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Video-Based Training May Help Teachers Make Science Lessons More Coherent

It's hard to collaborate and get perspective on science lessons when you are the only teacher in your subject on campus. But a new project is working to use classroom videos to develop more in-depth virtual professional development groups, particularly for rural teachers.

The Science Teachers Learning Through Lesson Analysis program, dubbed "STeLLA," is based on the model of lesson study: Teachers attend a two-week in-person training with other science educators. Then, each month, groups of six to seven teachers post videos of their classroom lessons, analyze them together online or in person, and develop future lesson plans focused on tying classroom activities to threads of "big ideas" in science that carry through the year.

The training is intended to help teachers identify and analyze student thinking on scientific concepts and frame lessons to develop an underlying narrative of science.  Wilson said the program was developed in response to a 2006 video study of science classes from five countries participating in the Trends in International Math and Science Study. Researchers led by Kathleen Roth, a senior science educator at BSCS Science Learning (formerly Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) in Colorado Springs found U.S. science courses were less coherent than those of higher-performing countries, concluding:

"In U.S. science lessons, students worked on many different activities, ... designed to be fun and engaging to students (such as games, puzzles, humor, dramatic demonstrations, and outdoor excursions). ... Unlike the teachers in Australia and Japan, however, U.S. teachers did not typically use these various activities to support the development of content ideas in ways that were coherent and challenging for students. When they did present science content, they more commonly organized it as a collection of discrete facts, definitions, and algorithms rather than as a connected set of ideas."

A randomized, controlled study of 77 schools and more than 2,800 students in the 2016 Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness found students whose teachers participated in STeLLA gained significantly more than students whose teachers did not participate. The benefit was equal to moving a student from the 50th percentile of performance to the 73th percentile. Moreover, students of STeLLA teachers answered test questions that called for more complex scientific reasoning than students in the control group.

Marty Davis, the pre-K-12 science supervisor for Saint Paul public schools in Minnesota, said the training has helped the district integrate more engineering concepts into its science courses, as called for in the state's new academic standards. Each school has only one science teacher, and only eight of the district's 140 science teachers have an engineering background, he said. "They are full-time teachers, not PD providers. This really provides them with the ability to help their colleagues." The ability to analyze, compare, and discuss each others' instruction allowed teachers to share expertise. 

The nonprofit BSCS Science Learning, which developed the training, has also worked with Colorado's Front Range district to use STeLLA to help adapt curriculum for the Next Generation Science Standards, which call for students to learn more about scientific practices in addition to science content.

"In the previous standards, a lot of uncertainty about science as inquiry—there were never really clear models of what that should look like in the classroom," said Chris Wilson, the principal investigator for the study. "A lot of teachers would have experiments in the classroom, but they weren't really building them in a meaningful way." 

The researchers now are studying how to scale up the program, which now calls for a commitment of more than 88 hours of training from teachers. "We know nearly 90 hours of [professional development] in a year is not something feasible for most districts," Wilson said. "For teachers to get to the place where they can feel comfortable sharing [their work] with other teachers, you need to have a community of trust and teachers willing to open up."

Video: BSCS Science Learning

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