Best Practice in Middle-School Science


Using socio-ecological theory, this study explores best practice (educational practices correlated with higher student performance) in middle-school science. Seven schools with consistently higher student performance were compared with three demographically similar, average-performing schools. Best practice included instructional approaches (relevance and engagement, inquiry, differentiated instruction, collaborative work, moderate amounts of homework, and integration of language literacy and science) and administrative practices (nurturing a climate of opportunity to succeed in science, offering professional development based on data and dialogue, engaging teachers in standards-based curriculum revision and alignment, and recruiting the right fit of teacher). It is argued that best practice entails multiple levels of teaching and administrative praxis that together form a school-wide socio-ecological system conducive to higher performance.

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Correspondence to Alandeom W. Oliveira.


Appendix 1: Teacher Interview Protocol

  1. 1.

    Please tell me about your preparation to teach science?

  2. 2.

    What are your goals in teaching middle-school science?

  3. 3.

    What factors do you think contribute to higher performance in middle-school science?

  4. 4.

    How is the science curriculum revised and aligned across elementary and middle and middle and high school?

  5. 5.

    What materials (e.g., textbook, laboratory kits, technologies) do you use in your instruction?

  6. 6.

    Describe any instructional practices that you believe enhance students’ understanding of science.

  7. 7.

    What do you see as the role of the state standards in science?

  8. 8.

    How do you assess learning in your science classes?

  9. 9.

    What do you see as the role of the state assessments in science?

  10. 10.

    How are students grouped, tracked, or assigned to science classes in your school?

  11. 11.

    What kinds of interventions are in place to improve student performance in science?

  12. 12.

    What opportunities do students have to explore their interest in science outside of the classroom (e.g., clubs, field trips, science fairs)?

  13. 13.

    How would you describe the professional environment for you at this school?

  14. 14.

    What kinds of feedback/evaluation and how often do you receive feedback/evaluation of your teaching?

  15. 15.

    If you were asked to give advice to other districts/schools about how to improve student performance in science, what advice would you give?

Appendix 2: Observation Protocol

Instruction: Check yes/no or include number of minutes where applicable.

Part 1: Description of Setting


Number of teachers:


Length of class (min):


Class type:


laboratory/experiments/class/lecture/group work

Number of students::

Track: high (honors), average (hetero), low

Part 2: Inventory of physical features of classroom

Seating arrangements: individual desks in rows/group tables or desks/other

Technologies resources: computers for student use/other (describe in Part 4 field notes)/none visible

Part 3: Lesson inventory

Purpose: Was the purpose of the lesson explicitly stated for students?

Activities: Indicate approximately how many minutes of each

Homework or other review:

Writing by students, independently

Note-taking by students (from teacher talk, video, written text):

Writing by students, in groups

Reading by students, independently:

Experiments individually or in small groups

Small group discussions:

Presentation by students

Whole class discussion:


Materials and Resources:

  • Chalkboard/whiteboard by teacher(s)

  • Chalkboard/whiteboard by students

  • Computer by students

  • Computer by teacher(s)

  • Flip chart

  • Kits

  • Laboratory equipment

  • Overheads

  • Smartboards

  • Textbooks

  • Worksheets

  • Other

Instructional Approach:

  • Did all students appear to be using the same materials?

  • Approximately what percentage of class time was large group/teacher-led interaction?

  • Approximately what percentage of class time was small group/student–student interaction?

  • Was there a TA, special educator, or other adult in the room?

  • If another adult was in the room, with how many students did he or she interact?

  • If a 2nd adult was present, did he/she take part in instruction?


  • Multiple-choice quiz or test

  • Written responses, short answer, or essay

  • Oral responses

  • Other assessments

Part 4: Field notes on the lesson (as clearly and accurately as possible)

  • Describe the topic and apparent purpose of the lesson

  • Describe the types of activities (include hands-on activities, possible interdisciplinary connections, inquiry-based activities, group or individual work).

  • Describe the materials/resources used (e.g., textbooks, worksheets, overheads, kits, smartboards, computer simulations)

  • Describe any ways instruction was differentiated among groups of students

  • Describe any ways student learning was assessed during this lesson

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Oliveira, A.W., Wilcox, K.C., Angelis, J. et al. Best Practice in Middle-School Science. J Sci Teacher Educ 24, 297–322 (2013).

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  • Best practice
  • Science
  • Middle school
  • Student performance
  • Inquiry teaching
  • Socio-ecological theory