Peer Learning Teams for Teachers and Students

In the summer of 2013, I launched a Google plus community called NGSS Peer Learning Teams.  The peer learning teams structure has been a successful component in my classroom for years.  21st Century Technology and Social Media provides a great opportunity to capture those same benefits between teachers and between classrooms on a global scale.  Fortunately, I was blessed to have met Amanda Meyer, @alynmeyer, a fantastic reflective educator innovator from Minnesota, in the Spring of 2013.  We set out to collaborate as professionals to find ways to change our classroom practice to positively impact student learning.  We also sought to connect our classes so they could serve as peer learning coaches to one another.

Shared Vision and Partnership

To begin our journey together, we established our shared vision of exploring ways to improve the classroom environment for improved student learning.  In our vision, we were all full partners in learning, students and teachers.  To us, that meant that the voices of all the partners were critical in the direction of the learning. A second part of our vision involved working together to develop units driven by an explanation of a phenomenon and capturing the 3-Dimensional learning of the Next Generation Science Standards.  Most importantly, we sought to provide opportunities for our students to develop an appreciation for the amazing field of science that Amanda and I love so much.

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Our students collaborate via Schoology and Google Hangouts

Collaborative Culture

The key to the collaborative culture is the emotional bond combined with the intellectual task:  head and heart.  The relationship must proceed the discourse. Trust is the foundation for our adult partnership as well as our classroom partnership with our students.  “With the belief that I am a full partner, I can feel my lens is valued and I then feel motivated to contribute to the external reflections that move collaborations.”  Amanda and I are clear and explicit with our students that we need them and their feedback to do this important work.  We would partner to find answers to the questions that the group constructs together.  A necessity in this collaborative culture is a focus on reflection and “Alone Zone” thinking time.  In building our culture, Amanda and I focus on providing all students the space they needed for internal dialogue before expecting external dialogue.  Especially for introverts, that means scheduled class reflection time.

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Focus on Inquiry

Inquiry is a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world (  I love this quote that captures what I love about science and what I love about learning.  My favorite part of this work with Amanda is that it is driven by questions instead of beginning with an answer. The search for the answer is more important than the answer itself, mostly because of the dynamic nature of thinking and learning.  Every group of students is different, research is constantly giving us a better lens into how people learn, and the field of science is always giving us new context to seek to explain our world. In addition to the foundation in questioning, an inquiry focus means students are the constructors of understanding.  The focus of our instructional design is that students will use previous knowledge and experience and connect those to the experiences we design for them as a result of their questions.  This enables the collaborative group to build and revise understanding together over time.  Amanda and I could support each other on becoming better question askers to support students who are doing the heavy lifting.  Lastly, an inquiry focus means a focus on evidence-based communications, shifting focus from the one right answer to the claim that can be best supported by the evidence gathered from my explorations.


Amanda and I agreed to a full examination of our teaching and our students’ learning.  WIth a shared vision, collaborative culture, and focus on inquiry, the trust and support necessary to have open and honest dialogue was already in place.  We welcome the feedback and appreciate the additional lens into our work.  Through examination of student data, we made decisions about our instruction and assessment design.  The philosophy that our design is never “finished” enabled us to welcome changes even as the unit progression was wrapping up. Even though the focus on student work was critical, the biggest impact for me was our reflective dialogue.  Having the privilege to hear the thinking of a colleague I admire is truly a gift.

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Students peer coaching Video Thinking Products of Minnesota classroom partners

Over the next month, I will reflect and blog about each of the critical components of our Peer Learning Team (as it stands currently in its evolution).  Our goal is that by sharing our experience, we can open up our network and grow from the feedback of others as well as possibly providing the impetus for others to create virtual Peer Learning Teams as well.

Being involved in a Peer Learning Team enables me to reflect with someone who has a shared experience.  That reflection enables me to make decisions that improve my teaching and the learning of my students.  This reflection enables me to better understand my profession and fuels my constant quest for answers to me evolving list of questions. I am beyond words appreciative of my partnership with Amanda, and I am so excited about the future of our collaboration.

Here is a link to our first joint teaching unit- our shared classroom experience.


NGSS 3 -Dimensional Learning: Hands-on Minds-on Science

“The more hands on the experience, the more excited students will be about the learning.  The more minds-on the experience, the deeper the understanding will become.”

How do we design experiences for students that are both hands-on and minds-on?  The Next Generation Science Standards provides us with a beautiful vision for science education for all students obtained by engaging in the Science and Engineering practices and applying Cross-cutting Concepts to gain an understanding of Disciplinary Core Ideas.  This 3- Dimensional Learning (the blending of the three dimensions of Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts driving both the instructional progression and the assessment) is the most significant way that the NGSS differs from prior standards and is thus a challenge for many teachers.  In the NGSS, the 3 -Dimensional Learning in the classroom leads to proficiency demonstrated in the Performance Expectations. This blog uses a learning progression around Performance Expectations LS1-2 and LS1-3 as a context for sharing thinking around how NGSS 3- Dimensional Learning can provide students with hands-on minds-on experiences that lead to engagement and understanding.

Urinary PEs

This summer, I transitioned from focusing on understanding the Next Generation Science Standards to focusing on understanding how to translate the NGSS into student learning within my classroom.  I developed a unit, Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology: Systems, Subsystems, and Balance: Conceptualizing a Single System, to serve as the foundation for my course and the start of our NGSS road together.  I designed the learning progression around this core principles:

  • All NGSS aligned instruction must have students working to explain a phenomenon or solve a problem.

 Joe Tweet

  • Understanding develops as learners make new connections between their prior knowledge and the new experience. Understanding is built over time with each new experience.  This evolution is ongoing and flexible.

Making the unit’s center an evidence-based explanation of a phenomenon and student’s building/revising understanding of the science needed to communicate this explanation over time is key to designing a unit storyline that exemplifies 3-dimension learning while providing coherence between learning experiences. The progressions of these learning experiences involved a deliberate planned iteration of:

Exploration- learner actively constructing understanding

Reflection- making internal connection as well as external sharing of the experience through discussion and feedback

Extension– transferring understanding to a new context/ cements the experience and leads to deep understanding of the core ideas

The Exploration is Hands-on. The Reflection is minds-on. The Extension gives students the opportunity to transfer knowledge gained from these stages to a new context leading to deep understanding.

Over the next month, I will share a blog reflection around how each of the critical elements listed above were integrated into my unit plan. My hope is that by making my thinking public and sharing my unit, I can receive feedback from the Science education community so I can grow in my capacity to design NGSS experiences for my students.  I also hope that my reflections may support others on their NGSS journey and contribute to the collective conversation and effort to shift science education to prepare our students for career, college and life.

The framework and NGSS can provide us with a beautiful vision.  It is the work of classroom teachers and those that support classroom learning that makes the vision come to fruition.  Teachers sharing classroom stories and practical applications of the standards are the impetus that leads to improved science practice for all.

Please support my growth by providing feedback on my unit and my blog reflections and consider sharing your classroom stories, instructional and assessment designs, and reflections around the NGSS with me and the NGSS PLN so you can move our learning and thinking.

Thank you