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Transforming Teachers into Designers
Harold McWilliams

“I think the main influence of this institute has been the turnaround of my thinking, planning and executing of curriculum. I will probably never teach the same way again.”
- Eighth-grade teacher in Earth Science by Design

Across the country, teachers are struggling to meet new demands for accountability that focus on standardized testing, while still leading their students to a deeper understanding of core scientific ideas and the nature of science. Observations of science classrooms continue to document the poor quality of most lessons. And studies of textbooks reveal an overwhelming number of topics in the curriculum, leading to the charge that the U.S. science curriculum is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Part of the solution to these shortfalls may lie with a new professional development program called Earth Science by Design (ESBD).

The Earth Science by Design Summer Institute marks the beginning of the year-long professional development program in which teachers create and teach a curriculum unit. Image courtesty Zoe Keller/TERC.

ESBD promotes creating stronger, more professional earth science teachers, fully versed in the core ideas of their discipline and skilled in the curriculum design techniques that the best developers have used for years. Based on the “Understanding by Design” approach developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in 1998, the program, funded by the National Science Foundation and created by TERC (a nonprofit education association) and the American Geological Institute (which publishes Geotimes), is turning middle school earth science teachers into “educational designers.”

The year-long program begins with an intensive two-week summer institute in which each teacher creates an earth science unit to teach during the following school year. During the institute, teachers practice a three-stage approach to designing an effective curriculum unit. The program continues during the school year with e-mail-based mentoring and two face-to-face teacher conferences at which teachers share their implementation strategies and experiences.

Stage 1 of the unit design process poses a new challenge to teachers: to identify the “big ideas” in advance of the lesson. Surprisingly, most teachers report that identifying the big ideas during the planning stage of a unit is a new practice. The typical approach to planning a unit of study is to assemble activities that are more or less related to the topic and that the students will find interesting to do. In contrast, the ESBD approach is rigorous — forcing teachers to think about the key questions that lie at the heart of the earth science domain that is the focus of the unit.

One teacher wrote in a program evaluation: “Developing my essential questions pushed me to think more deeply about the content. I found myself researching online and finding images to decide what basic facts needed to be covered — almost all of them new knowledge to me. I moved beyond vocabulary and basic facts to really applying the ideas and making connections that I had never thought of before.”

In Stage 2, teachers create a suite of assessment activities designed to reveal whether students have achieved understanding. In our experience, teachers find putting assessment before the design of activities to be counterintuitive. They report that they seldom think about assessment until well into the unit of study. The point of designing the assessment early is to have a clear idea of where the lesson is going and ways to measure its success. It is not enough simply to march through a selection of activities and then hope for the best.

In Stage 3, teachers select learning activities to help students understand the big ideas and address the essential questions. However, having gone through Stages 1 and 2, the selection of activities is more focused and deliberate. To assist teachers in their Stage 3 work, the program collected a set of teaching resources on the ESBD Web site organized according to an earth systems approach. At the end of the program, the units are reviewed, and the best become part of a growing online library of teacher-designed units.

During the two pilot years of the program, ESBD has had remarkable success with both novice and experienced teachers whose geoscience content knowledge ranges from minimal to substantial. Teachers have said that ESBD represents a new way of doing business for them, a watershed experience in their development as teachers. The program’s success is likely due to the fact that teachers are learning, in most cases for the first time, how actually to design effective units and lessons. Many of these teachers are now adopting a more integrative, systems approach to their earth science teaching and all are making more effective use of scientific visualizations.

The ESBD package of professional development material is currently being field-tested by staff developers in eight locations around the country. The final package of materials will be available to educators in the spring of 2005.

McWilliams is principal investigator of Earth Science by Design (ESBD) at TERC in Cambridge, Mass. For more information on the ESBD program, see Web link below, or e-mail

Earth Science by Design

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