Elaine Howes, Ph.D., Senior Specialist in Science and Teacher Education, American Museum of Natural History
Jamie Wallace, Ph.D., Manager of Evaluation and Data Collection, American Museum of Natural History
Inspired by a challenge to design a research study of teacher effectiveness based on measures beyond student test scores, we were awarded a Noyce Track 4 research grant from the National Science Foundation to explore teacher effectiveness through culturally responsive education and core practices. The first year of our study, Investigating Effective Teaching Through a Culturally Responsive Lens (Grant #1950260), was seriously impacted by the pandemic. In this blog, we describe these challenges and how we are adapting to and learning from them—including new ways of working with teachers and colleagues.
Through this five-year study, conducted by researchers from Noyce-supported teacher preparation programs at the American Museum of Natural History (Elaine Howes, Jamie Wallace, and Melanie Hopkins), the State University of New York College at Cortland (Dominick Fantacone and Sean Nolan), and Virginia Commonwealth University (Elizabeth Edmondson and Aimee Ellington), we are developing two sets of case studies to: 1) depict specific teacher preparation program components at our three sites and 2) describe the teaching practices of program graduates. Given the locations of our three programs, we will learn about culturally responsive science teaching in rural and urban and northern and southern high-need schools. We focus specifically on earth science, chemistry, and physics.
Dual Lenses: Culturally Responsive Education and Core Practices
Culturally responsive education (CRE) is a crucial foundation for effectively teaching in high-need schools that serve immigrants, students from families in poverty, and students whose home cultures are different from those of the teaching population (Cruz et al., 2014; Villegas & Lucas, 2007). We base our understanding of CRE in scholarship that enhances the learning of traditionally underserved students (Gay, 2010; Johnston et al., 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris & Alim, 2017). In creating a framework, we drew upon several threads that appear regularly throughout these interpretations: students’ academic success, cultural competence, and development of critical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995), and the integration of students’ lived experiences and cultural and language assets into instruction (Moll et al., 1992; Lopez, 2017). We use the phrase “culturally responsive science teaching” to refer to classroom instruction that incorporates teaching practices that create science classrooms in which all students engage productively in rigorous science learning (Brown, 2021; Larkin, 2019; Mensah, 2019; Wallace et al., 2022; Windschitl & Calabrese Barton, 2016).
We drew upon these threads to develop tenets of CRE in which the teacher:
- values the ideas, experiences, and ways of making sense of and communicating about the world that students bring to the classroom as assets and uses these assets as resources for teaching;
- draws upon students’ cultures to strengthen and sustain their connections to them;
- holds high expectations for all students’ academic learning; and
- possesses and supports in their students the development of a critical consciousness with respect to sociopolitical issues.
The central goal of this research study is to bring images of culturally responsive science teaching to life. Thus, we wonder:
- What, if anything, do science teachers do that represent the four tenets above?
- What do they think about when they plan instruction and assess science learning based in the CRE tenets?
- What challenges and successes might they encounter in the science classroom as they do so?
- How do students respond to culturally responsive science teaching?
The second lens is core teaching practices, which represent teaching practices based on evidence of student learning (Forzani, 2014; Stroupe et al., 2020) and are central to teaching a given discipline (i.e., science) and considered reasonable and appropriate for novice teachers to learn. We recognize research efforts to define core teaching practices focusing on both wider and finer grain sizes, and we draw on the research base including TeachingWorks (Ball & Forzani, 2011), a Delphi expert panel study in science education (Kloser, 2014), the Core Practices Consortium, and the Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) framework (Windschitl et al., 2018). While these sets of core practices aim to support the academic success of all students, researchers have also identified core practices that specifically draw from CRE concepts, including: practices that support teachers in learning about and valuing their students’ thinking and ideas as resources (Roth et al., 2018; Larkin, 2017); practices that help novices create authentic assessments to develop relationships with students and their families (McDonald et al., 2013); and practices that help teachers communicate productively with urban stakeholders (Hammerness & Kennedy, 2019).
Our study attends to the need for images of CRE enacted in high-need settings and how teacher preparation programs communicate about the real-world implementation of these practices. In our study, we are informed by the AST framework identifying four core science teaching practices: 1) eliciting student’s ideas, 2) using big ideas, 3) supporting changes in students’ thinking, and 4) pressing for evidence-based explanations. Figure 1 outlines the conceptual framework of this research study.
Figure 1. Conceptual Framework
What Is Distinct About This Study?
Although it may seem like a recent buzzword in science education, culturally responsive education as a pedagogical theory is not new. However, the exploratory design of our study incorporates several distinctive elements and is specific to science teaching and learning how to teach science in high-need settings.
First, we use qualitative methods to explore the complex phenomena of teacher effectiveness through CRE and core teaching practices. Developing case studies and cross-case analyses will help us to respond to questions that arise from the theoretical perspective: What can teacher preparation programs do to support preservice and novice teachers in implementing culturally responsive science education in their classrooms? What does culturally responsive science teaching look like in real classrooms? A primary driver of this design is that few qualitative studies of “effective teaching” exist, as teacher effectiveness is generally determined through the use of students’ test scores. While measures of quantitative achievement data can offer important insights, they don’t provide useful images of what teachers actually do to help their students engage with and learn science in culturally responsive ways.
A second distinctive feature is that of the Research Team Teacher (RTT). Historically, teachers have been the subjects of study rather than those doing the research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993) and a group that has been traditionally “othered.” Informed by the traditions of practitioner inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2015) and action research (Capobianco et al., 2020), we developed the role for experienced, practicing science teachers who are program graduates. The role of the RTT is that of a co-researcher engaging in and informing each stage of the study, from developing instruments to collecting and analyzing data, to writing and working with program-based researchers. While action research and teacher inquiry focuses on teachers studying their own classrooms, an important distinction between these traditions and this particular role is that the RTTs in our project are studying the instruction of other teachers, including the preparation of teachers.
A third aspect of the design is to use a culturally responsive collaborative research approach grounded in both culturally responsive research and collaborative research, viewing teachers and their expertise as central to learning about teaching and positioning teachers as research partners rather than as subjects of study (Han et al., 2014; Willegems et al., 2017). This approach requires us to seriously consider “whose expertise counts in the education of new teachers and in the work of college and university teacher educators” (Zeichner et al., 2015, p. 10). Culturally responsive researchers aim to make research methods transparent and equitable (Rodriquez et al., 2011; Trainor & Bal, 2014), to interrogate traditional ways of conducting research (Berryman et al, 2013), to examine researcher biases and contexts (Garribay, 2017), and to bring multiple perspectives into the research through the inclusion of voices across various groups of stakeholders. For example, in the first year of our study we interviewed our programs’ graduates, faculty, leadership, and mentors to explore multiple perspectives on their images of effective teaching and if/how the program prepares teachers for CRE and core practices.
Research Challenges of the Pandemic: Responding and Adapting
Scheduled to begin in midsummer of 2020, we found ourselves in the teeth of a deadly and world-altering pandemic. Things that have since become habitual, e.g., remote conferencing, were still new. We had to revise our plans for bringing our partners from upstate New York and Virginia to the Museum to solidify our understanding of our framework and protocols for Year 1.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the state of New York very hard. Our program sites were shut down, re-opened, and some shut down again. Faculty were over-taxed with new technologies and administrators needed to deal with stresses on finances. We had to modify aspects of our timeline, budget, and personnel. Given these challenges, our study was delayed by nearly a year. Nonetheless, we managed these challenges and made our study attentive to our circumstances and participants.
The pandemic overlapped with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of ongoing murders across the country—something we could not ignore in our study, as its purpose is to further science education for all students. We introduced this set of concerns into our study and are tracking changes in our teacher education programs over time, both in reference to the pandemic and the contemporary racial justice movement.
Thus, while the pandemic posed profound challenges, it also added another layer to our study design. It provided an opportunity to study a phenomenon that affected everyone in different ways – a varied and yet shared lived experience. The pandemic and the ongoing racial justice movements afforded the opportunity to be more responsive to this contemporary context, as we adapted and coped with the tragedies and heartbreak differently. Thus, our responses and changes included:
- incorporating the pandemic into our study context;
- incorporating contemporary racial justice movements into our study context;
- integrating questions into interview protocols for Years 1-3 to document changes in programs and to learn from our participants what was important for them in light of the pandemic and racial justice movements;
- shifting to conduct the study online with virtual meetings, reducing travel, and increasing flexibility in meeting times to be more responsive to teachers’ school schedules.
Along with our colleagues, we learned the technology to support remote conferencing. We learned from practicing teachers (including RTTs) about tools that make online interactions engaging and interpersonally rewarding. Breakout rooms for small-group discussions, collaborative electronic “posters,” and use of the chat for conversations helped us to apply familiar participation structures to the virtual realm. Saddened by the inability to be together in person, we were supported by regular discussions of our site teams’ progress, and our own and our communities’ struggles to adapt and survive.
In the midst of these multiple challenges, we welcomed the opportunity to develop an essential aspect of our design—the Research Team Teacher role.
What Are We Learning About the Research Team Teacher Role?
When it became clear that our research team meetings would be virtual for the foreseeable future, we pivoted from conceiving of two RTTs per participating program working with local project-based researchers to a more geographically inclusive role whereby program graduates could participate remotely. In this first year of the study, RTTs resided in New York City, Richmond, Bozeman, and Los Angeles. This situation enriched conversations about CRE in vastly different contexts, including discussions about Indian Education for All, statewide standardized assessments, and highly problematic policies like banning critical race theory in schools. During Year 1, nine RTTs from two programs participated.
We had initially envisioned the role to serve, in part, as a way to introduce teachers to the formal research world in science education, and in parallel, to provide academic researchers the opportunity to learn from teachers’ perspectives on research in science education. In this way, we are imagining a two-way street that is not yet well-traveled, mainly due to time, funding, and other barriers to in-depth scholarly interactions between academic researchers and practicing teachers (e.g., norms of discourse and perspectives on research). As our understanding of the RTT role continued to develop across the year, the 2022 NARST conference provided an opportunity for the RTTs to participate in an academic research conference. Among their findings, the two RTTs noted that they brought both their teacher and their evolving researcher identities to this study, and that these identities were becoming intertwined as their research responsibilities and knowledge evolved over the course of the year. They also expressed a realization of the importance of recognizing bias and protecting confidentiality when analyzing interview data and described their learning about document analysis and coding qualitative data. Importantly, they shared that they were “changed by [having been] the subject of study to actively being the person doing the research [and] part of the change that will be implemented in classrooms.”
These findings articulated by the RTTs inform our evolving development of the role for Year 2 onwards. We continue to provide space and time to unpack teaching and research as a group. Importantly, we are continuing to support the congruent intertwining of the teacher and researcher lens to which the RTTs referred (Gjelag, White, et al., 2022).
Conclusion and Implications
We believe that our learning from this first year can inform those who hope to make their work with teachers more responsive. While we have definitely hit bumps in the road and anticipate continuing to do so, we look forward to the next few years as we progress in our study. We hope that teacher candidates, practicing teachers, and policymakers will benefit as our study develops case studies and images of effective science teaching in high-need schools, and how it can be enriched with the use of the CRE tenets. Thus, we aim to support teacher educators through determining which components of teacher education, implemented in the varied ways our programs will illustrate, may inform their own work in preparing culturally responsive science teachers for their own contexts.
As we continue to work toward the goals of this ambitious research study, we are furthering our culturally responsive research approach and incorporating what we are learning through our work with the RTTs. In our continued learning about the RTT role, we aim to develop a model that other researchers may adapt to their own studies in ways that sustain productive conversations between teachers and academic researchers. Our methodological commitment to culturally responsive research is an important aspect of the study and will shape our ongoing data collection, analyses, and writing. Going forward, we wonder: What might these responsive moves mean for CRE in science teacher preparation? What do they mean for what we can learn from and with our graduates about teacher preparation? What might we learn about ways in which teachers and preparation programs carry forward changes implemented during this time? In what ways will it push our thinking forward for CRE in the times ahead?
During the early months of this study, the pandemic and racial justice movements made glaring inequities even more visible. Schools and teacher education programs had to rethink their usual educational structures with the demands of remote and hybrid teaching and the turmoil of schools closing, re-opening, and closing again. These all formed the undergirding of our work in Year 1. As we continue our research, which we see as aligned with the contemporary racial and social justice movements, a backlash has inspired a misinformed movement explicitly intended to remove instruction in critical race theory from public schools but implicitly geared to the retrenchment of systemically racist norms. Even if we leave the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, it is clear that culturally responsive approaches to teaching are under threat. This amplifies the urgency of the call for research and support in equitable practices and culturally responsive science teaching (Howard et al., 2022). The “critical stance” that Ladson-Billings (1995) called for us to develop as educators and cultivate in our students is direly needed, and is essential in science, especially at a time when we need to critically evaluate and understand claims of misinformation about the natural world.
This project is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant No. 1950260. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.
Thanks to ARISE Blog Editor, Dr. Doug Larkin for inviting Drs. Howes and Wallace and their colleagues to share their new research study. Please read the ARISE blog by Doug and his colleague, Dr. Sandra Adams, on Lessons Learned from Running a Scholarship Program for Undergraduate Pre-Service STEM Teachers.