Strengthening Science Departments: How Teachers and Chairpersons Can Help Their Departments Support Best Practices

By Campbell, Todd; Melville, Wayne et al. | The Science Teacher, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Science Departments: How Teachers and Chairpersons Can Help Their Departments Support Best Practices


Campbell, Todd, Melville, Wayne, Bartley, Anthony, The Science Teacher


"Although Sam is the science department chair and has been invited to serve on a number of district committees, he is con-fronted with isolation in his department, where the three science teachers do not work as a team. As a result, he works as a 'lone ranger'" (Berns and Swanson 2000, p. 4).

Teachers don't work in a vacuum. They are, in most cases, part of a science department in which teachers and the chairperson have important roles in science education reform. Current reform is shaped by national standards documents (AAAS 1989; NRC 1996, 2011) that emphasize the pedagogical and conceptual importance of best practices framed by constructivism and focused on teaching science as inquiry. But, while these documents emphasize best practices, research consistently shows that science teachers have difficulties enacting them (Anderson 2002, Keys and Bryan 2001, Windschitl 2004).

Recommendations put forth by most researchers investigating reform emphasize the importance of collaborative professional learning (Loucks-Horsley et al. 1997). As teachers grapple with teaching science differently from how they themselves learned science, they must be challenged in their own thinking and practice and supported in making sense of the reform and seeing how they can incrementally and iteratively change their practice to better reflect the standards.

Melville and Wallace (2007) articulate how science departments can "organize themselves to promote access to professional learning, maintain accountability to their standards of teaching and learning, and encourage teacher leadership" (p. 1204). This article, in turn, describes one science department as an exemplar for how the science teachers and chairperson can support standards-framed best practices. This department, in contrast to the one in the opening excerpt, shows the potential of nurtured work, focused conceptually as not just administrative but also collaborative, as these quotes from a teacher and chairperson exemplify:

Teacher: "I never felt like Will was my chair. I felt he was a more experienced colleague, as opposed to holding a power position. I think a lot of department chairs feel that their role is to keep the department in line. That person may be an administrator but certainly not a curriculum leader. Will was definitely the latter."

Chairperson: "In my department I hold no power, or at least that's the perception. I don't run around telling people what they should and shouldn't do. It's just a set of conversations, so I don't think anyone feels threatened. They see me as a colleague that has to manage some of the departmental work but also see me as a curriculum leader."

The chair, then, in collaboration with teachers, influences how well professional learning is supported over the long term.

Developing a vibrant science department

Fogarty and Pete (2009/2010) offer anchors for engaging adult learners for lasting impact. These anchors, providing a frame-work for understanding how all departments may move closer to the standards, envision learning as sustained, job embedded, collegial, interactive, integrative, and practical.

Sustained and job embedded

Professional learning that helps teachers translate theory into practice takes time and is necessarily embedded, and validated, in the workplace. Within departments, teachers must regularly discuss standards-aligned best practices, such as teaching science as inquiry. These discussions can be enhanced through interactions with subject associations and other science educators. In our exemplar department, these discussions were initiated by both the chair and teachers, who framed them as "a set of conversations" around teaching and learning. The chair said: "It's the conversations amongst teachers that help bridge the [theory and practice] gap." These conversations, embedded in the job, have become commonplace, not as more work but as a different form of work. …

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