New Zealand Science Teacher

Teacher Education in Science

Getting to the CoRe of the matter: developing a primary school’s science plan

A collaboration between researchers and primary teachers strengthened a school’s science education programme, writes ANNE HUME.

core small 2A word wall for the ‘Where’s the water?” unit, using transparent water droplets to cover a window.

Introduction

This article tells the story of a partnership between university researchers and the teaching staff of a primary school that sought to strengthen and more closely align the school’s science education programme with the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum.

This year-long collaborative investigation featured the use of Content Representation (CoRe) design, as a means of professional learning for the teachers within their own school.

CoRe design has a proven record for enhancing teachers’ capabilities in science teaching and the researchers saw its potential for assisting teachers in curriculum design.

A CoRe is a means of making key features of the pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) of an individual teacher, or group of teachers, obvious to others (see Figure 1 below). This exposure of the knowledge underpinning the teaching of certain science content to specific groups of students is achieved with the use of a framework or template, which teachers are asked to fill in.

It contains what the teachers believe are the big ideas of the topic to be learned by students, and a series of questions/prompts which reveal the reasoning and actions of these teachers as they help students to develop understanding of the big ideas.

core small 3A student investigation into evaporation and condensation using a container of hot water, glad wrap covering and ice cubes.

Figure 1: Template for a Content Representation (CoRe)

In the collaborative project, the researchers provided expertise in science content, inquiry learning in science, and CoRe design facilitation, while the teachers were knowledgeable of their students, their school context and its complexities, and how best to introduce the CoRe design and determine its impact.

Data to inform the project came from surveys, videoed teacher workshops, document analysis, classroom observations, and focus group interviews.

To increase the chances that the findings of the investigation resulted in meaningful change and improvement of classroom practice in science, the school established a science leadership group, known as the Science Development Group (SDG). The SDG’s responsibility was the development of a school-wide science education plan, known as the Science Implementation Plan (SIP), based on the experiences and findings of the project.

With the researchers’ guidance, the 25 teachers in the school engaged in the jointly planned activities as outlined in Table 1 below, and for the most part the project went to plan. For teachers, the key intent was to trial the CoRe design intervention as a precursor to planning, implementing and evaluating a series of related science lessons featuring inquiry-based learning. The outcomes of these trials would then inform the planning of the SIP such that teachers at the school felt a sense of authorship and ownership of the plan.

Table 1: Template for a Content Representation (CoRe)

Click on table for bigger, printable version.

CoRe Table1 Template for a Content Representation

In the collaborative project, the researchers provided expertise in science content, inquiry learning in science, and CoRe design facilitation, while the teachers were knowledgeable of their students, their school context and its complexities, and how best to introduce the CoRe design and determine its impact.

Data to inform the project came from surveys, videoed teacher workshops, document analysis, classroom observations, and focus group interviews.

To increase the chances that the findings of the investigation resulted in meaningful change and improvement of classroom practice in science, the school established a science leadership group, known as the Science Development Group (SDG). The SDG’s responsibility was the development of a school-wide science education plan, known as the Science Implementation Plan (SIP), based on the experiences and findings of the project.

With the researchers’ guidance, the 25 teachers in the school engaged in the jointly planned activities as outlined in Table 1 below, and for the most part the project went to plan. For teachers, the key intent was to trial the CoRe design intervention as a precursor to planning, implementing and evaluating a series of related science lessons featuring inquiry-based learning. The outcomes of these trials would then inform the planning of the SIP such that teachers at the school felt a sense of authorship and ownership of the plan. 

Table 2: Timeline, goals and milestones of the Getting to the CoRe of the Matter study

CoRe Table2 Timeline goals and milestones

The early phases of the project

During the first workshop for teachers in January (co-planned by the principal and research team), self-review data related to the existing school science programme was gathered in a brainstorming session.

In small groups, teachers were asked to comment on the following questions about the science education provided at the school: Where are we at? What have we done? How well are we going? Where do we need and/or want to be? What is driving this change? What are our needs in terms of the science education programme and our professional learning? This data was shared and discussed in a whole staff forum session facilitated by the research team. To further inform these discussions the research team provided key findings from the most current literature related to scientific literacy learning goals and inquiry-based learning in science. They also introduced the teachers to the Primary Connections Programme resources (Australian Academy of Science, 2014), which feature the 5Es approach to inquiry learning in science in everyday contexts, and reacquainted them with the Science learning Hub (SLH).

From the outcomes of the self-review session, the teachers arrived at agreed upon programme goals and their professional learning needs for the project, which were to develop a school science implementation plan for 2015 that is aligned with the school's vision and goals and meets the requirements of the NZC (2007); enhance teachers' pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) with a focus on inquiry-based approaches to learning science; and identify resource needs based on the revised school implementation plan for science education.

core small 1A student investigation into evaporation. Cups holding melted ice/water are on the windowsill and marked to show original levels.

CoRe design begins

core small 4

Left: A junior class science journal where the teacher records the findings of the students’ floating and sinking investigations.

In late March a second workshop was held, where teaching teams worked in separate groups – two junior school groups, two middle school groups and one senior school group. Each of the five groups had negotiated a science topic for teaching in the next school term, and the focus of the workshop was the use of CoRe design as a ‘pre-planning tool’ before formal unit planning began. The five groups each worked on the design of Content Representations (CoRes) for inquiry learning in science using the SLH as a resource for their chosen topic. These CoRe design workshops were facilitated by members of the research team, including two writers from the Science Learning Hub who were former primary teachers and helped teachers to navigate the SLH website. 

The CoRe design exercise was initially challenging for the teachers, particularly the identification and selection of key learning content for students. There were significant differences in science PCK across and within teaching teams. Teachers found the task difficult at times, but the facilitators were able to provide considerable guidance, particularly around science content and concepts and the selection of big ideas for the CoRes.

We felt challenged coming up with key ideas to match our children’s level. We were unsure of how big the key ideas needed to be … we realised our own understanding of the topic wasn’t secure. Therefore we struggled to simplify to the level of the children. This process helped us to realise that we need to thoroughly unpack our own scientific ideas first.

- Junior school, year 1 team reflection

Examination of the CoRes at the end of the workshops showed the upper sections of each CoRe were the most detailed and specific. The lower sections to do with students’ prior knowledge, teaching procedures and assessment of the big ideas became more generic (see the example in Figure 2 below), which reflected teachers’ inexperience in teaching the specific topic. 

Table 3: Mixing and melting materials CoRe by the year 1 team

CoRe Table3 Mixing Melting Materials

Despite the challenges, all teachers were positive in their reflective comments about the process, noting growth in: their science content knowledge; the usefulness of the SLH for locating and understanding the science for their chosen topics; and their confidence to teach science.

Classroom implementation of the CoRes

In phase 5 of the project, CoRe design provided further focus for PCK enhancement as teachers used the CoRes as guides for subsequent unit planning by teaching teams and teaching.The five teaching teams together developed science unit plans (with help from the SLH facilitators and researchers) for their respective levels of schooling from their CoRes and taught them in their classrooms.

Teachers’ views on the first cycle of the project

Many of the teachers reported positive experiences in the subsequent team planning and classroom implementation of their science units based on their CoRes. In their focus group interviews they put this success down to the collaborative CoRe design process, the available resources (Primary Connections units and to a lesser extent the SLH) and assistance from members of the research team with planning. CoRe design proved helpful in highlighting the key science ideas and enhancing teachers’ content understanding, but the resources and SLH facilitators proved more helpful for teaching strategies and assessment.

The CoRe was a new way of planning, like it made me focus on concepts of water and then hone in on what we wanted … The CoRe made me realise how I gloss over things.

(Y3/4 teacher, focus group interview)

The structure, the link between the CoRe and the ‘All mixed up’ (primary connections unit) gave us confidence.

(Junior school teacher, year 2, focus group interview)

A very experienced year 2 teacher was surprised and encouraged by students’ positive responses to the investigations into everyday phenomena related to mixtures and mixing, and the scientific understanding they gained. As an associate teacher, she saw the potential in the resource materials for developing the professional knowledge and capabilities of student teachers. She recognised how the resource had scaffolded her own scientific understanding and that of her students.

Slow to start, I felt this is going to be too boring, but I was wrong. The first two lessons getting their ideas was not exciting, but actually it did hook the kids in. …You couldn’t go wrong. The student teachers could take this lesson and do well. It gave me the background knowledge, broke it down into the children’s thinking, and gave you scope to move sideways. …After you [researcher observer] came in and observed my sifting lesson, I really thought the kids had not really quite grasped it, which I was quite surprised about, so I did another lesson, but with different substances as a whole class lesson. I linked it back to noodles and rice, and suddenly I saw little light bulbs going on everywhere and “Oh, of course!” I also used a steamer with holes and the kids recognised this.

(Junior school teacher, year 2, focus group interview)

This same teacher reported how students’ curiosity was raised and how they took ownership of their learning.

I liked the way a number of children who brought things from home to share, some parents were asking me about it. Because the children had ownership of their mixture it made the learning more relevant – what would happen when their cornflakes and milk had sat there for three days?

(Junior school teacher, year 2, focus group interview)

core small 5

Left: A junior class science wall where the students’ investigations into floating and sinking are displayed.

Cycle Two

Teachers carried out the second cycle of the project on their own, that is, without direct facilitation by research team members. It was a good opportunity for the teachers to use the CoRe design tool to create a second set of CoRes and accompanying units without ‘outsider’ direction. All teams produced second CoRes and science units, and classroom observations by the researchers recorded high levels of student engagement and interest in their science learning. Further analysis of the observational data revealed strengths and areas for further enhancement in the teachers’ PCK. Collectively, the teachers’ PCK strengths included rich knowledge of their learners’ characteristics, strongly student-centred teaching and assessment, and curriculum design decisions focused on students’ interests. Areas for enhancement included knowledge of curriculum, specifically science content knowledge, and pedagogy for authentic inquiry-based learning in science.

Recommendations for the SIP

Teachers welcomed the redesign of the school’s SIP. They expressed the need for it to be flexible, but with a framework that ensured all strands of the science learning area are covered through the 6 levels of schooling and topics are not repeated. Such a framework could be conceptually based on big ideas that could be covered in a range of topics.

They also suggested that a system was needed for keeping track of what has been covered at different class levels e.g. a Google document.

The researchers also contributed some observations, notably around the nature of inquiry learning in science. They commented that there is an important difference between science inquiry learning and inquiry learning in other curriculum areas, which some teachers in the school were perhaps not fully appreciating.

In inquiry learning in science, students need to ask scientifically-oriented questions, and be given opportunities to design investigations themselves where they collect primary data, build explanations and test and critique those explanations. Such inquiry differentiates it from inquiry in other curriculum areas. The researchers cautioned that the distinctiveness of science risks being missed if taught as generic inquiry.

Also some teachers, when referring to inquiry learning in science, had commented ‘we are learning along with the students’. At this point, the researchers raised the issue of teachers’ subject matter knowledge and their ability to lead and guide student learning in science. How do teachers recognise the teachable moments as science learning if their own science knowledge is underdeveloped? How does the teacher ensure that the students know the appropriate scientific knowledge i.e. their answers are scientifically accurate? How can teachers get to know the science?

Access to quality resources and collaborative planning of science lessons and/or topics could be likely solutions. Finally the researchers talked about the tension in curriculum design around deciding what students need to learn in science. Students’ interests take you in one direction but this approach may not ensure curriculum is covered. How do teachers ensure that the children get experience in areas they are not exposed to by following their own interests? Teachers may need to provide those experiences that good teachers of science know students should be exposed too for well-rounded science education.

The design of the school’s SIP

Using the findings from the study, the SDG and researchers generated five principles for strengthening teachers’ PCK and primary science education programmes as they developed the SIP.

The principles included:

- Collaborative CoRe design and unit planning as a means of strengthening teachers’ science content knowledge, PCK and feelings of self-efficacy.

- A school-wide science implementation plan with a conceptual framework that provides direction and guidance for students’ learning progressions in science as they move through their six years of primary schooling.

- Pedagogies where students engage in inquiry-based learning that mirrors authentic scientific inquiry

- The development and fostering of scientific capabilities and dispositions in students (i.e. engage with science and ask questions, design investigations, gather and interpret data, use evidence, critique evidence, and interpret representations).

- School-wide assessment of sufficient depth to allow students to show that they can perform in increasingly more complex ways as they move through their primary schooling.

- Evidence in any year to include a range of data to exemplify conceptual development, and science capabilities and dispositions linked to the school’s Science Implementation Plan.

At a three-day planning session in November, the principal encapsulated how these principles and the collaboration with the researchers underpinned the construction of the school’s SIP and teachers’ professional learning.

The three days spent by the development team in designing a new school implementation plan were a real gift to the school. The strong partnership that had developed with the researchers became a true collaboration. The researchers provided really helpful analysis and expert support. Rarely do lead teachers have such quality time for reflection, professional learning support and co construction of school curriculum. Working together where everyone contributed; being able to clarify progressions for concept development in science in the New Zealand curriculum for our implementation plan; making resource links and a purchasing plan; exploring and capturing examples of assessment practice from online sites such as the MOE, NZCER and the old NEMP exemplars were integral to the completion of our work for the year.

-          (principal’s written exit comments)

In conclusion, this study confirmed that the collaborative process of CoRe design within a school-based PLC contributed to enhanced teachers’ PCK and development of a coherent school-wide science curriculum plan. This plan was developed and owned by teachers and contained the key elements of reform-based, future-oriented science education.

We’ve agreed as a team that the year has been hard work but rewarding. We will continue to meet again next year to manage progress with the implementation plan and keep science learning on track. The research partnership and the plan we co-constructed to carry this out were instrumental in our success.

-          (principal’s exit comments)

Acknowledgements

This research was undertaken with the support of a research grant from the Research and Study Leave Committee of the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Other members of the research team included Dr Jane Furness, Barbara Ryan, Angela Schipper and Hong Nhung Nguyen.

References

Australian Academy of Science (2014). Primary Connections: Linking science with literacy https://www.primaryconnections.org.au

Post your comment

Comments

No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Up