Talk Science Impact

Grade 4

The Grade 4 teachers participated in the Talk Science research in 2010-2011, and a subset of the same teachers participated a second time in 2011-2012. Our work with the teachers in 2010-2011 allowed us to develop and test a collection of web-based multimedia resources for teachers' professional learning, and to test our initial research design and analytic instruments. Based on feedback from the teachers, we refined the multimedia resources, and began developing the Talk Science professional development pathway to help teachers visualize and understand the scope and structure of the program. Preliminary research with the Grade 4 teachers in 2010-2011 also helped inform our research questions, and plans for data collection and analysis for subsequent work with Grade 5 teachers in 2011-2012.

Research with the Grade 4 teachers provides evidence of certain changes in their facilitation of classroom science discussions. The findings show that after participating in the Talk Science program in 2011-2012, almost all teachers increased their use of academically productive talk strategies to guide students' science learning, and specifically, they more often used talk moves to deepen students' reasoning and to promote active listening of peers' ideas. Furthermore, through a comparative analysis of a subset of teachers who participated two times, we found that during both years teachers increased their use of productive talk strategies to guide discussions after the program. At the end of their second time with the program, teachers' use of the strategies was the greatest. Teachers focused more frequently on deepening students' reasoning, and began to draw on strategies to foster active listening and students' co-construction of science understanding after participating in the program.

Grade 5

Our research with Grade 5 teachers in 2011-2012 provides evidence of key shifts in teachers' knowledge, understandings, and practice as they participated in the Talk Science professional development program:

  1. Teachers' knowledge of core science concepts and ideas regarding matter improved after they implemented the Inquiry Project curriculum as part of the Talk Science program. After teaching the curriculum, teachers could draw increasingly on the particle model of matter from the curriculum to articulate their reasoning. All teachers obtained higher scores for their understanding of the science, and presented elaborate scientific explanations (Level 2 responses) based on core ideas from the curriculum more often in the post-interviews than in the pre-interviews.
  2. Changes were observed in teachers' understandings of the role of classroom discussions in students' science learning, as they began to recognize the value of science discussions not only for participation and sharing out individual ideas, but also for students to develop ideas and make meaning together. After participating in the Talk Science program, teachers reported making discussions an integral part of their science lessons, and described several shifts in the nature of their classroom discussions.
  3. There were shifts in teachers' facilitation of classroom science discussions after they participated in the program. Specifically, teachers utilized academically productive talk strategies to guide students' understandings of the science more often. Further, teachers incorporated into their practice a greater use of talk strategies to specifically probe students' reasoning, and to help them deepen their reasoning with the help of data and evidence from their classroom investigations.

We discuss these findings briefly in the following sections.

Shifts in Teachers' Knowledge of Science Concepts

Our pre-post interviews with the Grade 5 teachers revealed that after participating in the Talk Science program and implementing the Inquiry Project curriculum as part of their professional development, the teachers improved their ability to explain core scientific ideas regarding matter by drawing on the scientific concepts and particle model of matter presented in the curriculum.

In the post-interviews, most teachers had higher scores and articulated a margin of error argument and effects of rounding in accounting for differences in weights when multiple blocks were measured individually instead of together. Teachers also identified correctly that weight was a more accurate measure of the amount of matter (sand packed in a cylinder) than volume. Further, most teachers drew on the particle model to explain that air was matter because it was made up of particles that had weight and took up space, and they applied their understandings of the particle model to explain why air was thinner at higher altitudes.

With regard to the questions on phase change, most teachers obtained higher scores in the post-interviews, described phase change as the movement of a substance between solid, liquid, and gaseous states, and identified correctly a key characteristic of phase change that weight stays the same but volume may change.

Teachers also referenced the particle model in the post-interviews to explain processes of dissolving, condensation, and evaporation. To explain why dissolved salt was no longer visible, most teachers described specifically that particles of salt broke apart and were too small to see when salt dissolved in water, and offered correctly the idea from the curriculum for using weight to verify the presence of a substance dissolved in water. Further, most teachers provided elaborate responses in describing condensation with respect to particle movement and temperature difference. Finally, most teachers gained in their ability to explain the process of evaporation in terms of water particles breaking or spreading apart.

Shifts in Teachers' Perspectives On and Reported Use of Classroom Discussions

After the Talk Science program, the Grade 5 teachers shifted from a share-out model toward a make-meaning model of classroom discussions. At the start of the program, in articulating what they believed were benefits of classroom discussions, teachers tended to view discussions as opportunities for students to share their individual ideas, hear ideas from peers, and as a means to assess students' understandings. Teachers generally also described doing discussions to introduce lessons and identify students' preliminary ideas, and to wrap-up lessons by allowing students to report out findings and ideas from their individual or small group investigations, and by reviewing key ideas from the lesson.

After participating in the program, notable differences were found in teachers' perspectives on the role of classroom discussions, in their reported practice at leading science discussions, and in the reported characteristics of their discussions. Teachers now began to perceive discussions not simply as opportunities for students to externalize individual ideas but to co-construct ideas with peers, think collectively and develop understandings together. The recognition that discussions offered a means for students to make meaning together was more evident in the post-interviews. Teachers revealed greater willingness and confidence to facilitate discussions, to do them not only as introduction and wrap-up but also for continued learning. They reported leading discussions regularly in their science lessons.

With respect to changes in the features of their classroom discussions, teachers reported that after the Talk Science program, their science discussions involved less teacher talk and direction and greater student responsibility at leading discussions; greater student willingness and confidence in contributing to the discussions; greater student participation not only in sharing their individual ideas but also attending to and addressing their peers' ideas; and finally, greater student awareness and use of evidence to reason about science during discussions.

The differences in the nature of classroom discussions reported by the teachers point to shifts in the culture of classroom talk, as seen in changes in teachers' orchestration of discussions and in students' participation during discussions.

Shifts in Teachers' Facilitation of Classroom Science Discussions

Our analysis of pre-post concept cartoon discussions revealed that the Grade 5 teachers made greater use of academically productive talk strategies, or APT moves, to guide students' science learning through discussions after they participated in the Talk Science program. In the pre-discussions, 19.55% of the teachers' turns involved the use of APT moves, whereas this figure rose to 26.03% in the post-discussions. Specifically, in seven of the fourteen classes, teachers made greater use of the APT moves in the post-discussions. Additionally, of the four teachers who did not use any APT moves in the pre-discussions, three teachers made considerable use of the strategies in their post-discussions.

Teachers' practice showed changes not only in their overall use of the talk strategies, but also in particular types of strategies. Although teachers continued to draw mainly on Expand strategies to enable students to explicate their individual ideas, they increased their use of DIG DEEPER strategies designed to deepen students' reasoning with the help of data and scientific principles.

The greater use of academically productive talk strategies in general, and of the Dig Deeper set of talk moves in particular, points to a positive shift in teachers' practice at leading productive science discussions for students' learning.

Further, our analysis revealed changes in students' participation in discussions. Students made slightly greater attempts to co-construct science understandings with peers in post-discussions (13.42% of the turns in pre-discussions v/s 17.42% of the turns in the post-discussions). This increase in students' co-construction was found in eight of the fourteen classes.

Students' attempts at reasoning also changed after teachers implemented the Inquiry Project curriculum as part of the Talk Science program. After engaging with the various science investigations and learning about the particle model of matter through the curriculum, students made several efforts to apply their understanding of core scientific ideas to reason about a novel situation (the concept cartoon problem). In the post-discussions, students' reasoning with the help of core science ideas rose to 17.56% of their talk from a negligible 2.47% in the pre-discussions. It should be noted also that students in all fourteen classes attempted to draw on core science ideas in their reasoning in the post-discussions.


The Talk Science professional development program was designed to promote teachers' capacity to facilitate productive science discussions to guide students' learning. In the second and third years of the project (2010-2011 and 2011-2012 respectively), the development and research teams worked separately but in parallel to design the Talk Science web-based multimedia resources and to conduct research with the participating teachers. Our work with Grade 4 teachers in 2010-2011 allowed us to refine the web-based resources for teachers' professional learning and informed the design of the professional development pathway for the following year, test the initial research design and instruments, and guided subsequent data collection and analysis for research with Grade 5 teachers in 2011-2012. The Grade 5 teachers were participating in the Talk Science pathway and implementing the Inquiry Project curriculum for the first time.

The findings to date suggest that the blended model of the Talk Science program involving web-based independent learning, face-to-face learning with grade-level colleagues, and classroom trials holds promise for teachers' professional development. In the Talk Science model, teachers engage in independent study of web-based multimedia resources like scientist cases and classroom cases. The resources are readily accessible anywhere, anytime, and can be used flexibly to meet varying needs of teachers in different schools. Further, teachers meet with grade-level colleagues in school-based study groups to discuss the resources, and to reflect and plan for their classroom discussions. Face-to-face study group meetings offer teachers a means to share their successes and challenges in leading productive science discussions. Finally, teachers are encouraged to also transfer their learning into actual practice through classroom trials. Teachers' professional learning is situated closely within the science curriculum they teach, thus making their learning relevant to their classroom practice. Moreover, web-based resources like In Your Classroom planning sheets and study group guides focus teachers' attention explicitly toward applying new strategies and understandings in their teaching.

Our research shows that the blended model underlying the Talk Science program allows teachers to participate actively and learn at their own pace through independent study of readily available web-based resources. The model allows teachers to also develop their knowledge, understandings, and practice through collaboration with colleagues, and supports transfer of professional learning into classroom practice. The findings indicate that in shifting the culture of classroom talk toward more productive science discourse and student reasoning, the model enables teachers to not only begin incorporating new instructional strategies, but to also begin developing their knowledge of core scientific ideas, and to begin conceptualizing classroom discussions in more dialogic terms.

In our research, the teachers' engagement with their learning was evidenced in the study group meetings, where they discussed the web-based resources, debriefed classroom trials and experiences, and generated ideas for classroom teaching. As teachers participated in the program and taught the Inquiry Project curriculum aligned with it, they developed more accurate understandings of the core science concepts and ideas regarding matter.

Furthermore, there were shifts in teachers' perspectives on classroom discussions, and their capacities at leading discussions to promote students' science learning. After the program, teachers displayed greater willingness to conduct science discussions regularly, and began to conceptualize discussions in terms of a more dialogic, make-meaning model, where they started recognizing discussions as opportunities for students to not only externalize their own thinking but to also develop understandings together and to continue learning. This shift, although small, marks a departure from their initial share-out model of discussions, where teachers conceptualize discussions primarily as opportunities for students to report out and listen to individual ideas at the introduction and conclusion of science lessons. Along with shifts in teachers' perspectives, participation in the Talk Science program helped teachers incorporate various discourse strategies for orchestrating productive science discussions. Teachers increased their use of academically productive talk strategies, and began to draw on various talk moves to encourage students to explicate their ideas and deepen their reasoning.

The insights gained from the Talk Science research suggest that changes in all three aspects of teachers' professional learning — knowledge of the science, underlying perspectives on classroom discourse, and instructional practice — are critical for teachers' sustained development. Therefore, professional development programs may need to consider carefully how to provide explicit guidance in these three areas:

  • (i) promoting teachers' knowledge of core scientific concepts and principles;
  • (ii) promoting a model of dialogic discussions and students' co-construction; and
  • (iii) promoting actual practice at leading productive science discussions.

Implications for Future Research

Our research indicates that the Talk Science program helped lay a foundation for developing teachers' knowledge, understandings, and practice as they participated in the program for the first time. This foundation provides an important springboard for teachers' professional learning, and points to other aspects of their learning that may benefit further from more careful and continued guidance. Specifically, teachers may need support for generating more dialogic science discussions in the classroom. Whereas teachers in our research recognized the value of discussions for fostering collective meaning-making, and began to utilize talk strategies to help students explicate their individual ideas and deepen their reasoning, the teachers less often used strategies that were designed to explicitly foster co-construction of scientific knowledge among students. Less attention was given to promoting active listening and thinking with peers' ideas. This finding was consistent with some of the interview responses, where Grade 5 teachers seldom pondered how they could guide their students to work with peers' ideas, and where Grade 4 teachers seldom described benefits of discussions or reported doing discussions in terms of students co-constructing scientific arguments and developing understandings together. Therefore, future research could explore ways of helping teachers to foster students' scientific reasoning through more dialogic, student-student exchanges during science lessons.

The research calls also for fostering an analytic stance among teachers to promote greater reflection on their professional development and on their students' learning. Across the multiple data we examined, there is limited evidence of teachers analyzing their practice and their students' understandings. For example, during study group meetings teachers seldom described issues and challenges in their own instruction to support students' scientific reasoning through discussions. Similarly, during interviews, teachers did not always ponder how they might improve their facilitation to generate more robust discussions, or how they might probe into and follow up on students' understandings about the science. Our findings suggest that teachers may need more help with reflecting on their practice to enhance their orchestration of classroom science discourse for students' learning.

The insights gained from this research inform future work on guiding teachers' professional learning. To promote deeper reflection among teachers, future iterations of the Talk Science program will aim at providing teachers with ongoing feedback from their own classrooms. Although teachers in the present program met regularly in study groups, they did not have continual evidence from their classroom interactions for sustained reflection and planning, and therefore may have found it difficult to analyze their instruction in the absence of objective feedback. Hence, in future research, we plan to provide teachers with video records of their own classroom interactions. The video records will offer objective, verifiable evidence of their own teaching and of their students' participation and reasoning during science discussions, and allow teachers to identify how they might lead rigorous, coherent science discussions to deepen students' learning.