The Challenge of Teaching Science
Teaching science is challenging, not in the least because many of the ideas that we ask our students to believe are not obvious. After all, why should we believe the ground on which we stand is spherical rather than flat? Why should we believe that day and night are caused by a spinning Earth when it seems obvious that the Sun moves? Convincing students of the truth of these beliefs requires teachers to let students engage in arguments from evidence. On the one hand, there is the evidence that both the Sun and the stars appear to move. But that would put us at the center of the Universe which would make us very special. There is also the empirical evidence provided by Foucault’s pendulum and a photograph of the night sky taken with the camera pointed at a pole star with the shutter left open for 8 hours. All the stars appear to move around the pole star. It could be that they do, but a much simpler explanation is that the ground on which the camera sits is turning.
Then there are questions such as: “Is a seed alive or dead?”, “Where does the mass of a plant come from?”, “Where does the water on the outside of a cold Coke can come from on a hot day?” Such questions are best addressed not by telling students the answers but by giving students an opportunity to consider the evidence and engage in discussion and argument about what is the most justified explanation. Why? The evidence suggests that the conceptual understanding gained through such exercises is better and more enduring. In short, knowing why you are wrong matters as much as knowing why you are right. Only if you can explain why the Earth is not flat, why air has mass or why heavier things do not always fall faster, can you really be confident that the Earth is a sphere, that air does have mass, and that the acceleration of an object is independent of mass (in the absence of air friction) (Osborne, 2010).
Learning New Approaches to Teaching Science
Running such discussions is challenging. Traditionally teachers have maintained tight control of the classroom discourse using a discursive form known as IRE: initiated by the teacher – generally with a question, followed by a response that is typically short or phrase-like from a single student which, in turn, is followed by an evaluation of the quality of the answer by the teacher. This form of pedagogical discourse rarely goes beyond demanding much more than recall and is cognitively undemanding. Also, only one student has to answer while the other students in the class are relieved of the responsibility to do any cognitive work (Cazden, 2001; Lemke, 1990). Going beyond this model requires teachers to develop a classroom which uses a more productive form of discourse. But what does that look like? First, it means valuing students engaging in discussion. Second, it means learning the pedagogical moves to initiate such discussion, and third it requires teachers to learn the pedagogical strategies that support student discussion (Resnick, Michaels, & O’Connor, 2010).
Design-Based Implementation Research to Investigate Supporting Teachers to Facilitate Argumentation-Based Classroom Discussion
In the research we conducted, we studied whether teachers could build the competency required to engage their students in arguing from evidence while teaching science through their participation in a professional development program (Osborne et al., 2019). The research was a collaboration between a team from the Lawrence Hall of Science who undertook the professional development and our research team at Stanford who sought to measure the impact of the professional development on discussions during science lessons. Participating teachers taught in a local school district.
The Practicum Academy to Improve Science Education (PRACTICE) Program
Our approach to building their capacity was based on a program that drew on what is known about features of effective professional development (PD) (Desimone, 2009). These features include:
- a clear focus on subject matter content and how students learn that content;
- opportunities for teachers to interact and discuss the suggested approaches;
- a synergy with the curriculum, school, and district priorities;
- sufficient duration in terms of number of hours and sufficient time for teachers to try out new approaches and reflect on how well they worked; and
- collective participation by the teachers working collaboratively to improve their practice.
To this end, Lawrence Hall designed a PD program focused on how to enable argumentation and science discussions in the elementary classroom. The program consisted of a one-week summer institute followed by two weeks during which the teachers could practice their skills with classes of students attending a summer school. 23 teachers were recruited for this program. A similar number were also recruited for a program that only had the summer institute without the practicum experience. In addition to the summer PD program, both cohorts attended 4 follow-up days each year for the next 2 years. The reason for the 2 cohorts is that we wanted to test whether the opportunity to build competency by practicing in a safe environment would be effective. A third cohort of teachers were also recruited who acted as the control sample.
The summer PD included a variety of activities focused on argumentation and science discussions such as interactive presentations, modeling of lessons representative of the desired teaching practices, and analysis of artifacts of practice such as vignettes and classroom videos. During the follow-up days, teachers participated in facilitator-led discussions of video segments from their own classrooms, planned in school-based teams, and reflected on their successes and challenges in fostering science discussions. Full details of the program, called Practicum Academy to Improve Science Education (PRACTISE), can be found here.
Our research was designed to answer the question, “To what extent, if any, does elementary teachers’ participation in a PD program focused on discourse and argumentation in science influence classroom discourse practices?” We were also interested in whether there were differences in discourse practices associated with teachers’ participation in the practicum and non-practicum versions of the PD.
After looking at many ways of measuring classroom discourse, we settled on measuring 6 specific features of classroom talk drawing on other previously validated measures and adapting them to argumentation in science. The first 3 features focus on the teacher’s role in orchestrating discussions. First, how well are teachers able to pose open-ended questions which generate productive science discussions? Second, how well do they press their students to explain their reasoning? Third, how well do they relate one student’s contribution to another and advance the discussion so that it makes epistemic progress – by that we mean discussions during which flawed ideas are eliminated or improved. The other 3 features address the students’ participation in the discussion. First, we looked at the extent to which students were able to provide elaborated explanations or claims and support them with evidence. Second, we looked for how well they built on one another’s contributions and co-constructed their understanding. Finally, we looked at how well they engaged in constructive, critical commentary on each other’s reasoning.
Our research team used the Science Discourse Instrument (SDI) to rate videos of discussions in the teachers’ science lessons. Each discourse practice was rated on a four-point scale from whether it was used consistently to never. The procedure we followed was to rate in pairs, with each rater first rating the video individually, and then the pair discussing any disagreements in order to reach a consensus rating. Prior to the rating process, the research team rated common videos, and then discussed disagreements and how to interpret the scale until the level of agreement was sufficient to match commonly accepted statistical measures of reliability.
We then used the SDI to assess these features of productive talk in videos of two science lessons per year during which students were engaged in discussions. Our findings show that teachers’ and students’ discourse practices improved significantly in the first year, and this improvement was sustained across the following two years. However, we found no evidence that the practicum experience made a difference; that is, there were no significant differences between teachers who attended the practicum and those who did not. We also found that some practices were easier to implement than others. Essentially teachers found it easier to ask open-ended questions than they did to press their students for their reasoning, and easier to press for reasoning than to link one student response to another. Likewise, students were better at providing elaborated explanations than they were at building on one another’s responses, and instances of critique were rare.
These findings are important as they show that it is possible to improve the competency of elementary teachers to engage their students in academically productive discussions. The major change was a result of a one-week summer institute and 8 follow-up days. We hypothesize that the follow-up days in year 2 helped teachers to sustain their new skills. However, how essential the follow-up days are to sustaining the practice is an open question. Our findings also provide support for the effectiveness of PD programs that use videos to focus teachers’ learning opportunities on the features of teaching they are designed to improve, and to bring the central activities of teaching into the PD setting (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Borko et al., 2014). Specifically, these results can inform the work of the following stakeholders:
- Teachers – For students to use argumentation in science, there needs to be significant changes in teaching practices. Such changes can be achieved through professional development that provides appropriate support to teachers to facilitate discussions which help students to: (i) develop elaborated explanations, (ii) build on one another’s responses, and (iii) critique others’ ideas. The last two types of practices are the ones for which the students need the most support.
- Teacher Candidates – Facilitating such discussions is a complex competency that requires time to develop. Pre-service candidates would benefit from opportunities to practice these skills even if they are unlikely to have sufficient time to become skilled.
- Teacher Educators – The PRACTISE team developed an implementation handbook for professional learning specialists who are interested in conducting professional learning sessions focused on helping elementary classroom teachers to facilitate argumentation with their students. A detailed introduction and overview of the Leaders Handbook can be downloaded here. The entire Leaders Handbook is available for download by request to Emily Weiss. The findings suggest that facilitating argumentation is easier for practices that can be planned, such as the type of questions that can open a discussion involving argumentation. It is harder for practices that involve taking into account the ideas that are put on the table by the students in-the-moment, such as pressing them for evidence or linking multiple ideas. We think that these argumentation practices would benefit from further attention in teacher learning.
- Researchers – The Stanford research team developed an observation instrument for rating classroom discourse practices. The instrument identifies six features of effective argumentation practices – 3 focused on teachers and 3 focused on students. This instrument may be useful for researchers interested in studying discourse practices in science classrooms. It is available by request from Coralie Delhaye. In addition, the findings highlight the difficulty of developing teacher and student practices that require students to reason and argue from evidence. The findings from our work point to the need to study further other practices that teachers might find challenging and professional learning opportunities that support their development.
- Policymakers – Professional learning that presents the features of the PRACTISE program is an effective and sustainable way to develop argumentation practices in the classroom. Large-scale implementation of such programs would bring considerable support to school districts, school sites, and teachers, in implementing Next Generation Science Standards.
In the second phase of our project which we are currently undertaking, we are working with a group of teachers to facilitate PD with teachers in their school district. Further details are available at the Improving Practice Together (IPT) project webpage.
Learning how to educate the teaching force to meet the needs of 21st century schools remains an enduring challenge. School systems are increasingly looking to develop higher order competencies in students. To do so demands a pedagogy that places an emphasis on the ability to reason, critique, and evaluate knowledge claims (Baker, 2014). How we produce a system of PD to enable teachers to acquire 21st century pedagogies is, therefore, an important question. Our research program is one small contribution to a better understanding of this challenge.