Exploring the Use of Simulated Classroom Environments to Develop Elementary Science Teachers’ Ability to Facilitate High Quality Discussions Focused on Argumentation


Orchestrating classroom discussions is one pedagogical strategy widely promoted in the research literature as essential for providing students with opportunities to engage in scientific argumentation (Cartier, Smith, Stein, & Ross, 2013; Duschl & Osborne, 2002; Kloser, 2014; Simon & Richardson, 2009; Windschitl, Thompson, Braaten, & Stroupe, 2012). “Engaging in argument from evidence” is one of the key scientific practices in the Next Generation Science Standards and is important for deepening students’ understanding of natural phenomenon and how scientific knowledge is constructed (National Research Council, 2013). This practice focuses on having students construct and support arguments using data, evidence, and/or models; provide and receive critique about arguments proposed; and compare and refine arguments based on evidence (Sampson, Enderle, & Grooms, 2013; Simon, Erduran, & Osbourne, 2006). Research has shown that argumentation is language-intensive and requires substantive time for students to develop the associated practices (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000; Lee, Quinn, & Valdes, 2013). Findings indicate that students need repeated and varied opportunities to learn how to productively engage in argumentation in science (Berland & McNeill, 2010). Despite many reported benefits of classroom discussion, research has found that teachers — particularly novice teachers — struggle to use this pedagogical practice in robust ways that are authentic to the science discipline (Davis, Petish, & Smithey, 2006; Simon, Erduran, & Osborne, 2006). Practice-based theories of teacher learning (Ball & Cohen; 1999; Ball & Forzani, 2009; Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Lampert, 2010) suggest that teachers would benefit from “approximations of practice” where teachers have “opportunities to rehearse and enact discrete components of complex practice in settings of reduced complexity” (Grossman, 2009, p. 15). In our research we use an online simulated classroom environment to engage teachers in approximations of practice where complexity and variation of key challenges are carefully controlled so that teacher candidates have access to multiple opportunities for practice and learning with no risk to students (Dieker, Rodriguez, Lignugaris, Hynes, & Hughes, 2013). However, the field is still at the early stages of developing a robust understanding of the ways in which practice-based professional preparation occurs within teacher education, especially in terms of how to leverage simulated environments to productively develop teachers’ competencies (Sykes & Wilson, 2015).

Workshop Focus and Relevance

This workshop session is designed to provide participants with opportunities to understand how performance-based science tasks can be developed and then implemented within simulated classroom environments in order to support elementary teachers in learning how to facilitate high-quality science discussions focused on argumentation. In particular, the workshop focuses on helping science teacher educators and professional development facilitators to consider the affordances and the challenges inherent to integrating these types of tasks into elementary science method courses and professional development settings. Attendees will have opportunities to discuss the ways in which these performance-based science tasks can be adapted for varied teacher education contexts and purposes.

Participants will learn about the performance-based science tasks and simulated classroom environment by first viewing video-recorded examples of elementary teachers facilitating discussions in the simulated classroom. Participants will also work in small groups to plan and facilitate a short discussion with the student avatars in the simulated classroom. These activities will serve as a venue by which to engage participants in productive conversations about how these tools (tasks and simulated classrooms) can be used to develop elementary teachers’ instructional practices. This session will have strong appeal to teacher educators and professional development facilitators due to its focus on a novel use of technology as a medium for providing rich learning opportunities to help elementary teachers learn a key instructional practice that is known to be complex and difficult to enact. The broader purpose of the session is to contribute to ongoing dialogues in the field in order to build a more nuanced understanding about how such tools can be integrated within teacher education settings to increase the amount, variety, and quality of clinical practice opportunities currently available to elementary science teachers.

Workshop Outline, Objectives, Strategies, and Effectiveness

This workshop will provide participants with opportunities to learn about a novel approach for helping elementary teachers learn how to facilitate discussions focused on scientific argumentation. In particular, participants will consider varied possibilities and applications for integrating performance-based tasks and simulated classroom environments into teacher education settings. Our workshop will incorporate the following:
• First, we will share video exemplars of elementary teachers facilitating science discussions focused on argumentation in a simulated classroom. Presenters will share background rationale and theoretical groundings for the development of these tasks and research. Anticipated time: 30 minutes.
• Second, we will provide participants will an opportunity to engage in facilitating a short discussion with the avatars in the simulated classroom in real-time. We will provide participants with a performance-based science task that they can use to plan the discussion collaboratively in small groups. Each group will then have a chance to enact their planned discussion in the simulated classroom, followed by a debrief of the experience across the groups. Anticipated time: 60 minutes.
• Third, we will provide participants an opportunity to engage in a discussion of the varied uses for integrating these tools within teacher education settings to promote elementary teachers’ ability to facilitate discussions focused on scientific argumentation. Groups will first brainstorm and discuss ideas at their tables. We will then have them share as a whole group so that participants learn from each other about how they might integrate these tools into their own contexts. We will also field questions from participants during this time. Anticipated time: 30 minutes.

By engaging in the above activities, participants in this workshop will learn to:

1) Understand and value a new technology (e.g. planning and implementing science discussions in simulated classrooms) for the purpose of supporting elementary teacher development;

2) Learn about the design features of these performance-based science tasks through viewing of video-recorded performances and interacting with the student avatars around one science task;

3) Expand their ideas about how these tools (tasks and simulated classrooms) can be integrated into science teacher education as opportunities for planning, practice, and reflection with peers, teacher educators, and professional development facilitators.

We plan to gauge the workshop’s effectiveness through two means. First, we will have all participants complete a feedback from at the end of the workshop to inform us about the following: the usefulness and clarity of the session, what they learned, how they plan to apply what they learned back in their own settings, and questions that remain. Second, through our interactions with participants we will gauge the effectiveness of the workshop by noting the ways in which the participants interact in the simulated classroom and the variety and complexity of the ideas that they generate regarding how these tools can be adapted for varied teacher education contexts and purposes.


We recognize that participants will return to their own teaching settings and generate new insights and questions as they consider the potential applications of these tools to their own contexts. For the workshop, we will create and distribute handouts that include information about the performance-based science task, the simulated classroom environment, our research project, and our contact information. Immediately following the workshop we will create an ‘OneDrive’ shared folder (similar to a shared Google Drive folder) that we will use to upload all handouts. We will provide all participants with access to this shared ‘OneDrive’ folder to upload their own ideas, based on what they learned in the workshop, as well as create an interactive online discussion space for them to comment on one another’s ideas and ask questions following the workshop.

Anticipated Participants

Using virtual simulations is one promising strategy to embed approximations of practice into science teachers’ learning opportunities. We expect that this workshop will be most pertinent to science teacher educators who teach elementary methods courses for pre-service and in-service teachers. We also anticipate that professional development facilitators will be interested in this workshop in order to consider how performance-based tasks and simulations could be used to expand the opportunities currently provided in these settings to promote science teachers’ learning. As virtual simulations are still emerging in the field of teacher education, with only limited use in science teacher education, we expect researchers also will be interested in this workshop to learn about how we are studying their use in these contexts.

Workshop Presenters

Dr. Jamie Mikeska is an associate 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 goal-oriented discussions in science and mathematics. Dr. Mikeska is currently directing the development, piloting, and research efforts focused on the science performance-based tasks. Dr. Mikeska also has experience teaching elementary science methods courses and has studied science teacher learning in professional development across multiple research studies.

Adam Devitt is a consultant and researcher on the NSF project described above. He is currently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Science Education at New York University where he also teaches undergraduate and masters’ level courses for pre-service teachers. He was formally an elementary and special education teacher and has planned and facilitated multiple professional development programs to foster teacher knowledge of science inquiry, learning as play, and using video as a reflective tool.

Budget and Workshop Needs

This workshop will require no extra cost for participants. We intend for this workshop to serve 25 to 30 participants and anticipate needing: (1) a projector, screen, and sound hookup, and (2) WiFi connection. We will provide our own video data for participants to view, simulated classroom environment for participants to interact with, and handouts (e.g., copies of the performance-based science task).