additional teachers were recruited so that all grade levels (five-year-old kindergarten through sixth grade) were included. The number of volunteers grew to 15 MTs collaborating in the sixth semester of implementation. MTs are volunteers and not compensated. All grades from K-6 are used for this methods course because licensure in this program’s state is for general education in the elementary and middle school.

This science methods course addresses many of the structural elements of Bahr et al. (2014). There was an immediate application of methods strategies in a classroom, a gradual increase in teaching responsibilities, supervision by the methods professor of the practicum work, a natural emergence of a mentoring relationship between the preservice and inservice teachers, and the partnering of preservice teachers into pairs to teach in the elementary classrooms. When the course was beginning, PSTs were each assigned to their own MT and classroom. As enrollment grew, they teach in groups of two most of the time, but there are some singles. The conceptual interweaving of the philosophy of the MTs and the university instructor was constructed through relationship building between the university instructor and MTs through weekly professional interactions in the building and the collaboration between the PSTs and MTs during the lessons planned and led by PSTs. The university professor would arrive early each week and stop by the teacher’s classrooms to ask if there were any concerns. A basic understanding of the philosophical foundations of the methods course is shared through a meeting before the school year in which the professor shares lesson plan expectations and rubrics. Because lesson plans are required to have elements of inquiry and the NGSS, the MTs became at least aware of these elements.

Building a University-School Partnership

Before designing a third space methods course, an interested school partner needs to be identified and a relationship formed. The partnership described in this paper developed gradually. It actually began with a “cold call” email from the professor to the school principal asking if any of the inservice teachers would be willing to host groups of four science methods students to teach a sequence of four lessons. The principal was receptive as a service to the education profession. Inservice teacher volunteers were identified and matched with the PSTs. After three years of this cooperation, an outreach grant opportunity emerged. The principal collaborated with the professor to write the grant proposal which was funded. This provided funds for some professional development opportunities for the inservice teachers. The timing was also very opportune. The district was investigating new science curriculum series for adoption the following year and the professional development conversations around science instruction were hoped to guide this process.

Once the grant funding was over, both the district and the university were interested and eager to continue the partnership. It has been conducted without additional funding from either party. The district continues to provide the meeting space in the school library and the instructor teaches the course as a part of a standard teaching load. As new teachers have volunteered to serve as MTs, they have been oriented to the program with a brief, half hour session in which they are introduced to the schedule and the lesson planning rubric. Other university-school partnerships could be created without the luxury of grant funding so long as both parties realized that the relationship building between the instructor and inservice teachers will take time to develop. Also, MT knowledge of lesson planning expectations will likely develop further over time.

Design Improvements for Third Space Methods Courses

The course design was improved each semester based upon feedback by both PSTs and MTs. Each of the categories of improvement are described separately to allow for other methods course instructors to focus their instructional design on specific elements. The initial schedule of the course is presented in Table 1. Modifications to the course during the first four semesters were relatively minor because the number of students enrolling stayed small (6-9) during the first three semesters. After 24 students (the maximum) began enrolling in the fourth semester and beyond, the course structure was modified much more taking the greater amount of PST feedback into account. The revised schedules for the fifth and sixth semesters are presented in Tables 2 and 3 respectively. The broad categories for improvements are each explored below. Table 3 displays the current format of the course.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Initial Third Space Methods Course (150 minutes, once weekly)

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Revised Third Space Methods Course (5th Semester) 
Table 3 (Click on image to enlarge)
Revised Third Space Methods Course (6th Semester)

Informal Structure to Formal Structure

With the initial course only having six students enrolled, the structure was informal. Discussions about assigned readings on pedagogy were conducted with the whole group. Some model lessons demonstrating the 5E instructional model (Bybee) were also conducted by the professor with the PSTs in the role of students. The mentor teachers asked for the PSTs to come into their classrooms at a variety of times, so PSTs flexibly left the whole group activities and went into the classrooms. This allowed time for the university professor to go and observe the PST planned and led instruction and to give feedback.

As course enrollment grew to 24, the course had to adopt a more structured approach. The classroom times with the mentor teachers continued to vary due to practical limits (different prep schedules, recesses, etc.). An attempt to use online activities during the course meeting time to model inquiry and the scientific and engineering practices from the NGSS was not received well by the PSTs who felt that they should be able to do those activities on their own time. The eventual schedule that worked well in the sixth term was to work with the mentor teachers so that they agreed that to schedule their science lesson times to be at only one of two start times (9 or 10 AM) rather than a variety of times. Most of the teachers moved their normal science time (in the afternoons) into the meeting time of the methods course. The PSTs then were divided into a group that went into the classrooms at 9AM and another at 10AM. The professor then led active group activities and pedagogy discussions for the half of the PSTs not in the classroom during each hour block. This led to better results in terms of PST engagement with discussions and activities, which preserved the “methods” component of the course so that it did not become a practicum with occasionally professional development.

Role of Online Modules

The course has used a blended learning format since its beginning, in part due to the commuting times (about 30 minutes) from the campus to the participating school site. However, this was leveraged to move content that was factual outside of the face-to-face class time, similar to the flipped classroom philosophy (Educause, 2012). All online activities were created by the professor. This includes creation of question banks for low stakes quizzes. During the first few semesters, this involved pedagogical readings on the Nature of Science and articles focused on knowledge-centered science, community-centered science, and learner-centered science.

The Nature of Science module included some readings and online quizzes assessing basic understandings about how science works, the difference between a theory and law, and other related topics. The other three online class periods focused on having students create their own presentation (usually with PowerPoint) with voice over narration summarizing an article and then leading an online discussion about it. Each student read a different article. When asked, PSTs did not find these online modules productive or useful and they reported disliking the making of the narrated presentation.

By the fifth semester, the online modules were mostly quizzes on the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards and two topics that were not able to be worked into the rest of the schedule (inclusive teaching and classroom management). While PSTs reported fewer problems with these online modules, the content was artificially paced for weeks when the course could not meet at the elementary school. This made it difficult to tie knowledge of NGSS elements (such as specific scientific and engineering practices) to expectations in terms of lesson planning.

Finally, in the sixth semester, a self-paced “module 0” was created for the dimensions of the NGSS and the overall concept of three-dimensional instruction called for by these standards (intertwining disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices). PSTs had until spring break (about 8 weeks) to complete these modules  that included both readings and quizzes with the quiz questions pulled from a question bank created by the professor. PSTs were allowed two attempts for each topic, but the questions varied each time from the bank. While PSTs were expected to include portions of the NGSS in lesson plans before the due date for the module. This requirement motivated them to complete modules before the deadline.

Time and Activities in K-6 Classrooms

For the first five semesters, mentor teachers could determine the length of time that the PSTs were in their classrooms. Topics were chosen by the MTs. Most of them asked the PSTs to teach a lesson from their current science unit (providing them with materials and planning guides). Some MTs have allowed PSTs to pick any topic. The model was for them to start by reading non-fiction science literature to the class for about fifteen minutes and to gradually build up to a 45-minute inquiry-based science lesson. As mentioned previously, a challenge was in coordinating these teaching times to permit some time for whole class discussion and activities in the library with the professor. Additionally, PSTs made many remarks similar to this one:  “I found it challenging that we only were actually in the classroom a few times. I didn’t feel as if I could really get to know the students, teacher, or classroom.”

For the sixth semester, it was collaboratively decided between the mentor teachers and the professor that PSTs would spend one hour each week in the K-6 classroom. It was acceptable if the PST helped with non-science instruction, especially in younger grades that did not typically plan on spending an hour on science. This was in response to PST feedback that they wanted more time in the K-6 classrooms in order to get to know the elementary students and mentor teachers better in order to be able to plan more effective lessons. It was received very well by PSTs and MTs during the semester.

Activities in the K-6 classroom originally consisted  of a gradual process of building up planning  expectations that moved from no planning to complete lesson planning. Observations were conducted during the first week. Students then acted as a helper. For two weeks, they brought science-related books into the K-6 classroom to lead a “read aloud” along with before (prediction), during (comprehension), and after reading questions (comprehension, synthesis). Using the 5E model (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate), they then added an additional “E” each week  until they were up to teaching two full 5E lessons at the end of the semester. The professor modeled aspects of the 5Es during the pedagogical part of the methods course.

For the fifth semester, PSTs moved more quickly into planning full lessons. Instead of picking their own science books, they were directed to use Everyday Science Mysteries (Konicek-Moran, 2008) in an attempt to incorporate more questioning into their lessons. They still were to select an Outstanding Science Trade book from the NSTA list to read to the class on a different day. Each of the planned lessons required them to incorporate either an element of the Nature of Science or one of the scientific and engineering practices from NGSS. Only the final two lesson plans were formally graded.

The 5E/7E lesson planning approach is no longer the cornerstone of the course that it had been. It continues to be presented as a model of inquiry (including a model lesson on magnetism using the 5E model in the first class period). This change is in part due to practical considerations of time with the greater emphasis on NGSS and more in class teaching time, but it is also philosophically a response to the scientific and engineering practices of the NGSS which do emphasize inquiry but also other methods and skills of science and engineering such as argumentation, computational thinking, and communicating information.

In the sixth semester, PSTs followed a similar pattern as the fifth semester, but they were required to submit a formal lesson plan for each week. This was in response to mentor teacher feedback requesting a mechanism to “force” PSTs to show that they had adequately planned before teaching their lessons. This created more grading for the professor, but it did lead to greater satisfaction by mentor teachers that their PSTs were prepared each week.

Role of Co-teaching

While co-teaching is recommended by Bahr  et al., it has been implemented in this setting mostly as a practical measure to utilize the number of mentor teacher volunteers each semester. The professor does consult with the principal to make sure that teacher volunteers are good matches with the philosophy of the methods course. Co-teaching was not really used until the fourth semester when the course enrollment reached 24 students. While two PSTs were assigned to a mentor teacher that semester, they were each expected to plan and lead their own 30 minute lesson and then act as an assistant for their peer’s lesson.

For the fifth semester of the course, PSTs were formally assigned as co-teachers to a mentor teacher’s classroom. They were given an article from Educational Leadership with several co-teaching models presented (Friend, 2015-2016). Table 4 summarizes these approaches. While the professor encouraged them to experiment with different models, PSTs generally used teaming (both PSTs acted as instructors at the same time in the front of the room) and some parallel teaching (where the students were in two groups with a PST leading each group). PSTs were required to show contributions through highlighting from each person on their graded lesson plans. In the sixth semester, 15 mentor teachers volunteered for a class of 24 PSTs, so co-teaching was not used by all of the PSTs. Once again, teaming was the most common approach  that those in a co-teaching situation used.

Table 4 (Click on image to enlarge)
Methods of co-teaching (from Friend, 2015-2016)

Role of the Mentor Teacher

Mentor teachers  have been collaborators in developing the course since its beginning. They have given important feedback in terms of projects and expectations for the PSTs. Their role has remained fairly constant in terms of being asked to give feedback to the PSTs on their initial lesson plans and after their delivery. This feedback does vary in quantity and quality. Some MTs provide emailed feedback during lesson planning while others indicate  that the plan is acceptable. Instructional feedback is primarily given verbally after the PSTs teach their lesson. While more formal feedback in a written form that could be directly shared with the professor is desirable, it has not been required so as to not add a burden onto the MT volunteers.

The only large change was in the sixth semester when mentor teachers were asked to allow the PST in their classroom for one hour each week rather than between fifteen and forty-five minutes. This was not reported to be a hassle, especially since it was clear that it was OK if the PST helped with non-science instruction. This added time was reported to really benefit the relationship between the PSTs and the mentor teachers by giving them time to get to know each other (as well as the elementary students) and for PSTs to be seen as a resource in the classroom. PSTs very much appreciate their mentor teachers and have said “The greatest benefit of this course was being able to be at the school every week and being able to interact with the teachers and students.”

When the school principal first agreed to collaborate with the university on this course, it was his hope that the methods course would serve as a change catalyst and a form of professional development in work (Bredesen, 2003) in comparison to models of professional development outside of work consisting of workshops or expert presentations. The National Academies of Sciences (2015) concluded that understanding how to best teach science requires inservice teachers to alter the way they teach even though they have little experience with the instructional practices described by the NGSS. A third space methods course presents itself as a vehicle for inservice teachers to experience inquiry-based models of instruction from the lessons based upon new models that preservice teachers design and teach in their classrooms. Interviews and lesson plan analysis do show initial support for the claim that the third space methods course helps engage inservice teachers in pedagogical change, increasing rigor, and understanding of inquiry-based instruction (Vick & Reichhoff, 2017).

Future Directions

This model of third space methods continues to expand at this university. While continuing the course at its current site, an additional section of the methods course will be conducted at an additional elementary school site  in a different school district in the coming academic year. Continuing challenges involve getting students to incorporate the concept of three-dimensional teaching from the NGSS in lessons. While students can connect lessons to the three dimensions, they are not yet fully connecting the dimensions in an integrated manner. For instance, the PST lesson plan may not have elementary students use a scientific practice to learn about or apply disciplinary core ideas. Also, finding better methods to engage PSTs in reflection is a high priority. Weekly reflections  were required during the sixth semester of the course, but they were often reports of what happened with a few sentences stating what went well and possibly something to change in the future. This was despite a requirement to include analysis and connect the reflection to the NGSS or other pedagogical ideas. PSTs often referred to the reflections as “busy work” in their course evaluations. Finally, feedback on teaching primarily comes from the mentor teacher, which seems to be acceptable to PSTs. However, the university professor would like to be able to give some feedback on instruction rather than just planning. While video recording of lessons is a possibility, concerns about elementary student privacy, logistics of a person moving the camera around during non-whole group instruction, and realistic workload  of the professor watching the videos are initial concerns. It is possible that video clips may be utilized in the future.

Suggestions for Starting a Third Space Methods Course

Professors and instructors interested in developing their own third space methods courses should consider some of the following during their planning and implementation:

  1. Begin by building a relationship with a school’s principal, possibly with mini-field placements or assignments with current models of instruction.
  2. Build relationships with the inservice teachers during this initial phase of collaboration. Make it clear that you value their practical knowledge in addition to your academic knowledge.
  3. Discuss with the principal how to recruit volunteer MTs. Discuss how to ensure that MTs will be open to the pedagogy of the methods course. They do not need to be experts in NGSS or inquiry. In fact, the school in this paper participated in order for teachers to receive “in practice” professional development about these concepts.
  4. Realize that activities and discussions from traditional methods courses may need to be modified to online activities or discussions to make time for the classroom work.
  5. PSTs may try to focus on lesson planning with a peer rather than focusing on instructional activities during the portion of class led by the professor. Be sure to lay out clear expectations for participation in sample lessons and other pedagogical activities.
  6. Be sure to include PST feedback and MTs in course revision each semester. Inservice teachers need a voice in planning.

Conclusion

In summary, a third space approach to elementary science teacher education has perceived benefits by both preservice and inservice teachers. PSTs praise the format with comments such as “I like being out in the schools and able to work with a teacher. I also like the aspect of teaching lessons to the class; it is a great way to practice teaching.”  Mentor teachers continue to volunteer in large numbers to participate and do report some indications  of better understanding about modern science pedagogies (Vick & Reichhoff, 2017). Finally, the university professor also is immersed in the practical concerns of science instruction in the elementary school and continues to learn a lot of practical knowledge about the challenges faced by inservice teachers.

As this third space model is being expanded to a second site at our university, many of the same challenges remain, but the process can hopefully continue to be improved. This site will not have the benefit of grant funding to establish the relationships. The district’s director of instruction has chosen the mentor teachers who will participate. The university instructor will meet with them briefly before the school year begins to explain the goals of the course and the lesson planning expectations for the PSTs. The mentor teachers will be asked to give any preliminary feedback on the structure of the course, but with it being the first semester in this district and a dialog already started with the director of instruction, it is not anticipated that there will be too many changes until a second semester at the same site.

This course will meet in the adjoining district office boardroom for instruction by the university instructor. The elementary school is connected to this building and PSTs will go into the K-5 classrooms similar to the current model. Half will go at one time and the other half at a second time. This course was able to be scheduled in the afternoon, so it will be during the standard science instruction time. This district uses a different curricular series for science and engineering. The instructor is considering ways to engage PSTs from the two third space courses into a dialog about the different curricular choices of the two school districts.

Other methods professors and instructors are encouraged to approach local school districts about partnering to conduct a third space methods class. The concept was heartily embraced by school and district leadership not only as a service to the future of the profession, but as a method of providing experiences for inservice teachers in curricular innovation and instructional coaching in science teaching.

 

The Home Inquiry Project: Elementary Preservice Teachers’ Scientific Inquiry Journey

Introduction

In the past two decades, there have been continued calls for elementary teachers to encourage children’s natural curiosity by providing opportunities for children to be actively engaged in various aspects of scientific inquiry including making observations, developing questions, performing investigations, collaborating with peers, and communicating evidence and findings (NGSS Lead, 2013; NRC, 2007; NSTA, 2002, 2012). The National Research Council’s utilization of the term ‘practices’ is aimed at providing a more comprehensive elucidation of “what is meant by ‘inquiry’ in science and the range of cognitive, social, and physical practices that it requires” (NRC, 2012, p.30). Engaging students in these scientific practices through experiential learning opportunities enables them to “to deepen their understanding of crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas” (NRC, 2012, p.217). Regrettably, the reality of science instruction in the early grades is contrary to the recommendations. In addition to the obstacle of lack of instructional time, elementary teachers’ own inadequate scientific knowledge, inaccurate beliefs about the nature and process of science, and negative attitude and low self-efficacy with respect to science and science teaching (Kazempour & Sadler, 2015; Fulp, 2002; Keys & Watters, 2006; King, Shumow, & Lietz, 2001) are all major contributing factors accounting for the minimal and mediocre coverage of science witnessed in the early grades (Banilower, Smith, Weiss, Malzahn, Campbell, & Weiss, 2013).

Prior studies have indicated that elementary preservice teachers view science as a rigid and linear process, the scientific method model, that is solely focused on experimentation, proving or disproving hypotheses, and accumulating facts (Kazempour, 2013, 2014; Kazempour & Sadler 2015; Plevyak, 2007). Many in this group believe that scientists mainly work individually and isolated from their peers except to communicate their findings with the scientific community. Furthermore, they possess stereotypical images of scientists as mainly aging, white male figures, with lab coats, glasses, and other such features, whose work involves the use of beakers, Bunsen burners, microscopes, and chemicals to perform experiments and advance level research in their laboratories (Barman, 1997; Driver, Leach, Millar, & Scott, 1996; Kazempour & Sadler, 2015; Moseley & Norris, 1999; Quita, 2003). Consequently, elementary preservice teachers typically view science as a tedious, irrelevant, and boring process that they find uninteresting and out of reach (Kazempour, 2013, 2014; Kazempour & Sadler 2015; Tosun, 2000)

As highlighted in a number of studies (e.g. Adams, Miller, Saul, & Pegg, 2014; Chichekian, Shore, & Yates, 2016; Kazempour & Sadler, 2015; Lewis, Dema, & Harshbarger, 2014), for many preservice teachers, particularly elementary preservice teachers, their beliefs about the process of scientific inquiry and the scientific community stems from their prior experiences with science, especially as part of their K-12 science education. Elementary preservice teachers often describe their previous experiences with science as inadequate, unmemorable, or negative (Kazempour, 2013). Their recollections of school science commonly include teacher-led lectures or whole-class discussions, heavy reliance on the textbook, infrequent labs and activities that were often completed to confirm ideas discussed by the text or the teacher, and, of course, fact-based tests that would often conclude their science chapters and units (Kazempour, 2013; Kazempour & Sadler2015)

Elementary preservice teachers’ prior K-12 encounters with science not only shapes their beliefs about science, but also significantly influence their attitude toward the subject and level of confidence in learning or teaching science (Appleton, 2006; Avery & Meyer, 2012; Hechter, 2011; Kelly, 2000; Tosun, 2000). According to the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, only 39% of elementary teachers indicate feeling “very prepared to teach science” in comparison to 81% in literacy and 77% in mathematics (Banilower, et al., p. 41). The combination of negative attitude and low self-efficacy with respect to science and science teaching often influence elementary teachers’ instructional practices; either avoiding science altogether or relying on brief, scripted, and text or worksheet focused strategies.

Achieving the goal of developing young children’s understanding of the scientific process will depend extensively on the type of educational experiences they encounter in the classroom. Hence, it is critical that teachers be provided transformative and reflective opportunities that lead to changes in their beliefs, attitudes, confidence, and ultimately their science instructional behaviors (Mullholland & Wallace, 2000). Elementary science content and methods courses which account for and address preservice teachers’ prior experiences, beliefs, and attitudes through alternative science experiences have been shown to lead to positive changes in these domains (Morrell & Carroll, 2003; Tosun, 2000). This article focuses on a project, the Home Inquiry Project, that I have implemented in my elementary science methods course so that preservice teachers have an opportunity to experience and be immersed in the process of scientific inquiry in order to gain a more accurate and complete understanding of the process.

Context

The Home Inquiry Project is a component of the science methods course that I teach at one of the campuses of a large Northeastern university. The elementary teacher candidates enroll in the science methods course during the fall semester of their senior year in the program. They are concurrently enrolled in the social studies and mathematics methods courses and the two-day field experience in the local urban school district. Most of the students in the course are female, Caucasian students from either the small towns or urban cities in the approximately 50-mile radius of the campus. During the first two years of the program, they are required to enroll in three science content courses, one from each discipline of life, physical and earth science.

The Origins of the Project

The Home Inquiry Project originated from an idea I had come across in several articles dealing with engaging preservice teachers with their own authentic inquiry investigations as a component of their science content or methods course. However, the authentic experiences described in these examples only focused on the design and implementation of scientific investigations with emphasis on hypothesis testing and identification of variables. As Windschtill (2004) suggests, preservice teachers may still hold on to their longstanding views of science as the step-by-step and linear scientific method and that such investigation experiences may “do little more than confirm these beliefs through the course of investigative activity” (p. 485). In my methods courses, I introduce students to the cyclical and complex model of scientific inquiry as depicted in Figure 1. This model is comprehensive in that it encompasses the scientific practices emphasized by the NGSS, underscores the importance of community analysis and feedback, and emphasizes the interdependence of science, engineering, and technology, and the influence of science, engineering and technology on society and the natural world (NRC, 2012). Therefore, I wanted to design a project that would provide my students an experience which would more genuinely mimic this cyclical and more complex process of scientific inquiry, including the components of the process that typically receive less attention such as the connection of science to society, community feedback, role of serendipity and creativity in science. Since 2011, I have implemented the Home Inquiry Project in my methods courses and the impact on the preservice teachers’ views about and attitude toward science has been remarkable (Kazempour, in press).

Figure 1. (Click to Enlarge) Flow Chart Depicting the Process of Science. Source: The University of California Museum of Paleontology – Understanding Science –  www.understandingscience.org 

 Phase 1: Introducing the Project

The various components of the project are introduced in segments throughout the semester in order to better demonstrate the process of scientific inquiry. Students are given the initial instructions for the project early in the semester as soon as they are introduced to the scientific practices of developing questions and making observations. The initial prompt is simple and instructs them to choose one of the three options and generate questions and make observations for several consecutive days. The three options that students may choose from to focus their observations include the following:

Option 1: Daytime Sky

On a daily basis, observe the sky and record your observations. Try to do so at the same location. Include the date and time, location, a description of what you observe, a drawing or a photo of what you see, questions you wonder about, etc.

Option 2: Nighttime Sky

On a nightly basis, observe the sky and record your observations. Try to do so at the same location. Include the date and time, location, a description of what you observe, a drawing or a photo of what you see, questions you wonder about, etc.

Option 3: Field/Site

Pick a site (same location each day). It could be your backyard, a local park, on a beach, next to a pond, in a field, etc. On a daily basis, observe the area (choose a smaller area within that location to focus on if the location is too large) and record your observations. Include the date and time, location, a description of what you see, a drawing or a photo of what you see, questions you wonder about, etc.

During the next class session, they are introduced to different types of observations (qualitative vs. quantitative), inferences, and predictions, and are asked to extend their inquiry to include different types of observations, inferences, and predictions.

Phase 2: Initial Connection to Scientific Inquiry

During the following week, a segment of the class is devoted to discussing their initial observations, questions, and inferences as well as their thoughts on the process up to that point. The team and subsequent whole-class discussion prompts students to think about possible questions that they are interested in or ways they can extend their observations. For example, they point out that their initial observations were limited to what they could “see” and how after our discussion they were incorporating their sense of smell, hearing, and even touch. Some of them indicate during the first discussion session that they are already losing interest in what they were initially making observations of and have found themselves wondering about other things that they were noticing. For example, students who observe the daytime sky, often speak about becoming interested in the birds that flew by or the jet contrails they could observe in the sky. We discuss the fact that they can make observations of and ask questions about anything that interests them and are not confined to a particular aspect of the sky or the field.

During the next two class sessions, they are introduced to the scientific inquiry model through a number of collaborative activities, discussions, and the video, Science in Action: How Science Works, by California Academy of Sciences, about the accurate model of scientific inquiry and its connections to authentic scientific work. At this point, I have them work in small teams to discuss the components of the inquiry model they have already been involved with in the Home Inquiry Project and ways they could engage in more components. They are instructed to make another week’s worth of observation, as frequently as they deem necessary, and explore how they may want to extend or redirect their projects. We discuss the flexibility of the process and how they are not confined to the original options they had selected which were meant to simply provide them an initiation point.

Phase 3: Independent Explorations

During the next class session, after we briefly discuss their ongoing experiences and possible modifications in their project, I provide the final set of instructions for the project. They are instructed to continue with their projects in any way they wish to as long as they are engaged with the components of the scientific inquiry model. I explain that they can refine their investigations, continue gathering data, search the literature, reshuffle their project at any time, and so forth. Some may wish to gather evidence while others may want to restart with an entirely different question or simultaneously investigate several related questions. Similarly, some many want to explore societal connections of their topic or search the literature to expand their understanding of the concepts or issues they encounter. At this point, they are informed that the project will culminate in approximately six weeks with individual presentations of their projects during week 10 of the course.

Phase 4: Presentations and Reflections

Depending on class size, students are allotted approximately ten minutes to present their projects. Presentation must be in the form of narrated PowerPoint, narrated Prezi, or an iMovie or other format video. Regardless of the format, the presentations must address: (a) a thorough description of their journey, (b) connections to the process of scientific inquiry, and (c) implications for future teaching.

In describing their journey, students are instructed to explain what observations or questions they started with, how their questions may have evolved, evidence they gathered, transitions they made along the way, and any other aspect of their experience. They are reminded that each individual will have a different journey and that there is no “correct” path that they have to take during the project or explain during their presentation. As part of their descriptions they need to include photos, drawings, videoclips, charts, and other pieces of evidence that would aid in understanding their projects. Second, in describing their project, they are instructed to clearly make connections to and describe the specific components of the scientific inquiry process that they were engaged with throughout their project. Finally, students are asked to reflect on the implications of their experiences for their future classroom teaching. In doing so, they could either discuss their own specific projects or the Home Inquiry Project in general.

Reflecting on the Project

Each presentation is followed with a brief question and answer session where students can engage in conversations regarding specific questions they may have for each presenter or items they found interesting. Afterwards, the class engages in a reflective class discussion about the Home Inquiry Project, their experiences, and overall understanding of science that they gained from the experience. Students’ presentations and verbal comments during the reflection session suggest an overall positive perception of the project and an improved understanding of the process of scientific inquiry.

In the beginning of the semester when the project is first introduced, students continually ask about more specific instruction or check to make sure that they are “on the right track.” It is often strange for them how open ended the instructions are at first, but as we proceed through the project and they learn about the cyclical process of scientific inquiry and through continued in-class discussion and reflection they begin to recognize the rationale for the open-ended nature of the project as suggested in this student reflection except.

The first night I began my observations, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.  I simply went outside and looked up at the sky.  I didn’t have any questions I was looking to answer.  As time progressed, a very natural curiosity began to develop. I initially began to wonder why I couldn’t always see this moon.  This soon expanded to ‘why can’t I see the moon OR stars on many nights?’

In their final reflections, students comment on the flexible nature of the project and how they felt interested in what they were investigating and motivated to do the project because they chose the path rather than being dictated what to do. Furthermore, they comment on the improvement in their observation and questioning skills and how they find themselves asking questions and making observations more routinely throughout their daily lives and how they are increasingly aware of their surroundings.

The actual experience of being involved in the process of going back and forth between the various components, such as tweaking questions, searching in the literature, making additional observations, and communicating and collaborating with their peers, allows them to notice the resemblance of the process to the fluid nature of scientific inquiry as opposed to the scientific method model.

I have found that the skills developed through science inquiry are skills that are essential in everyday life. There is value in understanding the “why” and “how” in unfolding events. These skills are vastly different from the traditional scientific method, where conclusions are based on the accumulation of facts. Creative thinking and problem solving skills innately develop from the nature of the process found in scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the inquiry learning is the unknown direction that it will take you. I never thought staring at the night sky could lead me to learn about the different spectrums of light.

Their experiences not only allow them to utilize scientific practices and witness the fluid and iterative nature of scientific inquiry, but it also allows them to better experience and understand cross cutting concepts (NRC, 2012) such as patterns, stability and change, cause and effect, similarity, and diversity.

Finally, they reflect on the numerous implications of the project for their future teaching. Some indicate how a similar project could be done with their own students by asking students to perform similar explorations in their backyards or location of their choice. Teaching in an urban area, they recognize the flexibility of the project in allowing students to focus on even the simple things in their surroundings. They also discuss, as suggested in the excerpts below, the importance of being able to utilize their improved understanding of science in more accurately depicting the scientific process in their science lessons and units.

This experience will follow me into my future classroom and into my future science lesson plans. Inquiry based learning will not only be a part of my science curriculum but also a majority of other subjects with incorporating interdisciplinary objectives.

In my future teaching, I want to help my students feel the way I have come to feel about science.  I realize now that science is more about the journey you take. Finding answers or possibilities (or maybe nothing at all!) are just the end products of that process.

I learned it does not take much to find something amazing relating to science.  I don’t think this is specific to the area we live in but I do think there are so many resources in this area that could be utilized by an elementary class to extend science learning to the outside world.  There are waterways, nature trails, ample wildlife, even their own backyards, etc. The options are endless for relating lessons in the classroom to locations very close to the school.

Conclusion

Authentic experiences, such as the Home Inquiry Project, which immerse preservice teachers in the various aspects of the process of scientific inquiry have the potential to influence preservice teachers’ understanding of science as well as their attitude and confidence toward doing and teaching science. If the ultimate goal is the development of scientific literacy through engaging K-12 students, particularly those in the early grades, in authentic inquiry experiences, then we need to better prepare the teacher population that will be responsible for implementing this type of instruction in the classroom. Elementary teachers will continue to either avoid teaching science altogether or do so in a superficial, test preparation and coverage-focused manner that does not accurately depict the reality of the scientific process unless science content and methods courses begin to actively engage them in these forms of inquiry and reflective practice.

A Lesson to Unlock Preservice Science Teachers’ Expert Reading Strategies

Introduction

According to literacy researchers, different disciplines demonstrate both social and cognitive practices that embody distinct ways group members use reading and writing within their discipline (Buehl, 2011; Goldman & Bisanz, 2002; Heller & Greenleaf, 2007). The Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and Common Core State Standards (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) all specify that literacy—the ability to read in the context of science—is an essential scientific practice. These recent national reform documents emphasize that by the time students graduate from high school they should be able to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information from scientific texts (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; NGSS Lead States, 2013; National Research Council, 2012). Thus, it comes as no surprise that science teachers must incorporate literacy into their curriculum and instruction. In the wake of these reforms, the expectation that students will have more opportunities to engage with scientific texts is now firmly in place. However, this vision of ‘literacy for all students’ (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010) can only be achieved to the extent secondary science teachers are able or inclined to meet this goal (Cohen & Ball, 1990).

In response to this call for literacy, experienced secondary science teachers we talked to expressed that they feel they “have a responsibility to work on literacy” but do not know how to go about teaching and incorporating reading in their instruction. Unfortunately, the majority of otherwise competent or even expert teachers do not have the knowledge or training to teach literacy skills required to engage students with science texts (Norris & Phillips, 2003; National Research Council, 2012). Secondary science teachers are largely unprepared because their teacher preparation programs included little or no coursework focused on literacy. Even though there is a growing trend for teacher preparation programs to offer literacy courses that focus on reading in the content areas, often they still do not provide aspiring science teachers the science-specific tools needed to teach reading in secondary science contexts. One inservice teacher we spoke with commented that while she had taken a literacy course in graduate school it “really didn’t help me at all because it was too general and disconnected from the kind of reading you have to do in science.” Her sense that strategies introduced in her graduate school preservice coursework were too generic is not surprising given that science texts require content specific approaches and an understanding about how to read and engage with various disciplinary-specific genres (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010; Lee & Spratley, 2010). This raises the question, “How can we, as science teacher educators, prepare our teacher candidates to teach reading in the context of science?”

Instead of depending on general content area courses designed for preservice teachers regardless of discipline or specialty, science teacher educators need to design lessons for secondary science methods courses that target how to teach reading as an integral and integrated component of 6th-12th grade science curricula. Fortunately, preservice science teachers are not walking into science methods classes as blank slates. They enter with extensive science content expertise and are generally proficient or advanced readers of scientific texts. The challenge for science teacher educators is that even though preservice secondary teachers know how to read and make meaning of texts within their discipline, it is difficult for individuals to leverage well-developed personal strategies for reading a variety of science texts in their planning and instruction to support struggling readers (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010; Norris & Phillips, 2003). If reading is to play a more prominent role in secondary science, preservice teachers need help in making tacit knowledge about how to read common genres of science texts, such as popular science texts, textbooks, and primary scientific literature, explicit so they can use this knowledge as a foundation for learning how to teach middle school and high school students to read and make sense of science texts.

Context & Framing

The context for this study was a one semester secondary science methods course we taught at our respective institutions to a mix of undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, and masters students. We co-designed and taught a sequence of seminar sessions on how to use literacy activities, specifically reading different genres of science texts, to meaningfully help students learn science. This paper describes the first session in the sequence. We framed the design of the lesson using Ball & Bass’s (2000) notion of decompression. This is the perspective that as individuals learn to teach they need to unpack, and make visible the connections between the integral whole of their content knowledge so that it is accessible to develop pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986) In this particular case the knowledge and skills necessary to use literacy strategies to teach reading in the context of science (Figure 1). Why is unpacking preservice teachers content knowledge about science reading strategies important? Unless one’s content expertise is the study of reading, the act of reading can seem or intuitively be thought “a simple process” in which “text can seem transparent” (Norris & Phillips, 2003, p. 226). Helping preservice teachers identify their existing “expert” knowledge of how to read science texts—and preparing them to design lessons that productively incorporate literacy activities into their science instruction—is foundational for developing strategies to teach middle school and high school students how to read science texts.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). As preservice secondary science teachers decompress their content knowledge about literacy and their personal reading strategies they develop PCK for teaching reading in science.

 

 

Lesson Design

In order to unpack preservice teachers’ genre specific strategies, we designed a structured introductory literacy activity that would:

● Help preservice teachers identify existing personal reading strategies for reading science texts
● Compare personal reading strategies with other preservice teachers
● Identify general and science genre specific reading strategies
● Engage preservice teachers in a dialogue about text features of different genres of science texts
● Brainstorm ideas about when and why teachers would want to use different genres of science texts in instruction
● Provide a foundation for designing lesson plans that include literacy activities that support ambitious science teaching practices—eliciting student ideas, supporting ongoing changes in student thinking, and pressing for evidence-based explanations (Windschitl, Thompson, Braaten, & Stroupe, 2012).

Specifically, we asked our preservice teachers to read three common genres of science texts—a newspaper article (popular science text), a science textbook (science text for education), and a scientific journal article (primary scientific literature)—that a science teacher might have their students read in class (Goldman & Bisanz, 2002). Relatively short texts about the same content—global climate change—were purposefully selected. Each student was given a packet of the readings that they were welcome to write on. We instructed preservice teachers to read each article with the goal of making sense of the text. They were given 10 minutes to read each text. How they spent this time, including what order they read the different texts, was left up to them.

After reading all of the texts, we made the preservice teachers aware of our purpose. We did not seek to assess them on their understanding of the content within each text. Instead, we wanted to make visible the strategies they used to read each type of text. Before we debriefed as a group, we asked each preservice teacher to respond in writing to the following questions for each genre of text:

● What did you do as you read the text?
● How did you make sense of the text?
● How did you interact with the text?
● Why did you approach the text in this way?

Asking preservice teachers to notice strategies encouraged them to make visible the latent expert knowledge they use to analyze the texts (Sherin, Jacobs, & Philipp, 2011). After students individually responded to the prompts on how they read each of the three texts, we split them into small groups of 3-4 to identify and record the reading strategies used to make sense of each text type. This activity was followed by a whole class discussion about reading order, reading strategies, and patterns in reading approaches across the three genres of science text: a newspaper article, a science textbook, and a journal article. Our preservice teachers’ discussion and written reflections revealed that they did indeed have both general and subject specific approaches to reading different kinds of science texts.

Reading the Newspaper Article

Popular texts, such as newspapers, magazines, online sites, trade books, and longer nonfiction science texts, take complex scientific information and phenomena and simplify it for the public—generally for the purpose of raising awareness and increasing understanding of important issues that are relevant to and impact citizens’ everyday lives (Goldman & Bisanz, 2002). The newspaper article our preservice teachers read introduced international efforts to draft a world climate policy to limit global warming to 2oC by drastically cutting down on fossil fuel emissions to head off the negative impacts, such as rising sea-levels, of global warming (Gillis, 2014).

The discussion kicked off with one preservice teacher noting that the “writing was very straightforward” so it was not necessary to take notes as compared to engagement with the textbook or journal article. Another echoed this sentiment commenting that she read it like a story with a “main thread…which I grasped and everything else revolved around”. Several made remarks that were consistent with the objective of this text genre such as, “I wasn’t really ever exposed to the 2o C global climate change goals before so I felt I had to keep ready to gain more insight as to what it is and why it is important” and “science is controversial—one group may agree and another group may disagree”.

It was clear from the discussion that preservice teachers had a deep, established, and readily accessible understanding of the structure and purpose of a scientific newspaper article and that these pre-existing orientations to this genre shaped how they read the text (Figure 2). Strategies our preservice teachers used to read the newspaper article included:

● Using the title to identify who/what/when
● Using the first sentence to identify the tone
● Identifying the writer’s position and identifying bias
● Identifying stakeholders and different opinions with respect to the issue
● Evaluating the credibility of the source
● Identifying evidence, notably by locating quotations from scientists
● Skimming for the main idea and ignoring the “fluff”

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Preservice teachers’ strategies for reading newspaper articles.

Reading the Textbook

Science textbooks, the mainstay of secondary science, are expository which means they are written to inform, describe, explain or define patterns, and to help students construct meanings about science information (Goldman & Bisanz, 2002). Even though the objective of textbooks is to scaffold student learning, students often find them difficult reading because of content density, complex text structures, domain specific vocabulary, multimodal representations, lack of relevance to students’ lives and prior knowledge (Lee & Spratley, 2010). The textbook reading on global climate change detailed specific consequences of global warming including warmer temperatures, more severe weather events, melting ice and snow, rising sea levels, and human health (Edelson et al., 2005).

As preservice teachers reflected on and discussed how they read the science textbook we observed a high degree of commonality across the approaches utilized. Most notably, conversation centered on text features that organize information in the text. For example, one preservice teacher shared that he “figured that a textbook would give the big ideas in the title and probably within the first couple of lines of the section so this helped me to get to the point faster, it helped me understand with less reading”. Similarly another said “I first flipped through the text [and] read all of the headings and subheadings” upon which other students elaborated that “the headings and subheadings are great clues as to what the text is talking about” and that headings and subheadings helped to “identify the main idea of each section”.

As with the newspaper article, the discussion of the textbook reading revealed that our preservice teachers have well developed strategies for reading science textbooks. Their strategies included:

● Reading the title to identify the focus of the entire reading
● Reading headings and subheadings to determine the main idea of each section
● Asking how the section relates to the title
● Asking how each section is connected to the sections before and after
● Reading for the main idea
● Reading first/last sentences of each paragraph
● Making a distinction between main idea(s) and evidence
● Skimming for unfamiliar science words, bolded vocabulary and associated definitions

Reading the Journal Article

Goldman and Bisanz (2002) point to the research report, such as a journal article, as the primary text genre used by scientists. Research reports are of particular interest because they are vehicles through which scientists present a scientific argument for consumption, evaluation, and response by their peers. Publication, circulation, evaluation, and response serves as a mechanism for providing information about research, making claims, and generating new scientific knowledge. According to Phillips & Norris (2009) journal articles present arguments about the need for conducting research, enduring or emerging methodology, analysis and provisions against alternative explanations—all in the service of supporting interpretation of authors’ findings. Generally, these types of texts are infrequently used in the science classroom. The journal article we asked our preservice teachers to read presented an index for when temperature will increase beyond historic levels yielding worldwide shifts in climate (Mora et al., 2013).

Preservice teachers agreed that of the three texts the journal article was hands down the most difficult to read and understand. Even though they struggled with this article they had no trouble articulating how they read this text. As with the other two text types, preservice teachers used specific text features of journal articles to scaffold their reading. One shared that she “usually start[s] with the abstract of a journal article because it tends to give some sort of summary of the whole article.” Another built on this by saying that the “abstract is a good summary of key points.” In addition to the abstract, preservice teachers focused on reading the “intro and conclusion because they highlight scientist’s argument and claims,” as well as on “tables and figures because they provide evidence visually.” There was also widespread agreement with one preservice teacher that if the goal is to understand the article, it was fine to “skim the methods [because]…taking the time to read the methods portion would not provide me with the important information to understand the context.”

The discussion of the journal article reading uncovered that our preservice teachers have well developed strategies for reading scientific texts. Their strategies included:

● Reading abstract, introduction and conclusion for summary of argument and primary findings
● Reading discussion for explanation of findings
● Looking at graphs, tables and figures for evidence supporting claim
● Skipping or skimming methods
● Asking do I understand what this article is about
● Reflecting on whether I can tell someone what this article is about

Reading Across the Science Texts

We noticed that in addition to the genre specific strategies outlined above, preservice teachers talked about how—as they read with the goal of making sense of the texts—almost all indicated that they annotated the text in some fashion. When we collected and analyzed preservice teachers’ annotated texts, we observed that they had underlined, highlighted, and jotted down questions or comments directly on the text. When they reflected on their textual reading practices, they indicated that they marked-up the text because they planned to re-read the texts and that annotating and highlighting specific features (headings, main ideas, or writing questions), would facilitate their future re-skimming of the texts and allow them to focus on only re-reading the most relevant sections or re-engaging with the most salient information in the article (Mawyer & Johnson, 2017). It seems that preservice teachers engaged in a meta-dialogue with the text that would allow for the most effective and efficient interaction with the text to maximize understanding.

Preservice Teachers’ Ideas for Scaffolding Literacy

After students discussed the various texts and worked together to identify patterns and commonalities in how they read the three texts, we asked them to talk about implications of their personal strategies for reading different types of science texts for their own teaching. One of the preservice teachers commented that going into the activity she did not really think that she had any specific strategies for reading science texts and “felt uncomfortable and overwhelmed about the prospect of teaching literacy” and that the activity helped her to see that she “had more experience with literacy” than she originally thought. We noticed that in both of our classes the literacy activity our preservice secondary teachers engaged in and their subsequent small group discussions allowed them to think deeply about how to concretely support literacy. They were able to work together to develop ideas about how they could build on the reading strategies they identified in our class to design their own lessons and curriculum in order to integrate literacy activities into their teaching practice. Specifically we observed students leveraging their personal strategies into supports that could be helpful to students before, during, and after they directly interact with the text (Table 1).

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Preservice Teachers’ Ideas for Scaffolding Literacy for Different Types of Science Texts

Formal lesson plans and classroom observations revealed that after this literacy lesson our preservice teachers began incorporating these three genres of science texts into their science instruction and put the strategies and supports they identified into practice. For example, one student adapted a journal article to make it easier for her students to read. She structured reading by giving her students the following instructions:

“You will mark the text, highlight words you do not know or feel that are important, write in the side columns thoughts/responses/ideas, and form a thesis summary. To form a thesis means to make a conclusive statement (claim) on what you read. You will support this claim by providing 3-5 key details.”

The observation that our preservice teachers started using science texts after this literacy session, suggested they had more confidence in engaging their own students with literacy activities in the science classroom.

Implications for Science Teacher Educators

The Framework specifies that preservice science teacher education needs to be aligned with the scientific practices. Furthermore, it tasks science teacher educators with providing preservice teachers strong preparation that will help them to embrace their role as teachers of science literacy (National Research Council, 2012). In response to this call we designed this initial literacy lesson to help preservice teachers enrolled in our science methods courses to unpack their content knowledge about literacy in science with the hope that by unlocking their personal strategies they would be better positioned for engaging in conversations about literacy. In the words of one preservice teacher this activity helped him realize that his reading strategies were “so intuitive that they were tacit” and that previously he never “consciously thought about the text and how I approach reading”.

Challenges in implementation

As noted earlier one challenge that arose during this lesson was that our preservice teachers struggled with reading the journal article. Often journal articles are quite lengthy so we purposefully selected the shortest article we could find about global climate change in the hope that they would be able to read it in its entirety in the allotted 10 minutes. As the lesson unfolded we realized that this particular article was exceptionally dense conceptually and included a large number of visual representations.

Suggestions for future implementation

As we tweak this lesson for future use we plan to select another article that is more typical of scientific journal articles. That said, the very rich conversation that we had around the difficulties surrounding reading this particular article led to productive lines of inquiry in subsequent literacy sessions. In particular, we used it as a jumping off point for talking about adapting primary literature (Philips & Norris, 2009) to make scientific journal articles accessible to middle and high school students. We also realized that we needed to include explicit instruction around scaffolding reading visual representations such as tables, graphs, and diagrams. Another modification that we are considering is assigning the three readings and written responses to the four prompts as homework. This would allow preservice teachers to read each text at their own pace and take away the artificial constraint of a time limit.

Conclusion

This lesson highlights that preservice teachers’ actual familiarity with reading strategies and content specific literacy expertise is different from their initial self-perception that they know very little about literacy. The combination of genre specific and general reading strategies our preservice teachers used demonstrated that they use visual and symbolic cues in the text in combination with prior knowledge to construct new meaning from the text by utilizing comprehension strategies as they read. The fact that preservice teachers have these highly developed metacognitive strategies to pinpoint important ideas, make inferences, ask questions, utilize text structure, and monitor comprehension while reading highlights a high level expertise (Gomez & Gomez, 2006; Pearson, Roehler, Dole & Duffy, 1992; Yore, 1991, 2004; Yore & Shymansky, 1991).

We found that using this initial literacy lesson provided our preservice teachers with a solid foundation for engaging in conversations about how to scaffold student reading. This lesson provided preservice teachers an opportunity to collaboratively develop a common beginner’s repertoire of reading strategies that we subsequently used as a building block for designing activities and lessons that engage middle and high school students in big science ideas and understanding real-world phenomena through reading a variety of kinds of science texts. Also, compared to previous years, we noticed that how these preservice teachers were able to design and scaffold reading with their students was objectively more sophisticated and would allow students to engage with the science in more meaningful ways.

You Learning Cycled Us! Teaching the Learning Cycle Through the Learning Cycle

Introduction

When I started teaching high school biology, I figured out early on that my students were motivated by puzzles.  I made it my challenge, then, to devise lessons in which the learning experiences were structured as puzzles for my students to solve.  My early attempts included the extremely popular—though cognitively questionable—“Word-Scramble Treasure Hunts.”  In teams, students answered fill-in-the-blank questions from the text, then rearranged the circled letters of each answer to reveal the location of their next set of questions.  The treasure hunts—and the bag of donut holes for the winning team—were a huge hit with lecture-weary students.  For me, though, the logistics of the seven separate treasure hunt paths on seven different colors of paper for five different periods was overwhelming.  Plus, I had to be honest: it was simply a worksheet cut into strips.  Surely, I could do better.

Over my next few years teaching, the clues of my puzzles shifted from being words to being data.  I developed a habit of beginning instruction on a new topic by providing students with a puzzle in the form of an experimental question or a set of data—numbers, graphs, images, observations—that they collected or that I provided to them.  Their challenge was to analyze the data and draw a conclusion.  The conclusion they drew was—by my design—the concept that I wanted them to learn that day.

When I began taking courses in my doctoral program, I learned that what I was doing with my students was, in the main, a form of constructivist and inquiry teaching.  More specifically, this approach (and the learning experiences that followed) closely paralleled what was known in the field as a learning cycle.  Briefly, a basic learning cycle involves students 1) beginning their learning about a concept usually through a hands-on investigation of a phenomenon or materials; 2) getting a clearer understanding of the concept through a variety of instructional approaches including additional labs, readings, lecture, videos, demonstrations, and others; and 3) applying the learning in a new context (e.g., Bybee, 1997; Bybee, Taylor, Gardner, Van Scotter, Powell, Westbrook, & Landes, 2006; Bybee, Powell, & Trowbridge, 2007; Karplus & Thier, 1967; Lawson, Abraham, & Renner, 1989).

As I looked to move from my career as a high school science teacher to the one ahead as a science teacher educator, I was thrilled to learn that what I had been doing had a name, theory, research (e.g., Bybee et al., 2006; National Research Council 2006), and even curriculum behind it.  Because my own teaching had become so much more powerful for my high school students—and so much more enjoyable for me—I was driven to teach the learning cycle to the new science teacher candidates so that they could use it to support learning and thinking in their own classrooms.  I was pleased that I would have more legitimacy behind my aspirations for my pre-service teachers’ instructional designs than simply, “Hey, this really worked for me and my students!”  The published and researched versions of the learning cycle were so well developed, so well articulated, and so integrated into the world of science education, that I felt that helping new teachers learn to plan using that model would be fairly easy—certainly easier than the fumbling around that I had done for a few years.

Naming Rights—or Naming Wrongs?

I was caught entirely by surprise, then, when the preservice science teachers whom I mentored and supervised in my doctoral program struggled so much to learn and adopt the learning cycle in their planning.  What seemed to be such a straightforward concept to me perplexed and befuddled them.  For all the time they spent learning and writing using the Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate (5E) model (e.g., Bybee 1997, 2002, 2006; Bybee et al. 2007)—two four-credit secondary science methods courses over two terms—they struggled enormously to write lesson plans using the model.

A troublesome aspect of the 5E model seemed—ironically—to be the clever, alliterative 5E naming system itself: the preservice secondary science teachers struggled to remember what each of the Es of the 5E model stood for.  Worse, tripping up over what the Es stood for made them lose track completely of the overarching idea of the progression of thinking and learning that make up the pedagogical foundation of the learning cycle.   The typical response to being asked about the 5E Learning Cycle was a variation on a theme: “The five Es?  Um, I think explore, and expand, . . . explain, and . . . and . . . oh yeah, evaluate, and . . . shoot.  How many is that?”  The few students who could come up with all five names could not name them in order.  It seemed that while “5E” was catchy, the real meat of the learning cycle was not.  The students were—I really cannot resist this—missing the forest for the Es.

When I graduated from my doctoral program and began teaching science methods courses myself, I tried both the 5E model because of its power, presence, and ubiquity in science education and the three-part Exploration, Term/Concept Introduction, Concept Application model (Karplus, 1979; Karplus & Butts, 1977; Karplus & Thier, 1967; Lawson et al., 1989) because of its simplicity, permanence, and historical importance.  But the Explore/Exploration name in both models was too loose for my students.  What did it mean to “explore”?  “Exploration” could be a lot of interesting but aimless wandering.  My students could come up with all sorts of cool hands-on “explorations”—opportunities for students to put their hands on materials and play around with them—but to what end?  That was the problem with “exploring;” there was no promise or expectation that one would actually find anything.

The implication set by the words “exploration” and “explore” was setting the bar too low for both teacher and students.  With the publication of both A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013), the importance of using planning schema that emphasize scientific and engineering practices—especially, in this step, making hypotheses, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, and engaging in argument from evidence (NRC, 2012)—cannot be underestimated. Bybee et al. (2006) articulated about the Explore stage that, as “a result of their mental and physical involvement in the activity, the students establish relationships, observe patterns, identify variables” (p. 9). The language of “exploration,” however, allows the novice teacher-planner to underestimate the possibility for real conceptual learning and for engagement in scientific practices.

Re-Branding the Stages

Based on the difficulties with the stage names that I saw my preservice science students experiencing, I devised a new naming system to use as I introduced the learning cycle to them. I stuck with the original core three stages—or, put another way, I lopped off the first and last of the 5Es that had been added to the older models (Bybee et al., 2006).  My reasoning for the lopping was not that engagement and assessment (“evaluation” in the 5E) were in some way insignificant; to the contrary, I lopped them out of the learning cycle because they are critical components that should frame—and be seamlessly woven throughout—all lesson plans, not just those using a learning cycle approach.  Our licensure program uses a lesson plan template that requires our preservice teachers to articulate their assessment plans (prior knowledge, formative, and future summative) as well as their plans to motivationally, physically, and cognitively engage their students in the learning.  Because of that requirement, and because of the months that we have already spent in class building skills in engaging students and designing assessments, including the “Engage” and “Evaluate” portions of the learning cycle were unnecessary—and, in fact, a bit awkward—in instruction about the learning cycle as a distinct approach to teaching and learning.

For the first stage, I decided on the name Concept Discovery.  In this stage, students are provided with a phenomenon, a structured or guided inquiry lab opportunity (Bell, Smetana, & Binns, 2005), or a set of data to examine.  Often, they are provided an investigable question for which they propose a hypothesis, then design and carry out a test of that hypothesis.  Using inductive reasoning, they examine the data and draw a conclusion—often the noticing of a pattern, relationship, or cause and effect—which they then justify with evidence and share out with peers.  As they work, the teacher supports learning by watching, listening, asking probing questions, and providing scaffolding as needed.

I am intentional about using the word “Concept” in the name: I want it to be exceptionally clear to the teacher-planners that students are discovering a particular concept in this stage; they are not simply being tossed into a murky sea of data or materials with the hope that they may discover something.  The quotation marks are also intentional. The “Discovery” going on is akin to Columbus “discovering” America: students are not really discovering anything new to the world, they are discovering something new to themselvesToo, the discovery is contrived: they are participating in a learning experience specifically engineered to allow them—through the processes of interpreting data and making and defending claims (and, quite often, brainstorming variables, making predictions, designing tests, and engaging in scientific debate)—to come to the intended meaning.

The second step I named Concept Clarification.  The focus in this step is the teacher making sure that, regardless of—but built through discussion of—individual or group findings, the whole class comes to a common understanding of the main idea arising from the discovery experience.  The teacher makes sure that appropriate terms are introduced and defined, preferably with definitions crafted as a class based on their experiences of the concept during the Concept Discovery stage.  The teacher also uses discussion, notes, video clips, images, modeling, readings, additional laboratory experiences, and other instructional strategies to help students refine the understanding they built in the Concept Discovery stage.

The third step I left intact as Concept Application, the step in which students apply their new learning—often in conjunction with their understanding of previous concepts—in order to solve a new problem.

The naming and structure of the Concept Discovery, Concept Clarification, Concept Application (DCA) learning cycle is intended to help my preservice secondary science teachers plan single lessons or multi-day instructional sequences that allow their students to discover one concept, achieve clarity on that same concept, and then apply it to a new situation before moving on to learn the next concept.

Practicing What I Teach

The naming systems were, of course, not the only thing—and likely not the major thing—holding back mastery of the learning cycle.  I realized as I began to teach science methods courses myself that the very thing that had made learning science so difficult for me in high school—traditional instruction that started with terms, notes, and readings—was keeping the preservice science teachers from learning the learning cycle.  If leading with new terminology and following with notes and examples did not work for teaching meiosis or the rock cycle, why would it work for teaching the learning cycle?  I realized that if I wanted my own preservice teachers to learn to teach using the learning cycle, I would need to help them learn it through a learning cycle.  Over the past decade, then, I have worked to develop and refine a way of helping preservice teachers master the learning cycle in a way that honors the pedagogy of the approach itself.

I begin my lessons on the learning cycle with an assessment of prior knowledge that also serves to pique my preservice students’ interest.  I ask my students to write out or diagram what they regard to be a good general structure for the teaching of their content, be it life science, chemistry, or physics.  I have my students share their representations with their content-area partners to see if they find any similarities.  With little variation, they include lecture and lab—always in that order—as central to science teaching.  I then let them know that we will be learning a lesson structure called the “learning cycle” over the next several class periods.  In my efforts to model good instructional technique, I post the following objectives on the board:

  • Name and describe the stages of a learning cycle;
  • Create an instructional sequence using the learning cycle.

Concept Discovery

To begin the Concept Discovery stage for my students to learn the DCA learning cycle, I pass out vignettes of four lessons, one each for class sessions in Language Arts, World Language, Mathematics, and Health (see Appendix A for these vignettes).  I use examples from non-science classes because I want my students to focus on the type of thinking and tasks happening, not on the content or if they think there is a “better” way to teach that content.  Each vignette is divided into three short paragraphs, each paragraph describing what the teacher and students are doing in that stage of the learning cycle.  Importantly, I do not label the names of the stages at this point as that would undermine my preservice students’ opportunity to “discover” the heart of each stage.

I ask my students to read through the vignettes—the “data,” though I do not call it that—first without making any notes.  Then, I ask them to read through them looking at just the first stage in all four, then just the second stage, then just the third stage.  I then ask them to make notes about what the students and the teachers are doing in each stage and try to come up with a name for each stage.  Once they have completed that individual work, I put my students into groups of three to four to share out their ideas.  I spend my time roaming the room, informally checking in on their ideas as they talk and write.

Concept Clarification

Once my student groups are ready to share out, I put a chart on the board with “Stage 1,” “Stage 2,” and “Stage 3” down the left side and “Teacher does” and “Students does” on the top.  I ask them to tell me which stage they feel most confident about and want to start with (it is always the third stage).  I get them to fill in the boxes in the chart for that row and suggest a name (it is almost always “application,” lending support to the appropriateness of this name).  We then move on to the other rows and do the same.  Once we have the table filled in and I have circled the things they contributed that are central to the learning cycle and not simply to good teaching (for example, “students looking for patterns” is central to the first stage of the learning cycle but “students working as individuals and then small groups” is not), I unveil my “real” names for the stages and we craft short definitions of each from what we have recorded on the board (Figure 1).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample chart on board.

I then have students read a handout I wrote that summarizes each stage of the DCA learning cycle (see Appendix B).  For the next several class sessions, I model learning cycle lessons in science for them, with them as my mock middle and high school students.  The examples I use (see Appendix C for summaries of the example lessons) involve an array of concepts (both declarative and procedural) from life science, chemistry, and physics; contain Concept Discovery experiences that use a wide variety of data types, data-gathering techniques, and data analysis approaches; and vary tremendously in the length and complexity of both Concept Clarification and Concept Application activities.  My goal in using such a broad range of experiences is to help my methods students see a) that learning cycles can be used in all areas science, and b) that while the type of student cognitive work in each stage is consistent across different topics, there is great diversity in the types of learning tasks, instructional strategies, and assessment practices that a learning cycle can employ.

After each model lesson that I lead, I ask students to first write individually and then discuss with their partner where each stage began and ended in that lesson.  Though I have shown for the reader how the three parts of each lesson are broken up, I do not reveal those transitions to my students while I am leading the lessons.  I want them to have to puzzle through the boundaries of the stages as part of their cognitive work in learning the stages.

After informally keeping track of student ideas as they work, I lead a discussion of their perceptions and my intentions about the boundaries of the stages. I also help them see the fuzziness of those boundaries in transition: Is group share-out part of Concept Discovery or Concept Clarification?  Is practice part of Concept Clarification or Concept Application?  I remind my students that relative order of learning experiences is what is paramount, not how we divide up the sometimes fuzzy borders.

After the wrap-up discussion of the last lesson, I ask them to reflect on how I had helped them learn about the learning cycle: What did I have you do first? Then what did I have you do?  Very quickly, someone cries out, “You learning cycled us!”  I ask them why they think I “learning cycled” them instead of having them learn it in a different way.  Someone is always quick to suggest—correctly—that I must think that using a learning cycle is the best way to help people learn something new.

Concept Application

I then ask my preservice teachers what stage we haven’t done yet (Concept Application) and what an effective application for the concept of the learning cycle might be.  They gulp when they realize that, of course, I’ll be asking them to create a learning cycle lesson.  I start their work on learning to write learning cycle lessons by assigning students concepts in their discipline and asking them to brainstorm things they might include in a DCA learning cycle lesson that would help students learn that concept.  While I observe and scaffold with prompts as needed, students combine into groups to create and share a DCA lesson on their assigned topic.

Students then are asked to plan one learning cycle lesson on their own as part of a larger summative assessment for the course—a unit plan that they research and build over the term.  I ask them first to submit to me—for points—the objective(s) for the lesson as well as a rough description (a few sentences) of their plan for each stage of the learning cycle.  If the idea is viable, I allow them to move forward with their planning.  If the idea is confusing or not viable, I ask them to resubmit it as many times as necessary.  If they are unable to make a workable plan, I point them in a workable direction for the lesson with the understanding that they will not get credit for the draft.  I then have the students lead the Concept Discovery portion of their lesson, and other stages if time allows, either in their clinical placement or with their peers in our class.  They gather feedback from the students, reflect on what they learned from their experience teaching, and use that information to write the final draft of their lesson (see example student lesson plans in Appendices E and F).  The learning cycle aspect of the lesson plan is then evaluated using a brief scoring guide that evaluates the degree to which each stage achieves its goal:

  1. Concept Discovery section is appropriately designed so that students can “discover” a new-to-them concept (60%).
  2. Concept Clarification section sticks to the exact same concept, not just same topic or benchmark, and fully clarifies it with examples, notes, definitions, and whatever else would be helpful and relevant for that concept (20%).
  3. Concept Application asks students to use exactly the same concept in a new way, alone or in conjunction with previously learned concepts (20%).

I weight the Concept Discovery section three times as much as each of the other two stages because it is the lynchpin of the learning cycle.  Excellent Concept Clarification and Concept Application plans are evidence of excellent learning cycle planning skills only if the Concept Discovery phase is workable.  Without a workable Concept Discovery stage, I do not have evidence that my students can plan a learning cycle lesson.

Next Steps

Once my students have had the opportunity to complete their application of the learning cycle concept by writing a learning cycle lesson plan, I move to the next need: translating their understanding of the DCA learning cycle to the models used in the field of science education.  It is critically important to me that my preservice students are able to engage in the discourse around the learning cycle in their professional networks, in their planning, and in their professional development.  In the end, the DCA learning cycle is not meant to be an end in itself—I have no interest in seeing any of the other models ousted—it is only meant to serve as a clearer means to teach the underlying framework or philosophy of “the” learning cycle, whichever final model one chooses.

For this brief learning cycle, I set the objectives as, “Explain the evolutionary roots and development of ‘the’ learning cycle” and “Defend a lesson plan using published learning cycle theory.”  For Concept Discovery, I ask my students to examine the 5E model and Keeley’s (2008) SAIL model, then craft text or a diagram that articulates the areas of alignment and divergence that they see (Figure 2, Figure 3, Figure 4).  After students share those models with each other, for Concept Clarification, I diagram the areas of alignment on the board along with a branched evolutionary timeline showing the learning cycles by Karplus (Karplus, 1979; Karplus & Butts, 1977; Karplus & Thier, 1967), Lawson (Lawson et al., 1989; Lawson, 1995), Bybee (1997), and Keeley (2008) as a background for why the alignments are present.  For application, my students need to rewrite the rationale for the pedagogy of their lesson plan using one of the published models of the learning cycle as the theoretical base in place of the DCA cycle.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Student Comparison 1.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Student Comparison 2.

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). Student Comparison 3.

Additional Support for Creating Concept “Discovery” Activities

I recognized a few years into my career as a science teacher educator that my preservice teachers struggled the most with creating discovery portions of the learning cycle.  After a couple years of beating my head against a wall and wailing at the reading of some of my students’ derailed, tangled, or simply traditional confirmation labs (Bell et al., 2005) they were calling “discovery,” I realized that they needed more help in conceptualizing and building true, inductive, Concept Discovery experiences for their own secondary students.  They also needed help moving beyond simply thinking about labs as ways of learning, especially for content that did not lend itself to laboratory investigations

As I analyzed my own learning cycle lessons trying to figure out how I was crafting them, I realized that there were some unwritten templates that I was employing.  I first identified three main categories into which the Concept Discovery activities fit: drawing conclusions from data; inferring rules, definitions, or relationships from examples; and ordering or sorting based on observable characteristics. As I used those categories over the years and added examples, I found that all three categories—not just the first—really involved students in “drawing conclusions from data.” Additionally, I realized that I was subdividing the examples in the first category in ways that were more helpful than the larger category itself.  I then arrived at six main—and, at times, overlapping—categories into which Concept Discovery learning experiences fall:

  • investigating a hypothesis in a laboratory investigation;
  • finding patterns in extant data sets;
  • experiencing the phenomenon (live or through simulation);
  • mimicking the way the relationship or phenomenon was discovered by scientists;
  • ordering or sorting based on observable characteristics; and
  • inferring rules, definitions, or relationships from examples.

Each approach involves students in using the science practices of “analyzing and interpreting data” and “constructing explanations” as well as one or more additional science practices (NRC, 2012).  I provide my science methods students with a handout on these categories of Concept Discovery experiences (Appendix D) and ask them to identify which type each of my example learning cycle lessons employed.  Providing my preservice science teachers with this categorization of Concept Discovery has helped them to expand their imagining of Concept Discovery experiences from just laboratory investigations to a myriad of data-driven inductive cognitive experiences.  That freeing of their imagination has been especially helpful to students in chemistry and biology who frequently find themselves needing to address standards that do not seem to lend themselves to laboratory investigations.

Taking Stock, Moving Forward

Student Perspectives

My methods students and I have a tremendous amount of fun with the learning cycle in my courses.  The amount of laughter and engaged conversation during the learning cycle experiences lets me know that they are enjoying themselves; the quality of their related assignments, lessons plans, and microteaching lets me know that learning and growth is happening.  Responses to open-ended questions in on-line course evaluations, too, show that students really value the learning cycle experiences in shaping them as teachers.  One student’s entry into the “best part of the course” section nicely captures the range of sentiments that students share:

I really enjoyed and got a lot out of all of the mini inquiry/discovery lessons we got to experience. They were fun, but they also gave me many concrete and easy­to­remember examples of how to get students involved in discovering concepts. Very good meta­teaching. I also enjoyed planning for and teaching the mini lessons. It was good, low­pressure practice.

The bulk of the comments each term focuses on the role of “modeling” of effective instruction.   When students write about modeling, they are at times referring to the fact that I practice “what I preach” in the instruction of our class: I teach the learning cycle through a learning cycle.  At other times, they are referring to my leading of demonstration science lessons with them as stand-ins for secondary students.  Comment after comment makes clear that whether the student has never seen constructivism in action, learns best by doing, wants to see more practical examples of best practices or inquiry in science, or just appreciates the alignment of my expectations of their teaching and my teaching, they find the modeling to be powerful.  One student, for example, wrote,

I liked seeing the activities from the point of view from the students. Moreover, I like the way you role played the teacher trying not to break character. This gave me more insight on how the flow of the classroom should be directed and how to use open questions.

Students also express relief in finally being able to put some meat on their skeleton ideas of what “constructivism,” “inquiry,” and “student-centered” really mean.  One student wrote, “I liked having the opportunity to see lots of discovery and inquiry activities, instead of just hearing that I’m supposed to use inquiry.”  Another shared,

Before this class I had lots of vague ideas about the importance of student centered learning…I have been able to focus my ideas and see examples and practices to turn these ideas into great instruction. I feel much more confident as I proceed into teaching.

The comments also confirm for me that part of why these learning experiences are effective is that they are, after all, constructivist.  Occasionally, a student recognizes the constructivist possibilities that the approach affords, like my student who wrote, “I learn sciecne [sic] best by hands on and that is exactly what this course was and by doing activites [sic], it was easy for me to see where students may stumble.”  Fortunately, the constructivism can be just as powerful for students who are traditional in both their own learning preference and their teaching philosophy.  One student wrote that the modeling and micro-teaching “pushed me toward a more student centered teaching and away from my own way of learning.”

Given that I see my two main professional challenges in science methods instruction as 1) changing the belief structures of my traditional learners towards a constructivist paradigm for teaching, and 2) supporting the motivated constructivists to develop constructivist practices, the comments from my students let me know that the learning cycle experiences are helping me make progress towards those goals.

The View from Here

After almost a decade teaching the DCA learning cycle in a learning cycle format and six years providing examples of the types of discovery experiences teachers can design, I have gotten to a place of more comfort with what my preservice science teachers are able to do.  Sure, I still have a few students who cannot create a coherent discovery experience as part of a meaningful learning cycle, but they are now the exception rather than the rule.  They are students whose content knowledge, focus, beliefs, or academic skills are simply not aligned with those needed for the immense cognitive task of creating Concept Discovery experience.  But my other students, most of my students—including many with in-coming traditional beliefs about teaching and learning—are able to successfully craft excellent learning cycle experiences and are able to articulate the theory supporting that lesson model.  They are thus, I believe, well-positioned to enter the field of science teaching ready to build their planning, instructional, and assessment skills in ways that align with what we know in science education about effective teaching.  My next big task?  To help them do just that in their first few years in the classroom.