Engaging in Science Research Changes Teachers' Beliefs and Practice

By Foster, Elizabeth | The Learning Professional, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Engaging in Science Research Changes Teachers' Beliefs and Practice


Foster, Elizabeth, The Learning Professional


Meaningful and relevant learning is just as critical for adults as it is for students. This is a central tenet of Learning Forward's work and undergirds the Standards for Professional Learning.

This is especially important when standards for student learning change and there is a gap between how teachers have been teaching and how they are expected to teach given new standards. Professional learning is essential for bridging that gap and supporting that shift in teaching.

The Next Generation Science Standards call for a shift in the teaching and learning of science, from a focus on acquiring a body of knowledge to making sense of concepts and developing cross-cutting understanding. This requires active, constructivist approaches to learning. Engaging in scientific research practices and processes is a key part of this kind of learning.

Unfortunately, "few science teachers have had such research experiences, and much of the undergraduate preparation for science teachers precludes authentic research experiences," according to researcher Sherry Southerland from Florida State University.

In a 2016 study, Southerland and colleagues examined the impact of professional learning programs designed to address this lack of experience, known as Research Experiences for Teachers. These programs range in purpose, from increasing teachers' content knowledge in a specific subject to increasing their level of comfort with scientific research methods. They most often occur in the form of six- to 10week summer institutes, during which teachers are immersed in an experience with scientists in a setting such as a university or government laboratory.

Such experiences have been part of the professional development sphere for decades, but they are particularly relevant to the current emphasis on inquiry-based learning and meaningmaking that invites deep understanding. This alignment between student content standards and professional learning is a good example of what the Outcomes standard from Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning looks like in practice, as it focuses on the link that needs to be made between professional learning and student learning.

Research Experiences for Teachers programs are also important to consider today because they have the potential to exemplify the interconnected and interdependent qualities of effective professional learning.

In their study, Southerland and her co-authors examined the elements of these programs that contribute to shifts in teachers' thinking and practices that align with the Next Generation Science Standards. Those particular elements are consistent with the Standards for Professional Learning, particularly the Learning Communities and Learning Designs standards, and the findings also underscore the importance of considering the standards in a comprehensive way.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

The study looked at the experiences of 106 science teachers participating in Research Experiences for Teachers. It investigated two questions to determine how aspects of teachers' thinking as well as features of the professional learning impacted teachers' learning and practice:

* In what ways does teachers' thinking - specifically, teaching self-efficacy, pedagogical discontentment, and beliefs about teaching - interact with research experience in a Research Experiences for Teachers program to shape their practice?

* What are the features of the Research Experiences for Teachers professional learning that are the most influential in teachers' learning, including changes in their thinking and practice?

Specifically, they examined teachers':

* Sense of their ability to teach science in general;

* Perceptions of their ability to teach specifically using science inquiry approaches;

* Fundamental beliefs about science teaching and learning; and

* Level of dissatisfaction with their own teaching practices.

They also examined these features of a Research Experiences for Teachers program:

* Amount of social interaction;

* Primary intent of the research, whether to develop a body of knowledge versus teachers' understanding and application;

* Number of investigations completed; and

* Type of teachers' products, whether focused on a research project or on the teaching of science. …

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