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Teaching and Learning Forum 2008 [ Refereed papers ]
"This isn't science!" Challenging pre-service primary teachers' views of science through explicit reflection

Christine Howitt
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology

This paper reports the results from a pilot trial where pre-service primary teachers' views of science were deliberately challenged through weekly perturbing statements and associated readings within a science methods course. This explicit reflective approach to nature of science aimed to encourage the pre-service teachers to critically examine their prior beliefs, values and practices of teaching and learning science. The theoretical basis of this research was based upon a framework of facilitated reflection that included opportunity for reflection, expectations regarding the quality of reflection, and scaffolding to support the development of reflection as a skill. As a consequence of this explicit reflection, 89% of pre-service teachers believed they had grown as teachers of science, 83% believed their attitudes and/or beliefs about science teaching and learning had been challenged, and 94% believed they had grown as reflective practitioner. Common themes identified for pre-service teachers' perceptions of change were challenging existing views, analysing practice, development of critical thinking skills, and reflecting on future science teaching. Examples of documents used to challenge views of science will be available for discussion.


This isn't science, this is literacy!

There were giant green footprints leading into the workshop room. The sign on the door stated boldly "OGRE, BEWARE!" As we walked through the door we were transported into Shrek's swamp. The tutor greeted the students by stating that she had found a strange green substance in the swamp, and needed their help to identify what it was. Each group of students was presented with an ice-cream container half full of the strange substance. [The substance being investigated was called 'oobleck' and consisted of cornflour, water and green food colouring. Oobleck is classified as slime, and behaves both as a solid and a liquid.] The students were informed that they had to investigate this substance by using all our senses, as well as describing how the substance moved. Then they had to decide what it might be. There was a lot of discussion and laughing within the groups as they set about exploring the unusual substance. One group came up with some great descriptions, such as green, icky, oozy, slimy, alien's blood, squishy, smooth, runny, and shiny. The class then shared their ideas. There were even better descriptions used by the class. Such as tacky, pasty, rubbery, green icing sugar, a green marshmallow that you have sucked on and spat out, snot (oh gross!!), wet and dry at the same time, and lazy playdough. The class then had to draw a picture of the substance and write some words around the picture to describe it. They were encouraged to colour the picture. Some students used green highlighters while others used green pencils. Other students decided to put eyes on their picture to make it come alive, stating that it moved as if it was alive.

After this workshop, one student commented, "This isn't science, this is literacy!" A second student agreed, and asked the tutor why they were doing a literacy activity in a science workshop.

This short vignette, which summarises a real workshop from a science methods course, illustrates various unique and challenging characteristics which pre-service primary teacher bring to their teacher education course. One of these characteristics is a limited understanding of what science is, known as 'nature of science'. Many pre-service primary teachers perceive science as a fixed body of knowledge, totally objective, uncreative and unimaginative, and driven solely by the scientific method (Appleton, 2006). Further, they do not recognise the everyday nature of science, or the changing nature of science (Olson & Appleton, 2006). The inability of these pre-service teachers to recognise the science component of the workshop, that they themselves were working as scientists, the place of creativity and imagination within the workshop, and that all answers provided were correct, highlighted their narrow views of science.

This paper presents the results from a pilot trial where explicit reflection, in the form of weekly perturbing statements and associated readings, was used to challenge pre-service primary teachers' views of science teaching and learning. The purpose of this research was to evaluate the effectiveness of such an approach in terms of the pre-service teachers' personal growth as a teacher of primary science, attitudes and beliefs about science teaching and learning being challenged, and personal growth as a reflective practitioner.

A reflection orientation to teacher education

Reflection is the strategy that encourages teachers to think about their own teaching and learning. It requires the teacher to develop an understanding of themselves, by reflecting on and articulating their own learning experiences and processes (Hardy & Kirkwood, 1994). The reflective practitioner describes a teacher who analyses their teaching from various frames of reference, and combines personal experiences, values, and beliefs with theory and practice (Bain, Ballantyne, Mills, & Lester, 2002).

Teachers' beliefs and attitudes towards teaching science have been found to influence the amount and quality of science that is taught in the primary classroom. Teachers with negative beliefs and attitudes towards science tend to spend less time teaching it; are more likely to employ didactic approaches rather than student-centred approaches; place heavy reliance on kits, prescriptive textbooks and worksheets; and avoid all but the simplest hands-on work (Appleton & Kindt, 1999; Bencze & Hodson, 1999; Harlen & Holroyd, 1997).

Various authors have advocated a reflection orientation to primary science teacher education as a means of providing meaningful experiences to pre-service teachers that enable them to critically examine their prior beliefs in order to initiate transformation in their thinking and teaching practices (Abell & Bryan, 1997; Bryan & Abell, 1999; Skamp, 1995; Zembylas & Barker, 2002). This reflection orientation stems from the scholarship of Dewey (1993) and Schön (1987), and is grounded in the belief that pre-service teachers learn to teach science through a process of re-evaluating and reforming their existing theories when confronted with perturbing evidence. Pre-service teachers enter primary methods courses holding ideas, beliefs and values that form their personal theories about science teaching and learning (Abell & Bryan, 1997). The reflection orientation is characterised by asking pre-service teachers to describe their ideas, beliefs and values about science teaching and learning and then providing experiences that help to clarify, confront, and possibly change such personal theories. Beginning teachers of science require many opportunities to inquire into and think critically about science teaching and learning. The reflection orientation to science preparation takes into account that future teachers learn about science in a number of different contexts, each providing the opportunity for reflection and learning (Abell & Bryan, 1997).

Campoy (2000) described a framework of facilitated reflection within teacher education. This framework included opportunity for reflection, expectations regarding the quality of reflection, and scaffolding to support the development of reflection as a skill. Opportunity for reflection refers to the provision of many and various opportunities to reflect upon coursework and/or field experiences of teaching. Campoy (2000) claimed that while many researchers include a variety of activities to promote reflection about teaching practices (such as journals, classroom discussion, portfolios, analysing case studies, and videoed exemplary practice) they fail to include information on how to reflect. Expectation regarding the quality of reflection addresses the issue of what constitutes good and poor reflection, and the importance placed on supported opinion (Campoy, 2000). Campoy (2000) considered the use of a rubric to set standards for different levels of reflection, verbal and written feedback, modelling, and examples as effective means to address expectation. Scaffolding for reflection refers to course activities that support the development of reflective thinking through increasingly complex levels of reflection, such as metacognitive thinking (Campoy, 2000).

The framework of facilitated reflection was selected as the theoretical basis of the current research for three reasons. First, it allowed for transformative change by challenging the pre-service teachers' thinking (Kagan, 1992). Second, the framework offered an holistic means of implementing the reflection process for the teacher educator, while also providing detailed information on the expectations of the reflections for the pre-service teachers. Third, the framework encouraged a culture of reflection where both the teacher educator and the pre-service teachers could share, discuss and reflect upon certain learning experiences and the reflection process itself.

Nature of science

Nature of science is concerned with how scientific knowledge is generated and the character of science itself (Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002). It relates to how science is done and how scientists go about doing their work. No specific definition has been attached to nature of science, highlighting the different interpretations presented in various fields of inquiry (philosophers, historians, sociologists of science or science educators), the multifaceted and complex nature of science, and the tentative and dynamic character of nature of science (Lederman et al., 2002). However, common aspects of nature of science include that science is tentative (subject to change); empirically based (based on and/or derived from observation of the natural world); subjective (theory-laden); partly the product of human inference, imagination and creativity (involves the invention of explanations); open and accountable; socially and culturally embedded; there is no one way to do science (no universal 'scientific method'); and laws and theories serve different roles in science (Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Lederman, 1998). Further, the use of the term 'nature of science', instead of 'the nature of science', has been used throughout research to convey the inability of commentators to achieve a single, agreed definition for nature of science (Abd-El-Khalick & Akerson, 2004). These common aspects of nature of science highlight how science is essentially a human activity and a dynamic process (Murcia & Schibeci, 1999).

Views of nature of science are tied to pre-service teachers' beliefs about science teaching and learning. The 'naive' conceptions of nature of science held by most pre-service teachers leads to a belief in a didactic approach of science instruction, where science is presented as a body of static knowledge (Abell, Martini, & George, 2001). The techniques used during science instruction are also perceived as being static, requiring minimal or no justification (Bartholomew, Osborne, & Ratcliffe, 2004). Pre-service teachers perceive science as a process of discovering what is out there, rather than as a human process of inventing explanations to describe how the world works. Similarly, pre-service teachers see learning as a process of acquiring knowledge through discovery (Abell & Smith, 1994). Such approaches have an emphasis on the product, rather than the processes of science. Further, such approaches to science instruction, which teach about what we know, inhibit any discussion on nature of science, the tentativeness of scientific knowledge, or the social dimensions of science (Bartholomew et al., 2004).

Techniques to improve nature of science in pre-service teachers have centred around the use of scientific inquiry, and explicit instruction through reflection (Abd-El-Khalick, 2001; Abd-El-Khalick & Akerson, 2004; Gess-Newsome, 2002). As a consequence of an inquiry course, Gess-Newsome (2002) found preservice teachers' conceptions of science as primarily a body of knowledge (or product) changed to a more appropriate, blended view of science as a body of knowledge generated through the active application of scientific inquiry (process and product). Akerson, Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman (2000) found that an explicit reflective approach to nature of science instruction, within a science methods course, was effective in producing changes in elementary teachers' views of nature of science. Internalising the importance of teaching about nature of science was found to be essential for pre-service teachers to address nature of science instructionally. Lederman (1999) considered nature of science such an important instructional objective that it should be a component of every science teacher education instructional unit, lesson and activity.

Methodology

Research paradigm

This research was guided by a practical action research methodology, distinguished by an iterative cycle of planning, action, observations, and reflection (Creswell, 2005). Action research enables researchers to "gather information about, and subsequently improve, the ways their particular educational setting operates, their teaching, and their student learning" (Creswell, 2005, p. 550). Through the process of action research, initiated by the workshop described at the start of this paper, perturbing reflections were developed that could challenge the pre-service teachers' limited views of science, while at the same time develop their reflective skills. The pilot trial presented in this paper continues the action research cycle, by evaluating the effectiveness of these reflections and suggesting ways to improve them for subsequent science methods courses.

Science methods course

The research was conducted over a science methods course during the third year of a 4-year Bachelor of Education degree at an Australian University. The course consisted of 10 weeks of workshops followed by a 3-week field experience. The weekly 2-hour workshops aimed to develop students' pedagogical content knowledge through active scientific inquiry and ongoing reflection. The science learning experiences within the workshops were characterised by participation through an engage, explore, and explain model (Australian Academy of Science, 1994); placement within an authentic early childhood context; discussion of children's views of science; and learning within a social constructivist environment. Explicit modelling and discussion of pedagogy was embedded into all workshops to provide opportunities for the pre-service teachers to observe, discuss and reflect upon various science teaching and learning strategies. The last 15 minutes of each workshop were allocated to the set nature of science reflections (see below for detail). The reflections comprised one of three assignments in the science methods course, and were worth 30% of the total marks for the course. The author was the tutor during the workshops and the primary researcher in the data collection, analysis and interpretation.

Weekly reflections on nature of science

Each week the pre-service teachers were presented with a reflection that contained a perturbing statement and associated reading to challenge the pre-service teachers' views of science. An additional two reflections were completed after field experience. These reflections are summarised in Table 1, with the title, a short description, and the purpose of the reflection. The perturbing statements, that were the title for each reflection (for example, 'Science is for boys only!'), were deliberately chosen to confront, motivate and engage the pre-service teachers.

Facilitated reflection was provided through opportunity, expectation and scaffolding. Opportunity to reflect was provided by weekly workshop discussions for each reflection. Within these discussions the pre-service teachers were constantly challenged as to why they believe the way they do, and where has that belief come from. This was supported by a detailed unit outline that described the purpose of the reflection assignment. Each reflection had questions to be used as discussion points in the workshops, along with questions to direct the pre-service teachers' individual reflections (see Table 1). Expectations regarding the quality of reflection were provided through a detailed rubric that provided information on what was required for each grade level. Expectation was also provided through formative assessment, where the first four reflections were handed in part way through the semester. Detailed feedback was provided on these reflections, highlighting what the pre-service teacher was doing well, what needed to be improved, and how the reflection could be improved. Scaffolding for reflection was addressed by encouraging higher order thinking through questioning. As the pre-service teachers participated in the weekly workshops they were questioned about the characteristics of the activities. For example, the activity described at the start of this paper is characterised by open-endedness, inclusiveness and simplicity. Comparing these characteristics to those associated with their science learning experiences from high school, and then questioning and justifying the approach taken, allowed the pre-service teachers to further develop their reflective skills.

Data collection and analysis

For this pilot trial data was collected from one class of 18 pre-service teachers. As a means to evaluating the effectiveness of the reflections, the pre-service teachers were given a questionnaire at the end of the semester. The questionnaire consisted of the following four questions:
  1. What did you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of the reflections?
  2. Have the reflections helped you to grow as a teacher of science? Why or why not?
  3. Have the reflections challenged your attitudes and/or beliefs about the teaching and learning of science? Why or why not?
  4. Have the reflections helped you to grow as a reflective practitioner? Why or why not?
These questions were chosen to highlight the pre-service teachers developing philosophy of science teaching and learning, and their growth as a teacher of science as a result of the reflection assignment. Quantitative data from the questionnaire were summarised into tables. Qualitative answers were summarised and common themes identified.

Table 1: A summary of the explicit reflections used to challenge
the pre-service primary teachers' perceptions of science

No.TitleShort descriptionPurpose
1.I hate science!Write about a significant science event from school or your past. It can be positive or negative. Why is this event significant? How has this event influenced your attitudes towards science?To demonstrate how previous experiences shape current attitudes and beliefs. To encourage the pre-service teachers to explicitly describe what switched them off, or on, to science.
Philosophy of primary science teaching and learningProvide a short overview of your personal philosophy of science teaching and learning before doing a science methods course.To provide a comparison with the philosophy presented at the end of the science methods course.
2.All scientists wear lab coats!The stereotype for a scientist is a crazy old man in a lab coat with hair sticking out. What is your perception of a scientist, and where this view has come from? How does this view compare with two profiles of scientists provided? How can children's views of scientists be challenged?Challenges the view that all scientists look and act in a similar way.
3.Science is really boring!In an attempt to make science more interesting, DMAG produced the So Gross (DMAG, 2005) books. The books answer the really gross questions that children ask, such as What is toejam? and What is snot made of? Are such books good or bad for the teaching and learning of science. Justify your answer, taking into account the characteristics of young children.Challenges the perceptions of science being presented in one formal manner, and science being uncreative and boring.
4.Science is for boys only!Read a published journal article on gender inclusivity in science education. Describe techniques used by the teacher to provide a gender inclusive classroom. How can you apply these in your future classrooms when teaching science?Challenges the view that there are no gender issues in primary school. Challenges the perception that only males can be good at science.
5.Culture has no role in science!A short article on Galileo's life was presented, illustrating the influence of the Catholic church on his scientific work. How can home culture influence a child's perception of science? How can teachers incorporate a more culturally sensitive perspective into their classrooms?Challenges the perception that science is not related to social or cultural issues.
6.Science is unimaginative and uncreative!The following quote from Einstein is presented: Imagination is more important than knowledge. What are the characteristics of a creative child? What is the place of creativity in the teaching and learning of science?Challenges the perception that science is uncreative and unimaginative.
7.There is only one way to do science!Science photography and science posters are presented as alternative to the scientific method. What are the advantages and limitations of using alternative forms of doing science in the primary classroom? How can more alternative forms of doing science be incorporated into the primary classroom?Challenges the perception that there is only one way to do science - via the scientific method. Challenges the perception that science is uncreative and unimaginative.
8.Science is just a body of knowledge!Two excerpts from a published journal article are presented - one showing science as a process, the other as a product. Critique the two excerpts in relation to the pedagogy used by the teacher. How can you make sure that you cover both the product and process of science in your future teaching and learning of science?Challenges the perception that science is just a body of knowledge.
9.Science has the answer to everything!A short case study is presented based upon a fictitious pre-service primary teacher during practicum. In a class discussion after an investigation on reflection, the teacher answers all the students' questions. If you were the cooperating teacher observing the lesson, what advice would you provide to the pre-service teacher.Challenges the perception that science is just a body of knowledge, and that science has the answer to everything.
10.Was there science taught at my school?Six questions are presented in relation to the amount of science that was taught, or witnessed, while on field placement.To demonstrate the small amount of science that is taught in primary schools.
11.How have I changed?How have your attitudes, philosophy, and confidence in teaching and learning science changed over the course?To allow the pre-service teachers to describe how they believe they have changed.

Findings

Strength and weaknesses of the reflections

Table 2 summarises the pre-service primary teachers' perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the explicit reflections used in the science methods course. Three predominant strengths were identified: the reflections addressed relevant and up-to-date key issues in science teaching and learning, the reflections made me think and focussed my thinking process, and the reflections challenged my views of science. Comments from pre-service teachers to highlight these points are presented below.
They really forced me to think about some pretty key issues in relation to science teaching. [2006:A9]
Focussed reflection and discussion which enabled you to reflect on something you might not have thought of. [2006:A5]
Challenged misconceptions commonly held by primary teachers. [2006:A13]
One predominant weakness was associated with the reflections: there were too many reflections to complete. Other minor weaknesses of the reflections included being repetitive, irrelevant, not allowing for individuality, and not relating to practical experiences (see Table 2). Three pre-service teachers did not state any weaknesses associated with the reflections.

Table 2: Pre-service primary teachers' perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses
of the explicit reflections, along with the number of times mentioned

StrengthsNo.WeaknessesNo.
Addressed key issues in science teaching and learning9Too many reflections9
Made me think8Irrelevant3
Challenged current views of science7Repetitive2
Included my own opinion1Didn't allow for individuality1
Pulled on prior knowledge and experiences1Didn't relate to practical experience1
Total number of responses26Total number of responses16

Pre-service teachers' perceptions of change as a consequence of the reflections

Table 3 provides a summary of how the pre-service teachers believed they had grown or been challenged as a consequence of the explicit reflections. Eighty nine percent of the pre-service teachers believed that the reflections had helped them to grow as a teacher of science. Eighty three percent of the pre-service teachers believed the reflections had challenged their attitudes and/or beliefs about the teaching and learning of science. Ninety four percent of the pre-service teachers believed the reflections had helped them to grow as reflective practitioners.

Table 3: Percentage of pre-service primary teachers who believed they
had changed as a consequence of the explicit reflections (n = 18)

Perception of changeYesNo
Have the reflections helped you to grow as a teacher of science?8911
Have the reflections challenged your attitudes and/or beliefs about the teaching and learning of science?8317
Have the reflections helped you to grow as a reflective practitioner?94 6

Table 4 presents the common themes identified as reasons behind the pre-service teachers' perceptions of change. Comments from pre-service teachers to highlight these themes are presented below. The pre-service teachers believed that challenging their existing views assisted them to grow as a teacher of science, challenge their existing attitudes and/or beliefs about the teaching and learning of science, and grow as a reflective practitioner.

Forced me to think about things I would not have considered before. [2006:C3]
Writing about what I think about science (eg. science is just for boys) challenged my thinking. [2006:D5]
Analysing practice assisted the pre-service teachers to grow as teachers of science, and to challenge their existing attitudes and/or beliefs about the teaching and learning of science.
Exploring the reflections increased my knowledge of strategies and concepts. [2006:C4]
I learnt more about good and bad teaching, and what makes a good and bad teacher. [2006:C5]
Analysing pedagogical practices and thinking about my own personal philosophies - comparison and contrast. [2006:D2]

Table 4: Common themes identified as the reasons behind the pre-service
teachers' perceptions of change due to the explicit reflections

Perceptions of change
Growth as a
teacher of science
Attitude/beliefs about
teaching and learning science
Growth as a
reflective practitioner
ThemeNo.ThemeNo.ThemeNo.
Challenging views8Challenging views8Critical thinking9
Analysing practice6Analysing practice6Challenging views3
Reflecting on future teaching4

Reflecting on future teaching3



Reflecting with peers1
Total number of responses1814
16

The development of critical thinking skills was identified as the major theme to growing as a reflective practitioner.

They made me critically think about the topics and events and reflect on them. [2006:E6]
Reflecting not only how you teach but also on the subject matter and the children themselves provides greater insight how to improve my own teaching. [2006:E8]
Reflecting on their future teaching assisted the pre-service teachers to grow as teachers of science and as reflective practitioners.
Reflecting on the activities and the facts, discussing what I would do as a future teacher helped me to make the connection between reflecting and improving. [2006:E5]
It has made me consider how I will teach in the future. [2006:C9]

Discussion and implications

The results from this research highlight the value of deliberately challenging pre-service primary teachers' views of science through an explicit reflective approach. The use of the perturbing statements and associated readings, along with class discussion, assisted the pre-service teachers to critically examine and challenge their prior beliefs, attitudes and practices of teaching and learning science. The pre-service teachers believed that as a consequence of these reflections they had grown as teachers of science and as reflective practitioners. These results support those found by Abd-El-Khalick (2001) where an explicit reflective approach through activities, readings and active discourse was found to enhance pre-service primary teachers' nature of science.

The positive feedback from the pre-service teachers highlighted their growth within two areas: understanding science, and understanding the reflection process. Previous research that investigated methods of challenging nature of science had been interpreted solely from the science perspective (Abd-El-Khalick, 2001; Gess-Newsome, 2002). The results presented in this paper illustrate how challenging views, and the use of the reflection process, go hand-in-hand. The benefits of such an explicit reflective approach are thus doubled when both perspectives are addressed.

This pilot study has highlighted the effectiveness of using an explicit reflective approach when evaluated with an end of semester questionnaire. Additional information to support this assertion can be obtained from analysing the pre-service teachers' individual reflections, where supporting (or conflicting) statements are obtained to demonstrate challenged views of science and perhaps modified practice during field experience. Such an analysis forms the next phase of this research, where a larger sample and modifications to the reflections (as described below) will be used.

The explicit reflective approach to challenging views can be applied to any discipline, where students' prior beliefs and attitudes have to be explored, discussed and confronted. Perturbing statements and accompanying readings, cases, dilemmas, videos, or posters can be developed to fit the required discipline. Implicit in the reflective process is the ability of the teacher to share responsibility in the learning process (Bryan & Tippins, 2006). Teachers should model the reflective thinking process; listen to and understand students' experiences, beliefs and interpretations of practice; and acknowledge that students are constructing their own understandings and meanings based upon their existing conceptions.

Based on the comments made by the pre-service teachers, and the on-going cycle of action research, various changes will be made to the explicit reflections for the next science methods course. The number of reflections will be reduced, with repetitive reflections being removed. A self-contained booklet will be produced that contains all reflections, along with an introduction, purpose, and more detailed assessment rubrics. Finally, as a means of having more ownership, and encouraging more discussion of the reflections, groups of pre-service teachers will be asked to facilitate each reflection.

The explicit reflective approach to challenging views of science, based on perturbing statements and associated readings, provided experiences from which the pre-service primary teachers discovered, questioned, challenged, and refined their own attitudes and beliefs about science, the teaching and learning of science, and the reflective process.

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Author: Christine Howitt, Science and Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University of Technology.
Email: c.howitt@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Howitt, C. (2008). "This isn't science!" Challenging pre-service primary teachers' views of science through explicit reflection. In Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2008/refereed/howitt.html

Copyright 2008 Christine Howitt. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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