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Choose Effective Approaches to Staff Development

This excerpt is printed with permission from Chapter 12 of Elementary School Science for the 90's, by Susan Loucks-Horsley and others, 1990, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Effective approaches to teacher development mirror what we know about learning; they are continuous, build on learners' current knowledge and skills, and include sufficient intensity and practice that new learnings can become part of teachers' ongoing practice.

What We Know

An analysis of research and experience in staff development (Loucks-Horsley et al. 1987) suggests that programs that effectively support teacher growth have the following characteristics:

Content that is either based on research or has demonstrated its effectiveness in schools and classrooms;

  • Opportunities for teachers to work together as they learn, plan to use, and implement their new knowledge and practices;
  • Opportunities for teachers to participate in decisions about what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will use what they learn;
  • Norms that support experimentation and risk taking;
  • Time for teachers to participate fully in the learning experience, to practice, to master new behaviors, and to incorporate new practices into their teaching routines;
  • Integration of staff development into other initiatives of the school or district, with a connection between individual, school, and district goals;
  • Leadership that provides direction and clear expectations, coupled with ongoing support for teachers to learn and to use what they learn;
  • Appropriate and sufficient incentives and rewards; and
  • Designs based on knowledge about learning and the process of change.

All of these characteristics are critical to the success of staff development. Yet the last is of particular interest here, since it is closely connected to our perspective of science learning. Although the implications of current cognitive research for adult learning strategies are not entirely clear, the constructivist perspective suggests some ways in which teacher learning mirrors the learning of students. It follows, then, that staff development should have much in common with what we described earlier as good science teaching. Among the characteristics they share are:

  • Active leading techniques;
  • Attention to what teachers already know (i.e., their current conceptions of science, of teaching, and of learning);
  • Sufficient time to consider new ideas and 'try them on' for fit; and Multiple opportunities to observe and then apply new knowledge in practice.
  • Thus, effective staff development can be an excellent model for good teaching.

Taking Action on What We Know

A constructivist-driven teacher development model suggests a certain course of action that is unlike traditional (primarily one-shot, workshop-oriented) staff development approaches.

Attention should be paid to prior teacher knowledge. Teachers at all levels of preparation come to teaching with their own experiences and observations of what works with children, what should be taught, and what instructional strategies work best. Preservice teachers, for example, may assume that engaging students with a good dose of creativity and enthusiasm is in and of itself enough fuel to ignite the learning fire. Experienced teachers may accept that engagement is essential to good learning but might also believe that reading about science qualifies as a stand-in for the exploration stage of the learning model. How can we begin to help teachers actively reconstruct their views about teaching and learning science if we don't attempt to pinpoint the prior knowledge teachers bring with them?

Concepts should be developed and introduced over sufficient periods of time. Just reading or hearing about new concepts is rarely enough to advance authentic learning. Teachers need to participate in multiple, interactive, collaborative experiences. For example, rather than learn about the topic of pond life via a one-time, facts-to-be-learned presentation, teachers can work in small groups to share what they know and then, visiting an actual pond, work together to reconstruct their views. This type of learning will allow them to develop their understanding of such concepts as diversity and systems over time.

Theory should be tied to experience by using learning activities that make abstract concepts personal. Such experiences are the catalysts that help teachers learn. Follow this with activities that give teachers time to reflect on their experiences. Then introduce new information that prompts teachers to focus on the formation of abstract concepts and generations. To continue with our pond life example, teachers can design aquariums for their classrooms so they (and their students) can observe and answer questions that relate to pond life. They can also divide readings, relate the readings to what they observe, and share their findings with each other. Concept development continues in this phase as teachers digest new information. The instructor slowly adds fuel as discussions turn to formal theories such as food webs, interdependency of pond organisms, ecosystem factors that enable pond life, and so on. Learners can personally experience concepts when the methods of experiential engagement and exploration, along with theory conceptualization and the pedagogical techniques of small working groups, are employed. Here theory ties closely to experience.

In the final step, teachers should have opportunities to try out developing concepts by making multiple applications in their classrooms. Teachers need the chance to experiment with new concepts and techniques with their students. At meetings held after their trials, teachers can compare successes and strategies about back-to-the-drawing-board activities.

As a follow-up, a long-term plan should be instituted for supporting novices. Give teachers a voice in how this process win work. They may elect to form support or check-in groups, designate those who are most expert as mentors, or continue to refine applications with their original work group.

This model suggests that we view the teacher development process, from beginning coursework through inservice opportunities, from a constructivist perspective that encourages teachers to explore, experience, and incorporate new strategies. Teachers need to decide when, how, and under what conditions these new strategies should be used. This approach prepares teachers to deal with increasing classroom diversity and a multitude of daily decisions. It also allows them to construct an evolving instructional theory in the classroom, regardless of which science curriculum they use.

Learning More About Science

In Chapter 1 we note that most of today's elementary school teachers have limited knowledge of science. They were not required to take much science as undergraduates, and the courses they did take were not taught in a way that allowed them to develop concepts they would need to teach. In addition, few elementary teachers consider science their favorite subject, and so, when given the choice of a potpourri of inservice offerings, they don't choose to learn more about science. This may also be because the offerings don't promise to help them much in the long run.

What would a good science offering-whether at the preservice or inservice level-look like? Such a course, institute, or workshop would:

  • Be taught in a way that reflects constructivist learning. This means reamers would do science by pursuing real questions about the natural world and mixing investigative methods with knowledge about the important facts and concepts of science as a discipline. Depth of content rather than breadth of coverage would lead to desirable concept formation instead of rote memorization of science trivia.
  • Use an interdisciplinary approach so that a geology course, for example, would incorporate biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Teachers will then see the interrelationships that occur naturally in the real world and are not separated into disciplines.
  • Include historical and philosophical assumptions and contexts. Some early philosophical theories can help us understand present-day laws and ideologies, including a few of the misconceptions students (and teachers) bring to class. For instance, Aristotle believed that forced motion is maintained by force. Buriden's impetus theory developed from Aristotle's notion and maintains that the impetus is an Intel source of force that maintains the motion. These views contrast with Newton's laws, which suggest that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless a force acts upon it.
  • Help teachers relate science content to technological and societal issues, thereby connecting science to the real world and how we live in it. A unit on waste pollution, for example, might consider an alternative to the present use of Styrofoam materials.
  • Use instructional strategies like cooperative learning, wait time, discussion techniques, inquiry, problem solving, and assessment, so that teachers witness for themselves how these methods serve as important vehicles for science learning.
  • Induce problem solving as an active means for learning the important facts and concepts of science.
  • Require collaboration among faculty from several disciplines or fields. Whatever course is being taught would benefit from a number of perspectives, especially when instructors make it a point to connect content of different disciplines. This can be done using a life science/physical science team or a science/pedagogy team.

As an example, the introductory geology course at Carleton College of Northfield, Minnesota discussed in Chapter 1 could be used as the basis of a teacher workshop in geology that incorporates the model described herein at either the preservice or inservice level:

It might begin the same way, with groups of participants embarking on a field trip to a river where gullies were apparently formed by erosion. Participants would work to solve the problem of identifying and explaining what is happening. They would observe, wonder, ask questions of each other, and discuss what additional information is needed. This phase represents the invitation and exploration stages of learning, and the instructor uses the activity as an informal assessment of previous learnings and views about geology, erosion, the action of rivers, and so on.

Back at the workshop, with the instructor's help and resource books, teachers gain additional information on the topic. The instructor uses the questions raised as a guide to decide if the class needs to return to the area, visit a different one, conduct an in-class water erosion activity or view a "media presentation. Interactions between participants and the instructor, with materials, and among participants are all helpful for information gathering. The process helps participants to further define concepts and begin to form explanations. At this point, it's appraopriate to introduce the history of the area in terms of both geological and human impact. The instructor might opt to bring in a social science instructor, a senior citizen, or a local businessperson who could discuss the impact of the geological development. Connections between what was, what happened and why, and what might be needed can be introduced with the best pedagogical strategies. Wait time during questioning and small- group discussions can be important here.

The instructor uses a culminating activity to assess the effectiveness of the instruction, focusing on the level of new knowledge gained, problem-solving abilities acquired, and participants' concept formation. A team debate on how the community might work together to stop erosion, and how new technologies might help, would be an excellent vehicle for such an assessment.

This course models for teachers how children need to be learning in their classrooms. It weaves together important science knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and uses different approaches to assessment. Employing a variety of instructional strategies helps make learning science an enjoyable-even exciting-experience for students and teachers alike.

Learning More About Learning

What teacher development approach would foster a rich understanding of how children learn? Such a course, institute, or workshop would:

Extend over a long period of time, encouraging developing teachers to incorporate into their knowledge bases an expanding picture of how children develop and learn. They are continually involved in constructing a more elaborate understanding of children, how they most effectively learn science, and, subsequently, what instructional strategies are most appropriate to use and how and when they could be used best.

Provide teachers with knowledge about the complete range of theories and research on children's learning, including developmental findings from research on social learning, behaviorism, and more recent work in cognitive learning theory. Constructivism has had and will continue to have an important impact on elementary school science and how it is taught. Teachers need to understand the theory behind constructivism and see the implications it has for curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Be simultaneously rich in theory and research and experientially based. Coursework in how children learn must allow preservice teachers to work directly with children during science learning to see how to apply the theoretical principles they are learning. Constructivism provides a model of how such a course might be framed. Early in the course, for example, participants might visit classrooms to observe how children learn science. They share observations and discuss in teams which of the instructional strategies and techniques worked and which did not, as well as why and how they worked. At this point teachers are ready to learn some new information, perhaps something about developmental learning theory, that will enhance their developing concept of how children learn.

Not confine learning about learning to courses devoted solely to theories of learning. For instance, in some buildings teachers may form collegial teams to share their insights into how children learn science and to invite expert guests to share with them aspects of how children learn. Teachers could examine curriculum materials and see how the instructional format reflects one or more learning theories. The format for the Elementary Science Study units is quite different from the materials for Science: A Process Approach. A major determinate of those differences lies in the different theories of learning that the curriculum developers used to structure activities.

Schools and districts can choose among several approaches for teacher development that can incorporate these characteristics (see Sparks and Loucks-Horsley 1989 for detailed discussion):

Training with coaching. Most frequently equated with staff development, this approach can result in demonstrable changes in teacher behavior and, subsequently, in the behaviors of children. The model includes development of the theory and rationale behind the new behaviors to be learned, demonstration or modeling, practice in training settings, and guided practice or peer coaching in the classroom with supportive feedback from a colleague. The process of peer coaching is particularly important in helping teachers change their teaching practices, in providing them with opportunities to discuss their changing ideas about teaching, and in giving them the psychological support they need to persist in learning (Joyce and Showers 1988).

Observation and assessment. This approach involves careful observation of teaching with attention to certain behaviors and an open discussion of the results. The model is labeled in various ways, primarily as forms of supervision and coaching. Teachers agree on a focus for the observations, with the observer recording behaviors as they occur. A conference follows, in which the observations are discussed, strengths and weaknesses assessed, and goals set for the future. Both the observed teacher and the observer can gain insight into effective pedagogy and how to incorporate it into daily teaching practice.

Inquiry. This approach incorporates such practices as action research and reflective inquiry. Teachers, alone or collaboratively, decide what problem or situation they are interested in examining, gather and analyze data, and interpret the results in light of changes they might make in their classrooms or in school practice.

Individually guided staff development. In this approach, teachers, individually or in collegial teams, identify their interests and concerns; establish a goal; and seek input by way of coursework, workshops, library research, field trips, and other forms of self-study to reach the goal.

These approaches to staff development can complement, and in some cases replace, the traditional inservice workshop. When well designed, they can help teachers increase their knowledge of science, learning, and teaching in ways that they can apply directly to classroom teaching.

Local Roles

Things to do now:

1. Examine current staff development offerings to determine whether they have the characteristics described in this chapter. Consider adding components to increase learning.

2. Consider alternative approaches to inservice workshops that either replace or complement the workshops. Peer coaching, a teacher-as-researcher program, individually guided staff development-all can extend and reinforce important learnings.

3. Make better use of internal expertise. Identify exemplary science teachers to test new programs and become trainers for their peers. Have high school science teachers teach science content to elementary teachers. Prepare teachers to be good staff developers by helping them use a constructivist perspective to design and deliver their instruction.

Things to do for the future:1. Work with local universities to change the nature of their science and education coursework. Develop collaborative programs using exemplary science teachers, school settings, and different approaches to teacher preparation.

2. Develop closer links with the community to bring teachers real-world experiences from which to learn. Contact local businesses and industries, and work with science professionals to plan inservice offerings and placement opportunities.


State Roles

Things to do now:

1. Promote good staff development by making school and district inservice coordinators and science leaders aware of the characteristics of good staff development programs and alternatives to inservice workshops. Give examples of how to change current practice.

2. Model good staff development practices in state-sponsored events, institutes, and teacher enhancement programs. Incorporate alternative approaches such as coaching and teacher inquiry.

Things to do for the future:

1. Target grant monies to schools and districts that incorporate characteristics of good staff development into their program plans.

2. Identify exemplary staff development programs and practices, and put them 'on the road.' Maintain an up-to date listing of staff development offerings in districts in the state, and develop networks for sharing expertise.

3. Work with universities to improve the quality of course teaching. Provide opportunities to learn about exemplary practices, share expertise, and design alternative strategies.

4. Begin a statewide Alliance for Science Education within your state. Contact university scientists, science educators, and professional scientists employed by businesses about building a program that improves learning opportunities for teachers.


Models and Resources

An Association: The Association for Constructivist Teaching is a professional educational organization that identifies and disseminates effective constructivist practices for student and teacher development. The Association provides its members with resources, an annual conference, professional networks, and a quarterly newsletter.

A Book: In Enquiring Teachers, Enquiring Learners: A Constructivist Approach to Teaching, Catherine T. Fosnot (1989) shares an innovative model of teacher education in which, rather than being spoon fed, the learner is engaged in questioning, hypothesizing, investigating, imagining, and debating instructional strategies. Fosnot includes detailed "how to" course descriptions on topics such as activities that engage teachers as learners.

A Teacher Education Model: The teacher education program at Michigan State University is designed to prepare teachers who are skilled in teaching for conceptual change. Using a course of study that promotes conceptual change in the prospective teachers themselves, the program is based on recent cognitive research, especially research currently under way at Michigan State.

A Teacher Education Model: Science methods courses at Purdue University use the Generative Learning Model to help prospective teachers construct knowledge about science teaching. (Use of the four-stage teaching model is described in Kyle et al. 1989.)


Key References

Brooks, M. G., and J. G. Brooks. (Fall, 1987). "Becoming a Teacher for Thinking: Constructivism, Change, and Consequence.' Journal of Staff Development 8, 3: 16-20.

Caldwell, S., ed. (1989). Staff Development A Handbook of Effective Practices.Oxford, Ohio: The National Staff Development Council.

Fosnot, C. T. (1989). Enquiring Teachers, Enquiring Learners: A Constructivist Approach to Teaching. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Teachers College Press.

Joyce, B., and B. Showers. (1988). Staff Development and Student Achievement. New York: Longman.Kyle, W. C., Jr., S. Abell, and J. A. Shymansky. (Spring 1989). "Enhancing Prospective Teachers' Conceptions of Teaching and Science." Journal of Science Teacher Education 1, 1: 10-13.

Loucks-Horsley, S., M. Carlson, L. Brink, P. Horwitz, D. Marsh, H. Pratt, and K. Worth. (1989). Developing and Supporting Teachers for Elementary School Science Education. Andover, Mass.: The National Center for Improving Science Education, The NETWORK, Inc.

Loucks-Horsley, S., C. Harding, M. Arbuckle, C. Dubea, M. Williams, and L. Murray. (1987). Continuing to Learn: A Guidebook for Teacher Development. Andover, Mass.: The Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, and Oxford, Ohio: The National Staff Development Council.

Sparks, D., and S. Loucks-Horsley. (Fall 1989). "Models of Staff Development." Journal of Staff Development 10, 4: 40-59.

Copyright National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.