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Conceptual Analysis of Science Curriculum Materials as an Advanced Professional Development Activity


This article, used in their summer institutes with lead teachers and scientists, outlines a procedure in which teachers can reflect and analyze science curriculum materials to understand high order issues, such as the development of science concepts by students.

Ramon E. Lopez
Director, Education and Outreach Programs
The American Physical Society
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740

When school systems begin to implement new science teaching material, they organize workshops for teachers to provide them with basic, practical knowledge about the materials of instruction. Understanding of higher order issues, such development of science concepts by students, require more experience in the innovation, and deeper reflection than is possible in a simple workshop environment. A procedure we refer to as conceptual analysis of science curriculum materials can provide an environment where such reflection can occur in a structured fashion. As described below, this procedure also produces products that can be valuable to the broader implementation of the materials.

The analysis of a unit (which is done by a team) begins by identifying the end goal or goals for student learning of the unit. This goal is then paired with the end of unit assessment, with the supposition being that goals for student learning cannot be independent of the assessment of the knowledge and skills students are to acquire. Successful performance on the end of unit assessment in turn implies a set of subgoals for students - namely the concepts and skills they need. These concepts and skill in turn comprise a set of subgoals for the unit. These subgoals are identified with the embedded assessments in the unit. Again, for each embedded assessment as set of skills and concepts are enumerated, and these are identified with individual lessons. The lessons are then analyzed in terms of a learning cycle.

This conceptual deconstruction of a unit allows the participant to see it in terms of a set of nested learning cycles. Within a lesson there should be leaning cycle. A set of lessons build over time to an embedded assessment, and this constitutes a learning cycle. And a set of embedded assessments culminate through a learning cycle to the final, end of unit assessment. Such an analysis makes clear the conceptual development over the course of the unit, and also highlights weaknesses in the unit itself that may be modified. It also provides a natural starting point for enhancing units by including extensions or connections to other parts of the curriculum.

By approaching curriculum materials in this manner, the analysis teams are forced to confront issues of pedagogy, assessment, content in a unified fashion. In fact, this analysis requires a considerably deeper understanding of all of these aspects that one would normally gain from simply marching through the unit. For example, in Electric Circuits the main goal is for students to learns about simple electric circuits and their properties. The end of unit assessment has students design, build, and wire cardboard house. To succeed in this assessment students must know about how to light lightbulbs, know about series and parallel circuits, switches, and batteries, and how to draw a wiring diagram using the proper electrical symbols. Each of these is a major conceptual chunk in the unit that in turn needs to be identified with one or more embedded assessments (such as the construction of a flashlight). In order to know how something like a parallel circuit would be used to wire the house, to identify the essential concepts inherent in a functional understanding of parallel circuits, to enumerate which lessons provide that knowledge, and to determine how one can assess student understanding of parallel circuits demands a far deeper content knowledge than is needed simply to do a lesson on parallel circuits.

Given this need for content knowledge, scientists and engineers play a very valuable role in the process. By participating as members of the analysis team, they provide tremendous insight into the nature of science, as well as providing the content support that is needed during such analysis. These scientists and engineers, however, should have background in some issues of precollege science education in order to function effectively. The participating scientists need to be familiar with the materials of instruction and have a clear understanding of what one means by guided inquiry. We have found that scientists who attend school-district kit-based workshops as participants (and prepare to do so through a 1-day orientation) do gain an appreciation of these issues.

To provide a framework for the unit analysis process, there is an introductory workshop for participants. The workshop is centered on a "jigsaw" of a unit (Electric Circuits providing an ideal example). The jigsaw itself represents through its activities major conceptual chunks from the unit. The debriefing of the jigsaw activities provides a view of the unit as a set of conceptual "chunks", and sets up the discussion of the relationship between the jigsaw activities and the actual unit. The groups then take their activities and identify which lessons in the unit contribute to their specific activity. This, in essence, is the reverse of the unit analysis process, since it begins with the final deconstructed unit (recast for adults) and works back to the unit for children. This activity takes the morning. In the afternoon, participants break into analysis teams and do a preliminary conceptual analysis of units, and discuss their results. Subsequent unit analysis sessions are conducted as study group activities, with an ideal of two scientists and three teachers per group. By going through exemplary instructional materials in this manner, participants gain a deeper understanding of the coherence of the subject and have a chance to reflect upon their own practice. On one occasion a veteran teacher stated "I've been teaching this unit for four years and never quite realized how it was put together."

The products of these investigations can be valuable in many ways. The conceptual decomposition allows for a direct comparison of materials with standards and frameworks. Since each goal or concept is paired with an assessment one can determine not only if a particular piece of content is being addressed, but how it is being addressed. Materials that are a simple collection of activities and that do not develop a coherent conceptual framework for students do not fare well under this kind of scrutiny. Therefore this kind of analysis can be a useful addition to a pilot of new materials. Finally, the participation of staff involved in professional development in such an analysis provides those individuals with a map of the conceptual development in a unit - information that can be very useful when designing staff development around the materials.

The following pages provide some resources for conducting the session that introduces participants to the procedure. These are:

  1. A template for a l-Day introduction event
  2. Overheads on the Learning Cycle
  3. Sample worksheet for unit analysis

Essential to the workshop is a "jigsaw" of a unit. Jigsaws for the STC units Electric Circuits, Floating and Sinking (derived from the NSRC version), Magnets and Motors, and Balancing and Weighing are available upon request (contact Kevin Aylesworth at Additional information on involving scientists in science education reform efforts can be found at or

Template for 1-Day workshop (2040 participants)

8:00 Welcome and continental breakfast

8:30 - Elements of Inquiry - Participants are asked to list some of the characteristics of good inquiry-centered instruction. Participants discuss in small groups, then their responses are collected (report out to master list or post ideas with subsequent wisdom walk are two alternatives). The topic may be characteristics of exemplary materials, or assessment, depending on the emphasis you wish to place.

9:00 - Jigsaw activity - allow approximately 40 minutes for the activity and 20 minutes for the groups to report out around their activities. Good questions for the report out are "What was your activity?" "What would children learn for such and activity?" "What additional questions do you have?"

10:00 - Break

10:15 - Debrief jigsaw - String the activities together and describe the conceptual framework developed by the unit. Discuss the learning cycle in light of the unit structure. Point out the learning cycle within each activity and over the course of activities. Return participants to their ideas developed in the 8:30 piece and analyze in the context of their experience. How does it fit?

11:1 5 - Reconstructing a unit - Pass out Teacher's Guides to unit (or at the minimum the table of contents). Ask each activity group to identify which lessons contributed to the activity. Have the group share their findings and discuss. Introduce the notion of conceptual analysis of units beginning with the identification of goals, pairing with assessments, then identifying subgoals, etc. Examine the jigsaw experience in this light as an end product of unit analysis.

12:00 - Lunch

12:45 - Sample analysis - Divide the group into analysis teams. Provide each team with one unit and analysis worksheet. Review procedure once more. Ask them to proceed as far as identifying which lessons are associated with which embedded assessments Let them go at it.

3 00 - Bring the groups together and ask them to share their findings.

3:30 -Wrap up

Sample worksheet for unit analysis

Questions for workshop:

Unit Title:

Main goals or goal:
End of unit Assessment:

Concepts required for End Assessment:
Embedded assessment of concept:
Lessons that contribute to concept:


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