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Observations by Larry: Professional Learning and FOSS

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
May 28, 2019 | Observations by Larry

For 50 years and more I have concentrated my creative energy on the design, development, and communication of elementary and middle-school science curriculum and instruction. With the publication of the Next Generation iteration of the FOSS program, I am finally satisfied that my labors have come to fruition. Finally got it right! And yet I hear the refrain of the 1960s song, "Is that all there is?"

Of course not; there is always another challenge—another hurdle to clear. Next challenge up is FOSS Program implementation. Our fine science curriculum has no value until it is put into practice by skilled teachers and enthusiastic students. The fact of the matter is that there is no science-learning magic in those handsome FOSS cabinets and Teacher Toolkits, but there is a lot of potential. All that prospective science teaching/learning requires an intermediary between the FOSS resource and the learner—a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher positioned in a supportive school system.

But, teachers need opportunities to learn how to take full advantage of their FOSS resource. And they need to be working in a system that understands and supports the infrastructure needs. Is this hard? Not particularly, but it does require the marshaling of a significant amount of intellectual energy on the part of the school staff to commit to and develop a multi-year professional learning and implementation plan. I've been thinking about this enterprise as a three-stage cumulative process.

  • Stage 1 is a commitment to understanding and establishing the particular infrastructure that supports a quality implementation.
  • Stage 2 is a commitment of intellectual energy on the part of the teaching staff.
  • Stage 3 is a commitment of intellectual energy on the part of the participating students.

It's not hard, but it is complex. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate. Let's characterize these three stages.

Stage 1: Infrastructure. A FOSS implementation is a complex system needing a solid foundation— a robust infrastructure. There are a number of interacting subsystems (functions). First, identify the members of your implementation leadership group, including these roles and responsibilities. These may include district and site administrators, resource teachers, leadership teachers (special educators, TSAs, instructional coaches, language arts and math specialists), and others (librarians, custodians, grounds and facilities managers, and parents and families). And perhaps, not surprisingly, you need to ensure the installation and maintenance of a robust digital access system (Internet)—a critically important dimension of a FOSS implementation. Additionally, an essential element of the infrastructure is a coherent commitment to those all-important FOSS kits. FOSS active learning depends on the right student materials and services, provided in the right place at the right time. Making a commitment to a refurbishment plan that takes the burden off of teachers will allow them to focus on what they're best at: teaching. Implementing FOSS is a staff enterprise, not an individual teacher activity, so a robust systemwide planning, maintenance, and communication system is essential.

FOSS employs a consistent instructional design, crafted to engage students in effective and engaging inquiry relationships with important scientific phenomena. The elements of the FOSS instructional design must be accommodated by the system infrastructure. This is not the place to elaborate all of the dimensions of the instructional environment that comprise the pedagogical infrastructure, but suffice it to say that the system should commit to building and maintaining the supportive terrain so that teachers and learners can engage successfully in three-dimensional teaching and learning.

Stage 2: Teacher Practice. Clearly, the science-teaching water is carried by classroom teachers. Preparing teachers to do so is a delicate business, requiring a high level of intellectual commitment by the entire staff to learn FOSS instructional practice. This is because from the individual teacher's point of view, the task is not to become proficient at delivering his/her grade-level modules, but to contribute to the coherent K–8 learning progression of student scientific knowledge. This implies that for the sake of student learning there can be no slippage anyplace in the instructional supply chain. Among other things this requires every teacher to understand the importance and degree of understanding expected of students throughout their school science careers. It is also during Stage 2 of an implementation that teachers dedicate themselves to deepening their practice around fundamental FOSS pedagogical moves, learning: 1) The nuanced use of student science notebooks; 2) Proficient use of formative assessment (including FOSSmap) to hone student learning; 3) A repertoire of strategies and moves to guide and maximize student sense making; and 4) Seamless methods for integrating science and English language arts and English language development methods to maximize instructional time for science. These four possible areas of concentration during Stage 2 implementation are examples, not absolutes. Stage 2 activities are likely to be most effectively engaged if the school is able to organize a science professional learning community to move the science teaching practices forward.

Stage 3: Student practice. Now this is the tricky bit. For achieving the maximum value from your FOSS implementation, students need to be active, engaged participants—working diligently at becoming model learners. This involves an intellectual commitment by students to learn how to be expert learners. Sound silly? Not at all. Students can become dedicated, determined science learners if given the opportunity and guided effectively. Students need to learn a suite of pursuit moves: 1) How to work collaboratively to make crisp, thorough observations and to record those observations systematically as data in science notebooks; 2) How to use observation data and other information to develop answers to focus questions (claims); 3) How to marshal data to generate evidence to support claims; 4) How to share thinking with peers (argue) in various sense-making situations; 5) How to work with alternative conclusions to make connections and corrections to their thinking; and 6) How to engage in (relish) the process of formative assessment as a mechanism to advance and clarify knowledge. Again, this is a sampling of the behavioral characteristics of a fully actualized FOSS science learner, not a definitive set. And clearly, these kinds of learning behaviors are not to be expected of primary-aged students, but elements of these critical behaviors should be present early and seen to mature and evolve as students advance through their academic careers. And as I stated at the opening of this paragraph, this is the tricky bit. I don't know how to engineer it yet, but I know it can be done because we have seen it accomplished time after time. The magic happens when the teacher is able to establish a social-emotional classroom culture where students have all bought into the idea that learning is a shared accomplishment, not a competition in which there are winners who get rewarded, and losers become discouraged. When learning is the reward, everyone is helping one another and everyone wins.

Is there a Stage 4? Probably. I can envision a couple of Stage 4 scenarios. One possible Stage 4 activity might involve designing a PLC dedicated to developing total integration of the curriculum; a science-centered school. A science-centered school is one that has essentially evolved into a science magnet school in which language arts, fine arts, social studies, and mathematics have been seamlessly integrated into the pursuit of natural science. Or, once a school has achieved Stage 3 implementation, it is possible that the school may become a science activist school—tackling community/local projects involving natural system conservation; climate action projects—energy conservation/recycling; or regionally appropriate food or native plant gardens. A school may launch a science project club—student identified and initiated inquiry projects on contemporary topics with consequences in the local community. And, these Stage 4 activities do not require any specific professional learning effort. By the time the staff and student body have achieved Stage 3 implementation, the school learning community (staff, student body, community) might launch itself spontaneously into stage 4 activities.