Academic journal article Science and Children

Discussing Science in Professional Learning Communities: Teachers Collaborate to Transform Next Generation Science Teaching and Learning

Academic journal article Science and Children

Discussing Science in Professional Learning Communities: Teachers Collaborate to Transform Next Generation Science Teaching and Learning

Article excerpt

Four third graders huddled around a scale on a desk as one student placed a pencil on a scale and another leaned in to read the number. A third student swapped the pencil for a paper clip. The fourth student giggled. Lauren, their teacher, asked the group: What do you notice'? One student rattled off a string of observations, while the rest stayed quiet. Lauren was not surprised. Her bilingual classroom includes many English language learners, several of whom don't participate in science discussions.

Lauren decided to film her students during a small-group science discussion so she could bring footage to her Professional Learning Community (PLC). She posed the feedback question: How can I create and maintain equitable participation during science discussions? Her team of four grade 2--5 teachers from two schools discussed many strategies, including structured turn-and-talks, sentence frames, and a checklist for small groups to use to reflect on their discussions. Lauren listened to these ideas and crafted a plan to implement targeted sentence frames into an upcoming lesson to help her students make scientific comparisons of objects.


Lauren's PLC includes teachers who participate in the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability (TISS) at the California Academy of Sciences. These teachers commit to intensive professional development--that is, two two-week summer sessions, four evening workshops, and four PLC meetings throughout each school year--focused on creating more opportunities for students to think, talk, write, and act like scientists, as called for by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States 2013).

The NGSS require a major shift in teaching and learning that asks teachers not only to implement new strategies but to expose and wrestle with their underlying beliefs about how science should be taught. Research on teacher professional development has shown "it is through challenging implicit assumptions and questioning taken-for-granted practices that professional learning can lead to changes in practice" (Webster-Wright 2009, p. 703). In TISS, we facilitate this deep transformation through collaboration in PLCs.

Teams form during the summer session and meet every other month during the school year for 75 minutes, focusing the conversation on a different teacher's classroom at every session. Through structured conversations using a discussion protocol, teachers support each other in making philosophical and practice-based shifts toward NGSS-aligned teaching.

In this article, we--two instructional coaches forTISS--outline the protocol steps and reasoning behind them and share specific ways to create an environment conducive to teacher collaborative learning. Even though TISS is situated at a museum, teachers, schools, and districts could still use our protocol structure and strategies for implementing their own self-organized PLCs. All educators--from schools to informal science institutions--can use discussion protocols to support each other through cycles of action and reflection toward NGSS-aligned teaching and learning.

Protocol Structure

In our protocol (Table 1), adapted from the National School Reform Faculty (see Internet Resource), the PLC discusses one teacher's NGSS-related question. The presenter shares context for his or her lesson and a specific feedback question, a question or dilemma around which the group can brainstorm and focus. The group members can ask clarifying questions to make sure they understand. Next, the group watches a video of students in the classroom or of student work. Group members discuss the classroom footage through the lens of the presenter's feedback question. Finally, the presenter and all group members share the next steps they would plan to take in their own classrooms. The process closes with a reflection about the protocol and how it's working for the group. …

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