In teaching science today, the emphasis is on inquiry-based pedagogies, with the expectation that students in the science classroom will be exposed to the theories and practices of scientists in the science community. Students should be given opportunities to identify problems based on observed phenomena and generate questions that stimulate their curiosity and provide connections to real-world situations. They should be encouraged to problem solve, collect data, and appropriately represent that data. Within the inquiry process, peers may challenge conclusions. As a result, student hypotheses may need to be reassessed and retested. This process mirrors just how professional scientists work in the field.
However, for many science teachers, implementing inquiry in the classroom is a daunting task. In the traditional classroom setting, knowledge is transferred from teacher to student through lectures, readings, and demonstrations. Students compete against each other rather than collaborate. Focus is mainly on the task, not the objective. Traditional pedagogies identify that students know science facts, but fail to recognize when students are lacking conceptual understanding as it applies to their lives.
In contrast, teachers and students in inquiry-based environments share responsibility for learning and decision making. The process is collaborative and students have a voice, sharing ideas and questions, and problem solving. Learning science is an active and social process that engages all levels of students and supports the development of scientifically literate learners.
As the district science leadership team reviewed the chronological development of science pedagogy, it was evident that, in an attempt to meet state and national standards, science instruction had progressed from reading and answering questions to teacher-centered demonstrations. In the process of our work in supporting district science classrooms, the science leadership team identified the need for developmental cohesion of the curriculum and pedagogical reform. A science focus group comprised of teachers, lead teachers, and administrators, of which we were a part, was then established. As a result of concentrated, collegial discussion by this group, the district became resolute in implementing inquiry-based modules at all grade levels (K–8). Supplementing these modules, teachers were supported by focused professional development and material management.
Yet, even though the core pieces were in place, the pedagogical culture had not moved forward significantly, and many teachers relied on traditional practices. Replacing these beliefs and behaviors required a new approach to professional development, one that provided “opportunities for intellectual professional growth” (NRC 1996a, p. 58) as a means to assist students in becoming scientifically literate members of society.
It was clearly foreseeable that this new approach had to meet the needs of teachers as learners, as facilitators, and as reflective professionals who were part of the science community. In order to meet teacher needs, coaches were hired from within district classrooms to provide collegial instructional leadership. Within each school, content coaches were entrusted with the task and vision of building teacher and student capacity. In the process of bringing this vision to fruition, the coaches’ role developed into a sustained collaborative partnership focused on pedagogy, content knowledge, assessment, and classroom management. This sustained individualized professional development by coaches encompassed modeling lessons, classroom observations, debriefing of instructional practices within the classroom, and coteaching within the confines of a nonjudgmental environment.
Initially we (the coaches) were seen by teachers as simply classroom assistants and distributors of materials. Eventually, through continual collaboration with teachers, a nonthreatening relationship developed. This instructional coaching role eliminated the negative criticism and evaluation of teaching practices commonly associated with traditional leadership roles. Professional development for teachers was now on a personalized learning continuum.
An individualized approach
Realizing that traditional science professional development offerings no longer fit into the National Science Education Standards (NSES) reform model, coaches in our district facilitated embedded professional learning and district-wide professional development. As recommended by the National Research Council (NRC 1996), professional development for teachers of science must be coherent, integrated, and nonadministrative; instructional science coaches are an effective way to meet these goals.
Teachers now view coaches as respected peers whose key function is to provide onsite, sustained support through modeling and feedback as they try new strategies. Modeling often focuses on developing inquiry capabilities while teaching scientific concepts and developing process skills in context while investigating and analyzing science questions. Building on the premise that both the teacher and coach share the experience of learning together, the work in our district commenced.
We began by working with teachers who were interested and willing to reflect on their own instructional practices. Eventually, through collegial discussions both individually and in team meetings, other teachers saw this reciprocal relationship develop. Over time, teachers recognizing an increase in student engagement elicited our assistance. Coaches responded by identifying ways to improve science inquiry strategies while still valuing the teachers’ work. When teachers realized that coaches were not evaluators, but shared accountability for student learning, a true science learning community was established.
Professional development became personalized and safe, as strong relationships developed between teacher and coach. Coaches became viewed as “critical friends.” Grace McIntyre, an eighth-grade teacher in the Lawrence Public School District, stated, “Over the past three years I have formed a strong relationship with the science coach, who is someone I can trust to give honest feedback on my teaching strategies, to provide suggestions for classroom management, and to assist me in making modifications for English language learners and special education students.”
In this newly formed learning community, the instructional focus began to shift from teacher to student. Together teachers and coaches prioritized and took action on identified areas of concern. One such area dealt with higher-level questioning. Together we examined question types, the nature of questioning, and their direct effect on student responses. Productive questioning elicited an immediate transformation in student inquiry. Coaches and teachers witnessed students critically thinking and using process skills to construct their own knowledge. This was in sharp contrast to the previous situation, in which students were passive learners at best.
Another strategy coaches employed was the use of action research to assess students. Action research confronts assumptions teachers have about their students that may hinder expectations and the implementation of science instruction. In urban districts such as ours, these assumptions are often seen as limitations (language, prior knowledge, family resources, and so on) that present barriers for changing instructional practices. The outcome of one such action research plan indicated the positive results of students as facilitators of their own learning, versus the previous situation, in which student were as passive recipients of knowledge.
The next step in this sustained reform process will be to bring Lawrence science teachers together in a collaborative setting for experiential professional development sessions facilitated by coaches. Teachers will be exposed to comprehensive inquiry as they immerse themselves in a long-term, scientific investigational project. Presented with materials and an overarching question, teachers will begin their inquiry journey. The goal is to expose teachers to all facets of inquiry, allowing them to construct meaning through their own experiences and then apply this hands-on, inquiry-based learning approach in their classrooms. Teachers will experience, as opposed to reading about, the powerful impact of inquiry. Teachers will be challenged to look at their feelings, mindsets, and beliefs about science education, and experience science as scientists do and as students should through inquiry-based learning.
However, teachers and coaches alone will not be able to implement and sustain this initiative. Sustainable progress toward inquiry-based teaching and learning must include the entire school culture, supported by administrators who understand the practices of inquiry and are willing to commit to continuous reform. Our hope is to then have administrators participate in a similar process, setting the tone for a community of scientific learners.
Included in our vision to promote scientific literacy through inquiry is the need for community involvement. Collegial partnerships with institutions of higher education provide opportunities for shared experiences in a laboratory setting. In this environment, teachers are exposed to authentic research, which in turn promotes rethinking their own knowledge. Additionally, when teachers form strong relationships with scientists, a bridge is created between community and classroom. The benefits of these partnerships can include funding for specific science initiatives and enhanced content knowledge, as well as classroom support for teachers and students.
Through these partnerships, the coach is a vehicle for establishing and maintaining open communication with engineers, scientists, institutions of higher education, and business partners, as well as state and local government agencies. In the Lawrence school district, community partnerships have contributed to after-school science programs, volunteers for science classrooms, enrichment materials for students, and professional development opportunities for staff.
One must not overlook another important partner, the parents, as an integral part in supporting greater student achievement. Creating a welcoming climate for parents to participate in open houses is one way Lawrence tries to encourage parent participation in science education. Administrators, coaches, and teachers of Lawrence have come to realize that keeping parents informed and providing an open-door policy advances student achievement.
Coaching, as a means to support inquiry-based teaching, starts by changing the culture from within (school, teacher, and student) rather than from external mandates. Recognizing that teacher empowerment is the first step toward increasing student achievement, coaches support teachers as they relinquish nonproductive, traditional practices. Through sustained collegial interactions within a strong support system provided by coaches, teachers are more willing to leave their comfort zone on a path of continuous improvement toward inquiry-based teaching and learning. Throughout this reform process coaches, teachers, and administrators should keep the words of R.M. Kanter (1995) in mind: Change is always a threat when it is done to people, but it is an opportunity when it is done by people.
Paula Bransfield (email@example.com) is a district lead teacher of science at Lawrence Public Schools Science Education Center in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Patrice Holt is a science coach at the Gerard A. Guilmette School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Patricia Nastasi is a science/math coach at the Henry K. Oliver School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. All three authors are graduate students in the Science Education Online Program at University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
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National Research Council (NRC). 1996a. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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