How can we develop expertise in science education leadership teams?

You’ve likely seen or heard a helicopter flying overhead. Perhaps you have even flown in one. If I asked you to draw a diagram of how a helicopter works, what parts would you include and how would these parts interact with each other?

Most people reading this blog are probably considered novices when it comes to helicopters. Although most of us may be familiar with the parts of a helicopter, we may not completely understand how these parts work together to lift a helicopter off the ground. But even those of us who aren’t helicopter experts may be able to transfer our expertise from other things we’ve done, like owning a car or sailing, to help explain how helicopters work.[1]

child's drawing of two helicopters

Novice drawing of a helicopter: Familiarity and experience with a concept do not equal expertise.

Like a helicopter, education systems have many related parts that must function together to achieve successful outcomes. As long as nothing needs to change and everything functions correctly, leaders can pilot the system by going with the flow. To create transformative change, however, science education leaders must understand their system, its parts, and its people.

For the past ten years, schools and districts across the nation have begun the journey of aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessment with ambitious learning standards for science. Putting these changes into practice doesn’t just happen in the classroom; science education leaders play a key role in making these shifts a reality. To lead transformative change, leaders need a deep understanding of both how education systems function and how to change them. However, just as it’s difficult to change the design of a critical part of a helicopter without knowing how it works, it is challenging to effectively lead instructional improvement at scale without understanding how education systems function and how each part affects another.

NextGenScience recently published a report on the impact of the Pennsylvania Science Education Leaders Network (PennSEL Network), a science leadership development program that is helping to build the expertise of educators who are leading the implementation of PA’s science standards. This is the first time many participants have experienced a transition to new science standards, particularly in their role as leaders. Participants’ own past experiences — teaching, reviewing math instructional materials, or facilitating professional learning — serve as a foundation for deeper learning about their community’s science education system, and their role in that system.

The PennSEL Network is designed to build knowledge about key system areas, including professional learning for teachers and administrators, the standards themselves, and high-quality instructional materials. But studying the parts of a system alone won’t build the expertise needed to lead change in that system. Leaders also have to develop expertise in how each system component can function most effectively, how it interacts with the other parts of the system (including the people), and how it can be changed. Participants in the PennSEL Network study key implementation strategies and learn to use tools for key activities like instructional materials selection and the design and evaluation of professional learning systems. Participants also gain strategies for working effectively with people to lead change and creating plans to gather data and monitor progress.

After the first year of PennSEL Network programming, we compared data from pre- and post-program surveys to understand how participants’ knowledge and skills changed over time.

  • At the beginning of the program, most network participants (84%) indicated that they had not yet begun the work of implementation and nearly as many (77%) were unable to describe any strategies for implementation.
  • After the first year, nearly all participants (89%) were able to describe strategies for leading implementation and 78% of participants indicated they had begun to actively use these strategies to lead change in their communities.

In addition to being able to describe more concrete strategies for leading implementation, the type of strategies that leaders described also changed. In the Pre-Survey, participants most frequently named “updating curriculum” as the most important strategy for implementing new science standards. In the Post-Survey, participants had learned that other critical strategies are needed before updating curriculum, including engaging in learning as leaders, developing leadership teams, building a shared vision, and engaging interested/affected groups, such as educators, parents, or community partners. This demonstrates deepening expertise among leaders who were more aware of the people, parts, and processes of their system, including how these system components work together to result in change.

Highlights of PennSEL survey responses related to the most important strategies for ensuring the successful implementation of the Pennsylvania STEELS standards and current implementation strategies.

In many cases (48%), leaders identified professional learning for themselves as a leader as the first step in implementation.[2] Many participants, even those who had been in formal leadership roles for many years, indicated that prior to joining PennSEL, they did not have adequate learning and support to engage in complex tasks like writing curriculum aligned to the new science standards. Sometimes, leaders are expected to redesign the helicopter while piloting it, trying to change one part of the system while keeping everything operating mid-air, without adequate expertise in helicopters in the first place.

One important design of the PennSEL program is that leaders are working in a team with individuals who play other roles in their community. While the standards have changed, improving all parts of the system to align to these standards will be a team effort that requires buy-in, learning, and communication with individuals in many roles. Each member of the team contributes expertise that can lead to greater collective understanding about the system. For example, hearing a teacher’s perspective about the types of professional learning that have been most impactful can influence how a district leader allocates funds for future programming. This is important because familiarity and experience with a concept or role does not equal expertise. Leaders benefit from experiences to learn not only about best practices to make change in a system, but to learn from and work shoulder-to-shoulder with people in the education system who are experts in their respective roles.

This fall, educators across the nation are setting off on the next leg of an important journey toward more meaningful and effective science learning. How far and quickly we progress will greatly depend on the abilities of science leadership teams who have a clear vision for where they are going and have the knowledge and skills to get there. These teams can benefit from networks for collaboration and science leadership development.

[1] For a more in-depth discussion of the differences between experts and novices, check out Chapter 2 of How People Learn:

[2] This resource shares stories of the work that PennSEL teams engaged in during the first year of network participation:

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