Students work on science modeling

What we see when teachers bring these core practices into their classrooms, across the entire K-12 continuum, is kids getting excited and working hard to understand some complex and engaging phenomena.

Mark Windschitl

All students are capable of engaging deeply in scientific investigation and thinking—if conditions in the classroom are right. In the new book “Ambitious Science Teaching,” University of Washington College of Education researchers outline a powerful framework for science teaching that is rigorous and equitable for students from all backgrounds.

Co-authored by UW professors Mark Windschitl and Jessica Thompson and Melissa Braaten (PhD ‘11), assistant professor of science education at the University of Colorado Boulder, the book presents a set of four core teaching practices being used in schools and districts to improve science teaching at scale.

“Kids are capable of deeply engaging in the discipline of science,” Windschitl said. “What we see when teachers bring these core practices into their classrooms, across the entire K-12 continuum, is kids getting excited and working hard to understand some complex and engaging phenomena.”

The four core practices of the ambitious teaching framework are:

  1. Planning for engagement with big ideas
  2. Eliciting student thinking
  3. Supporting changes in students’ thinking
  4. Drawing together evidence-based explanations.

In a sophomore biology class, for example, the concept of cell division is taught by having students investigate the case of a person diagnosed with cancer. Or a kindergarten teacher can teach about pushing and pulling as forces by asking students how a smaller person can bump someone bigger off a playground slide.

“In a classroom where a teacher is using these concepts, you’ll see lots of opportunity for talk,” Windschitl said. “Teachers elicit students’ ideas at the beginning of the unit and ask them to revise their thinking over time.”

Making thinking visible is essential, so students also are regularly asked to make models demonstrating their understanding of a phenomena and to revise them as a unit progresses.

“When you ask students to do things like talk and draw, it allows them to show more of what they know versus just giving them quizzes and tests, which don’t allow all kids to show the full range of what they understand,” Windschitl said.

Along with discussion of each practice, the book includes tools and routines that teachers can use to support students’ participation, transcripts of actual student-teacher dialogue and descriptions of teachers’ thinking as it unfolds, and examples of student work. The book also provides explicit guidance for “opportunity to learn” strategies that can help scaffold the participation of diverse students.

Every chapter in the book includes a section on how teachers can get started incorporating ambitious teaching into their practice, Windschitl notes, and there’s a chapter on how to create a learning community with fellow teachers around the practices.

“We want to give teachers a foothold so they can get started,” he said. “It’s not a formulaic prescription for teachers. It looks different in every classroom because it’s responsive to the needs of students, their ideas and the larger community context.”

While “Ambitious Science Teaching” aims to support teachers, district science leaders and teacher educators, Windschitl noted that school and district leaders also can play a significant role in advancing their work.

“Leaders should take a long view of the development of their teachers and a democratic view by asking what aspects of this more rigorous and equitable work they’d like to work on over the course of the year. It might be scientific modeling, or it might be developing units of instruction that have anchoring activities or greater student interaction.”

Educators interested in exploring ambitious teaching further can also explore the Ambitious Science Teaching website, which includes numerous videos and other materials showing teachers using practices in the classroom and examples of student work.

“The ideas and tools in the book come from the many brave, hardworking teachers we’ve had an opportunity to work with who have tried things that are really different from what typically happens in school,” Windschitl said.


Mark Windschitl, Professor of Science Teaching and Learning

Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications