January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Exploring the Ecosystem That Is Your Classroom

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Laura Henriques

As you read through this month’s CCS you’ll find articles about biology, professional learning, NGSS implementation tales, and finding a job. I find the juxtaposition of the articles works. When we look for a job we need to have a good fit – we need to fill a niche in the school’s ecosystem and our needs must be met. When we look at our professional learning needs we are doing a self-assessment, finding out our own needs and meeting them

Earlier this year John Speigel, Anthony Quan and Yami Shimojyo wrote an article for CCS which discussed a pathway from NGSS awareness to implementation. If we use their awareness-transition-implementation matrix to mark our efforts we can start making changes to our instruction and have a mechanism to note progress. So let’s think of our classroom as its own teaching/learning ecosystem and start modifying the system to see what positive changes we can make to student engagement and student learning.

We know adding stressors to an ecosystem results in changes to the system. The same holds true as we make adjustments to our teaching, we change our classroom ecosystem. When we make a change to the system, we see impact and can measure the change. There are so many variable at play in our classroom ecosystem. NGSS is about asking questions, so here are a few questions we could ask.

  • What if we asked questions differently – this could be the type of question (e.g., low level vs. higher level, open ended vs. close ended)?
  • What happens when we incorporate more writing into science lessons?
  • What happens when we make our thinking and problem solving explicit, modeling for students our metacognitive practices?
  • What happens when we have students engaged in doing more science as opposed to taking notes and reading about science?
  • What happens to student motivation and persistence when I include engineering challenges in my instruction?
  • What do we see when we introduce text after science activities as opposed to before the lab activity?
  • How does student understanding change when science and engineering practices are included as a regular part of my classroom instruction?
  • What happens when I make nature of science instruction explicit and weave it throughout class discussions and investigations?
  • What impact does it have on students understanding of science concepts when I introduce cross-cutting concepts?

This list looks a little bit like potential research questions for a master’s thesis, doesn’t it? While we could do some thesis level research into these questions, I am encouraging a less intense, but no less meaningful, approach. Take one thing from the list – or come up with your own question – and see what happens in your ecosystem as you change what your practice. We know that students respond to changes in the system so it is likely that you’ll see some difference in the ecosystem. For example, research shows us that when we provide wait time after asking a question more students participate, students think more (and we all can agree that thinking is good), and students respond to each other’s comments and responses. As students talk and are engaged in discussion they are making more meaning than when they are simply listening to us and taking notes.

I encourage us to start with one innovation as opposed to trying to do too many things at once. Pick one, learn about it and try it. We know that we won’t be expert at the innovation the first time we try. Wait time, for example, is tough. We are so used to being pressed for time and it seems more efficient for us to ask and answer our own questions or to call on the kid who raises his/her hand the fastest. As we practice we get better and so do our students. Once we feel like we have some level of comfort and expertise with one innovation add another. Along the way, keep track of the impact. This is the fun part. You will notice students behaving differently, you may see them become more engaged or more motivated to learn, and you may see a change in grades. Remember that just as we need practice trying out a new teaching practice, as we change the rules for kids they will need some time as well.

Trying to use the language of NGSS, here’s my challenge to all of us as we move from stage 1 awareness to stage 4 full alignment. Just as we know students need ample practice using the science and engineering practices, so too do we. As a result I am giving us two performance expectations related to the same challenge as we take our next steps towards implementing NGSS.

  • Plan and carry out an investigation to see the effects of NGSS aligned instructional shifts on student engagement.
  • Analyze and interpret data showing how a teaching innovation impacts the classroom learning environment.

Find a colleague to be your lab partner and try out different things together. Share with your colleagues and share with us. We’d love to have you write an article for CCS where you tell us how things worked.

Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and past-president of CSTA. She serves as chair of CSTA’s Nominating Committee and is a co-chair of the NGSS Committee.

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Written by Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko

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Written by Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko is CSTA’s Executive Director.