Cory T. Forbes, University of Michigan

Elizabeth A. Davis, University of Michigan




The work presented here represents a preliminary effort undertaken to address the crucial role of the teacher in supporting students’ learning and decision-making about socioscientific issues, particularly through their use of curriculum materials.  The objectives of this pilot study were to characterize preservice elementary teachers’ critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials dealing with socioscientific issues and identify factors that serve to mediate this process.  Four undergraduate preservice elementary teachers in an elementary science teaching methods course were studied over the course of one semester.  Results from the study indicate that the teachers critiqued and adapted curriculum materials dealing with socioscientific issues in ways that were both consistent and inconsistent with their previous work in the science methods course.  Also, the teachers’ subject-matter knowledge, informal reasoning about socioscientific issues, and their role identity (especially in regard to value-neutral practice) emerged as mediating factors in their efforts.  Implications for science teacher education and the design of curriculum materials, particularly those intended to be educative for teachers, are discussed. 


Theoretical Framework


In recent years, an increasingly robust body of research has emerged addressing socioscientific issues (SSI) in science education (e.g., Kolsto, 2001; Sadler & Zeidler, 2005a, 2005b; Seethaler & Linn, 2004; Zeider, Sadler, Applebaum, Callahan, & Amiri, 2005). Socioscientific issues are those that exist at the intersection between science and the broader social context in which the products and processes of science are situated (e.g., stem cell research, the teaching of evolution, climate change). They are typically part of public discourse, contentious in nature, and require a certain set of skills and abilities from those engaged in reasoning and argumentation about them.  While the recent marked growth in SSI-related research suggests a renewed interest within science education, these topics have historically served as foundational elements of various disciplinary perspectives within the field (DeBoer, 1991; Turner & Sullenger, 1999), including those which emphasize the history and philosophy of science (HPS) and science, technology, and society (STS).  Even within the current paradigmatic focus on constructivist, inquiry-oriented teaching and learning, the explicit link between science and students’ lived, real-world experience has been a cornerstone of project-based science classrooms (Crawford, 2000). The current science education policy environment, however, provides a strong impetus for further articulation of the role of SSI in science teaching and learning.  The importance of an educated public capable of engaging in such topics has been acknowledged in various science standards documents (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996) and ‘science literacy for all’ has become a defining characteristic of science education reform efforts.  Despite the relative youth of this research strand (Sadler, 2004b), it has contributed significantly to our understanding of students’ reasoning about SSI (Seethaler & Linn, 2004; Sadler & Zeidler, 2005a), their requisite knowledge and affective orientations (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b; Sadler, 2004a), and effective SSI-based instructional frameworks around which to design learning environments (Kolsto, 2001; Zeider et al., 2005). 

Even within the growing corpus of research on socioscientific issues in science education, the teacher’s many roles, as well as relevant implications for science teacher education, remain relatively unexplored (Sadler et al., in press). Much of the SSI research thus far has pertained to teachers only indirectly if at all, being focused primarily on students.  However, some inroads are being made.  Zeidler and colleagues (2005) recently reported on one teacher’s implementation a year-long, SSI-based secondary science curriculum meant to engage students in authentic discourse about various cross-disciplinary topics. They found that the teacher’s approach to science teaching within the context of an SSI framework involved a complex interplay of forms of subject matter knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge, as well as a fundamental conceptualization of practice itself. What this suggests is that SSI-based instruction involves complex integration of multiple forms of knowledge in practice, a finding which reinforces dominant perspectives on a knowledge base for teaching.

However, many questions remain.  How, for example, is science teaching within an SSI-based instructional framework, or teaching about SSI at all, unique in the demands it places on teachers?  Teaching remains highly context-dependent so the treatment of SSI in science classrooms will, by default, be influenced by the myriad of knowledge, beliefs, values, and elements of identity students and teachers bring to these complex settings.  Sadler and colleagues’ (in press) recent work suggests that middle and secondary science teachers almost uniformly acknowledge the significance of normative dimensions of science though exhibit extreme diversity in how their knowledge and beliefs coalesce in their descriptions of practice.  What knowledge, beliefs, and/or orientations towards practice are required by teachers in order for them to effectively scaffold students’ learning about SSI?  Due to the positioning of SSIs at the intersection of science and society, they inherently involve not only knowledge forms but normative questions as well, including moral and ethical considerations (Sadler, 2004; Sadler & Zeidler, 2004).  Science teacher educators must work to learn more about how science teachers’ thinking about these issues influences practice which, in turn, largely determines the nature of students’ learning opportunities. 

Beginning Elementary Teachers and Socioscientific Issues


Promoting science literacy consistent with the vision set out in National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) is, however, just one of the many challenges novice elementary teachers face relative to science teaching (Davis, Petish, & Smithey, in press).  While preservice teachers can teach inquiry-oriented science effectively (Crawford, 1999), they often possess naïve views of the nature of science (Lederman, 1992) and scientific inquiry (Peterson & Treagust, 1998). Emerging from their teacher education programs, preservice elementary teachers often lack substantial science subject-matter knowledge (Anderson & Mitchener, 1994; Cochran & Jones, 1998), confidence in their subject-matter preparation (Rice & Roychoudhury, 2003), or the knowledge, skills, and beliefs necessary to practice in concordance with science education standards (Smith & Gess-Newsome, 2004).  Science may be deemphasized in their schools (Spillane, Diamond, Walker, Halverson, & Jita, 2001; Spillane & Diamond, 2004) or they may lack resources necessary to support reform-minded practice (Appleton & Kindt, 2002).

These factors have a profound effect on how elementary teachers approach and engage in science teaching practice.  Just as subject-matter knowledge serves as a crucial dimension of the knowledge base for elementary teaching (Smith & Neale, 1989), so too does it influence the strength of undergraduate students’ reasoning about socicioscientific issues (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b). In addition to subject-matter knowledge, the development of teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986; Magnusson, Krajcik, & Borko, 1999), or complex subject-specific knowledge for teaching, is prioritized as a primary goal for teacher learning.  SSI-rich instructional contexts may well provide a productive context which promotes teachers’ development of integrated knowledge structures, including pedagogical content knowledge (Zeidler et al., 2005). While science teachers may view ethical and moral dimensions of science as important (Sadler et al., in press), this may not become an equally important dimension of their developing professional identity if not explicitly supported in teacher education programs or observed in authentic classroom settings. 

Beginning Teachers, Curriculum Materials, and Socioscientific Issues


One particularly salient challenge new teachers face is learning to effectively use curriculum materials in practice.  While recent research has focused on teachers’ use of SSI-focused curricula (Zeidler et al., 2005), teachers’ access to well-developed, standards-based, innovative curriculum materials designed around SSI is limited. Thus, efforts to infuse socioscientific issues into science teaching and learning will likely require modification and adaptation of existing science curriculum materials by teachers.  This is, however, in conflict with the view taken by many curriculum developers, who view curricula as static or inert agents in the ‘remote control’ of teaching (Shulman, 1983).  It is no wonder, then, that many preservice teachers share this view of curriculum materials (Haney & McArthur, 2002; Southerland & Gess-Newsome, 1999), thus predisposing them to certain forms of interaction with such documents and artifacts. 

We, on the other hand, adhere to a different perspective, consistent with recent research on the teacher-curriculum relationship, in which teachers are viewed as active agents in real-time, classroom-based curriculum design (Brown & Edelson, 2003; Remillard, 2005).  Teachers’ orientations towards curriculum materials, based in the myriad of knowledge, beliefs, values, and professional identity they bring with them to teaching, influence how they will interact with curriculum materials and enact them in practice (Enyedy, Goldberg & Welsh, 2006; Remillard & Bryans, 2004).  Such interactions are inherently situated (Greeno and the Middle School Mathematics Through Application Project Group, 1998), thus serving to create a strong connection between the individual teacher and the context in which they engage in particular activity.  This is an active, participatory relationship (Remillard, 2005) which emphasizes the role of curriculum materials as both cultural tools (Vygotsky, 1978) that serve to mediate social activity and as object of goal-oriented activity (Engestrom, 1987) undertaken by teachers. 

Elementary teachers are therefore forced to draw upon a multitude of science curriculum resources in an effort to craft effective science teaching practice for socioscientific issues. Even in cases where innovative, SSI-focused curriculum materials are available, they make decisions about existing curriculum materials in an effort to adapt them to the particular needs of their teaching contexts (Barab & Luehmann, 2003; Baumgartner, 2004; Fishman, Marx, Best, & Tal, 2003; Squire et al., 2003).  This authentic dimension of practice can be characterized as a teacher’s pedagogical design capacity (Brown & Edelson, 2003), or his or her ability to draw on variety of resources to adapt curriculum materials toward constructive ends.  Often times, however, such modifications are inconsistent with the intentions of curriculum materials developers, whether in mathematics (Cohen, 1990; Collopy, 2003; Putnam, 1992; Remillard, 1999) or science (Enyedy et al., 2006; Schneider et al., 2005).

With support, however, novice teachers can learn to make effective adaptive decisions regarding existing curriculum materials.  One way to support teachers’ work with science curricula is through the development of educative curriculum materials (Ball & Cohen, 1996; Davis & Krajcik, 2005; Schneider & Krajcik, 2002), or those that are designed promote teacher learning as well as student learning.  Science teacher educators also play a crucial role in helping preservice elementary teachers learn to both effectively critique (Davis, in press) and make principled decisions upon which their local adaptation of existing science curriculum materials is founded, especially in regard to the value-laden landscape of socioscientific issues.

In order to better inform these efforts, it is necessary to learn more about how preservice elementary teachers use science curriculum materials, the relationship between curriculum materials and teachers’ practice and learning, and contextual factors mediating their interaction with science curriculum materials. The work presented here is aimed at illuminating one salient dimension of teachers’ practice, specifically preservice elementary teachers’ use of science curriculum materials, as it relates to the treatment of socioscientific issues in elementary science learning environments. 

The objectives of this pilot study were to investigate the ways in which preservice elementary teachers critique and adapt science curriculum materials dealing with socioscientific issues and identify factors that mediate this process. The research questions are:

  1. How do preservice elementary teachers critique and adapt science curriculum materials, particularly in respect to socioscientific issues?
  2. What factors mediate preservice elementary teachers’ critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials, particularly in respect to socioscientific issues?

Methods & Organization


This study took place during the third and fourth semesters of an undergraduate elementary teacher preparation program in the US.  Four preservice elementary teachers in an elementary science methods course from were studied over the course of one semester. While this research focused on a relatively small number of preservice elementary teachers, it is a crucial first step in understanding the ways in which elementary teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence practice as related to SSI, particularly in respect to their use of science curriculum materials. The four-term, cohort-based program of professional study is centered on strong academic preparation that leads to a B.A. degree in education, as well as recommendation for elementary teaching certification in the state. The program is designed to promote the development of preservice teachers’ pedagogical, subject-matter, and pedagogical content knowledge, and is aligned with foundational tenets of teacher education reform (e.g., INTASC, 1992; NCATE, 1987) and standards documents (e.g., AAAS, 1993; NCSS, 1994; NCTM, 1991; NRC, 1996).  During each of the first three semesters of the program, students undertake relevant university coursework and spend at least six hours per week in k-6 classrooms under the tutelage of an experienced mentor teacher.  The final term is centered around a traditionally-structured, full-time, 14-15 week student-teaching experience.  The elementary science teaching methods course is organized around three explicit goals:

-          Developing an understanding of scientific inquiry and inquiry-oriented science teaching, including three essential features: questioning and predicting, explaining using evidence, and communicating and justifying your findings

-          Learning to anticipate and address students' ideas, including their prior knowledge and alternative (non-scientific) ideas

-          Developing the ability to critique and adapt curriculum materials so they are more inquiry-oriented

The preservice teachers in the elementary science methods course studied here were representative of the population of elementary teachers in the U.S. – most were female and most were Caucasian.  All were traditional fourth-year seniors (about 21 years old) in their final year of college. The first author was a teaching apprentice and the first author the instructor of one of the three sections of the course.

Interviews (see Appendix A) with each of the four participants were conducted at the end of the methods course soon after the start of their student teaching.  These interviews were designed to elucidate their perspectives on the task of critique and adaptation and explore the ways in which they approached it in the context of socioscientific issues.  During the interviews, the preservice teachers evaluated an inquiry-based lesson plan (see Appendix B) dealing with the effect of pesticides on simple food chains. This lesson was positioned within an ecosystems unit and built upon earlier lessons dealing with trophic interactions and ecosystems dynamics.  The preservice teachers also responded to a hypothetical scenario (see Appendix C) which was written to illustrate differing ideas students might possess and contribute to classroom discourse upon completion of the lesson.  In this scenario, the participants were confronted with both conceptual and normative issues that could reasonably arise in authentic elementary classroom discourse about the ecological impact of pesticide use. 

Additional data sources from the methods course included student coursework, journals, and online discussion threads.  In particular, the preservice teachers completed a number of course assignments during the semester which emphasized critiquing and modifying science lessons.  A summary of these assignments is presented here – for a more detailed description, see Davis (in press).  In the first and last critique assignments, completed at the beginning (Assignment #1) and end (Assignment #5) of the semester, the preservice teachers responded to a series of questions regarding the same lesson in which they were asked to reflect upon their initial reactions to the lesson they were given, describe specific change they would make, and provide justifications for each.  Both assignments were completed individually, assignment #1 as homework outside of class and assignment #2 during the last class session. In addition to these pre-/post- tasks, the participants completed three similar assignments during the semester involving different lessons and in which they used specific criteria related to inquiry and elements of best practice. Assignment #2A was completed individually in the middle of the semester. Each preservice teacher identified three criteria she would use for critiquing instructional materials, were asked to apply these to a lesson plan they were provided.  Each of the class members contributed one of their criteria to a public list, which was used in Assignment #2B. For this critique task, the preservice teachers worked in pairs, selecting three of the criteria from the public class list and applied them to the same lesson plan used in Assignment #2A. From this initial class list, six criteria were identified by the instructor and utilized for the remainder of the course.  In Assignments #3 and #4, the preservice teachers worked in pairs and used one or more of the 6 class criteria, critiquing a commonly-used, commercial-available science lesson in Assignment #3 and their own lesson in Assignment #4. In each Assignments #2A, #2B, #3, and #4 they identified aspects of the lesson plan that met and did not meet the criterion and suggested changes that they would make to better meet the criterion. See Davis (in press) for a more detailed description of these specific tasks. 

Analysis involved an iterative process of coding, reduction, displaying, and verification of data (Miles & Huberman, 1994).  The coding scheme (Appendix D) developed initially was organized around dominant criteria the preservice teachers used to critique and adapt curriculum materials over the course of the semester as related to aspects of scientific inquiry (effective use of questioning, evidence-based explanations, and communication and justifying findings) and the importance of students’ ideas.  To account for the preservice teachers’ informal reasoning about the ecological consequences of pesticide use, we drew upon Sadler & Zeidler's (2005a) coding scheme.  This framework contained codes for rationalistic, intuitive, and emotive patterns of reasoning, as well as various integrated patterns involving these three.  Rationalistic informal reasoning is characterized by reliance on logic and reason, whereas the two affectively-oriented informal reasoning patterns, emotive and intuitive, where characterized by general empathy and immediate responses to prompts, respectively. As coding of the data progressed, additional emergent codes were added.  These largely centered around topics related to teaching practice, especially as related to instructional goals, the use of instructional representations, student sense-making, and connections between learning experiences and students’ experiences outside of school.  Two codes teacher-oriented codes were also added related to subject-matter knowledge and identity.  Upon identification of significant themes in the interviews, these were triangulated through analysis of the numerous other data sources from the methods course. 

The objective of analysis was to situate the preservice teachers’ critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials dealing with socioscientific issues within a broader context of authentic curriculum design in which they had already been engaged throughout the previous semester.  As part of the analysis process, thematic coding maps and interim case summaries were constructed. As definitive patterns emerged, the data was reduced to isolate and illustrate key factors - this process continued until dominant themes had been refined and substantiated. While the small sample size and descriptive nature of this study limit the degree to which results can be generalized, this effort could serve as the first phase of a two-step, multi-method approach in which quantitative analyses play a potentially confirmatory role (Chi, 1997).



In addressing the first research question, how do preservice elementary teachers critique and adapt science curriculum materials, particularly in respect to socioscientific issues?, five dominant themes became apparent.  These are each presented in the sections that follow and are supported with qualitative data from interviews and coursework, but are briefly summarized here. Each of the four preservice teachers cited the evaluation, critique, and adaptation of curriculum materials as an important dimension of practice and described their continued engagement in it as they transitioned from the methods classroom to their student teaching experience.  In their efforts to scaffold students’ sense-making about pesticide use and its potential impact on ecosystems, the preservice teachers emphasized five specific aspects of practice.  First, they recognized opportunities in the lesson for student discussion and the consideration of multiple student viewpoints about socioscientific issues and viewed it as an opportunity to promote meaningful classroom discourse.   Second, they also recognized the importance of standards and objectives in science curriculum materials and sought coherence between learning goals targeting science content and the ethical dimensions of their relationship to human activity.  Third, they acknowledged the importance of students making connections between instructional representations and science concepts.  Fourth, they accounted for students’ prior knowledge and alternative ideas about socioscientific issues.  Fifth, they acknowledged the relevance of socioscientific issues to students’ lives and sought to make this link explicit in their critique and adaptation.  For reporting of the results, pseudonyms have been used for each teacher. 

Classroom discourse and accounting for multiple perspectives


The four preservice elementary teachers recognized opportunities in the lesson for student discussion and the consideration of multiple viewpoints about socioscientific issues, in this case the potentially harmful effects of pesticides on ecosystems.  However, while this was consistent across the four teachers, the particular ways in which they sought to account for differing ideas varied.  The lesson modifications they proposed represented a wide variety of potential pedagogical approaches that they could employ to promote the kind of inquiry-oriented classroom culture in which discourse is valued.  For example, in response to the students’ comments in the scenario, Lina suggested supporting classroom discussion by scaffolding students’ understanding of the complexities of the issue by co-constructing a chart in which students addressed “pros and cons or something like that where they see that, you know even though there are some positives to it that overall it has a damaging effect” (Lina, interview, 2.10.05). The use of student journals was also emphasized by two of the teachers. Kelly proposed journaling as a way to help individual students consider and make sense of conflicting viewpoints, not only to support their developing understanding of the issues addressed in the lesson but also to inform her teaching.

The other thing is I could write both of these ideas up on the board and have each student responds to one or the other, not both, in a journal or in a writing, some kind of writing example and then, as a teacher, I would have time to read the responses (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05)


Lauren also suggested the use of student journals in her initial critique of the lesson, though emphasized their use as a form of collective meaning-making and discourse rather than as simply a vehicle for individual reflection.

…after journals like you have like sharing time where some of them share… I also collect them to see what everyone said but I think it’s also cool if maybe you have some other students share their journal entries and then have other kids, like they're allowed to make like so many comments on them.  Like we can have three kids’ comments on this journal entry or like after they say something, you know like, you know if you agree they do some sort of hand motion or something with what they're saying or … and if you disagree why.  I think if you add comments they'd do their journal entry, to actually like then bring them altogether with them … and discuss it a little.  (Lauren, interview, 1.26.05)


In most cases, the four preservice teachers sought to emphasize the public and interactive nature of classroom discourse around the effect of pesticides on ecosystems though, similar to Sadler’s (in press) findings with preservice secondary science teachers, largely towards the goal of promoting students’ conceptual understanding rather than as an objective onto itself.  One approach, suggested by Amy and Lauren, was to engage students in a more structured, debate-like form of discussion.  Amy, who elaborated on a recent student teaching experience with student debate in social studies, valued this pedagogical approach not only as a means for students to be exposed to multiple perspectives on a topic but also as a way for them to assume roles and communicate their thinking, noting “it’s important that they have perspective from as many sides as possible.  So to just kind of explain this is not as effective….It’s important that they, that they are able to convey their ideas and argue with each other” (Amy, interview, 2.9.05).  Amy’s response, in contrast to other three preservice teachers, illustrates an awareness of the ‘many-sidedness’ of socioscientific issues (Sadler et al, in press), avoiding a dualistic oversimplification of possible perspectives. In response to the scenario, however, she abandoned this approach for more traditional, teacher-centered instruction.  Lauren, on the other hand, viewed the students’ response as an affordance of authentic classroom activity that enhanced the culture of scientific inquiry she sought to promote.

To be honest like I think its kind of cool that they, that both these sides came up in this in a way …because it, then you could get up the whole idea of like well there's trade offs for everything, especially stuff affecting the environment.  I don't know if I would change it because I almost feel like it actually leads into it pretty well…it shows you that like the kids are really thinking about it…it’s like a problem but like a good problem … like a good teaching problem in a way.  Maybe once I'm teaching more I will, will see it more, like troublesome, I don't know. (Lauren, interview, 1.26.05)


It is clear that the scenario effectively altered her approach to the task of adapting the lesson. In her initial critique of the lesson, she had not accounted for the multiple perspectives and solutions that usually characterize open-ended, ill-structured, and inherently debatable socioscientific issues (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005). In response to the students’ ideas presented in the scenario, Lauren continued her emphasis on journaling but, acknowledging the value of active discourse around such issues, also now proposed having them account for multiple perspectives in their journal responses, initially through a debate activity.  

I guess after a debate maybe would having them write in their journals again about both sides, you know saying what they said and what I said and ultimately what their, what, maybe what they came to an end after weighing everything and they have to like consider, but they have to address both sides as they're saying what they finally, you know think about the whole issue. (Lauren, interview, 1.26.05)


Whereas before she emphasized student communication in a general sense, afterwards she prioritized consideration of evidence as a crucial component of discourse and individual sense-making.  While journals remained an important tool to facilitate reflection and sense-making, the scenario presented in the interview altered the problem space such that Lauren recognized the value of collective discourse around the effect of pesticides use on ecological systems.  By recommending a debate activity and asking students to address multiple perspectives in formulating an independent conclusion, she was promoting more sophisticated explanation construction on the part of her students. 


Relating to life outside the classroom


In addition to promoting discourse about socioscientific issues, the preservice teachers acknowledged the relevance of socioscientific issues to students’ lives and sought to make this link explicit in their modification of the lesson.  Whereas many science concepts can be difficult to make accessible to students with references to their lived experiences, socioscientific issues are, by definition, directly relevant to life outside of the classroom.  However, attending to these issues in educational settings without acknowledging their inherent ethical and moral implications can actually serve to reinforce the disconnect that often exists for students between school science and their everyday lived experience (Sadler, Chambers, & Zeidler, 2002; Zeidler et al., 2002). All four of the teachers called upon common, everyday experiences with which students would likely be familiar in order to help them make sense of pesticide use and its effect on ecosystems.  For example, Kelly compared the additive effect of pesticide exposure to other common sources of human illness, saying “I mean relate it to the kids' life.  If we drink a teeny sip of spoiled milk we're not going to get sick but if we drink an entire glass of spoiled milk …we're going to get sick.  That kind of thing” (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05).  These types of references to students’ real-life experiences were common in the teachers’ critique and suggestions for adaptation.  Other research has shown (Davis, in press) that preservice elementary teachers emphasize science lessons’ relevance and application to real life in their critique and modification of them.  Yet, in this study, the degree to which individual preservice teachers’ emphasized this criterion differed between course assignments and the critique of the lesson dealing with pesticide use.  Consider Lauren as an example. She strongly prioritized the relation between classroom science and students’ experiences outside of school.  In her first journal entry for the course, she wrote, “I think that I can be very creative in the classroom and continually attempt to connect the learning to the students personal lives” (Journal entry, 9.8.04) and, in a journal entry ten days later, expressed her motivation to develop her capacity to plan for instruction in a way that accounts for this connection, in this case in respect to motivating questions.

I really hope to learn more about how to design strong lessons and units around driving questions in the months ahead.  I just hope that I can come up with questions that also will address the benchmarks and standards I am expected to meet for the grade level I am teaching.  Also, that the questions connect to my student's lives in an interesting and meaningful way. (Lauren, journal entry, 9.18.04)


Lauren was consistent in her emphasis on making real-world connections throughout the course.  Following her first science teaching experience in her placement classroom, she noted that she “…really liked how our investigation question connected to a real life scenario for the children as it related to their time in school” (Journal entry, 11.18.04l).  This emphasis continued in critique assignments from the science methods course, in which Lauren critiqued various science lessons in light of this criterion.  She sought to help students connect science concepts and knowledge to their lives in what she called a “meaningful and useful way” (Critique #1, 9.9.04), for example in explaining evaporation (Critique #1, 9.9.04) or air pressure (Critique #2, 10.17.04).  Yet, in during the interview after the methods course, in her critique of the pesticide use lesson, Lauren did not initially suggest any modifications related to this criterion.  After reading the scenario, though, she once again revisited the importance of making real-world connections.  She said:

I would probably like go into…like look at what would happen if those, I mean if you don't think those are important but then look how it would affect their lives in the long run.  I probably try to show them in a sense how everything is kind of important for like balance …in the world, I guess. (Lauren, interview, 1.26.05)


Amy, on the other hand, emphasized this criterion of making connections to the real-world far less during the course.  She did not account for the this relation to students’ lived experience at all until the final critique activity of the semester in which she noted the lesson she critiqued “has real world applications and it answers the question “so what?”.  Why does this matter to them?  That is critical!” (Amy, Critique #5, 12.14.04).  Despite the relative lack of emphasis in her coursework on applications to students’ experiences, Amy strongly emphasized it in her critique of the pesticide lesson.  For example, she saw this connection as a motivating context for introducing the lesson.

the motivation I would probably use is how many of you have to wash your fruit and vegetables before you eat them so that they knew, then they'll like oh well, you know my mom always says don't eat it before you, you know.  Well we're going to pretend that we are such and such and we're going to see what happens if we decide not to wash the fruit or to eat something that has eaten something that has not been washed or whatever…and what it is that actually makes us sick if we don't wash whatever. (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


Amy sought to insure students would understand the role of humans in ecological systems, stating “I think it’s important that they…eventually come to us as people because otherwise it doesn't have as much relevance for the kids” (Amy, Interview, 2.9.05).  However, she also sought to help students understand that damaging these systems is, then, ultimately detrimental to humans.  However, Amy felt that because humans were not included in the food web in the lesson, this was a detriment to her efforts to promote students’ understanding of the role human beings occupy in biological systems. 

I think because we weren't included in this activity, like us as humans…it really has no relation to us because, as the kid (student in the scenario) said, because we're more important.  I think if we had more involved in this and we could have seen the effects of pesticides on us which is something that probably should have been the goal um, I think something like that, and that comment might have been a little bit different … (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


In effect, Amy argued that the absence from humans in the model served to disconnect the concepts targeted in the lesson from their own lives such that students’ ideas as presented in the scenario were much more likely to persist. In order to relate the learning experience to their own experiences outside of school, and see the issue of pesticide use as relevant, Amy argued that the role of humans in this complex problem should be made explicit in the lesson. Despite Amy’s lack of emphasis on real-world connections in her coursework, she appears to value these connections in respect to this SSI-focused lesson.

Making connections between instructional representations and science content


In an effort to scaffold students’ sense-making about the science of the socioscientific issues, each of the preservice teachers also sought to help students make connections between the modeling activity and the concepts which the lesson explicitly sought to address.  Not surprisingly, given their preservice status on the professional teaching continuum (Feiman-Nemser, 2001), each of them suggested various approaches to providing a greater degree of structure to the activity, thus making it more teacher-directed.  Beyond that, however, their adaptations varied in respect to helping students make necessary conceptual connections between the role-playing activity and the potential effects of pesticides on trophic interactions.  For example, Amy, who had felt the absence of humans from the model served to make the activity less meaningful for students, suggested modifying the model to include humans.

… I would say humans, cows, you know grasshopper, plant or even just humans, cow, plant.  Because then it, then it directly affects us and we're a part of that…if we were directly involved, you know if some of the kids got to play humans then they could see the effect…that would make us a little bit vulnerable and in that case Alex would maybe be able to see how we're not so, you know immune to everything…It seems like he's putting us into just another category altogether.  And we're not.  We need to be, for the sake of this lesson, we need to be kept in the food chain. (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


To Amy, the student’s comment in the scenario suggested that he had not derived the relevance of this issue to humans from the modeling activity.  Like Amy, Kelly sought to modify the lesson in order to better help students make sense of the science concepts from the activity.  She was concerned that students would not be able to derive the differentiated effect of pesticides on different species, specifically based on their size. 

I think that the part that was confusing to, that would be very confusing is, if a grasshopper somehow consumed any non-yellow corn the grasshoppers die.  If a shrew has half or more food, why half or more and then if the hawk, the hawk would probably not die because the pesticide used.  I think the kids would say if it got any…non-yellow corn, well then it would die.  Like I don't think they would understand why the bigger animals required more …to be hurt.  I don't think they would come to that conclusion at all. (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05)


Instead of altering the tropic model itself, however, she sought to provide students with additional scaffolding to help them interpret it.

The kids would need, they would either need a chart saying that the hawk needs fifteen corn kernels to die or whatever it is.  But then they need to understand that animals relationships to one another too and so I would need to make sure that that was clear.  Whether it was just…three pictures of animals and just saying that this animal is so big and therefore it needs more harmful materials.  A little bit isn't going to hurt us.  (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05)


Because the role-playing activity was the primary learning experience around which the lesson was constructed, it is not surprising that the preservice teachers focused on modifying it according to the instructional objectives explicated in the lesson.  In each of the cases, they sought to adapt the activity in ways that reinforced science concepts related to trophic interactions and the transfer of harmful chemicals within them, such that rational decision-making about the use of pesticides would result from conceptual understanding of the science.

Accounting for students’ ideas and prior knowledge


The four teachers also sought to account for students’ prior knowledge and ideas about the topics addressed in the lesson.  Because this had been one of the three main emphases of the methods course, each of them had already had extensive experience critiquing and modifying instructional materials for science utilizing this criterion.   Additionally, the scenario they were presented with in the interview explicitly dealt with potential student responses to the lesson.  For the preservice teachers in this study, the hypothetical student’s comment was a strong indication that learning goals for the lesson had not been met.  For example, Amy said:

…then they didn't get it anyway.  I mean…okay the point of the lesson was for the kids to understand what pesticides do to the environment.  In order for that child, Alex, to have an understanding to not say something like that because he would understand that we're not the only thing that matters…I'm just like picturing in my mind the child not asking that question because we would have covered why that was not the case.  (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


Prior to encountering the scenario during the interview, Amy did not suggest any modifications to the lesson that might help her better account for ideas which students may bring with them to the learning context.  The same was true for Lina who, however, in an earlier journal response from the course, had criticized hypothetical beginning elementary teachers for doing similarly., writing “…it is apparent that [this fictional beginning teacher] does not plan for mishaps.  Planning without taking into account students' questions and misunderstandings causes ineffective teaching, which in turn causes ineffective learning” (Lina, journal entry, 9.24.05).  In the same entry, Lina also critiqued her own efforts at planning for instruction and recognized the importance of accounting for students’ ideas in this process. 

In the past, I have had trouble with creating lessons that are too complicated or that require too much time.  But I have learned from my mistakes.  I must be able to predict students' ideas and create lessons around them, not despite them. (Lina, journal entry, 9.24.05)


During the critique of the lesson in the interview, Lina’s primary suggested modification was to more heavily emphasize the food chain itself prior to the lesson so that students would be better prepared to understand the ways in which pesticides might affect it.  After accounting for the student’s ideas in the scenario, however, Lina attributed it to not meeting the learning goal for the lesson and suggested that these ideas could not have come from the lesson itself.

I don't really see that coming from the lesson um, because a lot of it is how pesticides are damaging and, and that's such a negative thing.  I don't see him seeing it as a positive.  So maybe it comes from, you know somewhere else.  I don't know.  I was talking about was like discussing the food chain and how its such an important thing and I think really its emphasizing the fact that, you know one animal relies on another animal who relies on another animal …you know and I think emphasizing that importance of the food chain maybe would have been um, a benefit to him seeing that, you know damaging the food chain could damage, you know it'd be like, you know chain reaction.  It would be you know damaging to other species as well.  (Lina, interview, 2.10.05)


In the end, Lina’s approach to the task of lesson adaptation did not appear to fundamentally change based on her exposure to this hypothetical scenario in which students retained ideas about socioscientific issues that conflicted with the explicit learning goal as well as the teachers’ more tacit personal objectives.  However, she did acknowledge the inherent difficulty of this task when asked about other potential changes she would make.

I don't know.  I mean its, its so hard…to predict that students are going to say those things so …you know as much as I'd like to say I'd prepared, you know that I would, you know try to prepare the class in order to avoid something like this its hard to say.  Like if they're, you're always going to have situations come up where, you know you wished you would have addressed that earlier in your lesson or something like but I think then you just take that opportunity to address it then and, you know make it known to the class that, you know it either isn't right or, you know it’s a good point but its, you know not necessarily true or something like that um I think is the best way to go about it. (Lina, interview, 2.10.05)


In summary, Lina recognized – and in fact emphasized – the importance of accounting for students ideas in practice.  She was unable, however, to do so effectively in the context of the interview.

Like Lina, Kelly acknowledged the importance of accounting for students’ ideas in her coursework, writing for example, “it is essential that a teacher takes student misconceptions into account before, during, and after teaching a lesson…it is important for the teacher to have ample time to review the student ideas. This will better equip him/her to respond to their misconceptions” (Kelly, Critique #5, 12.14.04).  Unlike Lina, though, Kelly emphasized this aspect of practice immediately in her critique of the lesson and suggestions for modification during the interview. 

I think it would definitely be a good idea to collect the students' opinions and ideas before you started.  If it’s a case of you all, well they write down what they know, what they want to know and what they learned or if it’s just a simple journal entry asking them what the effects of pesticides are or what are pesticides or um, how do pesticides affect the food chain, something like that where you can collect their opinions and their ideas before.  Um, and then refer back to them or if you just ask the kids to, I've seen this, make predictions on sticky notes and then …pick them up and stick them on a predictions page and then draw a conclusion at the end and write around the sticky note and put it on the conclusion side.  Then you're having the kids kind of involve themselves and their ideas in the actual material of the lesson and as a teacher you're way better prepared to um, like respond to their misconceptions or, you know understandings.  Okay and know what's going to …that they're going to surprise you with.  (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05)


Rather than merely responding to students’ ideas about pesticide use, she viewed this as an affordance that she could harness in her practice to promote learning.  For Kelly, students’ ideas could serve to drive instruction – they were a means through which to actively engage students in, and be metacognitively aware of, their own learning.

Curricular coherence and the importance of learning goals


Finally, the preservice teachers in this study recognized the importance of standards and objectives in science curriculum materials and sought coherence between learning goals targeting socioscientific issues and inquiry-oriented activities in the lesson itself.  While each acknowledged the importance of objectives and learning goals, they also cited what they perceived to be an apparent disconnect between those stated in the lesson and those most prominently targeted by the student activities.  Amy, for example, said:

It’s frustrating for me because this lesson doesn't tell you what it’s teaching (laugh).  I don't feel like they're, like I told you, like the objective doesn't meet the end of the lesson so I don't know if they want us to learn about pesticides or they want us to learn about food chain or what.  (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


Whereas Lina, as discussed previously, suggested a heavier emphasis on the mechanics of food chains in her modification of the lesson, Amy sought to deemphasize it based on what she perceived to be a mismatch between that topic and the objective of the lesson.

…it talks all about well who's higher in the food chain and all of that…that's what would have been the objective in my lesson but that's not the objective.  Students want to show how pesticides and other environmental pollutants can natively impact a food chain but we see here its discussing what the food chain is, an order of a food chain so I think that I would probably cut this stuff out at the beginning.   I wouldn't talk about it.  I would talk about what a shrew, a hawk, a corn plant, a grasshopper are and where they are in the food chain for like a minute, just so they know.  (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


For Amy, this was a fundamental causal issue in the student’s responses in the scenario.  She suggested that students needed to know not only what food chains and broader ecological systems were, but also why they are important to humans.

I think that before, and like I said, I think I would, you know the lesson before this might touch on that a little bit and it wouldn't have to be this, you know elaborate activity …but just to kind of give them some information regarding the importance of the environment and what it does for us and how we get our food and if any of us are meat eaters and, you know well if we eat meat where does the cow come from.  If he didn't have his food then he couldn't yeah, yeah, yeah.  So it’s, I would be interested to know what the background information was and what [was] the student’s background.  Students seem to understand how a food chain operates.  That's it...but they also need to understand why the food chain's important.  So great, so we know how it works physically but who cares, but so what and I think that the kids need to know that and I think that if they did that Alex would have already made that connection and wouldn't have to ask a question like that.  Well wouldn't think like that.  (Amy, interview, 2.9.05)


Kelly had similar concerns as those of Amy’s but focused on the student response questions at the end of the lesson.

the last question is how can we stop these things from happening which is going back to like what, could bring in a whole new thing, like human interaction and like what we do as people that affects the ecosystems and environment and etc, but that doesn't, number one that's not laid out here in the objective.  But number two the kids aren't equipped, I don't think, through this lesson to answer those questions.  They don't know how the pesticides got in the corn like … the corn was just bad corn or corn with pesticides in it. (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05)


Kelly’s responses clearly show that she felt students needed more information to adequately make sense of the ways in which food chains operate, how chemicals would travel within them, and why they are potentially harmful to the various species involved.  This theme persisted in her critique of the lesson and how it addressed the specific health affects pesticides have on a given organism.  For example, she wondered what specific effects pesticides had on individual organisms, saying “once it consumed the pesticides, whether it consumed the corn or consumed the animal that consumed the corn…then what happens?”  (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05).  For students to understand how environmental pollutants can impact ecological systems, Kelly also emphasized that students must also understand their effects on individual species that constitute them.  In response to the scenario and the students’ comments, she sought to insure students had access to all the information they would need to adequately address the learning goal.

… so in order to, when you first said it, that the student said that we should stop using pesticides, my first reaction was we should really look into why pesticides are used and bring to the class.  So one of the first things I would say was go and look up pesticides and found out why we use pesticides and what we do.  As far as the one, the students who think that um, pesticides are, humans are more important and it doesn't matter what else is happening, I would really challenge those students to find out if humans need, I would say do we need, you know I might just say to him and to the other students, do we, if there are no animals or no other organisms on earth would be it be okay, do we need them at all?  Let’s look that up, let’s find out? (Kelly, interview, 1.27.05)


In order to develop a deeper understanding of the science concepts being targeted in the lesson, as well as the social implications of pesticide use, both Amy and Kelly sought to further reinforce the connection between the lesson’s emphasis on ecological systems and their importance for human beings.  However, as all the preservice teachers noted, the standards and learning objectives contained in the lesson prioritized the former, leaving it to the teacher him or herself to extend the lesson such that students could make connections to the latter.

Factors mediating critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials


In addressing the second research question, what factors mediate preservice elementary teachers’ critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials, particularly in respect to socioscientific issues?, three factors were especially important: the preservice teachers’ subject-matter knowledge, informal reasoning about socioscientific issues, and identity (especially in regard to value-neutral perspectives on teaching).

Subject-matter knowledge


The limitations of elementary teachers’ subject-matter knowledge is well-documented (Anderson & Mitchner, 1994).  Not surprisingly, the preservice teachers’ subject-matter knowledge appeared as a mediating influence on their critique and adaptation of curriculum materials in regard to socioscientific issues. This was particularly evident in their evaluation of the lesson plan dealing with the effects of pesticides in the food chain.  While their knowledge of energy transfer, food chains, and other fundamental ecological concepts was fairly strong, none of the teachers could clearly explicate what pesticides are or adequately address controversial aspects of their use.

During the semester of the methods course, three of the teachers cited their own subject matter knowledge as an area of concern, consistent with previous research which found that a majority of preservice elementary teachers feel their subject matter knowledge is weak (Rice & Roychoudhury, 2003). Amy, for example, worried that insufficient knowledge of science subject matter would serve to disadvantage her and her students, writing “I need to learn more about the subject itself.  I do not know enough regarding science to teach a classroom full of inquisitive and insightful students” (Amy, Journal Entry, 9.13.04). Lina looked to the course itself to help her develop a deeper understanding of science concepts, writing “I hope this class gives me the tools to inspire my students in this way.  I already have a great amount of enthusiasm for teaching science, but I feel as though I lack the knowledge in the area of science to teach scientific facts” (Lina, Journal Entry, 9.13.04).

            The concerns the preservice teachers had about their own conceptual understanding of science became apparent in the interviews when they were asked to critique and adapt the lesson dealing with the effect of pesticides on trophic interactions.  Amy, who had suggested modifying the food chain model used in the activity, was unable to identify some of the species represented in the model contained in the original lesson. Lina also struggled to identify the species in the food web model but, more importantly, was unable identify the reasons underlying pesticide and use. She said,

…you know, I don't even, I don't want to even pretend I know what pesticides do…they keep our crops healthier, whatever, I don't know.  Um, or they grow faster.  I have no idea what pesticides do exactly (Lina, Interview, 2.10.05)


Lauren, too, acknowledged her limited background knowledge about the issue of pesticide use but, in doing so, also recognized the opportunity it presented for her own learning.

I don't feel like very strongly in a way because I guess I just haven't thought about it much so. But if I was teaching it I would want to know more definitely. (Lauren, Interview, 1.26.05)


However, of the four teachers, Lauren was the only one who did not cite her subject matter knowledge as a concern during the methods semester.  In fact, she exuded a great deal of confidence in her past preparation in science, writing “I have taken many basic science courses throughout the past three years (i.e. biology, chemistry, weather, geological science, physics, genetics) and therefore do feel that I know a great deal about the various science subject matters” (Lauren, Journal Entry, 9.8.04).  Whereas the other three teachers cited inconsistencies between the lesson’s learning objectives and the lesson itself, and sought to help students relate the science to its socially-relevant dimensions, Lina’s critique and modifications centered around more strongly emphasizing the science, in this case the dynamics of energy transfer and trophic interactions in ecological systems.  Of the four teachers in this study, she possessed the least background knowledge about pesticides, their use, impacts on ecosystems, and implications for human health.  This resulted in her lesson critique, and subsequent modifications being focused primarily on those aspects that about which she did possess sufficient subject-matter knowledge.  Lauren, on the other hand, appeared to view her lack of background knowledge on the topic as an affordance. After acknowledging that she didn’t know a great deal about the use of pesticides and the potential effects they can have on ecological systems, Lauren suggested this as an opportunity for her to learn herself.



Informal reasoning about socioscientific issues


Drawing on Sadler and Zeidler’s (2005) framework for informal reasoning about socioscientific issues, analysis of the data suggests that while the preservice elementary teachers exhibited some emotive and intuitive reasoning about the issue of pesticide use, it was primarily rationalistic in nature. Emotive or intuitive reasoning was rare and, when they were apparent, had virtually no impact the teachers’ decision-making. The preservice teachers’ critiques of the lesson, and suggestions for adaptations, were heavily grounded in logic-oriented reasoning about the science content relevant to the lesson. In response to the scenario, an in their general approach to the critique and modification of the lesson, the preservice teachers relied primarily on more rationalistic reasoning patterns, supporting the findings of other research on students (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005).  In discussing the advantages and disadvantages of pesticide use, Lauren noted, “we couldn't probably completely stop using pesticides because sometimes there's certain insects like you need to kill off” (Interview, 1.26.05), an indication that she was aware of the complex nature of this particular socioscientific issue.  However, most of the rationalistic reasoning exhibited by the teachers centered around the relationship between humans and the environment, a fundamental concept which the student’s comment in the scenario was written to challenge.  Kelly’s response was indicative of this reasoning.

…the students who say, who said humans are better than everyone else needs to understand that humans need some of these other animals to survive.  I mean that they're part of our environment and our ecosystem and that humans and animals or organisms are not, are co-dependent, like they're not … totally unrelated.  (Kelly, Interview, 1.27.05)


Emotive reasoning patterns exhibited by the teachers were centered around general feelings of empathy for animals.  The emotive and intuitive reasoning patterns that were present were largely influenced by the preservice teachers’ appreciation for, and expectations of, elementary students.  Often their immediate, intuitive reactions were followed by references to young children’s developmental stage.  However, these instances of intuitive and emotive reasoning were few and far between.



Why did the teachers rely so little on affectively-oriented forms of reasoning?  Why was their rationalistic reasoning so centered around this one particular concept related to ecological relationships?  The data clearly indicate that the preservice teachers’ developing sense of identity as teachers proved particularly important. On one hand, they identified strongly with their role as enactors of standards, benchmarks, and objectives as manifested through the curriculum materials themselves.  While this perspective was consistent with their shared conception of science teaching as value-neutral, the participants also exhibited an awareness of the role their own values and beliefs play in negotiating socioscientific issues in the classroom. As evidenced in their informal reasoning patterns about the issue of pesticide use, the teachers viewed themselves primarily as value-neutral actors and enactors of standards and benchmarks.  For example, Amy said, “I've just been blatantly honest with them because I think that's the way to go.  You know censor my beliefs…I try to just give them the facts” (Amy, Interview, 2.9.05).  In order to wield factual content effectively, however, the teachers emphasized it as support for particular arguments they sought to help their students make.  Kelly, who proposed providing students with additional information relevant to the topic, perceives helping students make evidence-based claims an essential dimension of her role as a teacher.


I mean this brings in like other ethical issue because you can't really, I don't think that as the teacher you can stand up there and say you're right, humans are more important than anything else or you can stand up there as the teacher and say you're wrong …the birds are just as important as the humans.  Um, I think that obviously every student's entitled to their opinion but that we have to make sure as teachers that they're opinions are ground, not that their opinions are, but we have to make sure as teachers that we're providing them with all the information necessary.  I, from this lesson, have no proof that the kids know why…people use pesticides.  (Kelly, Interview, 1.27.05)


The preservice teachers acknowledged that in order for students to navigate the complex spaces of socioscientific issues, they would need access to all relevant information and that the teacher’s role was to support this process.  However, while this implies a value-neutral stance on their part, the teachers’ strong adherence to standards and benchmarks meant that certain knowledge and ways of knowing were being prioritized.  In response to a discussion about the teaching of evolution earlier in the semester, Amy discussed this dynamic.

In regards to this particular situation, there is an important thing (among others) that I have learned from class and from working in the field. When a situation arises such as this way, you can approach it by telling the students that there are various ways to think about the question, "Where did we come from?" Scientists believe... and others believe... You can remind students that there may not be one way to think about where we came from, but that you are going to focus this particular unit/lesson on what some scientists believe. This way, you are not telling students what you believe; you are simply giving them one view that may or may not be your own. I know this sounds basic and amateur, yet I believe that by approaching it in this way, especially with younger children, you are offering one point of view the one that they probably should be learning in school. (Amy, Discussion thread, 11.14.04)


It is clear that Amy is prioritizing certain explanations, in this case those that pervade in science.  Similarly, when asked if her own beliefs influence her practice, Kelly reinforced the salience of science standards in defining her own perception of herself as a teacher.

I think that it’s our job to, it’s my job to try to … I think they influence the way I look at this, the way I, you know respond to it but I think that its my job to try to say that I have to really go according to the standards and the benchmarks of my district or state or whatever it is and teach it as straightforward as I can, as accept the kids’ ideas and I, I don't think that I personally would judge the students …I mean that I could judge the material or the lesson um, but I've already encountered things where kids say stuff that they really belief and I just don’t. Maybe because they're in third grade and I'm not … or maybe just because that's their belief and that's not mine but that's okay I think.  (Kelly, Interview, 1.27.05)


Given the teachers’ developing sense of identity, their reliance on more rationalistic forms of reasoning about the use of pesticides and their effect on ecological systems is more easily understood.  Both Kelly and Amy reference the lesson’s standards-based learning objectives as a primary constraint of their practice, including modification of the lesson.  While Kelly appears more willing than Amy to acknowledge diverse student ideas and leverage them towards productive pedagogical ends, these objectives are a strong referent for both of them in respect to the form of practice in which they envision themselves engaging. 



The purpose of this pilot study was twofold: to both characterize preservice elementary teachers’ critiques and adaptation of science curriculum materials that explicitly address socioscientific issues and to identify salient factors that serve to mediate this process.  In summary, five dominant features were evident in these four teachers’ interactions with the particular lesson referenced in the interviews.  The preservice teachers sought to draw upon students’ existing ideas about socioscientific issues and make the link between the lesson and students’ lived experience explicit.  They acknowledged the importance of students making connections between instructional representations and science concepts and specifically targeted learning objectives in the lesson.  They also viewed such learning experiences as a valuable context in which to promote student discourse about science concepts and the normative questions raised in the lesson.  Additionally, three factors were identified as particularly significant in mediating this process: the teachers’ subject-matter knowledge, their informal reasoning about the issue of pesticide use, and their own self-image in the role of teacher. 

The elementary science methods course emphasized three main goals: teachers developing a deeper understanding of scientific inquiry, developing their capacity for principled critique and adaptation of existing science curriculum materials, and accounting for students’ ideas in practice. The four preservice teachers in this study viewed these kinds of interactions with instructional materials to be a valuable and necessary dimension of authentic teaching practice.  In order to respond to the unique characteristics of a given classroom setting, and in an effort to maximize individual strengths while minimizing their self-perceived weaknesses, the preservice teachers viewed existing curriculum materials for science as pliable documents that often required modification and adaptation.  The criteria that they emphasized in their critique and modification of the lesson reinforce the findings of previous research (Davis, in press) and are consistent with those emphasized in the preservice teachers’ methods coursework.  They recognized the value of addressing multiple perspectives relevant to the issue of pesticide use and its effect on ecological systems and suggested a variety of pedagogical methods, including reflective journals and debates, to help students account for them.  Their efforts at modifying the lesson during the interviews, both prior and in response to the scenario, were heavily influenced by their attunement to affordances and constraints (Greeno et al., 1998) provided by the learning objectives and standards cited in the lesson itself.  Many of the changes they suggested in respect to students’ ideas, the modeling activity in the lesson, and the applicability of the topic to students’ everyday experiences, were in large part derived within the problem space as bounded by these goals for student learning.  Attentiveness to the needs of learners actually assists preservice elementary teachers to use content representations more effectively (Zembaul-Saul, Blumenfeld, & Krajcik, 2000).

Preservice teachers must, therefore, not only learn to recognize the importance of students’ ideas but also develop the capacity to address them in the context of a particular science learning content and context – a crucial characteristic of PCK (Magnusson, Krajcik, & Borko, 1999).  Each of the teachers recognized the value of accounting for students’ ideas in their practice though they varied in the degree to which they were able to articulate effective strategies for doing so in the context of this lesson and scenario. Additionally, while the four teachers rarely referenced inquiry-oriented teaching and learning directly, elements of inquiry which had been emphasized in the methods course - questioning and predicting, making evidence-based explanations, and communicating and justifying findings - were often evident in their critique, suggestions for modification, and general talk about practice.  In respect to this lesson and the scenario, the latter two elements were particularly prevalent and served an important role in supporting students’ sense-making about science content as well as the their consideration of multiple perspectives on the use and potentially harmful ecological effects of pesticides.  In effect, the dimensions of practice emphasized in the science methods course for purposes of promoting students’ conceptual understanding remained valuable tools for the preservice teachers as they navigated the rocky terrain of related socioscientific issues. 

Just as subject-matter knowledge is an important mediating factor in students’ decision-making about socioscienfic issues (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b), so too is it relevant for teachers’ interactions with curriculum materials in which they are addressed. The teachers struggled with content related to species represented in the lesson’s model and basic understandings of issues related to pesticide use.  For Lina, in particular, insufficient subject matter knowledge proved a significant constraint in her efforts to adapt the lesson, both in general and in response to the scenario.  In contrast, Lauren, who also acknowledged her limited background knowledge in respect to this particular topic, viewed the task as an opportunity to advance her own understanding.  During their semester in the methods course, both teachers discussed their subject-matter preparation.  Whereas Lina has less science content coursework and seemed to struggle to self-efficacy related to her subject matter knowledge, Lauren was a science minor and exhibited a high degree of confidence in her subject matter knowledge and capacity to call upon it in her science teaching.  It is possible that the teachers’ treatment of socioscientific issues, as well as their critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials addressing them, is not mediated merely by their subject matter per se – rather, feelings of self-efficacy related to their science subject-matter preparation may play an important role as well (Rice & Roychoudhury, 2003).

Consistent with the results of others research involving undergraduate college students (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005a), the four preservice teachers’ talk about the ecological consequences of pesticide use was dominated by logic-based, rationalistic patterns of informal reasoning.  Even when emotive and/or intuitive responses were given, they were quickly reasoned away with references to elementary students’ development or the science content in the lesson and had no observable effect on the decisions teachers made about alterations to the lesson or other elements of practice.  Because they perceived their role as teacher largely to involve ‘just teaching the facts’, the majority of their reasoning about socioscientific issues relevant to teaching practice reflected a similar commitment to this principled and technical professionalism.  In effect, they were describing a value-neutral approach to practice, a trend echoed in other recent work with middle and secondary science teachers (Sadler et al., in press).  While no human endeavor can ever be truly value-free, this conception of practice and the nature of teaching was influential to the preservice teachers and their orientations toward the role of teacher.  They acknowledged the important role their own values and beliefs played in helping students negotiate these issues in the classroom but sought to minimize their effect. 

Implied in this discussion is a subtle assertion that decision-making about socioscientific issues is inherently value-laden and therefore incompatible, at least in part, with the epistemology of science.  As noted by Sadler and Zeidler (2005a), this presents practitioners with a unique problem. What room is there in school science for other, non-empirical forms of knowledge construction?  Of course, Kuhn (1962) himself argued that scientific progress is marked not by closer theoretical approximations of universal truths but rather the development an increasingly sophisticated set of tools for puzzle-solving, as well as more specialized and defined forms of practice.  In effect, knowledge is constructed in practical social activity in which participants interact with each other and their material environments and that is shaped by their shared norms, standards, and expectations (Engestrom, 1987; Greeno et al., 1998).

The four preservice teachers studied here were aware of both explicit and implicit norms of professional teaching and sought to craft their own practice in light of them.  The fundamental question is likely not whether considerations of socioscientific issues and scientific practice involve different ways of knowing but rather why, and in what contexts and settings, and to whose benefit they are characterized as distinct and one is afforded priority over the other. The primary aims of schooling, particularly related to science education, are not the same as those of scientific practice. If the calls for scientific literacy and ‘science for all’ to be taken seriously, then science education must, at its core, be concerned with the preparation of citizens capable of effective democratic participation in a science and technology-rich world.  What is required is a formulation of science literacy that is concerned with students’ ability to wield science as participation in activities and activity settings where its use is meaningful, relevant, and necessary (McGinn & Roth, 1999).  In order to achieve this goal, students must have the opportunity to engage with socioscientific issues in authentic ways in science classrooms.  It is therefore essential that teachers not only have the resources and supports necessary to support students in such learning activities, but also be supported to develop a teaching identity in which such science teaching practice is valued.

This research has important implications for both science teacher educators and science curriculum developers.  The results of this study support the need for educative curriculum materials (Davis & Krajcik, 2005; Schneider & Krajcik, 2002) in supporting new teachers. Given their well-documented aversion to science teaching and limited subject-matter preparation, beginning elementary teachers, in particular, can benefit from additional subject matter supports.  Additionally, as Magnusson and colleagues argued (1999), it is impossible for preservice teachers to develop robust PCK for all topics they might encounter in practice prior to completion of their formal teacher preparation.  Rather, PCK development is an ongoing process of learning through practice which can be supported through educative features of curriculum materials they use.  Interestingly, however, the How Pesticides Can Affect an Ecosystem lesson utilized in this study is part of an innovative, standards-based, inquiry-oriented science curriculum designed specifically for beginning elementary teachers. They include many features designed to be educative for teachers, including relevant science subject matter, potential students’ ideas and suggestions for addressing them, supports for lesson adaptation, and fictional narratives that illustrate how other preservice and early-career elementary teachers used them.  Despite this, the preservice teachers struggled with content relevant to the lesson, suggesting that they either did not utilize this particular curricular feature or, if they did, found it insufficient to meet the subject matter demands of the lesson.  In either case, educative elements in the lesson they were critiquing and adapting could have further facilitated the professional growth so critical at this early stage of their careers. Developers of educative curriculum materials must continue to investigate the ways in which teachers use curriculum materials so as to better inform their development (Remillard, 2005). 

The effective use of curriculum materials should also be a central dimension of professional teaching emphasized in science teacher education, as it was in the science methods course described here.  While the preservice teachers’ limited subject-matter knowledge influenced their critique and adaptation of the lesson, they valued these interactions and viewed them as authentic.  Drawing on their experiences in the course, they also accounted for important aspects of inquiry, emphasized student sense-making, and exhibited a child-centered, constructivist orientation toward practice in responding to hypothetical problems of practice illustrated here in the context of socioscientific issues.  Just as there exists a “false dichotomization of teaching for socioscientific decision-making and teaching for conceptual understanding” (Sadler et al., in press, pg. 21), so too may it be the case in science teacher education. 

This suggests that science teacher education experiences, including methods courses, that emphasizes a student-centered, inquiry-oriented approach to practice may go far in helping prospective elementary teachers develop a conceptual framework through which they can effectively address new content as it arises in practice (Zembaul-Saul, Blumenfeld, & Krajcik, 2000), including ethical aspects of socioscientific issues.  However, preservice teachers’ capacity to craft effective teaching practice in the context of socioscientific issues is only as powerful as their willingness to fully engage in the ethical and normative dimensions of such topics.  Doing so requires viewing such activity as a constituent component of the teacher’s explicit role. The significance of the preservice teachers’ conceptions of their role as teacher reinforces the importance of identity in teacher education (Bullough, Knowles, & Crow, 1992) and science teacher education (Appleton & Kindt, 2002; Eick & Reed, 2002; Enyedy et al., 2006).  It is imperative that we, as science teacher educators, not only assist preservice teachers in developing the skills necessary to effectively critique and adapt curriculum materials in light of student-centered, inquiry-oriented teaching practice, but also encourage the development of a functional role identity in which attentiveness to socioscientific issues is valued as a crucial aspect of authentic practice within the complex, value-laden milieu of science classrooms.


This work contributes to the growing body of literature regarding socioscientific issues in science education and the dynamic interactions between teachers and curriculum, particularly in respect to their critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials. Of course, there remains a great deal of research yet to do. While this work focused on preservice elementary teachers’ critique and adaptation of science curriculum materials dealing with socioscientific issues, it would be useful to undertake similar work with practicing elementary teachers, both new and experienced, as well as secondary science teachers across specific science subject matter areas.  Also, there is a need to understand how teachers interact with curriculum materials in real-time in authentic classroom settings where social activity and discourse around socioscientific issues is not merely hypothetical.  How is the increasingly prevalent use of standards and benchmarks in science education, and science teacher education serving to shape the ways in which preservice teachers see themselves as practitioners?  How can we support preservice and early career teachers as they balance the demands of standards-based teaching with the value-laden dimensions of practice inherent to socioscientific issues?  It is in seeking to address questions like these that we take another step towards the education of a scientifically-literate citizenry.



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Appendix A


Interview Protocol

Reference Lesson Plan

1.            Describe what you do when you come across a new science lesson for the first time.  How do you decide if you’ll use it and, if so, how you’ll use it? 

2.            What do you think about modifying science lessons?  When you do change lessons before teaching them, how do you go about it?

3.            Have you ever developed a science lesson from scratch and then taught it?  If so, describe the lesson and how you went about doing this.

4.            What are your initial thoughts on this lesson?

5.            How does this lesson compare to science lessons you taught or observed being taught during your field experiences and/or student teaching?

6.            What are some aspects of it you like? 

7.            What are some aspects of it you like less? 

8.            What are some management concerns you’d have with this lesson?

9.            How does the lesson meet or not meet each of the following criteria?  Recall the criteria we used in class for critiquing lessons.

    1. Questioning and predicting
    2. Making explanations using evidence
    3. Communicating and justifying findings
    4. Anticipating and dealing with students’ ideas

10.        What might you change about the lesson and why?  How would you rate the relative importance of the changes you suggested?

Read scenario

11.        What is your immediate personal response to Alex’s comments?

12.        Do you believe humans are more important than other forms of life?  Explain.

13.        Do you think environmental issues are important?  Why or why not?

14.        Do you think morals or ethics should play a role in how we address environmental issues? Why or why not?

15.        What do you want your students to understand about environmental issues?  Why?

16.        Why do you think environmental issues are so controversial?

17.        How would you respond to Alex’s comment and wrap-up the lesson?

18.        Does this scenario change your initial opinion of the lesson?

19.        Do you think your own beliefs and values affect how you would teach this lesson?  How?

20.        How might your critique of the lesson change based on the scenario?


Appendix B


Interview Lesson - How Pesticides can Affect an Ecosystem (a 3-5 Ecosystems lesson plan)

From the unit: How do things live in my neighborhood?



Students simulate the flow of energy through a food chain by acting as grasshoppers, shrews, or hawks and "eating" corn sprayed with pesticides.

Standards and Benchmarks

AAAS Benchmarks

  • Changes in an organism's habitat are sometimes beneficial to it and sometimes harmful.


Students will understand how pesticides and other environmental pollutants can negatively impact a food chain.

Class Time Needed

One forty-five minute period

Teacher Preparation

  1. The teacher needs to secure an area (preferably the playground or other large outside area) for the activity.
  2. The teacher needs to obtain pictures of corn (or draw and color these).

Student Background

Students need to understand how a food chain operates.


  • 50-100 Pictures of corn (2/3 yellow, 1/3 another color)
  • Identity cards for each student (1-2 hawks, 3-4 shrews, 9-18 grasshoppers)
  • One paper bag per student

Student Background

Students need to understand how a food chain operates.

Science Background

Human Ecology
Human ecology focuses on the relationship between humans and the environment. Humans can affect the environment in a number of ways including poor farming practices, pollution, and urbanization.

There are many elements that may affect the flow of a food chain. First, any sort of natural disaster can take homes away from animals or leave trees and plants to rot. This may cause less food for the animals to eat and less shelter. A man-made disaster such as an oil spill can wipe out a population of a species of animal and thus the food chain in that environment would not be complete.


  1. Ask students the following question: How would you make a food chain using a shrew, hawk, corn plant, and grasshopper? (The grasshopper eats the corn plant.)
  2. Once students have agreed on the food chain, divide the class into three categories: shrew, hawk, or grasshopper.
  3. Have students go to the playground. Scatter pictures of corn around this area (some yellow, some non-yellow).
  4. Give the "grasshoppers" 15 seconds to collect as much corn as they can in their "stomachs" (paper bags).
  5. After 15 seconds, have the "shrew" hunt the "grasshoppers." Each time the "shrew" tags the "grasshopper," the "grasshopper" needs to turn over their "stomachs."
  6. After another 15 seconds, have the "hawks" hunt the "shrews." Each time the "hawk" tags the "shrew," they must turn over their "stomachs." Whoever is tagged must sit down.
  7. Whoever is left alive will come to the front of the class and dump the contents of their "stomach" on the table. It will be divided into two categories - yellow and not yellow.
  8. Record these results on the board.
  9. Why should students collect evidence to answer questions?
    Collecting evidence
    • Engages students in working and thinking like scientists
    • Engages students in gathering the evidence needed to draw conclusions
    • Facilitates problem solving skills
    • Facilitates understanding of content
    • Facilitates inquiry abilities
  10. How can I help my students collect evidence?
    • Encourage students to actively participate in planning and designing investigations whenever possible
    • Have students develop a way to record the data they collect (data table, journal, etc.)
    • When possible, have students double-check their measurements and repeat experiments to verify the accuracy of their data.
    • Provide students access to as many resources as possible, including the Internet, books, magazines, etc.
    • Model how you expect students to gather and record their data
  11. Tell students that the non-yellow corn was sprayed with pesticides. Explain that pesticides help keep the plant alive - but may be harmful to animals.
  12. Explain the rules of the game:
    • If a grasshopper's "stomach" contained any non-yellow corn, that grasshopper is dead from pesticide poisoning.
    • Each shrew that has half or more of their food supply having non-yellow corn would also be considered dead
    • The hawk probably would not die because of this pesticide use, but a large accumulation of pesticide in the hawk's body may damage the reproductive system (the eggs may have shells that are too thin to survive)
  13. Ask students the following questions. Have them write their responses in their science journals:
    • Why did the grasshoppers who ate yellow corn die?
    • Why did the shrews who ate the grasshoppers die?
    • Why are the hawks in danger of getting sick from eating the shrews?
    • What are some other ways that humans can hurt an ecosystem?
    • How can we stop some of these things from happening?
  14. Facilitate a discussion around these questions. Some students may have heard of the destruction of the rainforest or large oil spills that affect the wildlife that live in bodies of water. Students should know that if something lower on the food chain (such as a grasshopper or fish) ingests something harmful then all of the consumers eat it have the potential of getting sick also.
  15. Why should students communicate and justify their findings?
    When students share their findings, they are participating in an important part of the scientific process.
    • Provides students with an opportunity to enhance and expand their ideas, grapple with the findings of their peers, and improve communication skills.
    • Provides other students with an opportunity to ask questions, examine evidence, identify faulty reasoning, and suggest alternative explanations.
    • When communicating and justifying findings, students should use the data they collect to answer a scientific question. You may also want to have students apply their knowledge to a new real world question or situation
  16. How can I help my students communicate and justify their findings?
    • Make sure students know that they will always be expected to share their findings with others: the teacher, classmates, younger students, the community, or other interested parties.
    • Develop guidelines for communicating findings so that students know what is expected of them. (this one is very similar to the next bullet point)
    • Explain to students that they will be expected to explain what they did during their investigations, why they did it that way, what they learned from it, and how their findings helped them to answer a question
    • Encourage students to ask themselves How do I know? about their conclusions to help them justify their findings and show how evidence from their investigations supports their conclusions.


Collect students' journals. Make sure they understand that if something lower on the food chain ingests something that is harful (like a pesticide), then the consumer that eats it may become sick also.

Images of Inquiry

How Autumn taught this lesson
After having her students answer the lesson's follow-up questions in their science journals, Autumn decided to facilitate a whole-class discussion about the students' responses. When she got to the last question, How can we stop some of these things from happening?, one of her students said that we should stop using pesticides because they're bad for animals and insects. Autumn asked the rest of the class what they thought about that and another student responded that it doesn't matter if humans hurt the ecosystem because we're more important than other living things. Some of the other students nodded their heads in agreement with the comment.

Autumn believes it is important for her students to understand the role of humans in the food chain. While our use of pesticides may harm other organisms, it can also harm human health. Autumn feels like this idea needs to be addressed before she concludes the unit. Since the students have constructed food webs in earlier lessons, she decided to do one final lesson where the students were asked to make food webs that include humans. With the students able to more easily observe humans' role in the food chain, she organized her class in to small groups and asked them to use available resources (see below) to investigate the pros and cons of pesticide use. Later, each group was asked to contribute their evidence to a class list that Autumn recorded on the board. Once each group's evidence had been added, the class debated the use of pesticides using this evidence.

Pros and Cons of Pesticide Use (Dr. Mohd. Isa Abdul Majid, National Poison Centre, University Sains Malaysia) (http://www.prn2.usm.my/mainsite/ bulletin/sun/1997/sun5.html)
Pros and Cons of Pesticide Use (http://wwwfac.mcdaniel.edu/Biology/ eh01/pesticides/pesticides1.html)

How Kirsten taught this lesson
This year was the first year that Kirsten had taught the CASES Ecosystems unit and she was very positive about how it had gone so far. In planning for this final lesson, she decided she would use a set of multicolored beads that she already had in her room instead of pictures of corn. She thought her students might have an easier time seeing these as a 'food resource' than pieces of paper when they participated in the food web modeling activity.

Once Kirsten had brought her students back to the classroom, it became obvious that many of them were having difficulty understanding that the beads represented food. One student asked Kirsten why insects and animals would collect beads while other students thought the organisms in the activity were eating candy. Because of her choice to use beads in the activity, she had to spend a lot of time helping students to understand how the model was like real life and how it was different.

While Kirsten felt like her students understood this concept after the lesson, she also knew that her decision to use the beads may not have been the best and that there had to be a better way to represent food. She recognized that her students would have a difficult time learning the concepts if she didn't help them make better sense of the model, even if it required additional instruction. She committed herself to thinking about it and doing something different before teaching the lesson again next year.

Teacher Bios

Who are the (fictional) teachers depicted in the Images of Inquiry?

Autumn is a third-year 5th-grade teacher. She is very positive about teaching science and wants her students to be well-prepared to deal with science-related issues in their real lives, something she considers very important. Through one of her undergraduate science courses, Autumn had the opportunity to work on a water-quality study for one of her professors. She now volunteers doing outreach for a conservation organization in her community. However, while Autumn feels comfortable with her ability to help her kids understand science concepts, she also wants to learn how to better help them understand and make decisions about science in society as well as improve her subject matter knowledge.

Kirsten is a first-year 3rd-grade teacher who understands that models are important in science. During her student teaching, she was concerned that students were often confused by models they experienced in the classroom and had a hard time making connections between them and science concepts. She wants to learn how to more effectively use models in her own classroom in a way that maximizes student learning.

Appendix C


Interview Scenario

After having your students answer the lesson’s follow-up questions in their science journals, you decide to facilitate a whole-class discussion about the students’ responses.  When you get to the last question, How can we stop some of these things from happening?, Jeff says that we should stop using pesticides because they’re bad for animals and insects.  You ask the rest of the class what they think about that and another student, Alex, says that it doesn’t matter if humans hurt the ecosystem because we’re more important than other living things.  Some of the other students nod their heads in agreement with the comment.  How do you address this?


Appendix D


Coding Key



Class Criteria


Use of engaging and challenging questions

Students’ Ideas

Acknowledging and accounting for students’ ideas

Evidence-based Explanations

Collecting evidence and using this evidence to construct explanations about objects, organisms, and/or events in the natural world.

Communicating & Justifying Findings

Communicating understandings of the objects, organisms, and/or events in the natural world to others.

Emergent Criteria


Assessment of students' understanding.

Inquiry & Investigations

Student engagement in scientific inquiry.

Real World Applications

Making connections to real world examples of the scientific ideas.

Instructional Representations

Represents the science content in scientifically accurate ways, and will not promote alternative ideas.

Instructional Goals

Worthwhile science learning goals for learning science concepts and scientific inquiry.

Student Ownership and Engagement

Engages students in science learning that is meaningful and engaging to them.

Teacher's Subject-matter Knowledge

Teacher’s knowledge of science subject-matter

Teacher’s Identity

Teacher’s dispositions, interests, sense of efficacy, locus of control, and orientations toward teaching practice.


Other response not captured in above categories.

Informal Reasoning


Sole reliance on reason and logic.


Empathy, caring, and/or sympathy, especially towards others


Personal reactions or immediate feelings.