Our STEM-oriented world has spurred a renewed call for more and better teaching in science, beginning in the earliest grades. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) insist that students have opportunities to think and act like scientists by engaging in Science and Engineering Practices. However, this is a new approach for many teachers who may not have engaged in learning experiences similar to those of students. How can instructional coaches best support their efforts?
As a researcher and instructional coach, I work to support teachers’ capacity, confidence, and excitement in science. Throughout my work, I’ve noticed that three strategies are central to shifting science teaching practices: immersing teachers in their own inquiry on topics they will teach to students, focusing on productive questions that promote inquiry and thinking, and clearly demonstrating science as a context for language and literacy integration.
These strategies are described below and exemplified through a first-grade unit on light, shadows, and reflections, though all are replicable across unit topics.
Immerse Teachers in Inquiry
“We laughed when we realized we were wrong about how our images would change when we moved farther from the mirror. Exploring with mirrors and flashlights helped us think about light phenomena in new ways and got us wondering about what kids would notice and think about, and how we could build on that.” —First-grade teacher
Engaging in collaborative inquiry activates teachers’ inner scientists and deepens their understanding of basic science concepts. Begin an investigation of reflections, for example, by surfacing and charting teachers’ current ideas and reasoning about where, when, and how reflections are made.
Assist with generating investigatable questions such as “How does changing our positions in relation to a mirror change the reflections we see?” and “How can we use mirrors and flashlights to redirect light beams?” In this example, you might provide mirrors and flashlights and encourage pairs of teachers to investigate their questions and make and record observations by drawing and taking notes.
After direct exploration, invite teachers to share and compare their data, revisit their original claims, and revise them based on new evidence. Experiencing this dynamic process firsthand makes the role of inquiry visible while building conceptual knowledge and highlighting critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. It also sparks teachers’ thinking about how they might leverage students’ ideas and builds empathy for the learning process as teachers encounter their own misconceptions (e.g., “Mirrors only show reflections of objects placed directly in front of them; when I move toward a mirror, I see less of myself”).
Focus on Productive Questions
“This experience has opened my mind to ways I can interact and talk with my students to support them to be creative thinkers. There are so many questioning strategies I can use to encourage all of them, including my multilingual learners, to discover and explore, take risks with ideas, look for answers to problems, and build vocabulary and discussion skills.” —First-grade teacher
Productive guiding questions promote learners’ inquiry and thinking. And the ability to craft questions that are responsive to what students are doing, observing, and thinking is a complex skill that is central to the current vision of effective science teaching. For example, asking questions like “What is a shadow?” suggests a correct answer, whereas “How is your shadow similar to and different from you?” encourages deeper thought on the part of the learner, as well as the possibility of multiple answers.
Before an immersive teacher experience, model questions targeted at background knowledge, such as “How do you think shadows are created, and what makes you think that?” During direct exploration, ask questions to support close observation (“What happened to the size and shape of that shadow when you repositioned the flashlight?”); problem-solving (“Can you change the sizes of those shadows relative to each other?”); and data collection (“How might you represent the relative positions of the light, the object, and the shadow on paper?”).
Support teachers’ evidence-based claims by asking, for example, “How does your definition of a shadow account for the colored shadows you saw?” In a debrief, support teachers to identify and analyze the questions you asked that promoted their own inquiry and thinking. Brainstorm some questions that teachers can try out with their students, and create a handout they can reference as they teach.
Explore Literacy Integration
“Science and literacy have presented themselves to go hand in hand. You can read, write, and discuss your investigations and the phenomena you are exploring. You can explain what you’re thinking about and learning by drawing, writing, and using oral language.” —First-grade teacher
Teachers are required to prioritize reading and writing in the early grades. Helping them create space for science in their schedules means making the case that science, language, and literacy are best taught together.
Have teachers analyze immersive science experiences for evidence that academic talk, challenging vocabulary, and scientific thinking are mutually reinforcing. Collaboratively identify language-and-literacy-teaching opportunities embedded in the Science and Engineering Practices, and create a crosswalk to relevant language and literacy standards.
Analyze authentic examples of student work, including science representations and notebooks, and discuss how teachers might leverage them to support student literacy. Discuss strategies for using topical fiction (e.g., Moonbear’s Shadow) and nonfiction (e.g., Oscar and the Moth) to address science, language, and literacy goals and support interactive readings using productive questions.
A Real-World Approach
Enacting the vision of early elementary science education that lays a strong foundation for students’ future lives and work requires early elementary teachers to embrace approaches and strategies that go beyond what many experienced as students.
But teachers can’t do this in a vacuum. They need collaboration and commitment from school and district leaders, professional development facilitators, and instructional coaches who will provide them with ongoing practice-based experiences and resources. This means taking learning beyond the textbook and instructional coaching beyond PowerPoint to make real-world connections between content, teachers, and students. The above strategies offer actionable ways to structure original inquiry with adults, replicable with young learners and across unit topics.