Incremental Improvement through Student Discourse

Over the summer I took in a rebroadcast of the Freakonomics podcast episode titled, “In Praise of Incrementalism”. The featured authors, economists, and guests of the show touted the power of incremental changes in a world where our attention is often yanked in the direction of “moonshots” and other eye-catching initiatives. The episode and its co-conspirator, “In Praise of Maintenance” resonated with me because of their relevance to my work (though my connections to the maintenance episode will need to be saved for another day!)

Incremental changes are at the heart of curriculum and instruction improvement in the Burlington Public Schools this year. All of the subject coaches have committed to centering their council work around lifting classroom discourse, using an adapted version of the table developed by Hufford-Ackles, Fuson, and Sherin (2014) to support Burlington educators exploration of student discourse in its many forms and levels.

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Burlington’s modified “Levels of Classroom Discourse” table

During our one-hour gathering with representatives from each grade level from each school we asked educators to first, independently reflect and share on Post-it Notes how “doing science” and our science curriculum as it stands supports each of the five facets of classroom discourse.

From here teachers contributed each of their stickies to five posters (one for each facet) before working collaboratively to organize the stickies into groups or patterns as they saw fit. This strategy was one we stole from John Antonetti who used a similar format to engage administrators during their own professional development around Learning Walks. After the groupings were completed teachers were given the second task of reflecting on how they and their colleagues supported their particular facet in their classroom and schools. Their groupings and strategies were ultimately shared out to the entire council.

For veteran science curriculum council members, our attention to student discourse isn’t novel or completely out of the blue. Before curriculum councils were temporarily disrupted last year our science council had explored Page Keeley’s Science Probes and the “science talk moves” necessary to effectively facilitate their use. With our science council’s ship steadied we will be honing in on the updated science curriculum we have been incrementally introducing to our K-5 educators over the past three years.

Teams of grade band teachers will meet in separate, afternoon meetings to systemically revisit our units and lessons. Teams of teachers will 1) Identify the level of classroom discourse being asked of the teacher and students and 2) consider and tweak lessons and units that are lower on the spectrum incrementally forward, preferably to levels 3 or 4 on our table.

The work won’t be worthy of click-baiting, head-turning headlines in our news outlets, but presumably the work will improve classroom discourse forward, supporting new teachers using the curriculum for the first time and veteran teachers refreshing their memory on desired lesson level outcomes and strategies to meet those expectations.

To empower our teachers with some tools and strategies they may use right away to drive their classroom discourse forward we are also providing our teachers with resources freely available online that have proven themselves in moving student discourse forward in classrooms at a wide range of grade levels. These include:

To wrap-up our time, teachers composed an exit ticket, answering two questions:

  • Which of these facets of classroom discourse do you aspire to develop this year personally or collaboratively?
  • How do you plan to develop this form of discourse and/or how can the Science Center support you in meeting your aspirations?

Our teachers responses will help inform the directions we take during our grade level curriculum council meetings later this year to move the needle forward and deepen the level of classroom discourse. Such aspirations may not sound much like a rally cry, and will not solve all of society’s ails, but it will almost certainly raise our capacity to engage our students, deepen their thinking, and improve their own capacity to communicate with each other and the world.

If you are interested in facilitating a similar conversation in your school or district, you may access a view only version of our presentation and make a copy for your own records and modifications here.

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Developing Learning Strands: The Making of a NSTA National Conference – Part 1

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A crude rendition of our title and theme for the #NSTA2020 National Conference

It can be a surprise to many (including me!) but a conference as big as the NSTA’s National Conference takes more than two full years to develop. As the chairperson for the upcoming 2020 NSTA National Conference in Boston I joined a half-dozen New England educators and NSTA brass this week hammering out the focus strands on which many of the conference’s workshops, presentations, and guest speakers will be aligned with.

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Taking the results of our peer input request and turning them into strands.

Blessed with some advance notice of this volunteer assignment and great leadership in our state’s science teacher organizations our team of educators and administrators was able to draw on a diverse set of voices with the help of Google Forms and the list servers of MAST, MSELA, NSSSA, and MITS. Despite only about a week of advanced warning we received 44 thoughtful responses to our call for suggestions in building out the four learning strands that would dominate our conference. Suggestions ranged from engineering to computational thinking, to human impact, to three dimensional learning and assessment, all of which we were determined to weave into our strands.

Almost two days of conceptualization, revision, and peer feedback reviews sessions with our Area Conference planning colleagues formulated the goals of these strands. With the added touch of a “20/20 vision” theme they boiled to the surface as:

  • The Long View: Building a Lifelong Passion for Science 

  • Aligning the lenses: Authentic, Three-Dimensional Measurement of Student Learning

  • Thinking, Acting, and Communicating like Scientists: A Focus on Disciplinary Literacy

  • Learning Science in all Spaces and Places: Near and Far

Exciting, right?! Though flights needed to be caught and over a dozen hours of work had already been put into place, I left our table in a poorly ventilated conference room with team members still chattering about possible speakers and potential educators to recruit for future conference development stages.

Speaking of which… are you interested? The draft threads have been completed, but you can still share your interest in volunteering your time and support for the conference by adding your contact information to our NSTA Boston 2020 Google Form. Be a part of NSTA Boston 2020 and help us expand our vision of what this conference will offer and be to its participants!

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My New Favorite Way to Say “Stop Using the Scientific Method”

For generations human civilization presented the model of Earth as flat. Sure, it seemed to work under specific scenarios, like when you stood at a high point and looked out to the horizon. No curve? Must be flat. Model works.

But students developing their understanding of science use and develop models regularly in their classrooms. Before leaving elementary school, they understand that while models are used to describe phenomena or a process (like answering a question about our world) they also have limits. These limits lead to some models being better suited than others to explain the world around them.

So while the Scientific Method might fit into this neat little box to define for students how scientists and engineers do their work, it is a severely limited model that undercuts the amazing amount of community collaboration and non-linear ways scientists go about their business.

Take this outstanding example of the announcement of a new species and family of spiders with the discovery of the Trogloraptor, produced by the California Academy of Sciences:

This video uses a “scientific process” analogous to a pinball machine, with the process pinging between different modes of discourse. The static image below has been modified to use elementary-appropriate language, but before you go printing a giant version of this model to plaster up in your classroom, ask yourself…



What do I really want my students to know?

Do I want them to memorize this model, like they might memorize the parts of a cell in a traditional biology class or the sequence of planets in our solar system?

Or do I want to focus on the bigger ideas?

Scientists and Engineers…

  • Ask Questions and Identify Problems
  • Use and Develop Models
  • Plan and Conduct Investigations
  • Analyze and Interpret Data
  • Use Math and Computational Thinking
  • Construct Explanations and Design Solutions
  • Engage in Arguments from Evidence
  • Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information



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‘Unoriginal Ideas’ that Improve our “Ability to Share a Message”

In the midst of holiday merry making and Christmas cleanup I was able to take a bite out of my podcast backlog; including several episodes of the “Innovator’s Mindset” MOOC series currently being chewed on by teachers and administrators in Burlington. And while the word “innovation” can be defined as “a new method, idea, or product,” synonymous with buzzwords like “breakthrough” it was episode 4’s guest and Burlington’s own Patrick Larkin who bluntly admitted, “I don’t think I’ve ever had an original idea.”

That said, author and podcast host, George Couros’s 12 minute #thoughtsfromthecar episode “The Ability to Share a Message” kept reverberating in the back of my mind, connecting with the work that I do as a science specialist and professional development facilitator and leading me to reflect on ideas not originally my own…

Unoriginal Idea #1: Learn how to present by watching other presenters

We can become better presenters of anything we venture to share our thinking on by watching excellent presenters share their own.  For me this has included over 100 TED Talks on ideas not necessarily of high intrigue to me, but shared by those who are passionate about it themselves and often excellent at sharing that passion with others. The ones I came to appreciate the most often displayed only pictures (or sound) while they shared their message in the form of a story. Participating in local #edcamps and becoming acquainted with teacher-famous PD innovators like MTA’s Dan Callahan didn’t hurt either. I’ve also stolen my fair share of analogies to better communicate the paradigm-shifting Next Generation Science Standards from presenters at national and regional NSTA conferences featuring cutting edge science education researchers and lead standard-writers.

Unoriginal Idea #2: Recognize and be able to respond to multiple perspectives on your message

Format matters but just as important is to develop what Couros calls, “a 360 view” of what it is you’re presenting. In my field that includes knowing and being able to respond to the “sticking points” preventing others from acting on the shifts NGSS requires to clear the bar they have set. Having an understanding of the several perspectives one might be examining our messages through leaves us prepared to respond to them while further refining our own understanding and message. Fellow science education PD designer, Eric Brunsell outlines several of these sticking points in Chapter 3 of his Facilitators Guide, which guided me early on in sharing the Massachusetts revised Science Standards. Equally important to developing my message was listening to my fellow Burlington educators and their own classroom or school level concerns, bringing us to…

Unoriginal Idea #3: Take the time to build repoir and connect with your audience

Whether a room of teachers at the Boxboro Regency or reflecting on a lesson with a  teacher in the hall, talking in ways that build rapport can be the difference between our message planting root or being lost among many other messages rushing past our educators via email, intercom, or broader initiatives. At national and regional conferences, it can be easy for presenters to want to launch forward, fearful that they may not have enough time to deliver everything they want to share or possibly losing their audience’ engagement. But failing to first connect with one’s audience means we don’t know where our audience is and what they hope to gain from us. Making efforts to get to know our audience pay dividends when we can connect our message with common experiences that we share.

Talk that puts our audience on the defensive can also leave our audience disconnected and our message unheard. Couros’s separation between “arguments vs. discussions” stuck with me most, laying out how arguments suggest an inevitable winner and loser with the idea or message going no further. Discussions on the other hand “go back and forth,” in which case the “idea is the winner” as perspectives are shared, the idea or message becomes more deeply understood by both parties, and the idea and its potential for implementation moves forward. By staying open-minded to others perspectives and empathetic to their experiences keeps our audience open to our message, and respects the often shared but not always genuine, “we are all here learning together.”

I am a believer in the ideas (100% not my own) I deliver to audiences and understand the power they can have, particularly on pre-service teachers and others willing to adapt their craft and classroom. Keeping these ideas in mind and putting them into practice will help me continue to improve my craft as a professional developer and move our community and country toward an increasingly scientifically literate society.

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Behind Every “Outstanding Teacher” is an Outstanding Community of Educators


Honorees at the MAST 2017 Awards Banquet

During this year’s MAST Conference I was honored as the “2017 Science Teacher of the Year for Middlesex County.” I sat beside fellow educators from across the state being recognized for outstanding accomplishments, humbled by their stories of bringing their experiences on Antarctic expeditions to their biology and oceanography students, and their dedication toward some of the most diverse and neediest populations in the state. Descriptors like “exemplary” and “outstanding” were used in sincerity. But when reflecting on each of the merits for my own award I could not help but acknowledge that none of them would have come to fruition without the outstanding community of fellow educators and staff I work and collaborate with everyday.

The acknowledgement of my role as “facilitator of the K-8 robotics programs” could not be so without Chrissy Sheppard, Elana Snyder, and Krystel Anderson, classroom teachers who were willing to jump in and help facilitate our annual summer robotics programs, often  learning alongside the students. Nor would there be a FIRST Robotics LEGO team at the middle school without the dedication of Jourdan Marino and Jane Lynch, who offer hours of their lives after school for months during competition season.

The open source K-5 curriculum Wendy Pavlicek and I so proudly share on the Burlington Science Center website would not be nearly the quality product it needs to be for our students without countless educators from Burlington and beyond. Such educators include classroom teachers, specialists, and administrators who have spent time on both the Burlington curriculum teams and the North Shore Cross District Science Mapping initiative. Their work investigating the quality of small-group readers, facilitating curriculum pilots, analyzing student work, and providing feedback on student scaffolds and notebook designs has informed so much of the work our K-5 students now do in Burlington and elsewhere.

My own knowledge of classroom and curriculum best-practices as well as the exemplary resources that use them would be a fragment of itself without the tireless work of friends and colleagues from across the country. Volunteers like Massachusetts teachers, Janet MacNeil, Judith Hebert, Kathy Renfrew, Martha Harney, and Meaghan Cells who share their time with me on behalf of the the NSTA, participating in trainings while curating resources for their NGSS@NSTA Hub. Even the eBook I recently penned for NSTA Kids would not have been as rich in scientific content or multimedia without support from research and education institutions such as the Blue Hill Observatory and their programs coordinator, Don McCasland.

So while the plaque reads “Sean Musselman,” the application for me (submitted by my incredible partner-in-science-crime, Wendy Pavlicek) and every future “Teacher of the Year” will be a story of community and collaboration, people and partnerships, professional learning networks, critical friends groups, or whatever else you want to call them.

That being said, if you’re a Burlington teacher or resident reading this and you’d like to learn how you can promote, improve, and advocate for the expansion of collaboration amongst our teachers, administrators, and community members, don’t hesitate to email or tweet me… The district’s “Expanding Collaboration” committee is always looking for additional members!

One final word: Thank you to the Director of the Burlington Science Center, former EPA Environmental Educator Award winner, and dear friend, Wendy Pavlicek. Outstanding work in schools across the country goes unrecognized everyday without advocates and I am truly grateful for your voice and our partnership.

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EcoTarium Exhibit Engineering Challenge!

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 3.46.22 PMBefore heading out for summer break, my partner Wendy Pavlicek and I put together a pair of videos designed to drive an engineering challenge for our Grade 2 students who will be investigating habitats next year. The challenge is designed to meet the Massachusetts disciplinary core idea elements in life science and engineering:

  • Plants and animals depend on their surroundings to get what they need.
  • Animals obtain food they need from plants or other animals. Plants need air, water, and light. Plants do not eat food; instead, they make their own “food.”
  • Different places on Earth each have their own unique assortment of living things.
  • Solutions can be conveyed through visual or physical representations

The first video introduces students to the engineering challenge with the help of EcoTarium’s wildlife director, Johanna Black. She graciously offered her time on an extremely busy field trip day to set the stage for our student inquiry around different plants and animals of their choosing.

The second video serves as a tool for providing more concrete information about the main needs of living things (to be shared after students embark on their own investigation of specific habitats related to the animal of their choosing’s needs).

The videos have been designed so that any classroom or age group could potentially pick up the challenge and aim’s to blend the needs not only of the animal to be researched for the exhibit but also the needs of the EcoTarium visitor looking to learn more about the animal. It is our hope that this project might also be paired with some informational writing, possibly in the disguise of an infographic panel board that would be attached beside a full scale enclosure as seen in zoos and aquariums.

We’ve shared these videos publicly in hopes others might take on the challenge. More concrete lesson plans will be written over the summer with our summer curriculum team and will be added to this post in the future. In the meantime please add a comment below if you end up using these videos in your own classroom!

Special thanks to the EcoTarium for their time and willingness to participate in this engaging engineering experience!

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Beyond Toothpicks and Marshmallows: Engineering Earthquake Resistant Structures


I’ve been searching high and low for an earthquake engineering design challenge that gave students more control in planning and evaluating their earthquake-resistant constructions than the common “toothpicks and marshmallows” challenge often seen in primary and middle grades. So I was thrilled when I finally stumbled upon a string of videos from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology or IRIS titled “Build a Better Wall” featuring a hinged craft stick structure that would do just that.

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Videos demonstrating construction and use of the prototype can be found on the IRIS website by searching “IRIS Build a Better Wall” for using the link above.

While IRIS construction called for bolts and screws, I found brass fasteners to be effective replacements that dramatically cut the projected cost for a class set and got to work! With 5 working shake structures able to be produced from a single 2×4 we were ready to go!

Day 1: Introducing the Challenge

Because we were piloting this lesson for the first time, students were plunged into the earthquake setting head on. We watched the opening minutes of a YouTube film on the 1989 San Francisco Quake, where students were prompted to watch closely the behavior of the hanging lights and glassware in the opening scenes. These objects oscillate back and forth, which students were able to associate with waves despite no prior lessons on waves and communication (as intended in future years!) From here I gave them a brief introduction of quake waves, demonstrating the compressional wave behavior of P-waves and then “side-to-side” S-wave motion with the help of a slinky and a piece of string tied to the center, showing how the matter did not advance forward or backward, but rather returned to its original location after the wave energy had passed.

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Using the presentation above and linked to here students were introduced to substructures, a grade 3-5 “Structure and Function” Crosscutting Concept NGSS element, drawing comparisons to the substructures of different parts explored in their life science unit completed prior to. Students were introduced to three substructures commonly used in buildings, shear walls, cross members or beams, and gussets. Students were also informed that a structurally resistant building might not be enough, land developers are also looking for affordable and low-weight designs too!

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Day 2: Planning and Building our Structures

Day 2 was a full day of student driven work. Students worked together to plan their structures while I worked the room with classroom teacher, Holly Weinberg probing students for the thinking behind their designs. With the pieces cut out of basic copy paper and attached with alligator clips materials were cheap! Limited time led to construction being pushed into the beginning of the third day. Before moving on to the construction part, students had to calculate the cost and additional weight of their substructures to their wall.

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Day 3: Testing and Evaluating our Structures

Test day! Despite tight time I introduced the wave thinking once again in an effort to help students develop a “repeatable, fair test” when evaluating all of their structures. With the help of a free metronome app students practiced creating a consistent motion pattern with their hands before being charged with delivering 8 long wavelength and 8 short wavelength seismic vibrations to their prototypes. Before structures were tested, students entered their cost and weight data on to a class table. Would the lightest, cheapest structures hold up to the test?! When the results came only 3 of the 5 structures met consensus that they had survived the quake. Of those three 2 “bids” came in strikingly close with the 3rd effective, but costly and heavy.

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The improve page of the student notebook

Day 4: Reflecting and Redesigning

While unable to help on the final day, Mrs. Weinberg held down the ship and had top teams share their successes and teams with structural failures “lessons learned”. In the future I plan to have students complete this challenge after exploring the patterns of locations where earthquakes occur (to tie in with their “West Region” Social Studies Exploration) and perform some sort of “Earthquake Program”  that would introduce the different wave formations and some of the more curious challenges to quake-resistant structures such as harmonic resonance and foundation liquefaction that I would not expect 4th graders to actively investigate and prepare for. I might also introduce the challenge across all the classes at once in this way to save time for the classroom teacher to focus on the planning stages exclusively in the first day.

Thanks to Holly Weinberg for allowing me to pilot this investigation with her students and to IRIS for sharing their resources publicly for all! More detailed lessons, the presentation, and student notebook can be found by following many of the links above and will also be available in an organized way by the beginning of September 2017 on the Science Center fourth grade curriculum website.

Posted in 3-5, Classroom Activities, Digital Tools, NGSS | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment