Academic journal article Science Educator

In-Service Elementary Teachers' Understanding of Magnetism Concepts before and after Non-Traditional Instruction

Academic journal article Science Educator

In-Service Elementary Teachers' Understanding of Magnetism Concepts before and after Non-Traditional Instruction

Article excerpt

The authors provide a descriptive study of in-service elementary teachers' understanding of magnetism concepts and confidence in their understanding of those concepts before and after non-traditional instruction that utilizes instructional activities from Physics by Inquiry.


Magnetism is a topic frequently studied in elementary schools (Toleman, 1998). Since magnetism is a popular topic and is included in national science education standards (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2003; National Research Council, 1996), it might be assumed that elementary teachers have a good understanding of this topic and that elementary students develop a good understanding of fundamental magnetism concepts. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that magnetism concepts are poorly understood across a broad range of potential learners (Atwood, Christopher & McNaIl, 2007; Constantinou, Raftopoulos, & Spanoudis, 2001; Finley, 1986; Hickey & Schibeci, 1999). The lack of successful teaching and learning of magnetism concepts that occurs at the elementary level may be partly due to deficiencies in elementary science textbooks (Barrow, 1990) for elementary students and elementary science methods and materials textbooks (Barrow, 2000) for teachers . However, ineffective science content courses in teacher preparation are likely to be a much larger problem (McDermott, 1991; McDermott, Heron, Shaffer, & Stetzer, 2006). There is a clearly identified need to improve instruction on magnetism, and elementary science teacher education is a logical place to focus. A study of pre-service (Atwood & Christopher, 2007) teachers has revealed a poor understanding of basic magnetism concepts, and traditional survey science courses may be doing little to improve that situation. The documentation of inadequate understanding of standards-based magnetism concepts by elementary students and teachers is an important start to understanding the nature and magnitude of this problem, but it is also necessary to address the lack of conceptual understanding of elementary teachers.

Theoretical Framework

The following considerations were used to identify characteristics of instruction likely to be associated with the desired impact:

1. The goal of the instruction is to facilitate teachers' construction of conceptual understanding of basic magnetism concepts.

2. Traditional instruction has failed to result in the desired understanding, so it is unsuitable for the study (McDermott, 1991; McDermott, Heron, Shaffer, & Stetzer, 2006).

3. Minimally guided, non-traditional instruction has been strongly criticized recently and is unlikely to result in the desired understanding (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006; Mayer, 2004).

4. Non-traditional investigative instruction that is judiciously structured and scaffolded and consistent with the intentional conceptual change literature has shown great promise and should be utilized in the study (Beeth, 1998; Niaz, 1995; Nussbaum & Novick, 1 982; Vosniadou, 2003 , 2007).

For some time, the science education community has shown considerable support for teaching for understanding (American Association for the Advancement of Science , 200 3 ; Gallagher, 2000; Gardner & BoixMansilla, 1994; National Research Council, 1996;Prawat, 1989; Wildey & Wallace, 1995). During roughly the same period, it has been well documented that diverse populations of children and adults lack a scientific understanding of many fundamental science concepts across the biological, earth, and physical sciences (Atwood & Christopher, 2007; Bar, 1989; Barman & Griffiths, 1995; Baxter, 1989; Brody & Koch, 1990; Driver, Guesne, & Tiberghien, 1985; Duit, 1984, 2004; Duit & Treagust, 1995; Krall, Christopher, & Atwood, 2009; Osborn & Cosgrove, 1983; Schoon, 1 992; Trundle ,Atwood & Christopher, 2002).

The pervasive lack of conceptual understanding has been partially attributed to the failure of traditional instruction, a term that seems to be a broad umbrella for a variety of presentation modes. …

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