Creating ‘science champions’ in teaching training06/08/2014
ANNE HUME and CATHY BUNTTING investigate the use of Content Representation (CoRe) design and the Science Learning Hub (SLH) to develop pre-service primary teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in science.
This article reports on a purposeful and planned approach to accessing and navigating a web-based resource – the Science Learning Hub (SLH) – in ways that can provide primary teachers with focus and a powerful means for building their professional knowledge for teaching science. The approach sees teachers engaging in a decision-making process known as Content Representation (CoRe) design as they consider pedagogical prompts about what science ideas to teach their students and why, when and how as they work with the SLH. This particular study features pre-service primary teachers, who are developing the foundations of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) to support student-centred inquiry-based learning in contexts of interest and relevance to students and the achievement of scientific literacy goals – i.e. students who have understanding of key science concepts, as well as the nature of science and scientific inquiry. The findings reveal significant PCK development by the pre-service teachers but equally important is emerging evidence of their raised feelings of self-efficacy and positive dispositions towards the teaching of science. The authors argue that this process is helping to foster growth in the number of early career primary teachers who are ready and willing to champion science in classrooms.
Background to the initiative
This initiative grew out of concerns that primary science education in New Zealand is under pressure, with low student engagement in science and falling achievement levels (Chambers & Caygill, 2012; Hipkins & Bolstad, 2008). It appears that factors like the low status of science in our primary school curricula, many teachers’ lack of knowledge and confidence in teaching science and minimal systemic support for New Zealand primary science teaching (Bull, Gilbert, Barwick, Hipkins, & Baker, 2010) have resulted in science programmes that are unappealing to students and fail to meet reform-based curriculum goals related to student-centred inquiry learning and the development of 21st century think skills.
In his report Looking ahead: Science Education for the 21st Century, Sir Peter Gluckman (2011) argues that if our students are to become fully functional members of national and global societies that increasingly rely on the scientific literacy of their citizenry for economic and social progress and sustainable use of the physical environment, then things have to change in our schooling. Among his recommendations as a way forward for primary science education in New Zealand is the targeted development of science strength in a small number of teachers within each school Such teachers would be identified on the basis of their willingness and potential to champion science within their schools, and supported in their leadership roles through the provision of in-depth professional development and membership of a primary science cluster group to share good practice. In his vision, Gluckman calls these teachers “champions of science” because they possess the skills and drive to lead the development of science teaching and learning programmes for all staff within their school. Their roles would be given appropriate recognition and status within the school as they take on “overall responsibility for the development of science education capability within the staff, curriculum planning in the school, and organisation of science resources” (p. 38).
In achieving this vision, there are already some positive developments to report that are occurring in the pre-service sector of science teacher education. For example, recent research (Hume, 2010; 2013) indicates that some student teachers are emerging from teacher education programmes with the willingness and the wherewithal to support, and even lead forward-looking school science programme development. Armed with positive dispositions and appropriate foundations for the pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) necessary to teach progressive primary science with confidence, these new teachers have the potential for leadership roles in science education, working alongside their more experienced teaching colleagues to inject new life and purpose into school science programmes. Such early career primary teachers could be future champions of science in New Zealand and valuable assets within school communities.
We report here on further initiatives within a pre-service primary science teacher education programme at the University of Waikato to support and enhance these trends. Specifically, this paper explores two tools for supporting ongoing PCK development during the student teachers’ future professional careers. The tools – Content Representation (CoRe) design and the Science Learning Hub (SLH) – have previously been used successfully in teacher learning (Hume & Berry, 2011; 2013), and within school-based professional learning communities they could arguably provide very powerful means for collaboratively creating exciting teaching and learning programmes in primary science (Hume, 2013). The nature and purposeof each tool is briefly described below.
Content Representations (CoRes)
A Content Representation or CoRe is a means of making the PCK of an individual teacher, or group of teachers, explicit to others (see Table 1). PCK is that very special, often unspoken and unshared form of professional knowledge that individual teachers possess that enables them to successfully teach certain topics to particular groups of students (Shulman, 1987). It includes their orientations towards science and science teaching (beliefs and attitudes) and knowledge of their learners’ characteristics, which in turn impact on what content they select to teach for a particular topic, the specific instructional strategies they choose to use and how they monitor students’ learning (Magnusson et al., 1999). One crucial source of this PCK is classroom experience and it is typically underdeveloped in novice teachers, even when they have high levels of content knowledge.
CoRes were originally devised in template form to try to capture a holistic picture of the collective PCK possessed by a group of expert science teachers for a particular topic, and then used as exemplars for pre-service teacher education (Loughran, Berry & Mulhall, 2006). These CoRes proved to be valuable pedagogical tools for teacher educators because they unpack PCK in ways that reveal the key ideas to be learned by students, their prior knowledge, learning difficulties and likely misconceptions, suitable instructional approaches and strategies, and appropriate assessment. Like any innovation in education, others took this original idea and gave it new uses. For example, rather than examining the small pool of existing CoRes, some teacher educators have challenged their student teachers to create their own CoRes, and CoRe design has proved to be a powerful means of initiating PCK development in student teachers, especially when done in collaboration with peers or associate teachers (Hume & Berry, 2011; 2013).
The Science Learning Hub (SLH)
The Science Learning Hub is a web-based resource developed by teachers and education researchers in collaboration with New Zealand scientists to provide insights into contemporary science research in New Zealand. The project, funded by the NZ Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and managed by the University of Waikato, highlights New Zealand science and is primarily intended to enhance the science understandings of Year 2–10 teachers. A key feature is the presentation of multimedia content in collections of ‘contexts’, for example, Satellites, Toxins, Light and Sight, Rockets, The Noisy Reef, Super Sense, Hidden Taonga, etc. Each context includes identification and explanation of key science concepts underpinning the context; detailed storytelling about contemporary New Zealand research, presented through text, video and animation; a question bank for initiating teacher and student thinking; profiles of people involved in the work; and examples of teaching and learning activities.
The Research Project
The primary science education programme described in this paper had in the past required student teachers to design unit plans as a major component of the course. These unit plans were to use inquiry-based approaches to learning in contexts of interest and relevance to students, following The New Zealand Curriculum guidelines (Ministry of Education, 2007). In the lead-up to this task, the student teachers were exposed to various pedagogical approaches aligned with inquiry-based science learning, and to a range of appropriate resources including the SLH. In the 2013 version of the science education programme, the teacher educator introduced CoRe design as an intervention, where students first worked collaboratively in groups to produce CoRes for science topics found on the SLH, such as ‘Life in the Sea’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Fizzy Rocks’. Then as individuals they produced their own CoRe on a new topic, again from the SLH, which was assessed. The individual CoRes were subsequently used as the basis for planning a teaching unit on the same topic, which was again assessed.
The impact of using CoRe design in combination with SLH for developing pre-service primary teachers’ PCK in science was investigated. This article focuses on the student teachers’ CoRes and their accompanying reflective statements as data sources. The reflections formed part of the assessment requirement and took the form of a 300 word reflective statement on what student teachers derived from the process of developing the CoRes:
- Their professional learning about how to teach the topic to students at a particular stage in their schooling
- Aspects of content and pedagogy highlighted by the CoRe
- Whether the process of constructing a CoRe was easy or difficult, and what aspects made this the case.
Overall, the CoRes and reflective comments offered strong evidence of the student teachers’ budding PCK and the supportive role the SLH played in this development. In particular, the SLH supported student teachers as they constructed CoRes to: develop their own understanding about their selected science topic; identify the ‘big ideas’ and the underpinning key concepts; identify appropriate teaching and learning strategies; and consider assessment opportunities as well as potential difficulties to consider when teaching the topic. CoRe design provided a useful framework for focusing student teachers’ decision-making in each of these areas, and to take into consideration the ordering of concepts and skills coverage within and across the lessons.
Identifying the ‘big ideas’
All student teachers were able to identify the ‘big ideas’ for their chosen topics, and to write these as specific statements. This capability is key to developing a CoRe, and was something that the teacher educator emphasized during the teaching, by modelling the development of ‘big idea’ statements and working with student groups in the first iteration of CoRe development to identify and appropriately phrase the big ideas. In many cases, the SLH context gave a strong lead in this regard. For example, seven student teachers constructed CoRes using the ‘Life in the sea’ context on the SLH.  This context proved to be the most popular choice for the CoRes, and all of the ‘big ideas’ identified by these students related directly to the ‘science ideas and concepts’ identified on the SLH.
In a few cases, student teachers identified additional ‘big ideas’, although these extra ideas were in fact closely related to information provided within the particular context on the SLH. For example, Evelyn created a CoRe based on the SLH context ‘Light’ and included four big ideas which she derived from the list of ‘science ideas and concepts’ introduced within the context. She also identified an additional big idea: ‘The history of light leads up to the theories we know today’, which can be linked to a ‘nature of science’ theme embedded across the SLH i.e., scientific knowledge evolves over time. The Light context manifests this theme via a timeline showing key advances in the understanding and technological application of light.
Concepts to be learned now and later
As well as being able to identify ‘big ideas’ relevant to their chosen science topic, the student teachers were able to specify individual concepts related to each big idea (‘What you intend students to learn about this idea’). However, in a few cases the concepts appeared more conceptually complex than those usually expected for school students of the targeted age group. These decisions were likely to have been influenced by the ‘science ideas and concepts’ identified on the SLH and it is important at this point to reiterate that the SLH resource is designed primarily to support the science knowledge of teachers. The SLH relies upon teachers to use their professional judgment when deciding which concepts to explore with their students. These judgements could be difficult for pre-service teachers given their limited classroom teaching experience. Significantly, all student teachers were able to isolate ideas that they would expose students to but not at the particular level under consideration (‘What else you know about the idea that you do not intend your students to know yet?’) – indicating an awareness that teaching does require judicious decision making about which conceptual learning to focus on and when.
Purposes for learning science
Responses to the CoRe prompt asking student teachers to identify the purposes for teaching specific concepts (‘Why is it important for students to know this?’) revealed the pre-service teachers’ growing awareness of the multiple purposes of science education. Responses centred around: the requirements of curriculum prescriptions; providing foundations for future learning; understanding the world; relevance to students’ everyday lives, and importance for future citizenship. For example, Simon completed a CoRe on New Zealand’s marine ecosystem. His reasons for students to learn the concepts he had identified included:
“New Zealand is surrounded by water and therefore it is important for students to have knowledge about what marine organisms are present in NZ waters” (relevance)
“Students are expected by level three in the New Zealand Curriculum to ‘begin to group plants, animals, and other living things into science based classifications’” (curriculum)
“Students need to be aware that their actions can determine in the future whether or not New Zealand has a healthy marine environment” (citizenship)
There was a strong focus on the relevance of the learning to students’ everyday lives and on the importance of the learning for future citizenship. Nearly half of the student teachers also specifically referred to curriculum requirements or that the learning was foundational for future learning of more advanced concepts. This finding indicates that the student teachers have a holistic understanding of the purposes of teaching science, and that such teaching has goals that reach beyond simply meeting curriculum guidelines. In contrast, then, it was somewhat disappointing that less than a third (5 out of 17) of the student teachers explicitly identified outcomes related to their students’ understanding the nature of science, a key aim of a more holistic understanding of the purposes of science education.
One student, Linda, considered issues of cultural relevance. In her CoRe about rockets, she identified the value of learning about New Zealand’s first rocket launch—‘Atea-1’, which means space in te reo Māori:
I believe this could be relevant to the students as it is part of New Zealand history. The name of the rocket incorporates culture as it is a Māori name. These points link to one of the principles in the NZC ‘cultural diversity’ which states ‘the curriculum reflects New Zealand’s cultural diversity and values the histories and traditions of all its people.’
Although culturally responsive pedagogies obviously involve more than reference to Māori words, this student recognised the potential for using the science learning context of rockets to explore aspects about Te Ao Māori (the Māori World), signalling that pre-service teachers are able to make these links.
Understanding students to maximize learning opportunities
It was anticipated that the student teachers would find it most difficult to identify “difficulties/limitations connected with teaching this idea” and “knowledge about students’ thinking which influences your teaching of this idea” because of their limited teaching experience. This expectation was borne out in their reflective statements and interviews, with numerous indications that these sections of the CoRe had been most difficult. For example, Sarah in her reflective statement recognized the value of classroom experience in terms of developing deep understanding of students, but in the absence of this direct knowledge she had sought to find information in other ways:
I think that knowing how students think will come with teaching experience. However, I used the New Zealand Curriculum and the Building Science Concept books to gage [sic] what I think their prior knowledge might be.
Most student teachers made considerable effort to think through and identify possible challenges to student learning, such as: students’ potential difficulties with the science vocabulary (including where words have different every day and scientific meanings); common misconceptions or alternative conceptions (in some cases provided on the SLH); the abstract and/or unseen nature of some concepts; the varied backgrounds of students (affecting their prior knowledge and the relevance of certain examples); potential for controversy (e.g., when teaching about evolving adaptations); and too much new content to assimilate. For example, Linda (for a CoRe on rockets) wrote:
“Students may find it difficult to imagine different types of forces acting upon one thing at a time. They may find it difficult to understand because forces are not visible – only the result of them can be seen” (the abstract nature of forces).
Evelyn, in a CoRe on light, wrote:
“[Students may believe] that light does not bend when it passes through substances, in this case plastic or glass, as it is usually shown in a straight line in cartoons and images” (a common misconception about light waves).
She also referred to the varied backgrounds of students and the impact of their life experiences on their understanding:
“Some students may have no idea about spear fishing [used as an example to demonstrate light refraction] and what it is whereas some students may have experienced spear fishing depending on their community background” (prior knowledge).
Teaching and learning strategies
Student teachers identified a range of teaching procedures to support students’ engagement and learning in the chosen science topic. Again, many of these ideas were drawn directly from the SLH. For example, Evelyn, in her CoRe on light and sight, included the refraction investigation using spearfishing. However, she also included some activities from other sources, such as students creating a model of the eye. Similarly, Sarah used SLH ideas to develop her own approaches to teaching about refraction, indicating in her unit that she would show one of the SLH videos and then use objects in a swimming pool to see the effects of refraction.
With the strong focus on inquiry approaches during the first part of the course and in the assessment schedules for the CoRe and unit plan, a large proportion of the student teachers specifically included inquiry approaches in their ideas for teaching. Often inquiry took the form of a ‘predict-observe-explain’ activity, with a few student teachers specifically including an experiment or investigation that students would carry out.
The student teachers all incorporated a variety of strategies for “ascertaining students’ understanding or confusion”, and in many cases these assessments were integrated through the teaching programme. A considerable amount of creativity was also evident in specific activities, and in the variety of activities included in most of the CoRes. For example, activities included observations of student talk, class brainstorms, role-playing, and students making predictions and then explaining observations. Harriet indicated that students could write a diary entry from a pathogen’s point of view after it enters a human body.
In nearly all cases, the assessment was closely linked with the big ideas that had been identified, and consistent with the teaching approaches that had been selected to explore these ideas. There was also a mix of formative and summative activities. Interestingly, a few student teachers proposed assessment activities that built on students’ identities as scientists. These activities, if scaffold appropriately (and as the student teachers develop their PCK), have the potential to develop students’ understanding of the nature of science. By way of example, Katie’s plan for assessment is shown in Table 2.
Excerpt from one student teacher’s CoRe: The Ocean in Action (Year Level 5/6)
Student teachers’ reflections on the development of a CoRe using a topic from the Science Learning Hub
Student teachers’ reflective comments about the process of CoRe design revealed that the CoRe became a focus for their decision-making about what to teach, how to teach, and what resources to use and how to assess. Harriet’s response is typical of this focus:
I further found the process of developing a CoRe helpful because it provided a focus for what content I wanted to teach within my unit through requiring me to create ‘Big Ideas’. Furthermore, this use of ‘Big Ideas’ also provided a focus for my research and assisted me in selecting what content to include form the Science Learning Hub (SLH) website. I feel that this process will be extremely helpful in the future … I will know what information to look for.
Having a focus for decision-making, combined with enhanced understanding of the science content, led to self-reports of increased self-efficacy. Here, Katie’s comment is typical:
I like learning about science but often find it hard to comprehend, therefore I was always apprehensive to teach it. However, this process has allowed me to change my viewpoint and orientation towards science teaching. I feel a lot more capable as it allowed me to seize the most relevant and worthwhile big ideas from something that consists of so much information – such as the Science Learning Hub contexts. While doing this, it allowed me an easier way of developing my teacher knowledge on what I am going to teach and how I am going to teach it.
The Science Learning Hub was considered by the student teachers to have been a significant support in terms of their own content knowledge development, and a source of teaching ideas. They particularly valued the videos, explanations, and teaching ideas. As Diane reported:
It also provided teaching experiences and ideas to inspire and get you started for teaching a context. By having information on scientists and experts, students and teachers are able to learn more about the topic and make real life connections.
Developing the CoRe required student teachers to also consider pedagogical issues, in ways that demanded deeper levels of thinking and as a result their awareness of previously ‘unseen’ dimensions grew. This evidence of emerging PCK is typified in Susan’s reflection:
The good thing about this way of planning is that as you think deeper and deeper about how you will teach the context it becomes clearer what will be too hard and what the students will be able to grasp and what will be very easy. This allows me to begin to form my pedagogical content knowledge.
Importantly, many of the students recognized that their PCK would develop further when in a classroom:
However, I think that these sections [of the CoRe] will be much easier to complete when I have my own classroom because I will know my students and will therefore hopefully have an idea of what knowledge and misconceptions they have about a science topic. (Harriet)
Discussion and implications
This study offers strong evidence of the value of student teachers using the Science Learning Hub to develop a CoRe for a science topic of their choosing. Consistent with previous studies (e.g., Hume & Berry, 2010; 2013) developing a CoRe helped these student teachers to consider a wide range of pedagogical aspects, and in this way begin to hone their nascent PCK. For example, they reported that the CoRe provided a focus for them to make decisions about which concepts to teach, why they would teach these concepts, how they would teach them, and how they would assess student understanding both formatively and summatively. To complete the CoRe, student teachers were also required to think about what students might already know about the concepts, and difficulties they might have learning the concepts (knowledge that will develop further with classroom experience). In other words, student teachers’ awareness was drawn to the complex nature of planning an effective science programme by the framework in ways that supported their feelings of self-efficacy.
Since student teachers were required to use the Science Learning Hub as the basis for their CoRe development, they also became familiar with a significant web-based resource, and reported that it supported their own conceptual understandings of the science. This increased understanding, in conjunction with creating the CoRe, was another factor impacting positively on their self-efficacy. Even student teachers who had previously felt very apprehensive about teaching science reported feeling far more confident about the prospect after completing the CoRe assignment.
In addition to supporting student teachers’ conceptual understandings, the student teachers used the SLH to get ideas for the big ideas they wanted to teach, the concepts that they didn’t yet want to teach, understandings that students might already have, and strategies for teaching. In many cases they interwove this information with other ideas to develop engaging outlines for science programmes. While their lack of classroom experience sometimes impacted on their ability to make judicious decisions on the level of understanding that the children would bring with them, they indicated an awareness of the importance of taking this into account. Many of the student teachers also acknowledged that their professional teaching knowledge, especially their PCK, would continue to develop when in a classroom setting.
Most significantly, these student teachers indicated a strong commitment to creating engaging, relevant science education programmes that are not only aligned with meeting curriculum requirements, but that also appeal to notions of the relevance of science for everyday life and for future citizenship. Although their PCK is still in its infancy, it can be greatly enhanced by using the SLH in conjunction with CoRe design during their pre-service education. Securing this foundation with appropriate mentoring in their first few years of teaching is likely to nurture future ‘science champions’ who have both the passion and capacity to help promote science education in their school communities.
Anne Hume, Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton New Zealand. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cathy Buntting, Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton New Zealand. Email: email@example.com
 Other topics included light (2), ocean features (1), flight (1), fire (1), rockets (1), energy (1), human impacts on the environment (1), digestion (1), and the immune system (1)
 All student teachers’ names are pseudonyms
 Year 5-6 students are usually 10-11 years of age.
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The Science Learning Hub www.sciencelearn.org.nz