How Modeling Instruction Facilitates Collaboration in our Department

By: Laura Swiatek, Sarah Palmer, Marc Ehrhardt, Keith Frase

We are four chemistry teachers in a suburban high school coming from very diverse experiences: some immediately began their careers in education, while others had work experience in alternate fields (both in and outside the scientific research world). Some began their teaching careers with traditional approaches, while some have only known modeling in their classrooms. The Modeling Instruction pedagogy has allowed us to unite our different backgrounds because it has given us a common understanding about how students construct knowledge in science.

Despite our diversity, our own personal styles are still supported; none of us feels that sacrificing him or herself in the name of collaboration is required. We certainly have the same instructional objectives and assessments. However, because the class discussions we facilitate are student-driven, they look and sound different in each of our classrooms. While we may not ask the exact same questions or take the same path to achieve our common objectives, we agree that when students build their own knowledge based on evidence and discussion, long-term retention and application are improved. Surrendering absolute control – in the classroom and in unit planning – has enhanced our lives and the academic experiences of our students.

Having a shared instructional approach has also given us the support system necessary to take risks in our classrooms. Asking students to step outside their comfort zones of teacher-centered lectures can be a daunting task, and doing so is made easier with the knowledge that other educators with similar instructional styles will offer backing. Though a challenging lesson might be met initially with resistance, we have colleagues with whom we can troubleshoot. Admittedly, engaging with other professionals to discuss what works and what doesn’t work well in a classroom requires humility. However, real-world research also requires scientists to be ready to make changes and, sometimes, surrender what is comfortable. Collaborating within the Modeling framework, and using it in the classroom, approximates that reality.

One particular aspect of Modeling Instruction that reflects “doing science” closely is that discussing our materials makes our collaboration, by nature, reflective. Why are we doing this activity? What do we need/expect students to get out of this? What will their evidence be? Is it important? What is “need-to-know” versus “nice-to-know”? The importance of reflection in education – and in science – cannot be overstated. Scientists must analyze their experimental methods, draw conclusions, and engage in reflection in order to generate new approaches to answer their questions. When we work together to revise (or generate new, modeling-friendly) unit plans, such professional reflection happens organically, and is enhanced by the suggestions of colleagues.

An additional advantage to having the entire department embrace Modeling Instruction is that we know our students are getting a consistent experience. If their schedules change, there is no concern about a lack of logical flow in content. Additionally, each period of the day, one of us is available to offer support for struggling students. Because we each understand the types questions being asked and the expectations, we can provide help for other instructors’ students. We occasionally embrace the opportunity to grow by observing one another’s classes, and we can seamlessly cover for one another, if necessary, when an instructor is absent.

In every professional situation, utilizing collaboration is better than working alone.  However, it is particularly great when educators collaborate and it is practically vital for modelers. Due to the somewhat organic nature of class discussions, there exists the potential for the class to head in unintended directions. This can be serendipity or disaster and colleagues with similar experiences are incredibly insightful if one needs assistance with course correction. Our district and state guidelines are currently pushing for students to engage in coursework that provides authentic experiences, meaningful work, and development of critical thinking skills, which are the hallmarks of modeling instruction. We feel so fortunate to have received modeling instruction already because it is helping us work together to facilitate this kind of learning for our students.

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