A course focused on restructuring science activities: Structure, activities and evidence of success.

Introduction

Learning and effective teaching are both highly complex acts (Good and Brophy, 1994; Jackson, 1990, MacKay and Marland, 1978). Leinhardt and Greeno (1986, p. 75) write that, “the task of teaching occurs in a relatively ill-structured, dynamic environment.” Classroom conditions change in unpredictable ways and information arises during the act of teaching that by necessity must inform performance as it occurs.

The capacious and enduring research-practice gap in teaching reflects complex tensions and dilemmas (Anderson, 2002; Windschitl, 2002) within and between conceptual, pedagogical, cultural and political realms. However, this alone is an insufficient explanation as tensions and dilemmas exist in many fields where the disparity between research and practice is less pronounced. To make matters worse, oftentimes, the most vocal critics of education research are teachers themselves (Berliner, 1985). That large numbers of teachers don’t see the value of education research raises questions regarding what goes on in teacher education programs.

While teaching is complex, it is all the more so when effectively teaching science through inquiry. Teaching science through inquiry is more complex because through that approach students’ misconceptions and thinking spill out into the classroom. Ironically, this increased complexity sets the stage for promoting learning because in expressing their misconceptions and thinking, students are more mentally engaged and teachers begin to understand and thus can better respond to students’ misunderstandings.

This, in part, may explain the all too common practices of lecturing, textbook assignments, worksheets, and cookbook activities in science teaching. Each of these approaches severely constrains students’ input into a lesson and reduces the complexities in teaching. Prefabricated direct experience cookbook laboratory activities are enticing to both teachers and students because in making most all the conceptual decisions for students, complexity is significantly reduced.

What this means is that hands-on experiences, by themselves, are insufficient for helping students understand the scientific community’s explanation for natural phenomena. Pre-fabricated cookbook activities, so ubiquitous in science teaching, rarely engage students in ways necessary to facilitate such an understanding. As Bransford et al. (2000) write, “Hands-on experiments can be a powerful way to ground emergent knowledge, but they do not alone evoke the underlying conceptual understandings that aid generalization” (p. 22). Students must also be mentally engaged, and teaching science through inquiry demands that mental engagement.

Understandably, foremost in teachers’ minds is having something for students to do, preferably a task that students find interesting and will complete with little resistance (Appleton, 2006). The very real need to have something for students to do often interferes with teachers’ thinking about the goals they have for students and how people learn. Duschl and Gitomer (1997, p. 65) noted that teachers see teaching as “dominated by tasks and activities rather than conceptual structures and scientific reasoning.” While interesting and developmentally appropriate content, tasks, activities and materials spark students’ curiosity and set a stage for learning, what teachers do during a lesson is crucial. For example, Southerland et al. (2005), in a study of a third grade urban classroom, reported that:

…despite a school year of learning cycle-based lessons, conceptual discussions about the physical phenomena the students were exploring occurred only in the presence of an instructor probing them for explanations. …If the students were to make sense of this activity so that it bore a resemblance to a scientific understanding, then the teacher’s monitoring and shaping of ideas and observations became necessary. (pp. 1043-1044)

Effective teaching is a highly interactive activity, but teachers often have only vague ideas about how to create and maintain that kind of environment (Gallimore & Tharp, 1990). Too often teachers are provided foggy characterizations of their role in teaching through inquiry (e.g. “facilitator,” “guide at the side,” and “giving students opportunities to construct”). Such ambiguity obscures the importance of intricate teacher behaviors and decisions teachers use and must consider in shaping classroom experiences that promote desired science education goals.

Understanding the learner and promoting desired goals depends a great deal on how teachers interact with students (Shymansky & Penick, 1981; Tobin and Garnett, 1988; Weiss et al., 2003). Several research-based teacher behaviors implemented in concert are needed to establish meaningful interactive environments to help students make desired connections. The questions teachers ask, the wait-time I & II they provide, the non-verbal behaviors they exhibit, and how they respond to students’ ideas together have an enormous impact on the classroom environment, determining what students think, and helping students make desired connections (Clough, 2002 & 2003a, Southerland et al., 2005).

The enormous complexities of learning and effective teaching can easily overwhelm educators. Darling-Hammond (1996) writes that teachers and administrators have difficulty creating both learning-centered and learner-centered environments because in emphasizing subject matter content, they lose sight of students, and in emphasizing learners they lose sight of curriculum goals and the teacher’s critical role. Anderson (2002) reminds us that technical, political and cultural obstacles and dilemmas make the implementation of inquiry activities far more difficult than simply finding good activities and materials. Science teaching journals and other resources often give the mistaken impression that good activities alone are sufficient for effective teaching and learning. But even the best activities do not by themselves effectively teach students to reach the important goals we have for science education.

Teachers exert the greatest influence through the way in which they engage students in inquiry experiences. However, the overwhelming layered complexities of learning and teaching often cloud the value of important findings regarding the teacher’s role in creating powerful learning experiences for children. Teachers must deliberately create interactions with students that draw out students’ thinking. As students express their ideas and rationale for them, teachers must think of questions or experiences that will help students scaffold to desired understandings.

Focus of Proposed Session and Relevance to ASTE Membership

The overarching purpose of this proposed workshop is to assist science teacher educators in preparing preservice and inservice teachers to restructure common highly directive activities and readings so they mentally engage students. Towards that end, the workshop will:
1. Describe the structure, activities, readings and rationale of a “Restructuring Science Activities” course that I created fifteen years ago and have taught each summer since then at a large Midwest university;
2. Engage workshop participants in two inquiry activities, one that was modified from a previous cookbook science activity and one that was modified from text appearing in a science textbook.
3. Emphasize the crucial role of teacher questioning and other teacher behaviors that assist students in their decision-making and desired meaning-making.
4. Analyze a second inquiry activity that was modified from a previous cookbook science activity, and analyze a second inquiry activity that was modified from text appearing in a science textbook.
5. Provide evidence illustrating the effectiveness of the course for assisting science teachers’ efforts to teach science through and as inquiry;
6. Provide participants with the course syllabus, readings, activities, and my contact information for further information.

ASTE members will find this session interesting because it addresses a persistent and recalcitrant problem in science teaching and science teacher education — teaching science through and as inquiry.

Sequence and Duration of Activities

1. 15 min – Describe the structure, activities, readings and rationale for the Restructuring Science Activities course.

2. 30 min – Engage workshop participants in key aspects of the first inquiry activity that was modified from a cookbook laboratory activity. Analyze how the activity was modified from the original and the teacher questioning required to assist students in desired meaning-making.

3. 15 min – Present a second inquiry activity that was modified from a cookbook laboratory activity. Analyze how the activity was modified from the original and the teacher questioning required to assist students in desired meaning-making.

4. 30 min – Engage workshop participants in key aspects of an inquiry activity that was modified from a reading appearing in a science textbook. Analyze how the activity was modified and how it now assists students in comprehending the targeted concept and text appearing in the book.

5. 15 min – Present a second inquiry activity that was modified from a reading appearing in a science textbook. Analyze how the activity was modified and how it now assists students in comprehending the targeted concept and text appearing in the book.

6. 10 min – Present evidence of illustrating the effectiveness of the course. This will include a summary of research that has been conducted on former graduates of this program, and a handout with information regarding the manuscripts students in this course have published and the number of conference presentations they have made regarding effective teaching and learning.

7. 5 min – While discussion will be part of each of the above activities, the final 5 minutes will be devoted exclusively to questions and discussion.

Expertise of the Workshop Presenter

Dr. Michael Clough created and teaches the Restructuring Science Activities course. He has published numerous articles and book chapters addressing teaching science through inquiry, the following which is a sampling:

Clough, M. P. (2015). A Science Education that Promotes the Characteristics of Science and Scientists: Features of teaching. K-12 STEM Education, 1(3), 113-121.

Wilcox, J., Kruse, J. W. & Clough, M. P. (2015). Teaching Science Through Inquiry: Seven common myths about this time-honored approach. The Science Teacher, 82(6), 62-67.

Clough, M. P. (2015). A Science Education that Promotes the Characteristics of Science and Scientists: Features of content, activities and materials. K-12 STEM Education, 1(2), 65-73.

Clough, M. P., Berg, C. A. & Olson, J. K. (2009). Promoting Effective Science Teacher Education and Science Teaching: A Framework for Teacher Decision-Making. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 7(4), 821-847.

Lunetta, V. N., Hofstein, A. & Clough, M. P. (2007). Learning and Teaching in the School Science Laboratory: An Analysis of Research, Theory, and Practice. Chapter 15, in S.K. Abell & N.G. Lederman (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Science Education, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey. pp. 393-441.

Clough, M. P. & Clough, S. J. (2002). Chewing on Ideas: Engaging Students in Meaningful Learning About Digestion. The Science Teacher, 69(8), 12-14.

Clough, M. P. (2002). Using The Laboratory To Enhance Student Learning. Chapter 8 in R. W. Bybee (Ed.) Learning Science and the Science of Learning, 2002 NSTA Yearbook. National Science Teachers Association, Washington, D.C. pp. 85-94.

Clark, R. L., Clough, M. P. & Berg, C. A. (2000) Modifying Cookbook Labs: A Different Way of Teaching a Standard Laboratory Engages Students and Promotes Understanding. The Science Teacher, 67(7), 40-43.