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Ambitious Science Teaching

reviewed by Tara O’Neill & Kirsten Mawyer — August 10, 2018

coverTitle: Ambitious Science Teaching
Author(s): Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, & Melissa Braaten
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682531627, Pages: 312, Year: 2018
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Ambitious Science Teaching by Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, and Melissa Braaten presents K-12 science educators with practical ideas and tools for effective and meaningful science instruction. The authors introduce a framework for Ambitious Science Teaching, grounded in extensive educational research and tested in a variety of classrooms over several years, that when used consistently in the classroom will help “students of all backgrounds to deeply understand fundamental science ideas, participate in the practices of science, solve authentic problems together, and learn how to continue learning on their own” (p. 3). However, it is important to note that this book is not designed for “plug and chug” implementation. The authors’ make clear that educators are meant to engage with this text as a handbook of tools, ideas, and strategies to be modified as best fits the specific teaching and learning context rather than as a strict manual to be utilized in exactly the same way across all contexts. Moreover, they note that the implementation of Ambitious Science Teaching practices is an iterative process with significant opportunities to be enhanced over time.


Ambitious Science Teaching provides wonderfully coherent and accessible pathways for meeting current science teaching expectations by framing the act of science teaching around four core practices: (1) planning for engagement with big science ideas, (2) eliciting students’ ideas, (3) supporting ongoing changes in thinking, and (4) drawing together evidence-based explanations. The implementation of each practice is explained in thoughtful detail with the use of a diverse selection of classroom-based vignettes and narrative. The result is a clearly articulated vision for what teachers can do in the classroom to recenter student thinking in their practice, along with practice tools and strategies that educators can leverage to make this vision their own. While individual context is emphasized, the volume and its approach offer a common language for engaging with and talking about teaching practice in collaborative settings.


The four-part iterative Ambitious Science Teaching framework, along with comprehensive conceptual and practical planning tools, face-to-face tools, and scaffolding tools, has been publicly available online for a number of years (https://ambitiousscienceteaching.org/). We have been using these resources in our secondary preservice science teacher preparation coursework and field-based experiences for the last three years. As such, when provided an opportunity to review a book version of the web-based text, we were excited and curious, and we wondered, what could this book provide us that the online resources do not already provide? As science teacher educators familiar with the framework, we found particularly useful the book’s sequencing of the core practices, explanations of types of tasks and activities that engage students in sense-making, and the integration of the various tools.


The book begins by outlining conditions for instruction that support ambitious science teaching and briefly touches on the importance of being mindful of equity issues in the practice of science instruction. Notions of issues related to equity and access are woven throughout chapters and sections with a particular attention to English Language Learning (ELL) students and their ability to participate in various forms of science discourse, especially “science talk.” Another focus is on valuing the ideas, prior experiences, and funds of knowledge that students bring to the classroom. The authors argue that these can be an entry point for all students, especially students who have been traditionally marginalized, to engage in meaningful science discourse.

The authors clearly value equity-minded education, and seek to support space for all learners. It is important to note, however, that the end goal of the Ambitious Science Teaching process is built from a Western framework of what knowledge counts and whose knowledge matters. When using the Ambitious Science Teaching framework, there is not necessarily one right answer, and students can come up with their own arguments so long as they are supported by evidence. However, while there are many ways to express understanding of a science phenomenon within the Ambitious Science Teaching framework, ultimately students are guided to develop evidence-based explanations firmly situated in the dominant Western science culture. That said, non-Western and/or non-traditional perspectives are welcomed as entry points to discourse.

Another important note is that there could be significant development of the depth and breath of examples for how to use Ambitious Science Teaching in special education and ELL settings. However, by explicitly discussing the need for science educators to be mindful of equity early in the text, as readers digest the content of each chapter, they are primed to be mindful of implementing Ambitious Science Teaching with equity in mind.


The first two chapters introduce the core practice of planning for engagement with big science ideas. They suggest that unit planning can be organized around big ideas, anchoring events, and essential questions. Chapters Three and Four highlight the importance of discourse, the role of productive talk, specific talk moves, and the importance of creating an intellectual safe space for students to engage in meaningful science talk. The authors stress that discourse plays a fundamental role in eliciting students’ ideas, supporting ongoing changes in thinking, and drawing together evidence-based explanations. This stance is threaded throughout the rest of the book, along with pragmatic tools and suggestions for supporting discourse during instruction. As science teacher educators, we appreciated the attention to discourse given the importance of “Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information” in the new science standards, especially given that many teachers, especially at the secondary level, are ill-equipped to support this type of learning (NGSS Lead States, 2013).


Chapter Five provides an overview of the second core set of teaching practices, eliciting student ideas, which a teacher would employ to get students thinking and talking about their existing understandings of real-world phenomena using an anchoring event. The content of Chapter Five transitions nicely into Chapters Six and Seven, which focus on the knowledge-building scientific practice of modeling. The authors articulate how research demonstrates the value of modeling as a tool to help students “understand science concepts and learn how ideas evolve, using evidence and new information” (p. 13). The authors also note that, like discourse, modeling is a classroom activity with which few teachers are familiar. The step-by-step suggestions for how modeling might be incorporated into ambitious instruction will prove tremendously valuable to practitioners.


The third set of core teaching practices, supporting ongoing changes in thinking, is addressed in Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten, and connects familiar activities with talk as a vehicle for students to foster ideas in ways that are less familiar in the science classroom. These chapters lead seamlessly into Chapter Eleven, which demystifies another less familiar scientific activity: scientific argumentation. As with the introduction of other core teaching practices and connected ways of engaging students, the book supplies the reader with pragmatic tools and tips generated by the authors’ working in collaboration with classroom teachers who have implemented ambitious instruction with actual students over many years. Again, the longitudinal nature of work presented and the robust examples of classroom implementation are real strengths of this book.


Chapter Twelve draws together evidence-based explanations to introduce the fourth and final set of teaching practices. This set of practices challenges the teacher to scaffold students working within a discursive science community to draw on their learning experiences in order to revise and finalize models and explanations. The authors stress that while this is presented as the final set, it is important to engage students in the practice midway through a unit in order to help students synthesize across their learning activities. Chapter Twelve offers a straightforward visual representation of where to use core practices over the trajectory of a unit.


Among the authors’ most powerful points is that, as educators, it is exceptionally hard to be ambitious on our own. It takes an organized team of teachers to build truly ambitious science teaching in schools. Chapter Thirteen provides strategies, suggestions, and examples of ways to organize educators within and across school communities to build collaborative teams that engage in “Plan-Do-Study-Act” (PDSA) cycles for educational change. Not only does this chapter provide practice strategies for engaging educators in collaborative work, it also recognizes teaching as a thoughtful and professional practice, and recognizes teachers as change agents.


Chapter Fourteen addresses the frequently asked question, “Can we be ambitious everyday?” The answer is yes. The how is up to the reader. In this chapter, the reader is provided with helpful guidelines for understanding which parts of the ambitious science teaching framework can be used multiple times a year, each week, or everyday. There is also a helpful description of how Ambitious Science Teaching interacts with other education pedagogies such as project-based instruction, citizen science, and content integration.


The Ambitious Science Teaching framework and practices outlined in this book provide an accessible and practical how-to guide for science educators across career trajectories. As the authors point out, the volume and its approach provide a shared language for science educators to collaboratively and critically share, examine, and transform science instruction. It is easy to imagine how science teacher educators could use this book, coupled with educational research and theoretical writings referenced in the notes section, in their work with preservice science teachers or inservice teachers pursuing national board certification. In fact, we intend to use this text in both a preservice science education program and a masters level STEM education program. Similarly, this book could be used by science coordinators and lead teachers to structure professional development for inservice teachers. Perhaps most importantly, it could be used by K-12 science educators working in professional learning communities at the school level who are committed to innovative science teaching and learning as a tool to study and learn from their own teaching practice.



NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.

Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 10, 2018
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22464, Date Accessed: 8/16/2018 9:38:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Tara O’Neill
    University of Hawaii at Manoa
    E-mail Author
    TARA O’NEILL is a professor of science and STEMS^2 education at the University of Hawaii - Manoa. She is the designer and Director of the STEMS^2 (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Social Sciences and Sense of Place) masters concentration and the past Director of the Institute for Teacher Education - Secondary program. Her scholarly activities focus around three primary areas: (1) science identity development of middle school girls from non-dominate backgrounds; (2) the role of place-based education in building culturally integrated STEMS^2 learning experiences; and (3) effective professional development models for science and STEMS^2 educators that integrate indigenous, ancestral, and Western knowledge, skills, and practices. Dr. O'Neill current serves as the PI of an NSF Noyce grant focused on building pathways to STEM Education. She has published on science and STEM education in multiple journals, including the American Education Research Journal, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, and Equity and Excellence in Education.
  • Kirsten Mawyer
    University of Hawaii at Manoa
    E-mail Author
    KIRSTEN MAWYER is an assistant professor of science education in the Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Hawaii - Manoa. She is the designer and instructor of the secondary science methods and practical courses. Dr. Mawyer’s scholarly activities focused around four main areas: (1) preservice science teacher education, (2) literacy in the context of science, (3) teacher professional development in science, and (4) teacher thinking and learning. Currently, Dr. Mawyer serves as the co-PI of an NSF Noyce grant focused on building pathways to STEM Education. She has published on science education in multiple journals including Innovations in Science Education and The Science Teacher. Dr. Mawyer recently presented her research on the use of the Ambitious Science Teaching framework with preservice teachers at the American Education Research Association and National Association for Research in Science Teaching annual meetings.
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