Primary Teacher Knowledge of Science Concepts and Professional Development: Implications for a Case Study

Article excerpt

This article reports the results of an investigation into primary school teachers' confidence, knowledge of concepts and professional development preferences in relation to the teaching of science and technology. Teacher confidence and knowledge of scientific concepts was found to be lacking in this sample of teachers. Implications and general directions for professional development are discussed.

Introduction

The New South Wales Board of Studies released the current Science and Technology K--6 Syllabus in 1991. Primary school teachers in New South Wales have been using this document, and the later Science and Technology K--6 Outcomes and Indicators document (Board of Studies, 2000), to plan and teach science for a decade and a half. While some professional development was provided to support the syllabus and its implementation at the time of its release, this support has been minimal in comparison to that provided by the Ministry for the later English and Mathematics syllabi.

Professional development in science for primary school teachers in that time has been rather sporadic and uneven across schools systems. Resources and energy that have been put into professional development by some schools have relied somewhat on the enthusiasm of staff or principals who value its importance to the development of students as analytical and scientific thinkers and productive future employees. Indeed, it has been argued that good knowledge of science is important to the economic health of a nation (Rothapfel, 2004).

Given the resources and energy devoted to improving student literacy and numeracy in New South Wales since the mid-1990s, science has been a lesser priority (Board of Studies, 1996; de Laat & Watters, 1995). Information from teachers and system personnel indicates that professional development in science and technology has often been relegated to the activities of a dedicated few who constitute something of a fringe group in educational systems. Primary school teachers are, in the main, general practitioners by way of their training and their work in developing students' abilities across a number of key learning areas. Very few have specialised in a particular subject area in their teacher training due to the nature of primary education (Mulholland & Wallace, 2003; Newton & Newton, 2001). However, information elicited from a number of teachers in primary schools suggest that pre-service training in the key learning area of science may not have equipped them with enough knowledge to be confident about teaching scientific concepts. Knowledge of, or experience with, science concepts has been found to be related to higher self efficacy in science teaching for primary teachers (de Laat & Watters, 1995).

This article describes research conducted in one school. The aim of the study was to identify issues related to preparation, confidence and science content knowledge of primary school teachers. The article concludes with implications for professional development.

The study

The present study was conducted in a primary school in western Sydney, New South Wales. The school has a large, multicultural and diverse socioeconomic, population of about 600 students. There are 36 full-time teachers with ages ranging from 21 to 65. At one time, the school had a science club. This was developed and run by one of the teachers in their own time (usually lunch time sessions) once a week. Student participants numbered, on average, 10. They were encouraged to develop and pursue their own projects with the teacher supporting their work. The club discontinued after that teacher left the school. That teacher had also coordinated science and technology at the school and had organised some professional development by way or orientation to the new syllabus when it was released.

Over the period from 1991 to 2003, successive principals recognised the need for professional development for teachers in science and technology, but Government funded and system initiated programs to improve literacy, numeracy and computer skills took priority over resources and in-service training time. …