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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

July 14, 2014 at 6:06 PM

Guest: Getting students to talk out ideas works in science, too

Jessica Thompson

Jessica Thompson

As educational researchers at the University of Washington, myself and many other colleagues in the College of Education are excited to re-define the role of research in improving systems of K-12 instruction. We have built partnerships with schools and believe that improvement comes from working in classrooms, elbow-to-elbow with students, teachers, coaches, principals and district leadership.

Along with successful efforts in improving math instruction at Lakeridge Elementary, UW researchers have also seen impressive results from a similar approach in science education.

These collaborations mean that we think differently about our role as professors at a university and about the purposes of data in educational reform. We see our new role as sharing research about how students and teachers learn best, building teacher development models that support learning, and generating evidence that can be used for continuous improvement. At Lakeridge, for example, researcher Elham Kazemi and the school’s teachers, coaches and leaders work in teams to collect and analyze data about how students are learning.

Refusing to be satisfied with tests that only reveal which children can accurately calculate a math problem, the team identifies and examines the strategies all children use and feeds that knowledge back into the class lesson in real time. This approach also informs an emerging model of job-embedded professional development, in which researchers, teachers, coaches and principals work together before, during and after actual classes to improve instruction.

These models are proving as effective in the science classrooms of Highline Public Schools as they are in math classrooms. Based on years of research on how students learn science, we developed a core set of best science teaching practices that allow students to use their everyday language and experiences to engage in “big scientific ideas” and that press students to use evidence for their explanations of puzzling science phenomena (see By using a team approach to teaching classes and revising lessons, we have refined, expanded and added to these teaching practices.

The results are striking. Students who hadn’t participated during science classes before are leading discussions. Groups of students are engaging each other as learning partners. Individual teachers are taking risks in how they plan for and work with a multitude of ideas from students. Teams of teachers are collaborating, agreeing on how to teach, and are designing experiments to understand how their teaching supports learning for all students. The sophistication of the science ideas and teaching ideas are far deeper, for all of us. Early results on standardized tests are promising, but most exciting are the forms of learning for the students, teachers and researchers behind those numbers.

As we aim to reach high standards for all students, our eye is on developing systems that help spread knowledge of ambitious teaching and learning in math, science and other disciplines. Each school we partner with has a part to play by specifying teaching practices and investigating how and under what conditions they best meet the needs of all learners. The collective work before us is now about building a networked system that continues to accelerate and improve teaching and learning.

Jessica Thompson is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. She and her research team have worked intensely with seven middle and high school science departments and five elementary schools in Highline Public Schools. Next year they will support all K-12 schools.

Comments | More in Guest opinion, Math and science, Opinion | Topics: Jessica Thompson, Lakeridge, science instruction


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