This article is part of a series of stories included in The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, a challenge paper from Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores how professional learning anchored in high-quality curriculum materials allows teachers to experience the instruction their students will receive and change their instructional practices, leading to better student outcomes.
“I picked a banana, and I said a banana consists of carbs and proteins,” the seventh-grader begins, gearing up to answer two big questions about her chosen food — where does it come from, and where does it go next? She details the elements that make up the fruit: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Those include the ingredients for water, or H2O, she tells the class — with an unwelcome addition.
“I remember when I went to Florida, and they had really stinky water, and they told me that their stinky water was because it contained sulfur.” Ewwww. But her classmates notice something else about the ingredients list, too.
“You could have one substance and then take it apart and make other substances out of the same elements,” another student says.
Then, the teacher chimes in. “So, we have this idea that we’re building things, we’re making substances — is it like Legos, and we’re putting them together in different combinations?” she asks.
Bingo. That’s one way the OpenSciEd curriculum develops students’ understanding of scientific phenomena using a storyline approach. The curriculum follows a logical sequence of learning and is driven by student inquiry. That includes the current putting- the-pieces-together exercise, which prompts students to determine what they know based on the evidence they’ve gathered so far and what they still need to find out to answer a scientific question.
But in this case, the “class” is actually part of OpenSciEd’s professional learning for teachers, and the “seventh-graders” are actually middle school science teachers. Putting on a student hat is a critical part of OpenSciEd’s professional learning experience for teachers.
Whereas traditional science lessons often start with a teacher introducing vocabulary and information about a science topic, OpenSciEd’s instructional approach prompts students to notice the world around them, ask questions, and seek explanations to understand the scientific phenomena at play.
Each unit in the curriculum starts with a familiar object or experience, like an insulated thermos or a booming car stereo, and prompts students to explore the scientific phenomena behind it. After this anchoring experience, students discuss their questions, and a teacher helps them hone in on the science content and learning goals. (In the case of the banana discussion, the academic focus is metabolism involving food molecules.)
The curriculum is deliberately sequenced, based on an inquiry-driven approach, and designed for the Next Generation Science Standards. Whereas traditional science lessons often start with a teacher introducing vocabulary and information about a science topic, OpenSciEd’s instructional approach prompts students to notice the world around them, ask questions, and seek explanations to understand the scientific phenomena at play. The curriculum is concrete and universally relevant, and it focuses on what students know and can figure out rather than what teachers know and can tell them. Teachers orchestrate discussion instead of relaying information, and students often ask questions their teachers may not be prepared to answer.
“It’s a shift you have to make, to become comfortable with not knowing the answers and that being okay, and really relying heavily on student input. They are the ones driving the car,” said Roselynn Rodriguez, who is piloting the OpenSciEd curriculum with her students at the Rafael Hernández Two-Way Bilingual School in Boston. “That can seem a little scary at first, but it’s actually something that I really appreciated from participating in the professional development that we were provided, practicing that.”
The Boston pilot began with a four-day professional learning foundational program over the summer for two dozen district teachers — an “anchoring experience” of sorts. Teachers in grades 6, 7, and 8 began by watching and discussing videos of lessons that demonstrated the instructional routines in the OpenSciEd instructional model. Afterward, they met in small groups to learn how these routines are used in specific units. They then experienced lessons from those units as their students would.
It’s been an effective approach for the district, which is preparing to adopt OpenSciEd more broadly, said Marianne Dunne, senior project coordinator with the Boston Public Schools Science Department.
“They do a lot of shifting perspective,” said Dunne. “What will your students be doing and saying? What might they come up with? That’s a feature for me that I think is really powerful. Because teachers will be like, ‘Wait, what if it doesn’t go this way? How am I going to know what to do?’ And then we put our teacher hats back on and discuss: here’s what we’ve seen, and here’s how it goes.”
OpenSciEd professional learning continues throughout the school year. During the winter, teachers gather again for a two-day workshop before starting a new unit. They practice lessons and explore topics they have chosen through a survey, such as assessment and diverse learners.
Survey data also have revealed critical changes in teachers’ beliefs about science teaching. By experiencing the curriculum as students, teachers temporarily discard their scientific knowledge and encounter the questions as their students will. This prevents them from skipping ahead and helps them distinguish between wrong answers and incomplete learning. An important mental shift takes place as teachers come to trust students at all levels of academic performance to engage with complex, rigorous thinking and content.
“One of the areas that we saw a real shift in beliefs is around whether or not you need to preteach vocabulary and science ideas to kids. Do I need to start off my thermal energy unit by defining thermal energy, and then the rest of the unit is just rein- forcing that? OpenSciEd has really flipped that — you’re starting with the kids’ language and with the kids’ ideas, which can help support much greater equity in terms of engaging a much wider range of students who are bringing different backgrounds and resources to the classroom,” said Katherine McNeill, a professor of science education at Boston College, who helps lead the development of OpenSciEd’s professional learning curriculum.
“We’re trying to shift the vision of what a middle school science classroom can look like,” she said. “And those experiences and reflections with colleagues can really change what people are thinking and change what they think is possible — much more so than if teachers are sitting at home reading a curriculum the night before they go use it in their classroom.”
How can we make professional learning work better for teachers and their students?
Discover essential guidance for transforming teaching and student learning by downloading The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning.