Unlocking Science Teaching and Learning with a Common Vision: A Q&A with Instruction Partners

During last month’s Science Education Transformation panel at an event on the Future of Education hosted by The Hill, officials and experts agreed on the urgent need to expand quality science teaching and learning across the country. To dig into how we do that, I spoke with Jessica Henderson-Rockette, Director of Science at Instruction Partners, for the second entry in my series of interview-style blogs with science education experts. Here’s her take on the need for student-centered, quality science instruction – plus the supports teachers deserve to make it happen.

Many people–students and adults–feel left out of the science world or like it’s “not for them”. How can we change this narrative?

Jessica: You change the narrative by changing the reality. Include students in the science world and they will feel a part of it. Ensure that they see how science directly relates to their everyday experiences and the needs of their communities, and they will see that science is most certainly “for them.” When we utilize routines that value student voice, encourage critique, and demonstrate choice, we give students ownership of not only the science classroom but of the personal and relevant world that science is meant to explain.  

Often people feel that science is an attempt to understand explanations of the world figured out by other people in other spaces and times—the ’white coat scientists,” the Newtons and Galileos of the world. Changing this narrative will take more than communicating a different message; it will require changing the student experience in science classrooms across K-12. One of the most transformative aspects of using phenomena as the driver of science instruction is that it provides the opportunity to center science class around figuring out the world that students recognize and care about. When this is how you engage with science from a young age—as something that you do to gather evidence and reason with ideas for the specific purpose of answering questions that YOU posed—it will be difficult to feel as though science is not for you. 

What is the biggest opportunity for advancing high-quality K–12 science education across the country, and what is the biggest challenge?

Jessica:  It’s time to fully invest in providing every K–12 science educator and teacher prep provider the blueprint for excellent science teaching and learning. The biggest opportunity lies in providing access to high-quality instructional materials to science teachers at every grade level—not only for the purpose of using those materials with students but for the purpose of building teachers’ understanding of what quality science instruction looks like. Currently, we are asking the vast majority of science teachers in this country to build the plane while trying to fly it—and we’re not even giving them the blueprint to work from. While we’ve seen the most progress in availability of materials in middle grades, particularly with the completion of OpenSciEd’s middle school curriculum, we are not harnessing the full potential of these materials for developing content pedagogical knowledge through curriculum-based professional development. As the field furiously works to develop materials aligned with the K-12 Framework’s vision for all grade levels, I think we must leverage the materials we do have to significantly shift professional learning for science teachers. 

I see the biggest challenge as establishing a common vision for science teaching and learning across all stakeholders—particularly those who have the power to impact something as crucial as professional learning systems. Much of the work I’ve done with Instruction Partners focuses on making sure leaders in decision-making roles have enough knowledge of the science vision to: 1) see the need for providing the resources (money and time) to engage teachers in meaningful, sustained curriculum-based professional learning, and 2) be able to identify high-quality professional learning opportunities that will support teacher development and result in improved student outcomes.  

In that vein, we published Solidify: A Science Leadership Development Workbook meant to provide a self-study for leaders responsible for supporting improvements in science instruction. If a school, district, or state leader engages with a resource like Solidify and starts to understand the power of strong instructional materials and support, they will then advocate for the same experiences locally. 

 What kind of progress are states and districts making in aligning science education with English language arts and math?

Jessica: States and districts that prioritize quality science teaching and learning have often done so after recognizing the (research-backed) benefits strong science instruction has on students’ progress across subject areas. Unfortunately, there are often significant barriers for those advocating for equitable access to science for students. Science typically receives significantly less funding than ELA and math, fewer content leads exist at the district and state levels, education leaders are less likely to have science education backgrounds, and science instructional time lags behind ELA and math, especially at the elementary level. States that are prioritizing science education do so by developing strategies that improve knowledge and understanding around the vision for science education while also making clear how investing in that vision directly supports students’ ELA and math knowledge.

How can this kind of course alignment work be done without “sticking science” into ELA or math, or leaving science behind?

Jessica: The key for any alignment work is that it must center science.  The reality is that denying students access to consistent and adequate instructional time for science is harmful and sticking science into ELA or Math is not a solution.  Excellent science instruction must be seen as intrinsically valuable and we can start to push that message by centering the science standards in any alignment work so that teachers and leaders begin to see opportunities for ELA and math development within the science classroom, versus the other way around (which is what has traditionally been true). Instead of identifying a science article/text that can be incorporated into an ELA classroom, we should be identifying the ELA skills students develop when constructing an explanation of an investigative phenomena in a science classroom.  Though incorporating components of the science standards into ELA instruction can be valuable, science has historically been deprioritized, so centering science classrooms as the place where these crosswalks live—prioritizing time where instruction focuses on grade-level science standards—is a question of equitable access. 

Can you share any examples of how Instruction Partners is supporting the alignment work?

Jessica: Recently, a high school partner in New Orleans started a literacy initiative seeking to increase the time students spend with text in every subject. We wanted to ensure that this did not turn into just  an added ELA task in science classrooms that didn’t support progress toward science standards or refocus instructional time. So, working alongside the school’s science coach, we did two things. First, we pushed for more flexibility around the source of the text that could be used in order to give teachers more access to aligned science text. We then strategically selected three science and engineering practices that became the focus of model lessons during the teachers’ PLC time. We did that so we could then use the grade-band appropriate SEP progression to identify target practices that align directly with ELA and math standards. One example from our literacy case was illustrating alignment with a biology model lesson in which students tackle evidence-based arguments. We isolated the science standard expectation for grades 9-12 then considered what tasks needed to be embedded in those expectations to support development in a literacy standard. 

Surfacing how creating opportunities for students to DO the work of science will actually support more authentic development of ELA and math skills is how we align across content areas without losing the message that excellent science instruction must be a priority.

Thank you, Jessica and Instruction Partners, for your leading work on quality science education! Check out the first entry in this series here and stay tuned for more. 

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.