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Developing Coherent Conceptual Storylines: Two Elementary Challenges


The ‘conceptual storyline’ of a lesson refers to the flow and sequencing of learning activities such that science concepts align and progress in ways that are instructionally meaningful to student learning of the concepts. Research demonstrates that when teachers apply lesson design strategies to create a coherent science content storyline, student learning is positively impacted (Roth et al., 2011). Because the conceptual storyline is often implicit within a lesson, and teachers often have difficulty articulating this aspect of lesson design (Lo et al., 2014), our professional development program engages elementary teachers in analyzing and developing graphic representations of a lesson’s conceptual storyline to make that element explicit. In this exploratory study, we present typologies that represent two primary challenges teachers faced in developing coherent conceptual storylines in their lesson design, and examine the extent to which professional development enhanced their capacity to develop a coherent conceptual storyline.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1316683.

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Correspondence to Deborah Hanuscin.

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Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.



Sample Conceptual Storyline Probe

Version #1

Version #2

As a group, students brainstorm everyday items they know that use magnets. They discuss what the item is, how it works, and what role magnets play

The teacher then provides each pair of students with a magnetic object to explore (e.g., magnetic fishing game)

S/he asks them to focus on the types of interactions (attracting/repelling) and whether magnets are interacting with other magnets or other objects. Afterward, pairs present their items to the class, explaining how they work

The teacher then shares a proposal for a ‘magnetic recycling sorter’ that claims to sort metal and nonmetal items for recycling, and asks groups to discuss whether they think the invention would work

Students critique this product and decide that it would not attract all metals and might accidentally trap nonmetals between the magnet and iron objects

Each student is then challenged to come up with their own working magnetic invention. They build prototypes and create a ‘product pitch’ to share at an Invention Convention

As a group, students brainstorm everyday items they know that use magnets. They discuss what the item is, how it works, and what magnetic interactions are involved

The teacher then provides each student a compass and asks them to explore and determine whether the compass is magnetic

Building on students’ observation that the compass needle moves when a magnet is brought near it, the teacher asks students to record the maximum distance from the compass that different magnets influence its direction

Students then use this as evidence to support their arguments about which magnet is the strongest. Students agree that the farther the distance from which a magnet affects the compass needle’s direction, the stronger it is

Students then watch a video on YouTube from the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory called the World’s Strongest Magnet. In this video, scientists share how they build an electromagnet

Afterward, students are able to build their own electromagnets by wrapping wire around steel bolts and attaching these to a battery

Sample Conceptual Storyline Map from Program Curriculum (Adapted from Bybee, 2015)

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Sample Conceptual Storyline Maps

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figure c

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Hanuscin, D., Lipsitz, K., Cisterna-Alburquerque, D. et al. Developing Coherent Conceptual Storylines: Two Elementary Challenges. J Sci Teacher Educ 27, 393–414 (2016).

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  • Conceptual storylines
  • Professional development
  • Elementary science teaching
  • Pedagogical design capacity