The potential of CoRes for new science teachers07/08/2013
ANNE HUME explores the benefits of early career science teachers working with experts on Content Representation (CoRes) design
Two years ago, an article in New Zealand Science Teacher (Hume, 2010) reported that collaborative Content Representation (CoRe) design had real potential for student teachers’ professional learning in science teaching, particularly their emerging pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Recently, using funding from the Teacher Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) Anne Hume, Chris Eames, John Williams and John Lockley from the University of Waikato decided to expand on this work.
They set out to investigate what contribution content experts (like experienced teachers, scientists, and technologists) could make to the collaborative formulation of CoRes – this time with teachers who were in the early stages of their teaching careers and in need of opportunities to build and enhance their PCK. The researchers were interested to see if such a combination of professionals was feasible for CoRe design and what impact expert input might have on the PCK of the early career teachers as they implemented the CoRes into their programme planning and teaching.
The fields of science and technology were chosen as the context for the study and two groups of early career teachers, expert subject teachers, and expert practitioners were formed. The groups used CoRe design as a focus for pulling together expertise that might help the early career teachers in their classroom teaching. This article reports on the findings from the science group.
Before describing the study and its findings, some background is helpful in explaining why such a study on teachers’ PCK and CoRe design was considered important and valuable for researchers in teacher education to do.
PCK is a term used to describe the specialised form of professional knowledge that expert teachers use to successfully teach particular concepts and skills to students for understanding. It is gained through a lengthy transformation process where other forms of knowledge like subject matter knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and contextual knowledge are morphed into a new kind of knowledge for teaching. PCK is a highly personalised, often unspoken form of knowledge that distinguishes expert teachers from non-teaching content experts and develops through time and experience in the classroom.
For particular topics and groups of students, each expert teacher’s PCK is unique and encompasses his/her:
- orientations towards teaching (knowledge of and about their subject and beliefs about it and how to teach it);
- knowledge of curriculum (what aspects of the topic to teach and when);
- knowledge of assessment (what aspects of the topic to teach, why, and how);
- knowledge of students’ understanding of the topic (their prior knowledge including misconceptions); and
- knowledge of instructional strategies that work best for this topic.
(Magnusson, Krajcik and Borko, 1999)
It is teacher educators’ role to introduce student teachers to the world of teaching and help them begin the process of acquiring the professional knowledge required to do the job well. Research (e.g., Kind 2009) indicates that many graduates entering teacher education courses are often naïve about and/or do not appreciate the demands that teaching will make of them. In addition Loughran et al. (2008) found many student science teachers entering teacher education courses actually lack a deep conceptual understanding of their subject matter, with disjointed and muddled ideas about particular science concepts. Obviously, these gaps in their perceptions of what teaching is about and in their content understanding can be significant hurdles for early career teachers to overcome when first attempting to build rich PCK for teaching.
To promote the growth of PCK in early career teachers, Kind (2009) identifies the following factors:
- the possession of good subject matter knowledge (SMK);
- classroom experience especially in the early months and years of working as a teacher;
- certain emotional attributes like good levels of personal self-confidence; and
- provision of supportive working atmospheres in which collaboration is encouraged.
As an intervention to address the above issues in pre-service science teacher education, CoRes have been used successfully to help novice teachers understand what PCK might involve and to develop their own representations of teaching in particular topic areas through designing their own CoRes (Loughran et al 2008; Hume & Berry, 2010). Note that CoRes were originally developed using a template to represent a holistic picture of the collective PCK of a group of expert teachers for a particular topic. More recently, in a small New Zealand study, student teachers collaborated with their associate teachers in CoRe design while on practicum, then planned and taught of a sequence of lessons based on the CoRe. This classroom testing of the tentative PCK portrayed in the CoRe was a valuable experience for the student teachers with evidence of significant PCK gains in the findings (Hume, 2011).
The Research Design
To carry out the investigation, two four-member partnerships were formed, one in science and one in technology. This article focuses on the science partnership, which included an expert classroom chemistry teacher, a chemist, and two early career chemistry teachers. Two researchers worked alongside the team to facilitate and record the process.
The study took place in three phases:
- Phase one involved the design of a CoRe for Year 12 organic chemistry that was identified by the early career teachers as a topic they were intending to teach and one in which they would like to enhance their own PCK. The CoRe was designed with the help of the expert scientist, who was asked to contribute mainly to the key ideas of the subject matter knowledge, and the expert teacher, who was asked particularly for his expertise on how to address pedagogical aspects related to the key ideas. This co-construction of the CoRe took place in a workshop situation facilitated by one of the researchers who was experienced in working with teachers, and who was familiar with research-informed challenges in teaching and learning in science. The workshop included instruction on the purpose and use of CoRes by the researcher, and then the group began the organic CoRe by identifying and agreeing on the key ideas for the topic. They then considered the pedagogical questions/prompts for each key idea to populate the CoRe matrix. The completed organic chemistry CoRe is shown in Table 1 below.
- In Phase two, the early career chemistry teachers worked in partnership with a researcher as they used the organic chemistry CoRe as a basis for planning the scheduled Year 12 organic chemistry unit. The researcher respected the planning norms of the teacher and their school, and did not try to unduly influence the planning process as they discussed and reflected on the process.
- Phase three of the study saw each early career teacher deliver their organic chemistry unit and co-research the outcomes of its use with one class of students with their researcher partner. This research involved observation of classroom activity by the researcher while the teacher was delivering the unit followed by reflective conversations around the teacher’s delivery of the subject matter and associated pedagogy, as specified in the CoRe. Any changes the teacher planned to make in future lessons in response to their sharing of ideas were noted. A focus group interview of students was conducted by the researcher at the end of the unit to examine how the students’ learning experiences may have been influenced by the teacher’s implementation of a unit based on the CoRe.
Overall the collaborative CoRe design process contributed to a positive working atmosphere that enabled the identification of key concepts for teaching, appropriate pedagogies and links with real life applications and stories of the key chemical ideas. The experts in chemistry and chemistry teaching worked well with the early career teachers and a positive working atmosphere was created (note in the following quotes from team members, pseudonyms have been used and emerging PCK components are indicated in italics – see the introductory section). For example, the chemist, Brian, spoke very favourably of the process:
To actually see how the two beginning teachers were picking up on ideas from [the expert teacher] and I was picking up ideas as well, that was quite useful [too]. That sort of interaction between the four of us actually worked very well. We’d contribute pretty equally; it was very good.
The group settled on their key ideas relatively quickly, largely helped by the familiarity of the expert chemistry teacher with the curriculum.
We got the big ideas pretty quick actually, yeah, we worked through those. They seemed to fall into place, and I guess it’s because for chemistry there is a really, very well established curriculum and the ideas are reasonably straightforward in terms of what you need to be covering. (Barry, expert chemistry teacher)
The early career teachers valued the input of the experts and felt the design process had enabled them to access the experts’ knowledge about, and better identify for themselves, the key concepts of the topic, as well as learn new teaching techniques for delivering particular content (knowledge of curriculum and instructional strategies).
I feel that developing the CoRe for Organic Chemistry with the expert teachers was very helpful in organising my thoughts, planning, etc and helped me think of strategies, etc. that I could use to add to my teaching … After development of the CoRe with the experts I revisited my unit plan and re-thought how I would teach Organic Chemistry in the future.
(Elaine, personal reflective notes)
Overall they believed that being involved in discussions with the experts in the construction of the CoRe helped them to build their PCK and develop a deeper understanding of the big picture of the topic.
In terms of how the collaboratively-designed CoRe affected the early career teachers’ planning for teaching the organic topic, the teachers responded that this happened in a number of ways. Elaine explained how the CoRe encouraged her to change the teaching sequence within the topic (knowledge of curriculum) to focus on students learning some fundamental knowledge (knowledge of students’ understanding of the subject), which she felt paid off when she considered the students’ overall learning outcomes.
And now that I’ve done that (placing organic nomenclature near the beginning of the unit), I absolutely saw the value of it because the kids … they just know exactly what I’m talking about … I’ll always do it this way … the naming just works … the alcohols yesterday, it took me half a period to teach alcohols, whereas usually it takes me two periods because [usually] we first have to do the naming and now that’s done.
Discussions in the CoRe design workshop between the chemistry subject matter expert and the expert teacher, which highlighted the critical nature of nomenclature to understanding organic chemistry, had convinced Elaine to put more emphasis on this aspect in the early part of her unit teaching. Developing the CoRe with experts had really helped her planning:
I feel that developing the CoRe for Organic Chemistry with the expert teachers was very helpful in organising my thoughts, planning, etc. and helped me think of strategies, etc. that I could use to add to my teaching. I will, therefore, in future endeavour to develop CoRes for my other [units] as well.
After her experience in CoRe design, Georgia, the other chemistry teacher, adopted a new planning strategy in which she planned more thoroughly. She used a whole unit template or overview indicating each lesson with the content she was going to teach in that lesson. This plan was used in a structured but flexible way to take into account class disruptions whilst still ensuring the curriculum was covered (knowledge of curriculum). Using the CoRe in her planning also encouraged her to focus more on relevant examples to illustrate how the topic was important in students’ daily lives (orientations towards teaching). Georgia found this teaching strategy stimulating and the students enjoyed learning about these examples, but she noted a need for readily accessible resources that provided more real-world applications of the chemistry topic.
I think something that would make the CoRe more useful is perhaps if it was linked to examples … those examples should be included, so it’s more sort of user friendly … I think that’s what new teachers need help with
Both the early career teachers felt that being involved in the CoRe design and using the CoRe to guide their teaching had increased their confidence and belief in what they were teaching (orientations towards teaching).
I think in my mind it probably helped me to see … especially the ‘how does it meet society’s needs’ and sort of see the relevance of teaching them the unit. And I think you gain confidence from teaching something that is actually useful (Georgia, final interview).
Interestingly the CoRe lay behind much of what they thought about in the classroom but was not always explicit in their practice. They seemed to get the most benefit from seeing the need for examples of organic chemistry in authentic contexts to support and illustrate the concepts they were focussing on developing with their students (orientations to teaching) and developing the confidence to do this.
… that was probably the biggest thing that came out of having the expert teachers and the scientists there as well. It was sort of having their view of what is important for organic chemistry … that organic chemistry allows us to meet society’s needs … and it’s got all those things like anaesthetics, polymers, PVC … it’s those little bits of extra information that make it interesting.
(Georgia, final interview).
The chemistry teachers noted that after an examination and discussion of the pedagogical questions and prompts in the CoRE around each of the key ideas, they also had a deeper understanding of the importance of engaging in practical activities in order to assist students understanding of the relevance of the topic (orientations to teaching and knowledge of instructional strategies).
CoRes developed through a collaborative process with experts in subject matter and teaching have potential for helping early career teachers gain access to expert knowledge and experience. This study revealed a willingness for experts to be involved in the CoRe design process, and through this involvement, they better understood some of the challenges that beginning teachers face in teaching their subject. All parties reported enjoying the opportunity to discuss the key ideas relating to the topic of the CoRe and the ways to teach them. The early career teachers emphasised that the experts’ engagement in the process of design of the CoRe was particularly beneficial in helping them to focus on the big picture of the topic, place different emphases on areas of content, and consider alternative ways of planning for their teaching. However, it was also clear that to create space for such a design process outside of a dedicated and funded research project would require time commitment and innovative ways to collaborate between early career teachers and experts.
These findings lead to a consideration of how all early career teachers could benefit from being involved in CoRe design with experts across a variety of learning areas and topics. While the participants in this study clearly appreciated the opportunity to work face-to-face with experts, it would seem unlikely that such an opportunity could be provided for all early career teachers in all learning areas.
A potential solution to this dilemma might be the use of electronic media. Applications such as Wikis or e-portfolios are already being used as collaborative work spaces in many areas of education. Bringing together a group of early career teachers and experts in a virtual space may allow for collaborative but asynchronous (and therefore time-flexible) development of CoRes. Such a facility would have the potential to involve a greater numbers of early career teachers in a cluster; it would also allow for ongoing evolution of a CoRe as early career teachers develop their PCK. This latter idea is important, as development of PCK should not be seen as reaching an end point. Indeed, in the future, it would be interesting to return to the teachers in our study to examine how their PCK had further developed, and what their revised CoRe of the same topic might then look like.
Hume, A. (2011). Using collaborative CoRe design in chemistry education to promote effective partnerships between associate and student teachers. ChemEd NZ, 125, 13-19
Hume, A. (2010). CoRes and PaP-eRs. New Zealand Science Teacher, 124, 38-40.
Kind, V. (2009). Pedagogical content knowledge in science education: Potential and perspectives for progress. Studies in Science Education, 45(2), 169–204.
Magnusson, S., Krajcik, J., & Borko, H. (1999). Nature, sources, and development of pedagogical content knowledge for science teaching. In J. Gess-Newsome & N.G. Lederman (Eds.), Examining pedagogical content knowledge: The construct and its implications for science education (pp. 95–132). Boston, MA: Kluwer.