Exploring the Potential of Simulated Classrooms to Support Practice-Based Learning Opportunities for Elementary Science Teachers

Workshop Focus and Relevance

In recent years, scholars have called for a shift to more practice-based models of teacher education (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Ball & Forzani, 2009). Scholars have noted that teacher candidates are more likely to be effective when the requisite knowledge and skill “is cultivated through high-quality opportunities to practice, coupled with support and feedback” (Benedict, Holdheide, Brownell, & Marshall Foley, 2016, p. 2). While attention to practice-based models of teacher preparation may be recent, the underlying ideas are not new (Zeichner, 2012). However, many have suggested that student teaching as the sole approximation of practice in teacher preparation is insufficient (Carrington, Kervin, & Ferry, 2011), and push towards incorporating practice-based learning opportunities into coursework and professional development for both preservice and inservice teachers.

Practice teaching can take many forms, ranging from lower fidelity approximations like micro-teaching or peer teaching to higher fidelity approximations like student teaching. They also include experiences teaching small groups of K12 students (Lottero-Perdue, 2017; Sandifer, Hermann, Cimino & Selway, 2015; Sandifer, Lising & Renwick, 2007). Practice-based theories of teacher education (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Lampert, 2009) emphasize the importance of practice teaching experiences, but the underlying idea of learning from, reflecting on, and receiving feedback on practice teaching is hardly novel. A frequent challenge for the teacher educator (TE) or professional development (PD) provider is what to make of limited or uneven information they may have about preservice or inservice teachers’ instructional practice, which the TE or PD provider may not have observed directly. These teachers will generally have taught different lessons and will be working in different contexts from one another, making comparison difficult.

In this workshop, we share example data from ongoing work using digital simulations to engage both preservice and inservice teachers in leading small group discussions focused on argumentation. Each teacher enters the simulator and facilitates a 20-minute discussion with five elementary student avatars. Afterwards, video records can then be made available to the teachers and to the TE or PD provider for reflection. This creates two conditions that could not occur in field work or typical PD: (1) a group of teachers who have each independently planned and taught the same lesson to the same group of students, and (2) a set of video artifacts available for reflection that allow the teachers and TE or PD provider to notice similarities and differences and reflect across the common set of challenges they faced.

This workshop session is designed to have participants – many of whom are TEs or PD providers themselves – consider and analyze a set of video records from preservice and inservice teachers who have facilitated argumentation-focused science discussions in a simulated classroom environment with five upper elementary student avatars. Research literature suggests that academically productive discourse is important for development of scientific thinking and, as such, argumentation should have a prominent place in elementary science classrooms, although teachers frequently face difficulty in engaging students productively in this scientific practice (Berland & McNeill, 2006; Cartier, Smith, Stein, & Ross, 2013; Chinn, 2006; Duschl & Osborne, 2002; Simon, Erduran, & Osborne, 2006; Windschitl, Thompson, Braaten, & Stroupe, 2012). Such calls suggest that disciplinary argumentation is necessary for participating effectively in science learning and should have a central role in supporting students as they learn science content and practices in tandem (Krajcik, Codere, Dahsah, Bayer, & Mun, 2014; NGSS Lead States, 2013), Sampson, Enderle, & Grooms, 2013; Simon & Richardson, 2009). As such, our work has focused on how we can support preservice and inservice elementary teachers in learning how to engage students in argumentation; we are currently exploring how to do so through the use of a mixed-reality classroom environment with simulated elementary students.
Participants’ analysis of these videos will be used to invite discussion about how simulated classroom environments can be leveraged most effectively to provide practice-based learning opportunities to teachers as they learn how to engage in one ambitious science teaching practice (facilitating small group discussions focused on scientific argumentation). Additionally, participants will be invited to discuss the nature of the feedback and follow-up debrief activities that TE and PD providers can facilitate in order to best support teachers in learning how to engage productively in this teaching practice. The following guiding questions will frame our discussions:
• For each individual video record, what are you able to observe about the teaching in the simulated classroom environment? What are you not able to observe?
• What similarities or differences do you note between the example teaching performances?
• If these video records had been generated by teachers in your courses or PD sessions, what would you do next to support their learning?
• How might you consider integrating these types of learning opportunities into your courses or PD sessions?

Anticipated Participants

We expect that this workshop will be most pertinent to science teacher educators and professional development providers who are currently working directly with preservice and inservice teachers to support them in learning how to enact ambitious science teaching practices. We also anticipate that participants who conduct research on practice-based science teacher education and/or scientific argumentation will be interested in learning about how simulated classroom environments can be used and studied to answer pressing research questions.

Workshop Presenters

Dr. Jamie Mikeska is a research scientist in the Student and Teacher Research Center at ETS and is currently principal investigator of two NSF-funded research studies, one of which is designed to develop, pilot, and validate a set of performance-based tasks delivered within a simulated classroom environment in order to improve preservice elementary teachers’ ability to facilitate discussions in science and mathematics. Dr. Mikeska also has experience teaching elementary science methods courses and has studied science teacher learning in professional development across multiple research studies.

Dr. Pamela Lottero-Perdue is a professor of science and engineering education at Towson University. She is currently principal investigator on a School of Emerging Technologies grant from Towson University that is focused on investigating how expert elementary teachers facilitate small group discussions in post-investigation science and post-testing engineering discussions with student avatars. Dr. Lottero-Perdue is also a co-principal investigator on a NSF DRK-12 grant to examine the efficacy of Engineering is Elementary (EiE) and was a recent recipient of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Learning Objectives, Activities, Strategies, and Effectiveness

In this workshop we will provide participants with opportunities to analyze video records of teachers’ performances and discuss how these tools can be integrated into teacher education settings. Conference attendees will learn about the key components of one performance-based science task and the dimensions of a scoring rubric in preparation for analyzing these video records. In each video record, the teacher facilitating the discussion will use a performance-based science task called “Mystery Powders” that focuses on providing an opportunity for teachers to practice engaging five upper-elementary student avatars in scientific argumentation and targets a content area (properties of matter) that is known to be difficult to teach well and is considered critical for supporting future learning (Smith, Wiser, Anderson, & Krajcik, 2006). In this task, the teacher is prompted to “lead a discussion that should focus on having the students (1) use their evidence and reasoning to come to a consensus about the identity of a mystery powder and (2) construct an argument about which properties are useful in determining the identity of any unknown powder.” The accompanying scoring rubric focuses directly on the interactive components of discussion, and has five dimensions including: (1) attending to students’ ideas responsively and equitably, (2) facilitating a coherent and connected discussion, (3) encouraging student-to-student interactions, (4) developing students’ conceptual understanding, and (5) engaging students in argumentation.

The workshop activities will include the following:
5 minutes Introduction to framing questions
15 minutes Introduction and overview of research and simulated classroom
15 minutes Breakout groups to prepare for the analysis activities
45 minutes Analysis activity of teachers’ practice in the simulated classroom
25 minutes Full group synthesis discussion – return to framing questions
15 minutes Sharing of an example to showcase how one university has begun to use simulations throughout their teacher education program

By engaging in the above activities, participants in this workshop will learn to:
(1) Understand the affordances of simulated classroom environments for supporting elementary science teachers in learning how to enact an ambitious teaching practice (facilitating argumentation-focused discussions)
(2) Use a scoring rubric to analyze video records of elementary science teachers’ instruction within simulated classrooms
(3) Consider the nature of the feedback and follow-up debrief activities that TEs and PD providers can facilitate to best support teachers’ learning of this practice

We will assess the workshop’s effectiveness in two ways. First, we will request that workshop attendees complete a written feedback form at the conclusion of the workshop to inform us about their perceptions on the activities and structure of the session, what they learned, and what and how they plan to apply what they learned in their own settings. Second, we will also observe the ways in which the participants analyze and discuss the example video recorded performances and the variety and complexity of the ideas that they generate regarding how these tools can be integrated into teacher education settings.


As participants return to their own teacher education settings, it is important to us that they have access to the workshop handouts and tools used so that they can consider and follow through on potential applications into their own contexts. Following the workshop, we will create an ‘OneDrive’ shared folder (similar to a shared Google Drive folder) to post all handouts used during the workshop. In this ‘OneDrive’ folder we will also encourage workshop attendees to add any additional resources they have created, used, and/or learned about related to creating practice-based learning opportunities for preservice and inservice science teachers. Following the workshop, we will also create a form within this ‘OneDrive’ folder where conference attendees can share ideas and pose questions to us and to one another about how to apply what they learned in their own settings.