Teacher Professional Learning: Transforming Teacher Practice

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Several weeks ago the National Academies on Science (NAS) released a report that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) believes should be required reading for every school administrator.

Science Teachers’ Learning: Enhancing Opportunities, Creating Supportive Contexts focuses on enhancing teacher practice through professional learning situated within the context of their schools and districts. The report provides practical recommendations and lays out the supportive environment and professional learning experiences teachers need and which are critical to the enactment and application of the three-dimensional teaching and learning found in the K–12 Framework for Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards.

In my January 25 blog post, I outlined a few of the key areas where it is critically important that teachers receive support as they move toward a new vision of teaching and learning, and provided suggestions on how NSTA can help.

This post will focus on the NAS report in the context of teacher resources and experiences, and why continued and sustained professional learning is so important. My thoughts and recommendations are drawn not only from the national academy report, but also from the Council of State Science Supervisors (CSSS) work on professional learning standards for science educators.

Teacher Resources and Experiences

As stated in the National Academy report, resources and experiences should be contextually relevant, focused on the specific students served by the school district, and as teachers implement these new resources and strategies, their practice should be informed by multiple data to guide future iteration and application as educators hone their knowledge and skills. Examples of data and content for analysis include student work, student surveys and interviews, teacher observations, review and discussion of pedagogical videos demonstrating pedagogical strategies in situ, etc. Ultimately, educators need repeated opportunities working with local district and school-based teams to plan, implement, and reflect upon these strategies as they enacted in their classrooms—critical tenants expressed within the report’s recommendations.

Teacher Professional Learning

In order for teachers to acquire this knowledge and skill, it is insufficient to merely have an understanding of science content knowledge (disciplinary core ideas of science). They need experience in the pedagogical practice of three-dimensional teaching, such as planning and conducting investigations, developing and using models, engaging in argument from evidence, and eliciting/interpreting student understanding through formative assessment to inform science instruction. An emphasis for all should include professional learning experiences in understanding engineering practices. Teachers need to engage firsthand in the ongoing learning and application of three-dimensional learning themselves beyond one-and-done, isolated experiences.

This is accomplished through the following strategies for blended professional learning that combine online and onsite experiences into multi-year, sequenced growth opportunities:

  • Sustain personalized professional growth over time (long duration) to permit application, reflection, and iteration, and discussion with school-level educator teams over time and multiple years. Employ a variety of methods that promote educator collaboration within workshops, school-based teams, and in geographically dispersed digital networks. Develop roles for teacher growth to be recognized and serve as mentors or coaches to sustain professional learning and build local leadership capacity.
  • Incorporate a degree of teacher autonomy in determining how the professional learning will occur, tapping the intrinsic motivation and personalized professional learning for individual teachers, and bounded within the mandates and initiatives of the school and district. To the degree appropriate, top-down one-size fits all approaches should not be the sole method of support. Differentiation for teachers drawing from their knowledge, experience, and skills treats them as professionals and builds collegial trust and ownership, as they adapt materials for their own use and local context rather than simply implementing for fidelity from external experts.
  • Extend onsite professional learning with moderated online follow-up to enhance face-to-face experiences. Recognize and integrate online teacher activity when collaborating face-to-face and vice versa to create a coherent experience, avoiding a bolt-on, separate and isolated, click-next, home alone activity. Affordances in online networks provide immediacy, convenience, and access to colleagues, experts, and resources that may otherwise not be available. Examples include sharing how implemented strategies work with student artifacts and assessment data; reviewing, aggregating, and adapting instructional materials against established criteria (NSTA/Achieve EQUiP rubric), reviewing and discussing videos of pedagogical practice, etc.

The content of this post cannot do justice to the breadth and worth of strategies and scaffolding school and district leaders should consider as they alter the policy, time, structures, and resources science teachers need to growth across their professional career. I will highlight two recommendations in the report that clearly identify the role NSTA plays in the landscape of science education, that of partnerships and the use of educational technology to support local based efforts. The National Academy report states: “Professional learning can be enhanced through partnerships with teachers and their professional networks and…districts should consider the use of technology and online spaces/resources to support teacher learning in science.”

NSTA formally collaborates with over 180 districts and universities across the country, helping them implement their strategic goals and course offerings in support of NGSS and STEM, both at the in-service and pre-service levels, respectively. Our NSTA Learning Center platform may be configured to enhance local onsite efforts with private cohorts and administrator dashboards to help document teacher growth as they create and complete long term professional growth plans catering to their unique needs and district and school strategic plans.

If you’d like to learn more about the partnerships or products listed above, please feel free to contact me at abyers@nsta.org or 703-312-9294, or Flavio Mendez, Senior Director of the NSTA Learning Center at fmendez@nsta.org or 703-312-9250.

Al ByersAl Byers, Ph.D., is the Associate Executive Director, Services for the National Science Teachers Association

Editor’s Note

This post was updated on February 29, 2016, to include a link to the professional learning standards, published by CSSS.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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