What does it really take to build a shared understanding of the shift in teaching and learning expected in today’s science classrooms?

In the years following the adoption of new science standards, states and districts must begin to navigate the complexities of transitioning to new learning goals — including updating instructional materials, professional learning, course descriptions and requirements, and assessments for grades K–12.

In order to determine what changes are needed and how to enact them effectively, teachers and leaders need to have a shared vision of the teaching and learning they are working towards with the new standards. This shared vision can clarify questions like: What does it really look like for students to engage in three-dimensional, phenomena- or problem-driven learning? What are effective ways to integrate engineering design with science?

What’s the best place to start? Popular strategies to build this shared vision have included professional learning experiences that guide teachers and leaders to:

  • Read the research base behind the standards;
  • “Unpack” the standards and dig deeply into the text of Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), and Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs);
  • Start with the DCIs and then move on to the other dimensions, one at a time;
  • Create a crosswalk document between the NGSS and previous science standards; and
  • Craft a vision statement based on current understanding of quality science instruction.

Unfortunately, spending a lot of time and effort on these strategies may not adequately prepare educators and leaders to make important decisions related to curriculum and assessments.

Why? This is likely because these strategies aren’t enough to truly build a shared vision of what we’re working toward in the classroom, especially when that new vision may differ significantly from current ones.

Effective learning for leaders and teachers needs to go beyond simply being told about the vision to experiencing the vision. As the National Academies report Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards says,

“Simply telling teachers about the new standards or focusing solely on improving their science content knowledge is unlikely to lead to the kinds of sustained changes in instruction that will be needed to support the NGSS. Instead, science teachers need opportunities to examine students’ thinking and analyze instruction.”

Just as it isn’t effective for students to memorize vocabulary words or regurgitate science ideas without any connection to real-world practice, it’s not effective for teachers and leaders to memorize the three dimensions or the definition of phenomena without a concrete connection to classroom practice.

With this in mind, before a school district begins making updates to curricula, course structures, policies, and assessments, it is important to support teachers and leaders to build a shared vision of quality science education by demonstrating what it looks like to apply this new content and pedagogy in a classroom setting and connect it directly to practice. This can be achieved through professional learning that: (1) immerses teachers and leaders as learners in a classroom setting based on a vetted and modified excerpt from high-quality instructional materials available in the field; (2) provides participants with the opportunity to see students engage in this type of learning (through video), analyze student thinking, and connect it to the work of teaching; and (3) provides leaders with an opportunity to analyze teacher actions and connect them to the work of leading and supporting teachers.

Ultimately, these immersive learning experiences can start to effectively build a shared vision for effective science teaching and learning by helping educators to:

  • See key differences between their current instructional model and the new one, often helping participants realize, “Oh, we’re not already doing this.”
  • Build trust and confidence in a new approach by experiencing the learning firsthand while seeing the impact on learners. Something that may have been previously intimidating and mysterious now appears feasible and potentially effective.
  • Develop a common understanding of some of the key instructional shifts like “three-dimensional” or “phenomenon-based” by grounding abstract terms in concrete, first-hand experiences.

Not only are these experiences building a shared vision of what’s happening in the classroom, they also deepen understanding of what system-wide changes need to happen to make that kind of instruction a reality. That’s why these learning experiences aren’t just important for classroom teachers, but also for school, district, and state leaders. These types of experiences create time for leaders to begin thinking about how to support such a big instructional shift: allocating adequate time and resources to professional learning, ensuring policies and practices are coherent with the vision, and supporting a robust curriculum selection process for science. (See an example of a school district building capacity of leadership here.)

Seeing is believing. If we want leaders and teachers to invest the time, resources, and energy into changing what they’re doing, they need evidence that this change will make a difference for students. By engaging in immersive classroom experiences, teachers and leaders can develop a shared vision for science education, helping to ensure alignment and sustainability in the education systems necessary to support all students.

What insights have you had after experiencing immersive three-dimensional instruction as a learner?

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