How professional development programs can model science

Photo of teachers engaged in a professional development session No one is against Professional Development (PD) for science teachers. But, how it is typically structured remains a major problem. Not many Professional Development efforts outline how the PD can be structured as an example of science itself. Professional Development efforts, even those funded by NSF and offered by organizations like the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA), require follow-up (or evidence of success).

PD efforts are too often performed like traditional science teaching, that is, without reference to current reform efforts and not using science itself to provide evidence for the specific value of the reforms advocated. Seldom do typical PD providers challenge the actual results of their specific PD efforts. They often involve “national” featured speakers and often involve all teachers in a particular school. Teachers are expected to attend. The leaders often attack typical teaching but do not practice the reforms they describe with their own “presentations.” They often mimic traditional college science teaching where teachers (scientists) talk about what they know and expect all attendees to understand and to find such descriptions useful. The points made by “presenters” are sometimes personal and at times argue for the reform goals. They push for improvements which are not defined by “seeing it” or “experiencing it” in action.

Although many PD efforts are headed by national leaders and often include specific commercial sponsors, rarely is any real evidence of their successes sought or collected after the workshops. Most would need to get such evidence from the teachers after the workshop and after the ideas have been tried with their own students. Seldom is anyone expected to report on their successes with various PD features involving their actual work with their students. It is like hearing about success rather than being involved with it or feeling the need for specific evidence of impact. Evaluation must involve teachers and their students in the evaluation of a PD program to use in assessing or claiming success. This would be expected from science teachers since it would also impact what students do. Some are now collecting evidence for enrollees before the actual starting of the PD program. Can real success be measured only with smiling faces, complimentary comments, and verbal testimony that the time was well spent?

But, what do teachers do differently later regarding the suggestions of the PD experiences in their own classrooms with their own students? What do they say to their students, administrators, and parents? What actually happens in their classrooms? Do they interact with administrators and other teachers about the ideas recommended and “tried?” “Presentations” are all too typical of NSTA conferences, to school based PDs, or for teachers as they prepare to teach.

One of the most important features of a model PD is the contacts teachers have with the teacher participants after the session–preferably some weeks after the particular PD. Are enrollees expected to report and to share their new ideas with other teachers, with the PD staff, with their own students? Do students help evaluate the new activities and procedures tried?

The Iowa Chautauqua Program is exceptional when one looks at the years it has operated in Iowa: 1982-2008. Basic to the design is the use of other teachers as the most important staff members. They were called Teacher Leaders. Each Chautauqua effort operates at least for a single whole year. It starts with a two week Leadership Conference involving the most successful teachers from previous PD efforts as they prepare to be important staff colleagues for other teachers. They have been identified by staff and other teachers in accomplishing the reforms the best. They learn how they can become leaders and how they can continue to grow into even more successful teachers. How can they help others in the process?

The Iowa Chautauqua was validated in terms of how it accomplished the goals three times by the National Diffusion Network (1994, 1995, and 1996). The Chautauqua sequence has operated at sites across the whole State for 30 years. After NDN approval, the Iowa Chautauqua was introduced to leaders in other states. This was especially successful with teachers involved with the NSTA’s Scope, Sequence, and Coordination (SS&C) project where all science teachers in the particular schools were involved collectively. In years, following SS&C support, there were five sites involved annually across the State where 70 more teachers were introduced to the Chautauqua PD program.

The teachers generally included 10 at the elementary, 10 at the middle school level, and 10 at the high school levels. The collaborative was set up to be active for at least one whole given year. It has often been longer–sometimes four years! This often involves all teachers from a given school and with three Teacher Leaders at each site. Some Teacher Leaders have served as long as 10 years. Many continue to grow and to learn from other Teacher Leaders as new plans are developed and tried during the annual Leadership Conferences.

Science and the Iowa Chautauqua start with student questions, attempts to answer students’ own questions, sharing the results with each other, and interacting further with their peers. This is a way for them to experience examples of science itself. At most sites control group teachers from nearby schools are asked to help; only one or two teachers “participate” by allowing comparison of students without any teachers involved with the Iowa PD. It was a way of enlarging the team, including the involvement of other teachers. It was especially prevalent in nearby schools when SS&C was funded for eight continuous years. It was a way of gaining more support from administrators, community leaders, and all science teachers in a given district.

When teachers work together in developing and sharing goals, teaching tips, and student successes, they are most successful and treat PD experiences like it is a science. It is apparent that when teachers and students are successful, they seem to want to learn even more. Perhaps if teachers want to learn more, they can really make PD experiences more successful–and provide teachers with the power of working collaboratively. All this indicates again that students must want/need to learn in order to accomplish real learning!

–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa

Image of teachers in a professional development session courtesy of KW Barrett Elementary.

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  1. Brunsell
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    “Not many Professional Development efforts…”

    Sure, there are forms of professional development (like 1-day workshops and conferences) that do not require follow-up sessions. Those types of sessions may be effective at disseminating ideas, but not at fostering substantial change in teaching practices.

    However, the assertion of “not many” seems to be a generic throw away line meant to criticize efforts at professional development for teachers of science. This negative stereotyping of professional development undermines efforts to fill an urgent need – high quality professional development.

    You do mention one example that is notable – especially because it was sustained for 8 years. However, there are hundreds of similar efforts throughout the country – well designed professional development activities that are sustained (more than 80 hours per year), model effective teaching strategies, include teacher leaders in the design and implementation, and have metrics for measuring impact. Federal (US DOE and NSF) and state grants often require mechanisms for sustained experiences (80+ hours) and strong evaluations.

    It is important to showcase models of effective professional development. However, it should be done without denigrating the efforts of science educators that are providing many good professional development experiences throughout the country.

    Eric Brunsell
    Associate Professor of Science Education
    University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh

  2. Jane Jackson
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Modeling Instruction is professional development that is structured as science. For over two decades, Arizona State University has been developing and teaching Modeling Instruction. Our development integrates insights from physics and chemistry education research and classroom experience of exceptional teachers.

    In a series of intensive three-week workshops over two years, teachers improve their physics, chemistry, or physical science content knowledge and are equipped with a robust teaching methodology for developing student abilities to make sense of physical experience, understand scientific claims, articulate coherent opinions of their own and defend them with cogent arguments, and evaluate evidence in support of justified belief. Teachers learn to:
    • ground their teaching in a well-defined pedagogical framework (Modeling Theory), rather than following rules of thumb;
    • organize course content around scientific models as coherent units of structured knowledge;
    • engage students collaboratively in making and using models to describe, explain, predict, design and control physical phenomena;
    • involve students in using computers as scientific tools to collect, organize, analyze, visualize, and model real data;
    • assess student understanding in more meaningful ways and experiment with more authentic means of assessment;
    • continuously improve and update instruction with new software, curriculum materials and insights from educational research; work collaboratively in action research teams to mutually improve their teaching practice.

    Instruction is organized into modeling cycles that engage students in model development, evaluation and application in concrete situations, thus promoting an integrated understanding of modeling processes and acquisition of modeling skills. The teacher sets the stage for student activities, typically with a demonstration and class discussion to establish common understanding of a question to be asked of nature. Then teams of students collaborate in planning and conducting experiments to answer or clarify the question. Using 2′ x 2.5′ whiteboards, students present and justify their conclusions in oral and/or written form, including a formulation of models for the phenomena in question and evaluation of the models by comparison with data.

    Follow-up includes free subscription to one or more of 5 modeling listservs. The physics listserv has 3000 subscribers, chemistry has 1000.

    Instructional resources are freely available to workshop participants. Extensive resources are at
    Modeling Instruction has proven success with all students. Experienced modelers report increased enrollments, parental satisfaction, and enhanced achievement in college courses.

    Fifty Modeling Workshops are held each summer in many states. Each workshop is described at and at . Take a look!

    Jane Jackson, Co-Director, Modeling Instruction Pgm, ASU

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