Interactive Science

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Science education is considered a vital tool for development across the world. The importance of well trained science teachers essential for preparing students to function effectively in an increasingly technological and information based environment is well documented. Despite a convergence in belief on the assumptions of science and science teaching and learning based on notions of constructivism, inquiry and reflective practice, sharp distinctions exist in the way science teachers are prepared. While such distinctions may reflect national and even institutional contextual factors, there are structural, programmatic and process elements that appear to be eroding the commitment to the basic values in science teacher preparation. The paper, based on evidence obtained through interviews of science teacher educators and the analysis of curriculum documents in England and Zimbabwe identifies threats to the key assumptions of science and science teaching and argues for a re-examination of practice in the two countries.

 

Introduction  

The centrality of science education to national and global development is undoubtedly significant especially in a world that has become technological and information based. Its role and relationship with the economic, social, democratic, cultural and personal utilitarian capital has been well documented (Millar 1996, Driver et al. 1996, Jenkins 1997). Because school science constitutes the foundations for an efficient functioning in a technology and information driven society, the training of quality science teachers has been recognised as a key goal and focus in many countries’ teacher education programmes (Wang, Coleman, Coley and Phelps 2003). Despite the existence of a variety of perspectives on the nature of science (Ratcliffe 1998), which shape the way people conceptualise and transmit it to others, current assumptions of science and science teaching appear to be shifting from traditional logical positivisism (Aduz-Bravo and Izquirdo 2002) to encompass new discourses in constructivism, inquiry and reflective practice (Lederman 1992). However, notwithstanding this apparent convergence of thought amongst science educators, the ways in which science teachers are trained in different parts of the world exhibit interesting divergences which bring to question the commitment to the acknowledged assumptions.

This paper addresses the similarities and differences in the preparation of secondary science teachers in England and Zimbabwe and focuses on three key questions: First, in what specific ways are the patterns of science teacher training in the two countries similar and different? Second, to what extent do the approaches sustain the overarching epistemological premises of science teaching and training? Third, what mutual lessons for sustaining improvement in science teacher preparation can be learnt from the two countries?

The paper explores these key questions in four main parts. It begins with a theoretical examination of three overarching assumptions of science and assesses available empirical evidence establishing the centrality of the notions of constructivism, inquiry and reflective practice to science teaching and learning. In the second part, the paper provides a broad review of the demographical contexts of the two countries creating a basis for understanding the similarities and distinctions in approaches to science teacher training. Part three summarises the methodological aspects highlighting the approaches used to obtain the research data for this paper. Finally, the paper discusses the findings and reflects upon pointers for a possible redirection of science teacher training in the two countries.

But before this is done, it is important to indicate why a comparative study was considered vital.

 

Why compare two strange bed fellows?

I share with others an underlying belief that comparative studies help to remove parochialism from research (Thomas 1972, Rolf and Zimmermann 1992 both in Winter 1999). The fundamental assertion of comparative study is that we can truly comprehend ourselves only in the context of a secure knowledge of other societies (King 1967). Equally, I have a deep rooted concern that, despite wide acceptance that the world is becoming a global village, the bulk of comparative studies have tended to reflect a regionalist tendency such as teacher education in the EU, (Buchberger 1996, McPhee and Humes 1998), in the Asia Pacific countries (APEC educational reform papers) and other OECD sponsored studies across a range of regional states. While a regionalist approach has its advantages, not least of which is the intended co-operation in matters of economic development, there seems to be a growing disengagement between developed and less developed countries in matters of educational development, thus widening rather than narrowing the gap between the two worlds. In addition, the case of the UK and Zimbabwe is sufficiently compelling given the past relationship they shared from the colonial experience. Having lived and worked in both countries science education systems for over two decades, the opportunity this provides for drawing parallels and divergences as active sites for alternative thought and action has potential for focusing attention to aspects of science teacher preparation in need of increased action in the future.

 

Epistemological basis of science teaching and training

Constructivism, inquiry and reflective practice have become the dominant discourses in science teaching and training in both the developed and less developed worlds. Only a brief review will be provided here as these concepts are more adequately dealt with in other places (see for example Driver et al 1996).

Overall, school science teaching and science teacher training have undergone a significant paradigmatic shift from a positivistic approach based on the notion of the existence of external truths and the detached nature of knowledge to a post positivistic stance based on a new conviction that knowledge does not exist outside the consciousness of people. Grounded in philosophical relativism (Feyerabend 1978) the belief is that

There is no external reality independent of human consciousness--- there are only different sets of meanings and classifications which people attach to the world (Robson 2004:22)

The positivistic approach to teaching and learning science emphasised the obtaining of knowledge through objective means aimed at verification of known facts and principles. The teacher’s role in this was primarily to provide the facts and procedures for investigating scientific ideas. Success in learning was measured by the extent to which obtained results reflected existing theory. A key approach to teaching and learning was guided discovery with proof and conclusions as the most significant learning outcomes of science teaching.

The post positivistic approach assumes that there is never a single form of reality, that young people build their own understanding of the world and interpret it in various ways which reflect their specific circumstances and local environmental influences. Rather than obtaining external reality, young people are seen as active constructors of their own forms of reality. The role of the teacher in this is that of training young people in efficient ways of constructing knowledge (the basis of the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education project CASE) and understanding the multiple social constructions of meaning and knowledge (Robson 2004). This belief has become the justification for current science teaching methods which emphasise the importance of understanding young peoples’ naïve ideas of scientific concepts before teaching a new topic, the role of discussion in science teaching, and the centrality of investigative science which builds upon pupils’ own hypotheses as a basis for seeking and developing an understanding of new ideas. Process rather than product is the key to teaching and learning science and this has become the basis of the constructivism discourse in science teaching and learning.

Inquiry as a mode of thought goes beyond the assumptions of the guided discovery approaches that were characteristic of the positivist tradition. While guided discovery assumes a realist or logical positivist approach, with emphasis on objectivity in methods of investigation, its role is limited to verifying existing knowledge and arriving at established conclusions (Detrick 2004). Inquiry on the other hand ‘implies a constructionist approach to the teaching of science’ which is open ended and ongoing, employing procedures used by scientists, based on self generated questions and predictions and providing explanations that are compatible with shared experience of the physical world. Dewey has offered a succinct definition of inquiry which highlights the need for science teaching and learning to be activity based, to be based on personal or group belief or suppositions, to rely on repeated measurements and to explain findings in the light of existing knowledge. He defines inquiry as:

The active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends (Dewey 1936:47)

In the final analysis inquiry should help learners to gather enough information to generate theories that will make new experiences less strange and more meaningful to them.

The discourse of the reflective practitioner, originating in the work of Schon (1983) and developed for teacher education practice through the work of Zeichner (1983), Calderhead (1991) and Pollard (2002), sees teaching not so much as the deployment of skills and competences to a learning situation, but as developing a professional and informed judgment about learning based on a valid reflection on the needs of learners and the supporting theoretical frameworks around these aspects of practice. It is seen as an efficient driver of standards as its basic assumption is that of improving practice at each subsequent teaching learning encounter. From this perspective effective science teachers are seen as those who raise standards of teaching and learning through a careful reflection upon experience and through acting upon that experience to enhance its quality.

Evidence from research such as the Professional Identities Project (Moore, Edwards, Haplin and George 2002) and the Autobiography and Reflective Practice Project (Moore and Ash 2002) indicates that science teachers’ descriptions of good science teaching had dense representations of the concepts of constructivism, inquiry and reflective practice. A key aspect of this research was to identify the epistemological orientations of current science educators in the two countries.

 

Dominant paradigms in science teacher training

 

The need for quality teachers is a key objective of teacher preparation programmes. Debate and controversy however surround the notion of what good science teaching is. Amidst the divergent views about what constitutes good science teaching are four dominant paradigms, the competent craftsperson, the reflective practitioner, the academic and the charismatic discourses. Moore (2004) provides a comprehensive analysis of these different orientations and argues that the paradigms exist uneasily around diametrically opposed assumptions about good teaching yet they share a lot in common at their points of intersection. The figure below is an attempt to map the field of forces around these key discourses of good teaching. The centre of this field represents what could be referred to as the ideal teacher prototype, rarely achieved because of the underlying assumptions held by trainers and trainees alike which tend to gravitate towards the corners of the field rather than the centre.