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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Close-to-Practice Learning

Science teachers find that professional learning embedded in their day-to-day work holds the most promise for improving instruction.

Close-to-Practice Learning- thumbnail
The Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards face many challenges, but none greater than this: Teachers must make the biggest instructional changes ever asked of them.
For the standards to succeed, teaching must be more than telling, and learning more than listening. Teaching must elicit, prod, and develop students' thinking and improve students' abilities to understand challenging texts, talk and write about complex ideas, and apply what they learn to solve novel problems (Ball & Forzani, 2013; Shanahan, 2013).
Changes of this magnitude require much teacher time and effort—and this work is largely invisible to everyone except teachers. For example, when working with a new math curriculum, a high school algebra teacher must plan, try out, and refine new lessons, learning through repeated trial and error what's effective for students who vary in ability and achievement levels. This is how teachers master new resources, modify instruction, and accumulate usable, classroom-ready knowledge and skills.
It will take even more time and practice for teachers to master the high-leverage teaching practices that the new standards call for. Traditional modes of professional development are too short-lived and too distant from practice to achieve significant improvements (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Professional Learning: Close to or Far from Practice?

Let's look at a case study that one of us conducted (Ermeling, 2010). It follows several veteran science teachers as they move through more traditional professional development approaches to engage in close-to-practice learning.

Circling in on Practice

Close …

A comprehensive, suburban high school in Southern California had rigorous science standards and a rigorous curriculum that the teachers had used for years. Nevertheless, students continued to struggle with reasoning and with applying scientific knowledge to solve novel problems. This wouldn't change, the teachers realized, until they stopped relying on lectures and lab procedures that emphasized telling and memorizing. Teaching needed to focus on building deeper understanding, and students needed more opportunities to engage in and persist with challenging tasks.
To support the shift to more inquiry- and struggle-oriented teaching, the school had invested in instructional resources and professional development workshops. Despite genuine interest and some initial experimentation, most of this learning never took hold. The workshops were too distant from practice.

Closer …

The school's next effort moved closer to practice. The administration arranged for teachers to study videos from science teaching in countries that outperformed the United States on international assessments (such as Japan, Australia, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands). Although these countries featured different science instruction, all emphasized the teaching of core science ideas. In contrast, typical U.S. science lessons focused on engaging students in a variety of activities, with little focus on core concepts (Roth & Garnier, 2006/2007).
The videos captured teachers' imaginations and provoked rich discussions of alternative approaches, but there was little translation from talk to practice. Video clips and inspiring discussions were still too distant from their everyday work.


The following school year, the science teachers had the opportunity to engage in close-to-practice learning to hone their skills with inquiry teaching. Four teachers agreed to meet regularly for 18 months. Borrowing principles from Japanese lesson study, they jointly planned lessons, critiqued videotaped tryouts of their lessons, revised lessons, and tried again.
Their initial attempts didn't go smoothly. Instead of helping students struggle with novel problems, several teachers unintentionally decreased lesson rigor, thereby defeating the purpose of their improvement effort.
For example, the group designed a biology lab to help students understand how complex variables influence the dissolved oxygen content of water and affect biological activity in aquatic environments. The students were to sort through pictures of different bodies of water and place the pictures on a grid, using prior knowledge and reasoning to order the pictures by estimated water temperature (horizontal axis) and levels of oxygen content (vertical axis). But a few days before the lesson, the biology teacher decided to provide students with a worksheet that included a detailed explanation of the main concepts and variables that influence levels of oxygen. During the sorting task, rather than persist with the challenge of thinking through complex variables, most students just went to the worksheet to locate the answers, completing the exercise with little struggle or deep thinking. Students mastered facts, but post-lab assessments showed they were no better at reasoning and applying what they learned in new contexts.
After studying video clips of these lessons and debriefing as a team, the teachers recognized that they were diminishing students' opportunity to grapple with concepts and to become aware of misconceptions that stood in the way of their learning.
For example, while graphing motion in physics, students will often mistakenly view a sloped line as an actual picture of an object's movement—say, something moving in a northwesterly direction—rather than recognizing the slope as a representation of distance over time (Berg & Smith, 1994). One reason these misconceptions persist is that students' primary exposure to graphing in math class typically involves repetitive practice with abstract formulas and equations, with minimal application to real-life scenarios.
By challenging students to create their own graphs for the types of motion they encounter in everyday life—for instance, a football flying through the air, a car screeching to a halt, or a body moving back and forth while dancing—the teacher can help students begin to make a conceptual connection between the image of the graph and the data it represents. The teacher can then look for opportunities to uncover students' misconceptions and solidify their understanding. As the physics teacher in the study explained to students during such an exercise, "We're not just using x and y. We have real things that go on these axes, real things that change and that we're going to be measuring."
After further analysis and reflection, the teachers also were able to confront their deep-seated assumption that "students struggling" meant "students failing." Several teachers realized that they routinely gave students too much guidance. Noted the biology teacher who had exposed students to the correct answers about the levels of oxygen content, "I was afraid to let them struggle, afraid of the frustration they would express." It was a real epiphany for the teachers to recognize their tendency to switch back to telling mode by giving students too much guidance during activities they were supposed to struggle with.
But the teachers persisted, tweaking lesson plans, candidly critiquing their performances, and incrementally improving their inquiry teaching. It took 18 months and multiple planning and reflection cycles for every teacher to fully integrate inquiry into classroom instruction and begin seeing evidence of deeper learning. Essays from a biology lab report showed a substantial increase in students' ability to transfer complex ideas about osmosis and diffusion to applications with the human body. Results from the advanced placement biology exam showed a 90 percent pass rate, the highest in school history. And on pre-post assessments in physics, students showed improved reasoning.

What Did Teachers Change?

In each case, teachers could point to specific instructional choices they made that contributed to these positive outcomes. The biology and physics teachers designed and implemented new exploration labs in which each student group received slightly different versions of the same problem or experiment. This not only increased the complexity and diversity of examples during group presentations but also prevented students from copying one another's work.
The biology teacher also started more intentionally circulating throughout the room with a notepad during lab exercises. Rather than prematurely interject remarks and provide too much guidance or information, she wrote down various observations, such as misconceptions that individual students had or common patterns of difficulty to address in future instruction. At times, she would look down and pretend to record comments, even though she was intently listening to what students were saying, to encourage them to rely more on one another for support. In this way, she learned how to foster rigorous levels of inquiry, requiring students to persist with challenging concepts and identify gaps in understanding. The insights she gained enabled her to more effectively address these gaps in subsequent lessons.

Why Did It Work?

The teachers' close-to-practice improvement work met four crucial conditions. The teachers
  • Were familiar with the curriculum, so they knew the concepts and skills it required them to teach. The challenge may be far greater for teachers using new curriculums aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. It took veteran science teachers 18 months to master one aspect of inquiry teaching with a familiar curriculum. We can only speculate how long it might have taken if they were also learning a new curriculum.
  • Learned inquiry teaching by planning lessons for immediate use in their own classrooms. Focusing improvement activity on highly relevant, day-to-day work and pressing instructional issues helped bridge the gap between talk and practice and produce classroom-ready, usable knowledge.
  • Engaged in deliberate study of the relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers learned to better differentiate productive learning struggles from failure and to tailor instructional moves accordingly. They began to recognize how such teacher decisions as the materials they chose to provide or the comments they might interject during lab activities can significantly influence the depth of student learning. They started teaching the importance of error analysis by allowing students to experience the consequences of imprecise measurement procedures. They learned to monitor group projects more purposefully, making sure the struggle resulted from challenging problem-solving tasks, not from confusion with instructions, frustration with group dynamics, or lack of teacher support. And they patiently helped students discover the satisfaction that comes from persisting with a difficult task.
  • Engaged in improvement work over time. School leadership made this work a sustained part of the teachers' professional routine. This enabled the teachers to move from interesting insights to durable changes in practice.
Providing teacher learning opportunities that meet these four criteria has proven challenging for many schools. Moreover, schools often discover that there's little guidance for how to organize and institute an effective teaching improvement process (Ermeling & Gallimore, 2013). A few studies suggest that high-functioning teacher teams, like the science teacher workgroup, require major changes that most schools find difficult to make: finding protected time for teams to meet, providing sustained school leadership, and identifying a protocol that guides but doesn't overly prescribe the teachers' work.
One five-year investigation demonstrated that nine schools achieved better student outcomes by focusing school leadership and routine meetings on instructional improvement and sustaining the work for consecutive years. Six demographically similar schools that employed popular reform models—such as America's Choice, Success for All, and a local district option—had no comparable achievement gains over the same five years (Gallimore, Ermeling, Saunders, & Goldenberg, 2009; Saunders, Goldenberg, & Gallimore, 2009).

Supplementary Approaches

Less close-to-practice, but less costly, learning opportunities have shown some promise. Akin to training medical professionals with surgical simulations, teacher educators at the University of Michigan are experimenting with simulated contexts that enable preservice teachers to practice instructional skills and judgment. Teacher candidates prepare lessons and teach them to fellow students. Later, under the guidance of an instructor, they analyze the videos, suggest improvements, and the candidate teaches the lesson again. As candidates progress through the program, they teach the lesson in a local school, and, again, analyze the videos of those lessons.
Simulations are also being used to highlight common classroom challenges, such as identifying alternative instruction for students struggling to grasp a concept or coming up with better graphical representations of mathematical problems (Kersting, Givvin, Thompson, Santagata, & Stigler, 2012). Teachers study lesson videos, identify points where students are confused, and make suggestions for alternative instruction. Teachers who offered better suggestions were found to get better teaching ratings in their classrooms, and their students achieved better test results.
Although these approaches might be part of the mix, they most likely will remain supplementary to job-embedded, sustained, close-to-practice forms of continual improvement, such as lesson study and other high-functioning models of collaborative teacher research.

Step by Step by Step

Key to the success of new standards and assessments is the indispensable work of teachers who engage in sustained professional learning opportunities that focus on teaching and learning. The new standards have a better chance of success if we commit to steady, incremental change, what surgeon and author Atul Gawande (2007) called the "infant science of improving performance" (p. 242).

Ball, D. L., & Forzani, M. (2013). Building a Common Core for learning to teach: And connecting professional learning to practice. American Educator, (35)2, 17–21.

Berg, C., & Smith, P. (1994). Assessing students' abilities to construct and interpret line graphs: Disparities between multiple-choice and free-response instruments. Science Education, 78(6), 527–554.

Ermeling, B. A. (2010). Tracing the effects of teacher inquiry on classroom practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(3), 377–388.

Ermeling, B. A. & Gallimore, R. (2013). Learning to be a community: Schools need adaptable models to create successful programs. Journal of Staff Development, 34(2), 42–45.

Gallimore, R., Ermeling, B. A., Saunders, W. M., & Goldenberg, C. (2009). Moving the learning of teaching closer to practice: Teacher education implications of school-based inquiry teams. Elementary School Journal, 109(5), 537–553.

Gawande, A. (2007). Better: A surgeon's notes on performance. New York: Holt.

Kersting, N. B., Givvin, K. B., Thompson, B. J., Santagata, R., & Stigler, J. W. (2012). Measuring usable knowledge: Teachers' analyses of mathematics classroom videos predict teaching quality and student learning. American Education Research Journal, 49(3), 568–589.

Roth, K., & Garnier, H. (2006/2007). What science teaching looks like: An international perspective. Educational Leadership, 64(4), 16–23.

Saunders, W., Goldenberg, C., & Gallimore, R. (2009). Increasing achievement by focusing grade level teams on improving classroom learning: Evidence from a 5-year prospective, quasi-experimental study of Title 1 Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 46(4), 1006–1033.

Shanahan, T. (2013). Letting the text take center stage. American Educator, 37(3), 4–11, 43.

Ronald Gallimore has contributed to educational leadership.

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