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Faking It Won’t Make It in Science

By Sean Cavanagh — November 30, 2004 8 min read
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The speaker lets a small plastic vial fall to the floor and tosses out a simple question along with it: What caused the vial to drop? “Gravity,” his audience responds instinctively. And what, he asks them, is gravity? This time, the answers come more slowly and with less certainty. He singles out one response: “Gravity,” the speaker says to laughter from the room, “is what pulls objects to the Earth.”

“There’s some real circular reasoning here,” he adds.

The audience on this day is not an elementary or secondary school class, but a roomful of science teachers from around the country, who have gathered here for a meeting of the National Science Teachers Association. They’ve come to hear Bill Robertson, a writer and one-time curriculum developer, talk about a familiar topic: How can they improve their understanding of core science concepts when they’re expected to have such expertise already?

For years, educators and researchers have seen teachers at all grade levels attempt to upgrade their grasp of physics, chemistry, and biology, from basic theories to complex material. Now, the pressure on schools and instructors to improve science instruction is likely to intensify, with approaching federal requirements on states to test students in science and for instructors to become “highly qualified” in the subjects they teach.

Bill Robertson uses ballons to demonstrate a lesson in electricity

The sponsors of the conference believe Mr. Robertson is one of those people who can help. Over the past few years, he’s written a series of books aimed at encouraging K-12 teachers to enhance their understanding of science, on such basic concepts as sound, light, and energy. This particular session is on force and motion.

His books, published by the NSTA under the title, Stop Faking It! Finally Understanding Science So You Can Teach It, ask instructors to divest themselves of a few myths. One is that science topics are invariably hard to understand. Not so, if teachers can grasp the underlying concepts behind them, Mr. Robertson says. A second is that educators can teach science without understanding it. Teachers need to have a mastery of the fundamental principles behind the science they cover, the writer says—not just an ability to recite facts.

“You demand that it makes sense,” Mr. Robertson tells the teachers, in talking about gravity. “That’s when you’re going to get a degree of understanding.”

Educators and others have decried the lack of subject-matter expertise among science teachers for years, though opinions vary on what contributes most to those shortcomings. Many agree that the problem stems partly from instructors teaching outside their fields because of the budgetary limits or staffing needs of their districts.

“We used to joke, ‘Don’t hum when you’re walking down the hallways—someone will turn you into a music teacher,’ ” said Gerald F. Wheeler, a former high school science instructor who is now the executive director of the NSTA, based in Arlington, Va. But there is a consequence to having so many “draftees” in teaching science classes, Mr. Wheeler notes, particularly when such subjects as physics, chemistry, and biology have a lot of dissimilar material, much of it not easy to master.

“Content knowledge is the hole in the dike,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It’s one of the top issues in succeeding in science reform.”

A Major, and Minor, Problem

Teachers, like students, cannot know what they were never taught. Nearly 20 percent of high school science teachers nationwide lack even a minor in their main teaching field, according to a 2000 report by the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century. That report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, also found that 56 percent of high school students taking physical-science courses were being taught by out-of-field teachers. Twenty-seven percent of high school students taking math, by comparison, fell into that category.

Of the teachers who get in touch with Mr. Robertson, a majority are seeking help in physics, he says. Recent research seems to bear out that need. According to a 2002 report by Horizon Research Inc., only 56 percent of high school physics teachers have taken six or more college courses in their subjects, compared with 67 percent of chemistry and 92 percent of biology instructors. Another report by Horizon found that at the elementary level, fewer than one-third of teachers believed they were well-qualified to teach each of the science disciplines.

After listening to teachers describe their subject-matter shortcomings, Mr. Robertson became convinced that many had not been taught scientific concepts the right way, in high school or college. Too often, precollegiate teachers and college professors cram in as much complex material as possible, too quickly, in his view, rather than going slowly enough so that students can master core content, which will have broad application later on.

For Mr. Robertson, that is not simply an abstract belief. To this day, he remembers his embarrassment years ago, as a master’s-degree candidate in physics, when he was handed an exam and forced to admit to his professor that he didn’t know a basic formula—one he should have understood years before.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re a physics major?’ ” Mr. Robertson recalled.

The teachers attending Mr. Robertson’s sessions in Indianapolis last month arrived with different goals. Lisa Yeager, who teaches biology and earth science at Henderson County High School in Kentucky, attended the writer’s second workshop, on understanding air, water, and weather. She already was familiar with several of the concepts Mr. Robertson spoke about, such as high- and low-pressure systems and the Coriolis force, the push caused by the Earth’s rotation, which affects winds and the atmosphere.

But she also gained insight into other topics her students routinely quiz her on, such as why weather systems move in and out of a region. “I feel like my major weakness is in meteorology,” she said.

Ms. Yeager, who works in the 7,100-student Henderson County district, believes many teachers long to improve in different areas within science, but are reluctant to seek help. “I don’t know if it’s that they don’t know where to look for information,” said Ms. Yeager, who has an undergraduate degrees in education and biology. “So many are so embarrassed to ask.”

Going to the Source

Others arrived at Mr. Robertson’s sessions with different needs. Chrissy Terrill taught mostly biology and physical science to 9th graders during her first three years in the profession. This year, she’s teaching 8th grade science for the first time, which means she has to cover a broader range of material, including chemistry and physics. Trying to keep up with that subject matter—and put it in understandable language for students—has been a challenge.

“I had memorized it, but I might not be able to explain it at the level I needed to,” said Ms. Terrill, who teaches in the 16,000-student Lakota district in Liberty Township, Ohio. When she needs tutoring on those topics, she sometimes heads for the library or Internet sites, or consults with chemistry or physics teachers in the district.

science educator at Idaho State University, experiments at a workshop

Some education officials say the key to helping teachers like Ms. Terrill lies in improving the quality of teachers’ colleges. In a 2002 report to Congress, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige contended that the teacher-college system was “broken,” and that greater emphasis needed to be put on giving future K-12 instructors subject-matter knowledge, rather than simply training on how to guide a class.

Although many training institutions are making strides, said Carolyn Snowbarger, a senior policy adviser in the Education Department on teacher-quality issues, some have been slow to make changes. “At the elementary level, [they] need to make certain teachers are getting adequate content knowledge,” she said.

Beginning in the 2007-08 school year, the federal No Child Left Behind Act will require states to test students annually in science at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. The law also calls for teachers of core subjects to be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-06 academic year. The Education Department earlier this year said that states could allow teachers to attain that status by showing subject-matter competence in a general science field, or a specific one, such as biology, chemistry, or physics.

Many teachers apparently are interested in elevating their knowledge of science, if the seven professional-development workshops the Education Department staged last year are reliable indicators. Those sessions, which are expected to continue this year, drew 1,400 teachers, with a 7,000-person waiting list, Ms. Snowbarger said. What’s more, the department has set up professional-development links, including subject-matter training, on its Web site, a feature that is drawing 2,000 hits a day, she said.

How and What to Teach

Some leaders in higher education say colleges are making the right kinds of changes to help produce teachers who are better-informed.

Mary Brabeck, the dean of New York University’s Steinhardt school of education, said more institutions are forming stronger links between their teacher-training programs and colleges of science. Her own school is bringing together faculty members from those two academic areas to find ways of helping teachers improve their science expertise.

“Generally, there has to be a better conversation,” she said.

Ms. Brabeck, who chairs the board of directors of the American Association of Colleges for Teaching Education, based in Washington, says that getting knowledgeable college graduates interested in science teaching is difficult from the outset.

Of 561 master’s students and undergraduates to complete NYU’s teaching program in 2003, only 3 percent were planning to teach science. Students with expertise in that subject tend to head for private-industry jobs, Ms. Brabeck said, in a familiar lament of teacher-college officials. “You have a lot more options that pay a lot more and have a lot more prestige,” she added.

‘Not a Negative’

Congress took a step toward addressing some financial needs this year by increasing the amount of federal student-loan forgiveness for teachers in math, science, and special education from $5,000 to $17,500, if they work in high-poverty schools for at least five years.

Meanwhile, school districts can do more, Mr. Robertson says, by devoting time and money to teachers seeking to improve their content skill through college classes or workshops. Most teachers, he believes, are more than willing to acknowledge when they need outside help.

“I just don’t find that teachers are embarrassed about it,” the author said. “It’s not a negative. They’re [saying], there’s a resource out there.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Faking It Won’t Make It in Science

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