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National Research Council (US) Board on Science Education. Exploring the Intersection of Science Education and 21st Century Skills: A Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010.

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Exploring the Intersection of Science Education and 21st Century Skills: A Workshop Summary.

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6Science Teacher Readiness for Developing 21st Century Skills

This chapter addresses the workshop guiding questions focusing on science teachers: What is known about how prepared science teachers are to help students develop 21st century skills? What new models of teacher education may support effective teaching and student learning of 21st century skills, and what evidence (if any) is available about the effectiveness of these models? It summarizes a commissioned paper addressing these questions and the following discussion.


Mark Windschitl (University of Washington) presented a paper on science teacher readiness for cultivating 21st century skills (Windschitl, 2009). He opened with a comparison between the learning goals of reform in science teaching and the learning goals of 21st century skills, suggesting that most of the latter can be taught in the context of scientific inquiry or project-based learning. However, achieving this potential will require “ambitious” teaching, which:

  • features learning how to solve problems in collaboration with others;
  • engages students in productive metacognitive strategies about their own learning;
  • places some learning decisions and activities in the hands of students that were formerly determined by the teacher; and
  • depends for success on monitoring of student thinking about complex problems and relies on ongoing targeted feedback to students.

Windschitl warned that this type of ambitious teaching is unlike instruction in which most teachers have participated or even witnessed. Past efforts to reform teaching have had only a “modest track record,” he said, and the broad trends in science classrooms today suggest that improvements are needed. Classes often focus on activity rather than sense-making discourse (Roth and Garnier, 2006, 2007; Weiss et al., 2003); teachers rarely press students for explanations, use questioning effectively, or take into account students’ prior knowledge (Baldi et al., 2007; Banilower et al., 2008).

In the face of these disturbing trends, Windschitl said, it is important to consider what the research tells us about how teachers learn to teach science. First, content knowledge is very important, and is related to student learning (Magnusson et al., 1992). Teachers with strong content knowledge are more likely to teach in ways that help students construct knowledge, pose appropriate questions, suggest alternative explanations, and propose additional inquiries (Alonzo, 2002; Brickhouse, 1990; Gess-Newsome and Lederman, 1995; Lederman, 1999; Roehrig and Luft, 2004; Sanders, Borko, and Lockard, 1993). Second, he said, preservice teachers come into preparation with deeply engrained theories about what counts as good teaching and what counts as learning. These theories can be resistant to change and may filter out learning of new approaches to science instruction, unless teacher educators surface the theories and work actively to counter them.

Model Teacher Preparation, Induction, and Professional Development Programs

Teacher preparation programs capable of addressing these learning challenges have several characteristics, Windschitl said. They center on a common core curriculum grounded in substantial knowledge of child or adolescent development, learning, and subject-specific pedagogy. They provide students with extended opportunities to practice under the guidance of mentors (student teaching), lasting at least 30 weeks, that reflect the program’s vision of good teaching and are interwoven with course work. Short-term interventions have shown little capacity to change teacher preconceptions (Wideen, Mayer-Smith, and Moon, 1998), but longer term approaches that explicitly seek to elicit and work with novice teachers’ initial beliefs have shown some success in fostering reform-based teaching (Fosnot, 1996; Graber, 1996; Windschitl and Thompson, 2006). Other characteristics of effective teacher preparation programs include extensive use of case study methods, teacher research, performance assessments, and portfolio examinations that relate teachers’ learning to classroom practice (Darling-Hammond, 1999).

In their first two years on the job, new teachers often are caught up in a frantic cycle of planning, teaching, and grading, with the result that they often shelve advanced teaching strategies developed in their teacher preparation programs. Windschitl said that induction programs can counter this cycle, providing an excellent opportunity to maintain a focus on 21st century skills in collaborative professional settings. One of the most promising practices for both induction and professional development involves bringing teachers together to analyze samples of student work, such as drawings, explanations, essays, or videotaped classroom dialogues. Based on principled analyses of how students are responding to instruction, the teachers change their instructional approaches. This collaborative analysis of evidence of student learning is used in several Asian nations whose students perform very well in international comparisons of mathematics and science achievement (Lewis and Tsuchida, 1997; Ma, 1999; Marton and Tsui, 2004; Yoshida, 1999).

Windschitl then identified several features of professional development that can support reform-based teaching and teacher understanding of how to cultivate 21st century skills:

  • Active learning opportunities focusing on science content, scientific practice, and evidence of student learning (DeSimone et al., 2002);
  • Coherence of professional development with teachers’ existing knowledge, other development activities, existing curriculum, and standards in local contexts (DeSimone et al., 2002; Garet et al., 2001);
  • The collective development of an evidence-based “inquiry stance” by participants toward their practice (Blumenfeld et al., 1991);
  • The collective participation by teachers from the same school, grade, or subject area (DeSimone et al., 2002); and
  • The importance of time needed for planning and enacting new practice.

Windschitl clarified that coherence with existing knowledge does not mean tailoring instruction to what teachers already know, but rather taking into account their deeply engrained theories about “good” teaching and learning. There is a broad consensus in the research, he said, that “reform-oriented” professional development (activities such as teacher study groups) results in more substantive changes in practice than “traditional” professional development (workshops or college courses) (Loucks-Horsley et al., 1998; Putnam and Borko, 2000). He then summarized his recommendations for teacher preparation, induction, and professional development (see Table 6-1).

TABLE 6-1. Supports for the Teaching of 21st Century Skills.


Supports for the Teaching of 21st Century Skills.

Turning to his own research, Windschitl said the goal of the Teachers Learning Trajectory Initiative is to create systems capacity for continuous improvement in teachers’ ability to foster 21st century skills. To learn more about how novices become experts, his research team followed 15 teachers for 3 to 4 years, through their preservice preparation and into their first or second year of teaching. In the preparation program, the future teachers were instructed in reform-based teaching, and, once on the job, they participated in an induction program focusing on review and analysis of student work. Over the course of the study, about one-third of the teachers developed “expert-like” teaching practice.

Windschitl reported that, when his team developed some “rudimentary tools” to assist the novice teachers, they were amazed at how well they improved their instruction (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten, 2009). The researchers hypothesized that the widespread use of the tools was attributable to the fact that they were tailored specifically to the needs of novices for planning, teaching, and assessment. For example, they observed that teachers were giving an assessment tool directly to their students to use in classroom conversations. It appeared that the teachers saw value in the tool and thought students could themselves benefit from it, by using the language in the tool to make their own judgment of their personal levels of explanation. This observation led the team to recognize that well-structured tools, especially those acting in a coherent system of support for ambitious teaching, could be very valuable. Based on this new understanding, the team was funded by the National Science Foundation to develop such a system of tools.1 Windschitl described the new suite of tools as follows:

  1. Video-enhanced learning progressions for teachers, incorporating specific techniques of high-quality science instruction. For example, one tool illustrates three levels of increasing sophistication in the technique of pressing students for the evidence supporting their explanations.
  2. “Big idea” tools, which help teachers take many different ideas presented in the curriculum and reconstruct them around a few big ideas. These tools could help foster nonroutine problem solving.
  3. Rubrics to help teachers imagine certain kinds of student performance and to assess students’ thinking, which was listed as a criterion in the rubric.
  4. A suite of discourse tools to support teachers in developing complex communication skills. Windschitl described these tools as especially valuable in light of findings from the longitudinal study that teachers struggle with classroom discourse. One tool presents strategies to elicit students’ initial hypotheses about important scientific ideas. Another focuses on ways to engage students in sense-making reflection on activities, and a third demonstrates how to press students for evidence-based explanations.
  5. A set of tools and routines for teachers to use in collaboratively analyzing the effectiveness of their instruction, based on evidence of student learning.

Windschitl then described the challenges involved in moving toward teaching of 21st century skills (see Figure 6-1). He observed that the skills are not clearly defined, yet they call for “a fundamentally different vision of what counts as good teaching and what counts as learning.” Developing expertise in teaching 21st century skills, he said, will require many years of coherent teaching, reflection, and professional development experiences that build on one another. He also said that efforts to promote such teaching will require reengineering of many interrelated components of the education system. Drawing an analogy between the education system and a food web made up of interdependent organisms, Windschitl asked whether there was any part of the education system that would not have to change, in order to foster students’ 21st century skills. The answer, he replied, was no.

FIGURE 6-1. Challenges of teaching 21st century skills.


Challenges of teaching 21st century skills. SOURCE: Windschitl (2009).


Elizabeth Carvellas (National Research Council) thanked Windschitl for his paper, saying its messages were very welcome after her many years of science teaching. Reflecting on the paper’s summary of research knowledge about effective teacher professional development, preservice education, and ongoing support for teachers, she asked why this knowledge was not reaching teachers. In order to rapidly change teaching to develop 21st century skills, she said, it will be increasingly important for teachers to be able to easily access and apply research on teaching and learning. Next, she pointed out that teachers need time to prepare for these major changes in teaching. Some teachers, she noted, are responsible for teaching science to as many as 180 students. In the course of a school day, these teachers have three time periods for preparation, and deliver instruction to six classes. Although teachers are willing to teach in a different way, they need time and support to do so.

Carvellas then identified several other changes in the education system that she sees as necessary for many teachers to adopt 21st century teaching styles. First, she reminded audience members that they had heard the previous day about the importance of support from administrators. In addition to support, she suggested that administrators provide a guiding vision of 21st century teaching and learning. Second, she said, interdisciplinary work is required across the curriculum, not only in science. Third, she called for increased collaboration between science programs and teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities. She suggested that teachers could take the science content lessons from their science programs and use it in preservice education seminars and discussions with experts in child and adolescent development and learning, in order to translate the content “into something that works for kids.”

Fourth, Carvellas said that science teachers, especially those who teach outside their field of undergraduate study, require ongoing support and professional development around the big ideas and concepts of science. In rural high schools, she said, a single teacher may be responsible for teaching chemistry, earth science, physics, and biology, requiring strong content knowledge of all four subjects. Fifth, after agreeing with Windschitl on the need for ongoing, long-term professional development, she proposed careful design of it to meet the needs of teachers in particular subjects with particular groups of students. She observed that many elementary and secondary school teachers are currently working hard to provide differentiated instruction to meet the needs of individual students (Tomlinson, 2003), yet these same teachers receive “one size fits all” professional development. Carvellas suggested that online teacher professional development might be the best way to support teachers in moving toward 21st century teaching, as discussed in a recent report by the National Academies’ Teacher Advisory Council (National Research Council, 2007b). Finally, she expressed strong agreement with Windschitl about the value of engaging teachers in collaboratively analyzing the effectiveness of their instruction, based on evidence of student learning.


Reflecting on the presentation and response, moderator William Sandoval observed that both speakers called for a fundamental restructuring of teachers’ daily schedules, with more time for planning and collaborative analysis of student work. Noting that such changes are currently taking place in only a handful of schools, led by a far-sighted principal or group of teachers, he asked the speakers how to make this kind of restructuring more systemic. Windschitl responded that this kind of major change requires new policies to convert teaching into a profession, rather than simply a job. Echoing earlier comments by Anderman (see Chapter 3), Windschitl said that policies in Asian countries recognize and support teachers as professionals. For example, he said, teachers in Japan and Singapore use lesson study to help plan, test, and revise lessons, and lesson study is “built into” their identity as teachers (Lewis and Tsuchida, 1997). Teachers in these nations have time off from instruction during the school day, so they can observe other teachers. In Singapore, Windschitl said, teachers can win a grant to support travel abroad to visit an outstanding school or teacher (Darling-Hammond and Cobb, 1995).

Carvellas suggested returning to the earlier workshop discussions that focused on thinking about education as a system (see Chapter 3). Because teachers are “part and parcel” of the system, she said, it is important to involve them and obtain their views about proposed changes. Sandoval replied that, as a researcher, he welcomes this advice, because it is always difficult to obtain the resources necessary to implement collaborative lesson study, and teachers can advise researchers on how to obtain these resources.

Following the panel discussion, Sandoval invited the workshop participants to use their notebooks to write down two concrete recommendations to support rapid development of 21st century teaching. After several minutes, he asked for volunteers to share their recommendations. One participant suggested starting high school classes an hour later, both to accommodate adolescent sleep schedules and to provide an hour of planning time to teachers. Another recommended changing undergraduate introductory science classes to include 21st century skills, as a model for future science teachers. Windschitl responded that changing undergraduate science courses would require a major reorganization of the curriculum, along with retraining of faculty members and other instructors. Carvellas observed that the large size of many undergraduate introductory science classes makes it difficult for instructors to engage students in discourse and develop their 21st century skills.

Bruce Fuchs offered a “radical” proposal to close half the schools of education, because, he argued, the annual number of new bachelor’s and master’s graduates with education degrees is greater than the number of vacancies. One result, in his view, is that people who never really wanted to become teachers end up in the classroom.

Jay Labov (National Research Council) suggested helping science graduate students, who will become the next generation of faculty, become aware of the research on undergraduate science learning and teaching. At the high school level, he said, the College Board is currently revising the Advanced Placement (AP) Program in response to a National Research Council report (2002), and these changes may support development of 21st century skills. Labov recommended engaging undergraduate science faculty, in collaboration with AP teachers, to consider how best to prepare AP teachers to deliver the innovative science curricula that develop 21st century skills (see Chapters 4 and 5).

Kenneth Kay offered two policy strategies that he said would complement the agenda for teacher preparation and professional development proposed by Windschitl. First, he proposed that every state adopt new teacher certification requirements incorporating 21st century skills, as North Carolina has done. Second, he suggested that states and districts provide performance incentives to teachers who demonstrate the capacity to teach 21st century skills.

Eric Anderman agreed with Windschitl about the value of extended student teaching experiences, lasting at least 30 weeks, but called for improved monitoring of the teacher mentors who supervise the student teachers. He recommended that mentors be selected carefully and provided with monetary compensation, rather than continuing education credits. Carvellas heartily agreed with this suggestion, observing that expert teachers with 20 or more years of service do not need continuing education credits. She asked for improved compliance with existing guidelines that require that mentors do much more than simply “drop by once a week,” adding that compensation for these mentors is critical.

Reflecting on the topic of mentoring student teachers, Sandoval mentioned the national problem of low teacher retention rates, as many teachers leave the profession after just a few years. Windschitl responded that current education policies often focus on producing new teachers, instead of retaining high-quality teachers. Many new graduates with education degrees, he said, are not prepared adequately in classroom management, in responding to linguistic and cultural diversity in the classroom, or in teaching science. As a result, he said, many leave teaching within 3 to 5 years.

Joyce Winterton (Office of Education, National Aeronautics and Space Administration) suggested that her agency collaborate with the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation to create externships for teachers. In these positions, teachers would participate in research projects at national laboratories and in industry.

Rodger Bybee questioned the usefulness of “radical” recommendations because, in his view, the education system will reject such sweeping change. He recommended instead building on the tools for teachers developed by Windschitl, which support smaller, more achievable change. Sandoval agreed that it is important to try to build on models of positive change.

Raymond Bartlett (Teaching Institute for Excellence in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) said, in his years of work in industry and with a state board of education, he learned that it is possible to make major changes in the education system. For example, a change in teacher certification requirements will dramatically change the whole system. He suggested that, rather than talking to each other about science education and 21st century skills, participants begin discussions with key organizations in Washington, DC, such as the Association of State Boards of Education, which are positioned to support and implement major changes in education policy.

Copyright © 2010, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK32691


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