This is what you want to see in a science classroom: Less memorizing. Fewer ready-made science experiments. Students designing their own hands-on investigations in pursuit of scientific questions. Educators most likely to teach this way hold science degrees, a new study finds. Nationwide, that includes just half of all science teachers.
The study’s authors describe the inquiry-based approach like this: “It’s like learning to play baseball by playing the game, rather than just learning to catch or hit a ball. Inquiry is the ‘game’ of science.”
Take the middle-school life science concept that all living organisms are made of cells. It’s not enough to have students memorize the idea and spit it back on a test, or conduct a ready-made experiment that proves the expected result.
“The old way is to execute an experiment that someone else designed,” Tammy Kolbe, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont, said in an interview. She authored the new study with assistant education professor Simon Jorgenson of the University of Vermont. “The way that we have thought about experimentation—'You do this’ —was good because it illustrated concepts, but it didn’t ask students to be actively engaged in how to set that up. Students should be asking and answering questions just as scientists do.”
Kolbe and Jorgenson looked at the educational training of 9,500 8th grade science teachers in 1,260 public schools nationwide. Teachers who were most likely to use inquiry-based instruction held either dual education and science degrees or graduate science degrees. Yet nearly a quarter of 8th grade teachers lacks formal coursework in science or engineering.
The authors warn that the lack of inquiry-based science instruction might be contributing to the dearth of qualified STEM workers in the United States. “Research shows that inquiry-based instructional practices generate student interest and excitement, and that can be particularly powerful in 8th grade when students are considering what kind of science to pursue in high school,” Kolbe said. “High school is so critical in setting students up for college and careers. If students were turned off to science, or not turned on, then they might make different decisions.”
The study found some good news: Even just a small amount of formal coursework in science can make a difference. New teachers who minored in science as undergrads and who did not initially use an inquiry-based approach eventually made the switch. “This suggests that even having an undergraduate minor in science better positions a teacher to adopt reform-oriented science teaching, compared to teachers with little-to-no formal education in science or engineering,” Kolbe said.
The findings also suggests explanations for why U.S. students may lag behind their peers around the world in science. The nation’s 15-year-olds haven’t improved in science performance since 2009, according to results on the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Some 24 countries had higher average scores than the U.S. in science, including Taiwan, Slovenia, and Vietnam. Topping the 2015 PISA science rankings is Singapore, where would-be middle and high school science teachers earn science degrees before attending the country’s sole teacher training center, the National Institute of Education. The Institute has taught an inquiry-based approach to instruction since 2008.
Meanwhile, there is a huge demand for science teachers nationwide, and school districts lucky enough to hire qualified science teachers may have trouble keeping them in the classroom. A study of 2,000 teachers by the federal National Center of Science and Engineering Statistics found that 25 percent of secondary science and math teachers left in the 2009-10 school year after just three years of teaching, compared with 10 percent of other secondary teachers.
But there is help for teachers without science degrees. Training programs have been growing in number, reports Kate Stotzfus in this Education Week article. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education estimates that more than 4,000 science teacher-induction and teacher-training programs are operating nationwide, according to its analysis of 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Education. One such program at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco trains novice high school science teachers who are willing to adopt an inquiry-based instructional approach.
More of these types of programs should be made available for current science teachers who don’t have the science background, according to the study’s authors. They suggest scientists, educators, business leaders, and the community work together to provide would-be science teachers with more opportunities to design and conduct their own investigations and to master complex scientific concepts.
It is also time, the authors suggest, for policymakers and teacher education programs to think about how best to prepare science teachers in light of the study’s findings. “Education-only degrees may not be the best fit,” Kolbe said. “That doesn’t mean we are suggesting content-only degrees. What we are finding is that the best teachers have both. The best teachers have deep knowledge of content as well as deep knowledge of state-of-the-art pedagogy and the developmental practices they need to engage learners.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.