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Discussion: Science Instructional Materials for Middle School: Informing Future Initiatives

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posted by: Scott Hays on August 31, 1999 at 7:43AM
subject: Final Thoughts (maybe)
Let me first apologize for my last post . . . . I somehow came to this
forum with the understanding that it was a "conversation", and have
anxiously been awaiting reasoned and clarifying responses to the questions
I asked. Upon rereading the invitation to join, I now understand that this
forum is designed to provide a snapshot of what is, and what could be.
Well, then . . . . let me revisit my own contribution(s) and modify them to
fit this new picture.

I still cannot offer any perspective on the quality of particular
instructional materials nor the effectiveness of any form of professional
development. As stated originally, the project with which I currently work
is only contemplating moving to middle school, and has focused exclusively
on K-5. I cannot add much to the middle-school conversation from the
perspective of experience, either . . . . my 20-years in the profession
were spent in a self-contained 4-8th grade classroom which I taught more in
the style of an elementary school than that of a middle school . . . . and
the difference between the two approaches is light years apart

(Parenthetically, I might add that I always argue strongly to burn all
middle schools and the factory model they represent, but am easily
dismissed on just about any grounds you care to name. The reasons to
eliminate the model are myriad, but the two most obvious have to do with
fragmenting the lives of already fragmented adolescents and removing all
stability in their day, as well as the false expectation that true learning
or understanding can occur in arbitrary 45-50 minute blocks of time).

... . . . but I can add to the list of things that I think would be useful
for implementation of an inquiry-based middle school curriculum:

1. Instructional materials are modular and unit-based. Each module is
connected to a clear set of standards, and serves to elucidate the content
of that standard or standards (this works for the "just the facts" Calif
standards as well as the conceptually organized standards found in most
other places except, Toto, in Kansas). A module or unit consists of a
series of lessons, investigations and inquiries that are sequenced to
support understanding of a large idea or a connected set of ideas.

2. Instructional materials consist of materials for both teacher and student:
a. Teacher materials need not be glossy and slick (ala Insights), but
should serve to guide the teacher through use of the module or unit (hence,
the term "teacher's guide"). Because there are multiple teaching styles as
well as multiple learning styles, and because middle school teachers have
varying degrees of content knowledge background, the materials can be
either explicitly structured (do this, then this and then this) or can be
more loosely woven together and merely suggest questions to ask, materials
to present and interventions to offer. The best materials will probably
include a little of both, and provide the teacher with an opportunity to
choose guided instruction vs open-ended activities. Ancillary materials
(student texts, student trade-books, software, web-sites, video materials
and the like) should be cross-referenced and easily accessible.
b. Student texts support the investigations and activities that are
addressed in the module. It's almost like you would take a traditional
text, cut and paste all the text related to the concept(s) under
investigation into a single rough draft volume, design possible
investigations around that concept or those concepts and describe them (and
the materials needed) in the teacher's manual, then assemble an engaging
text from the rough draft that explains in clear terms what it is that has
been investigated (in the form of narrative prose, questions for further
investigation, explanation and the like).

3. There must be some systematic and easily accessible electronic avenue
for teachers to talk to each other. Whether they are experienced or brand
new, teachers use the same instructional materials and/or must teach the
same topics/concepts/units (etc.). All teachers modify, augment or invent
... . . . or find a time when they need to modify, augment or invent. Why do
it in a vacuum? Electronic bulletin boards and repositories of ideas,
lesson plans, modifications to lesson plans and the like can be (should be)
posted, topically or by publisher, and available for every teacher to
access (read or write) at a level of comfort to them. Perhaps such things
exist -- if they do, they are not well-known nor easily available. I am
suggesting not just a site that someone puts up and expects people to find
(and use) by word of mouth, random search, or curiousity; I am suggesting a
concerted, full-blown and well-publicized effort by either publishers, the
NSF, NSTA or other professional organizations (or all) to create such a
vehicle for sharing and learning, and to provide the support necessary to
make it work. That support must include direct training (a cadre of
trainers, if you will), easy to find access to tech support, and a network
of users who can help one another. The www is, bless its heart, chaotic
and anarchistic. It can (and should) continue to be so. But that doesn't
mean that in one corner of the web there can't be a somewhat well-organized
and easy to find/use subweb of teacher tools. I would do it myself, but
don't have the time or resources necessary to make it as complete as
possible, nor the connections necessary to make it thorough and rich, nor
access to a www of advertising to make it known. Think about this one.

4. Publishers of instructional materials must be contractually (legally?
dare I ask) be obligated to provide support to districts and schools that
adopt and purchase their materials. Support must be in the form of
materials (available as both mass packaged kits and component elements to
be selected as needed or desired), though the school or district is not
obligated in return to purchase the materials from the publisher. More
importantly, publishers must enter the business of quality professional
development, or contract out to an lsc or similar organization willing to
provide the necessary professional development supporting both the program
and the strategies associated with inquiry-based instruction. The more
open-ended the program, the more direct pd support the suppliers must
provide. The support needs to be on demand, on-going, and multifaceted --
it should cover such topics as materials management, inquiry strategies,
science content, discipline and subject area integration strategies and
just about anything else you can imagine. It should be available in the
form of large-group workshops and/or institutes, small group
discussion/support networks, classroom visitations, peer coaching,
telephone calls, and internet connectivity. I know there are seasoned
"professionals" out there who do not value (or think they need)
professional development offered by publishers. My response to them would
be that the greatest gift a teacher can bring to their students is a thirst
for knowledge -- beyond that, anyone who does not feel they have something
to learn by participating in a pd opportunity probably has stopped learning
themselves and is not the best model for learning that can be offered to ms
students. Training in the use of new materials must be mandatory
(including training in how to augment or supplement the materials to best
meet the needs of individual students and individual classes of students).

5. The actual form that pd takes should be in multiple-layers. Many ms
teachers need on-going content acquisition. I think as even experienced
teachers play more with inquiry, they will find a need to explore content
knowledge they once took for granted in more depth. Methodologies will
continue to be a necessary part of pd. There might even be some sites
willing to blend adult pd with student inquiry in the same learning
environment, but that is a rather bold step and I don't expect to see too
many takers.

6. District or site-based support is essential. When the district or the
site assumes a "fire-fighter" approach to curriculum adoption or
implementation, the solutions are always going to be short-term or limited
in scope. If a district or site merely goes through the motions of
adopting something and then moves on to the next fire that has to be put
out, then it is not surprising that its teachers adopt the same attitude
and quickly forget the need to reassess how they present material and
learning experiences to students. How to garner such support is a trick I
have no answer for, but we all know that without it, nothing will change.

7. In a more fantasy related thought, but clearly connected to all the
above, I think we all know that the larger the district (and similarly, the
larger the site), the more difficult it is to implement a quality program
across the entire population. Perhaps it is time that we begin to consider
the idea that a major contributing factor in the perceived failure of
public schools is their sheer size! Again, I do not know how to begin to
fight this fight (nor if anyone else is on board with me), but I think we
need to begin to articulate the question and begin to propose alternative
structures to unified and union school districts that are larger than
medium-sized cities, or to school campuses with a thousand children or more
locked up inside its walls, before we will ever begin to see improvement in
the quality of what the public schools have to offer.

If I have once again overstepped the scope of this forum with this post, I
apologize to anyone who might be offended. Excuse my rant, but sometimes a
stirring of the kettle leads to a better thought out final product.

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite
you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
Mark Twain

Scott Hays

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