Research Summary

Designing for culturally responsive science education through professional development

Culturally Responsive Teaching for Science Education

International Journal of Science Education

Science education standards in the United States have shifted to focus on practices and processes, as well as to include interdisciplinary and crosscutting topics, such as environmental science. With this shift, teachers are apt to include environmental education topics and programs as part of their curriculum, and more students with diverse backgrounds have the opportunity to participate in environmental education programs. Against this backdrop, it has become critically important to train environmental educators in culturally responsive teaching.

In this study, researchers identified key practices that support culturally responsive and rigorous science teaching. The researchers studied a professional development program: Science Teachers Are Responsive to Students (START S). The program’s creators used research on curriculum design, professional development, and instructional practices to create the initiative, and they specifically sought resources that would support teachers’ efforts in offering culturally competent and rigorous science instruction. The program took place over six months and consisted of both job-embedded activities and monthly Saturday sessions. The teachers constructed, analyzed, and revised lessons; participated in tasks that promoted reflective practice and incorporation of students’ backgrounds into instruction; studied science curriculum topics; identified professional growth areas; and participated in face-to-face collaborative sessions as well as in teaching science units.

The researchers followed five life science teachers through the program, all of whom taught in a large, culturally diverse school district in the southeastern United States. The participating students reported having diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Latino/a, Haitian, Black, White, Asian, and multi-racial. The teachers were female, of multiple ethnic backgrounds, and had between 2 and 24 years of teaching experience.

The researchers used a design-based approach and technique called “conjecture mapping.” Data sources included group interviews, video recordings, program artifacts, reflective writing prompts, feedback on program effectiveness, and teachers’ culturally responsive science units. Researchers analyzed the data to identify “mediating processes” the specific program experiences associated with desired teacher outcomes. In other words, they sought to identify the professional development experiences that helped participants become more culturally responsive teachers. Based on their previous work, the researchers grouped the desired teacher outcomes into six themes: community-building, conceptions of culturally responsive science education, views of students, instructional changes, repositioning, and using a toolbox.

The researchers reported on three critical processes. First, teachers simultaneously examined their classroom practices and learned about students’ experiences, both in and out of school. They could then identify strategies that were responsive to classroom needs and topics relevant to the students. Second, teachers evaluated exemplars of culturally responsive teaching while also thinking critically about their own classrooms; they could then envision instruction specific to their context and discipline. Finally, when teachers were involved in selecting and justifying instructional practices for their classrooms, they received support to connect their instruction with students’ experiences. The researchers argued that those processes deepened teachers’ understanding of the purpose and feasibility of culturally responsive science instruction, facilitating their acquisition and application of relevant teaching tools.

This study focused on a limited sample of teachers. The authors, therefore, indicate the need for additional studies across varied contexts, noting that such an expansion would help identify key elements and processes that contribute to developing culturally responsive science practices.

The Bottom Line

Meaningful professional development related to culturally responsive teaching requires more than simply providing information about those practices. Teachers also need support to reflect critically on their own practices and contexts. Teachers should be given simultaneous and continuous opportunities to learn about their students’ experiences and needs, examine their own teaching practices, link research-based practices to classroom needs, and create an overall vision that combines rigorous science instruction with community building.