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MSPnet Blog: “Models of teacher learning– What’s yours?”

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posted March 28, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

As one does, I found myself reading over the National Academies 2015 study on science teachers’ learning (you can download it here), and thinking again about the range of models of teacher learning that the MSPs and STEM-C projects include.

The study starts from a premise that NGSS represents a major change in the understanding of sciece education:

Conclusion 1: An evolving understanding of how best to teach science, including the NGSS, represents a significant transition in the way science is currently taught in most classrooms and will require most science teachers  to alter the way they teach.

The study gives a good overview of the qualities needed in a good teacher PD program.

Conclusion 4: Science teachers’ learning needs are shaped by their preparation, the grades and content areas they teach, and the contexts in which they work. Three important areas in which science teachers need to develop expertise are
• the knowledge, capacity, and skill required to support a diverse range of students;
• content knowledge, including understanding of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices; and
• pedagogical content knowledge for teaching science, including a repertoire of teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential science learning.

Allowing for variations in jargon from one “reform wave” to the next, these have been core desiderata for science teachers during my whole career (and long before!).  They are clearly difficult to ensure. It is to be hoped that pre-service will change to address these needs, but meanwhile there are a lot of teachers already teaching who could benefit from some strengthening on one or more of these bullet points.  More specifics of the vision emerge in a later conclusion:

Conclusion 5: The best available evidence based on science professional development programs suggests that the following features of such programs are most effective:
• active participation of teachers who engage in the analysis of examples of effective instruction and the analysis of student work,
• a content focus,
• alignment with district policies and practices, and
• sufficient duration to allow repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences.

These and other conclusions of the report almost constitute a theory of action — the latter points (and elaborations of them) are particularly important, because the changes needed are more than cognitive shifts, or matters of technique, since they demand of the teacher an ability to diagnose where a student is “on the fly,” and to provide guidance that involves a schooled imagination by which the student’s growth is envisioned and translated into suggestions for revision, alterations of tasks, connection with collaborators, or new resources.  This improvisational work is no secret, but it does not get included in policy documents, even those as well-founded as this NAS study.

The MSPnet library has a range of discussions and reports that describe, elaborate, or hint at theories of teacher change that underlie their work. Just to take one line of work that has recently been posted in the library, there are two papers (here and here)  from the SF Bay Integrated Middle School Science Project in which lesson study (in a form modified for use in an American system) is the mechanism to make possible “repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences,” as the NAS study advises — with the added dimension of peer collaboration, building the rudiments (at least) of a culture in which teachers in a school take active ownership of their professional growth.

One piece of the picture that I have not come across, either in the NAS study, nor in my unsystematic browsing of recent MSP/STEM+C projects, is teachers actually doing science, so that they are not just learning about the nature of science, and about science practices as they are seen in a classroom.  It has always seemed to me that science teachers should have at least modest experiences participating in actual science, which has no direct bearing on lessons they will teach, but instead adds to their capacity to think scientifically, on topics of interest to themselves, and provides insights into the learning experience that only come from reflecting on what one might call first-order engagement. (You can see a report here on a project that Joni Falk and I were part of, that was aimed at such teacher learning.)  The obvious analogy is with teachers of music– we expect them to have command of an instrument (or voice), as well as the ability to talk about the theory and history of the music they’re teaching.  Not only do they have the capacity to play, but they also have available to them the whole history of how they acquired that capacity, and what it takes to keep it up — as well as what it takes to talk about it, and bring along new, inexpert practitioners into their art.

How in your project do you effect change in teachers’ imaginations, their relation to the practice of a particular science (or kind of mathematics, etc. )?  Where in your model do actual practitioners of the subject take part?