Research & Teaching
By Kadir Demir, Brett Criswell, and William Stoll
The development of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) has been identified as an important goal of preparing new science teachers (Cochran et al., 1993; Etkina, 2010; Loughran et al., 2012). While there have been numerous attempts to describe this construct (e.g., Hashweh, 2005; Hill et al., 2008), a model proposed by Abell (2008) connects the general elements of the knowledge base of teachers (Grossman, 1990) with the specific elements of PCK (Magnusson et al., 1999) and has found wide acceptance. In that model, PCK is composed of five elements, including orientations to teaching science, knowledge of science learners, and knowledge of instruction. Thus, development of PCK in science teacher candidates would require attention to multiple elements in the Borko model.
A physics course (PHYS 7210) created for science teacher candidates in a master of arts in teaching (MAT) program was designed to support acquisition of several of those elements. Candidates from the MAT program received licensure to teach science in Grades 8–12; that licensure often allowed them to teach all of the main science disciplines, including physics. The PHYS 7210 course was redesigned to be co-taught by a physics faculty member from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and a science education faculty member from the College of Education at a large R1 southeastern university. We have also written about the nature of the collaboration and the structure of the course in another paper (Criswell & Demir, 2022), so the discussion here is limited to core features of PHYS 7210. The content focus of the course was mostly Newtonian mechanics, owing to its place of prominence in high school physics and the conceptual difficulties it entails (McDermott, 1997; Poutot & Blandin, 2015). The pedagogical focus was on conceptual change (e.g., Chi, 2009; Posner et al., 1982). Ensuring that the conceptual change strategies and examples were associated with physics principles supported the development of PCK. Each class involved a mixture of content and pedagogy sessions, along with time devoted to preparing candidates to work with students in a general physics course utilizing the SCALE-UP model (Beichner, 2008). Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs, or SCALE-UP, describes a physical space wherein the table layout, the room construction, and those conditions allowed the MAT candidates to meaningfully interact with physics students. Student teams are given interesting things to investigate while their instructor roams—asking questions, sending one team to help another, or asking why someone else got a different answer. The SCALE-UP course ran simultaneously with PHYS 7210 and provided the MAT candidates the chance to apply their developing PCK.
Our other paper (Criswell & Demir, 2022) focused on the collaboration between the physics and science education faculty members and how it impacted them professionally. This article focuses on the MAT candidates who took the co-taught version of PHYS 7210 in its initial iteration and how the course impacted candidates’ views on the teaching and learning of physics.
There is a vast literature on conceptual change, including multiple edited volumes on the topic (e.g., Sinatra & Pintrich, 2003; Vosniadou, 2009). This literature, along with seminal articles from the field (e.g., Chi & Slotta, 1993; DiSessa, 1993; Posner et al., 1982), informed the focus and design of the pedagogical sessions in PHYS 7210. More relevant to the considerations of this article are examinations of philosophical approaches to how conceptual change teaching should be conceived (e.g., Pintrich et al., 1993; Smith et al., 1994). In particular, the data analysis we describe in this article was informed by a continuum of views on how students’ ideas should be treated in teaching for conceptual change. The view that students are blank slates whose ideas can be ignored is on one end of the continuum, and the view that students’ ideas represent resources that can be built on and refined is on the other end (Levin et al., 2012). This continuum was a major emphasis in the pedagogical sessions in PHYS 7210, so coding the MAT candidates’ views along the continuum represented an objective means for determining the impact of the course on the candidates’ views.
Related to this continuum, Schneider and Plasman (2011) proposed a five-stage progression regarding science teachers’ views of students’ ideas: At the lowest stage, science teachers believe that students do not have ideas germane to school science content; the next stage involves the belief that students do have germane ideas but that these ideas are either unknown to the teacher or scientifically incorrect. In the third stage, teachers recognize that students have relevant ideas and that it is important to use these as a starting point for instruction. In the fourth stage, teachers acknowledge that they need to actively seek and understand students’ ideas and adapt instruction to them; at the highest stage, science teachers recognize that learning experiences need to be designed to incorporate students’ ideas and build scientific knowledge from them. Schneider and Plasman (2011) cited several studies to which they applied their progression and noted a range in shifts in both pre- and in-service teachers’ views, including a significant number of cases in which the views regressed.
Where science teachers fall along the continuum from blank slate to refinement, and where they operate along the Schneider-Plasman progression, should be reflected in the metaphors that they choose to conceptualize their role in the teaching-learning process (Tobin & Tippins, 1996). When investigating the inquiry-oriented practices of a single high school biology teacher, Crawford (2000) identified 10 roles that the teacher adopted and described for himself, including motivator, diagnostician, guide, collaborator, and learner. An important insight from this study was that “researchers may oversimplify the problem [of the nature of inquiry teaching] by contrasting only two kinds of roles, ‘teachers-as-knowledge-transmitters’ and ‘teachers-as-facilitators,’” but that “a more expansive range of teacher roles necessitating more active and complex participation than that of a facilitator or guide [exists]” (Crawford, 2000, p. 934). The data analysis used the metaphors the candidates offered for their roles in teaching and learning to corroborate choices of codes for their views on teaching and learning. Other researchers (e.g., Saban et al., 2006; Seung et al., 2011) have found identifying the metaphors used by science teachers to describe teaching and learning as an effective way to gain insight into their views and beliefs.
A phenomenological case study design was used (Yin, 2018). This design helped us better examine contextual conditions relevant to the views of teaching and learning of physics for conceptual change involving 15 preservice teachers. (See Table 1. One candidate registered late and was not contacted in time to conduct an interview before the class began. A postclass interview was conducted with the candidate, but his data were not included in this analysis because no pre-post comparison could be made.) As such, the use of phenomenology facilitated our understanding of the lived experiences of preservice teachers within a real-life context, as we wanted to explore how the preservice teachers constructed their viewpoints about teaching and learning of physics from a conceptual change perspective.
Data for this article come from a larger study conducted over 2 years. Data sources included pre- and postcourse interviews and surveys with candidates, yet in-depth phenomenological interviews with research participants (Seidman, 2015) were used as the primary source of data. During the interviews, participants were encouraged to detail their experiences (Giorgi, 1997) using semistructured interview questions such as the following: What roles do students’ initial ideas play in the teaching and learning of physics? What kind of roles do teachers and students need to adopt for teaching and learning of physics? (See Appendix A online for sample pre- and postcourse interview questions). All standard qualitative procedures for explicating phenomenological case study data were applied, such as transcribing through the verbatim method, reading transcripts at least twice to achieve an intimate familiarity with the data, and bracketing researchers’ preconceptions.
The interviewees and their experiences under study were the unit of analysis. Textual structural descriptions were created to clarify the phenomena. Similarities and differences in participants’ lived experiences surfaced through reflecting on context descriptions (Saldaña, 2016). Particular attention was devoted to descriptions of what was experienced as well as how it was experienced. The work of Levin et al. (2012) informed our data analysis. The categories and levels of the MAT candidates’ views of teaching and learning in response to the pre- and postcourse interviews are described in Table 2. It is important to note that individual interview passages were coded along the continuum in this table, then a holistic label for each candidate was determined by summarizing and averaging individual passages. The postcourse evaluation survey, which included five short open-ended questions (see Appendix B online) and quantitative data obtained through Force Concept Inventory (Hestenes et al., 1992) given as both a pre- and postcourse test, served as the secondary source of data.
It is important to note a caveat before discussing the findings: Six of the 15 MAT candidates were taking PHYS 7210 at the end of the MAT program; the other 9 were taking it at the beginning of the program (see Table 1). Those taking PHYS 7210 at the end of the program had already experienced a sequence of two methods courses and one practicum course, all of which emphasized student-centered approaches to the teaching and learning of science. Those taking PHYS 7210 at the beginning of the program were experiencing the first of the methods courses concurrently, but they had only just begun the course at the time of the precourse interviews.
Figure 1 provides a quantitative representation of what the coding of pre- and postcourse interviews suggested about the MAT candidates’ views of teaching and learning physics before and after the PHYS 7210 course. From a bigger-picture perspective, the interview data indicate that 10 of the 14 candidates for whom data were collected exhibited teacher-centered views before the class, while 4 described student-centered views. The caveat noted above is relevant here: Three of the four candidates who offered student-centered views in the pre-interviews were MAT candidates taking PHYS 7210 at the end of the program. This suggests that half of the candidates at the end of the program displayed student-centered views initially in PHYS 7210, while only one of the nine candidates just starting the MAT program did so.
What the data further indicate is that 12 of the 14 MAT candidates presented student-centered perspectives on the teaching and learning of physics at the end of the course (postcourse interviews). Moreover, more than half of the candidates (eight) displayed what was coded as the highest of the four levels of perspectives on teaching and learning: student-centered refinement. For an interview perspective to be coded as this level, candidates had to indicate that students’ ideas should be the starting point for developing scientific understanding. Furthermore, five of the eight candidates were seen as having sophisticated, student-centered, refinement views. These views aligned with descriptions similar to those of Hammer & van Zee (2006), who argue that teachers should focus on seeing students’ ideas as resources that can be refined and reformulated in ways that can promote deep understanding of science (physics) content.
It is important to exemplify the changes in candidates’ views of teaching and learning of physics that occurred through some interview excerpts. One of the candidates showing the most significant changes in his views was Charles, who was just beginning the MAT program. In the precourse interview, Charles stated:
I like learning it [physics] with hands-on examples … Just seeing something happen. Like concepts that you can bring in physical, tangible stuff, that’s the best way I learn. Actually seeing something, physically holding it ... or something that represents like the bigger idea. As opposed to being bored or being lectured to. I like interactive ... like, make me think about it. So, I can be like, “Alright, well, so I know its potential or whatever.” And just be able to see it—actually, physically in my face, as opposed to being told that that’s what it is. (Teacher-Centered Canonical, Advanced)
This precourse interview excerpt was coded as “teacher-centered canonical” because of the fact that there was no reference to students’ ideas or thinking, just to what might be done to engage students. What was selected as engaging were things that Charles himself found useful in his own learning, without consideration of what students might need or want. Overall, Charles had been labeled as “teacher-centered canonical, advanced” at the beginning of PHYS 7210. This label can be compared to Charles’s postcourse perspective, when he was much more focused on students’ thinking and how to respond:
So I guess it [effective teaching and learning] is directing students to figure out what they know and what they need to know and bridging the gap between, sort of, their knowledge and where they need to be at. And sort of making them thoughtful. Getting them to want to learn and sort of becoming inquisitive. So, sort of like the teacher being sort of a guide as opposed … or maybe a prodder toward the right direction.
This passage was coded as “student-centered, refinement” as a result of Charles’s recognition of the need to understand where students’ thinking is, to compare that to where they need to get to have a scientific understanding, and, finally, to bridge the gap between the two through the learning experiences provided to students. Just as important, the use of the metaphor of “teacher as guide/prodder” shows an appreciation of the need for the teacher to put the responsibility of bridging this gap in the hands of students. Later in the interview, Charles offered a description of what he needs to consider to enact this kind of teaching and learning:
It gets me thinking more about how students think and how to sort of realize what they need to do in order to, you know … sort of, how they form their concepts and how they address the concepts. And realizing that they aren’t blank slates, nor are they all wrong or all right. It’s just sort of a foundational issue that they start with. And we just have to realize that and move from it.
Understanding that students have ideas about science [physics] phenomena coming into learning experiences is a critical insight for novice teachers. However, Charles had taken a major step forward by recognizing that students’ ideas are not “all wrong or all right,” and those ideas represent “a foundational issue that they start with … And we just have to realize that and move from it.” This is an acknowledgment of the fact that teachers need to value students’ ideas and use them as the starting point for building scientific understandings. While Charles still had room for growth—he was labeled “student-centered replacement, advanced” overall (see Table 2) at the end of PHYS 7210—important progress had been made during the course.
As noted in Figure 1, which shows the quantitative representation of the changes in the MAT candidates’ views, the candidates who were taking PHYS 7210 at the end of the program generally started farther along on our code continuum. However, they still showed changes in their views of teaching and learning physics. In some cases, this change meant adding specificity to vague notions of what they wanted their classrooms to look like. An example of this is Darryl, who had a student-centered refinement view at the beginning of the course, but one that was coded as “naive” within that category. Here is the excerpt that led us to make that conclusion:
|Table 1. Current place of the teacher candidates in the MAT program.|
I would like there to be groups. I would like there to be more concepts and less math. Students focused on relationships between things. Not necessarily position equals velocity times time—I don’t want them to stare up at that equation all day. I want them to know how position and velocity are related ... And if you can get a couple of main concepts like that ingrained in them, usually through discussions and talking with each other, that is one of the most powerful things. I saw in my second semester of student teaching where my students who talked with each other, that is when they formulate the ideas fast. I found rather than just thinking about it in their head or even writing it down, when they made the words come out of their mouth, they heard what they were saying, they rephrased it and reformatted it if necessary, and then they remembered it a lot better.
Darryl has this sense that learning experiences have to allow students to interact with each other to support the development of conceptual understanding. Where this is limited is in believing that this merely expedites the process of learning concepts, rather than supporting students in refining their thinking. In the postcourse interview, Darryl expressed views that indicated she had moved to a more sophisticated, student-centered refinement stance:
Um, it [PHYS 7210] has helped me clear up a lot of places where students will have common misconceptions. It has also reframed the word “misconception” as not always something that the students are thinking that is wrong and it does not have to be broken down. A lot of times if you let students talk about it to each other and explain it, they just kind of figure it out on their own—they figure out where they were confused. Um, they find their own logical fallacies and then kind of fill in the gaps. You don’t really have to tell them information, as much as guide them. (Student-Centered Refinement, Advanced)
At the end of PHYS 7210, Darryl saw the value of students interacting with each other not in terms of expediency of learning but in terms of the potential for such interactions to help students identify “their own logical fallacies” and to begin a self-initiated effort to refine their thinking. As with Charles, Darryl conceptualized this more sophisticated view not in terms of being a provider of information but, instead, as being a guide to help students fill in the gaps.
Overall, the MAT candidates showed meaningful changes in their views of teaching and learning during PHYS 7210, from being generally inattentive to students’ prior conceptions to expressing a concrete understanding that these prior conceptions must be identified and incorporated into learning experiences. In the next section, we describe the factors that we hypothesize led to these significant changes.
There are likely numerous factors that led to the changes in the MAT candidates’ views of teaching and learning of physics from the beginning to the end of the PHYS 7210 course. Certainly, for the candidates just beginning the MAT program, simultaneously experiencing the summer science methods course contributed to their movement toward student-centered views. This course introduced candidates to such approaches as the 5E instructional framework (Bybee, 2014), which clearly emphasizes surfacing students’ ideas (engage) and giving them the chance to refine those ideas through the later phases (explore, explain, and elaborate).
The integration of content (physics sessions), pedagogical (conceptual change sessions), and pedagogical content (sessions working with the SCALE-UP students in the general physics class) knowledge was clearly a factor as well. In response to a postcourse survey question about the most valuable part of the course, Marsden stated, “The entire format was great because you got content plus the time to teach what you learned while it was fresh on your brain,” and Jimmy noted, “I think the conceptual change ideas will really help me develop strategies to teach.”
PCK is composed of both pedagogical and content knowledge. The time taken to deeply explore the physics content likely enabled candidates to develop the self-efficacy needed to consider teaching in a manner that foregrounds student thinking (Roehrig et al., 2011). Figure 2 shows the gain in the Force Concept Inventory (FCI; Hestenes et al., 1992) scores of the candidates. The pre- and postcourse FCI results showed an average normalized gain (g) of 0.43, which indicates a medium gain well above the increase associated with traditional physics courses (Hake, 1998).
The attention given in the pedagogical sessions to prior conceptions related to the physics content of the course was a fourth critical factor, creating an impact at two different levels. At one level, the candidates valued learning how to respond to specific prior conceptions, as Natasha noted in her postcourse survey: “The most valuable part I believe was how to address misconceptions, and then actually putting the things we learned into motion by leading various activities in the undergrad physics course” (Student-Centered Replacement, Advanced). At a broader level, the course supported candidates in reconsidering how to view prior conceptions, as Charles described in his postcourse interview:
But I guess this idea of addressing misconceptions, and sort of figuring out the structural foundations of where they [misconceptions] come from. And realizing that and being able to work from it, as opposed to having this mindset of starting from scratch, or they’re all [students] starting wrong. (Student-Centered Replacement, Advanced)
This fourth factor was likely enhanced by candidates’ own experience of discovering that some of their prior conceptions conflicted with the scientific explanations of the physics concepts being studied. In other words, experiencing conceptual change firsthand produced a fresh perspective concerning what is involved in facilitating conceptual change and why the refinement approach is valuable.
The final factor that likely supported the change in the MAT candidates’ views of teaching and learning of physics was the collaboration between the physics and science education faculty members. In our other article (Criswell & Demir, 2022), we described the elements of a pedagogical convergence that contributed to an effective integration of the learning experiences provided by the two faculty. The candidates themselves recognized the importance of this integration, as is apparent in Howard’s postcourse survey response to a question about the perceived nature of the collaboration between the faculty: “They [the two faculty members] worked well together and they helped bridge science knowledge with science teaching.”
The co-taught PHYS 7210 course, designed and enacted through a collaboration between a physics faculty member and a science education faculty member, was designed to strengthen the content and pedagogical content knowledge of MAT candidates who might teach physics in high school. The data we presented showed that the course did increase the candidates’ content knowledge (based on the gains in FCI scores, shown in Figure 2) and pedagogical content knowledge (based on the change in their views of teaching and learning, shown in Figure 1). We also presented data that suggest that the structural features of the course—especially the integration of content and pedagogical sessions with experience applying the knowledge to interactions with general physics students—supported these outcomes. The “bridging” efforts of the collaborating faculty, designed to connect their individual foci, were also shown to have influenced these outcomes.
It would be ideal for science teacher education programs to include a course of this nature for their teacher candidates. The collaborating faculty believed that it was beneficial for candidates to take such a course later in the program, as students would have enough content and pedagogical knowledge on which to layer more sophisticated understandings. In the postcourse survey, several of the MAT candidates corroborated this view when they were asked when they think such a course should be offered: Darby stated, “This course should be taken before student teaching. That way, the students [candidates] have experience trying to create a more inquiry/student-centered environment before they enter into a real school setting.”
There would be benefits to undergraduate STEM programs to utilize models like the one used in PHYS 7210 course where upper-level undergraduate or graduate teacher candidates serve as lab or teaching assistants for STEM foundation courses, in conjunction with methods or PCK-focused courses. This model provides the STEM teacher candidates the opportunity to apply their PCK to work with actual students, and it provides the STEM foundation courses with additional pedagogical support.
We believe some lessons from the co-taught PHYS 7210 course could be applied to contexts other than teacher preparation courses, such as general physics (or chemistry or biology) courses. These applications do not require the time-consuming kind of collaboration that produced the PHYS 7210 course. Monthly conversations between STEM content and STEM education faculty, in which faculty share ideas about challenging concepts and innovative ways to address such content, could be a simple starting point. Taking these interactions a step further, content faculty could invite education faculty to observe their lessons—and vice versa—especially around critical and difficult content. The collaboration between the physics and science education faculty that spurred the development of PHYS 7210 began with something similar: an invitation for a guest lecture that led to other lessons being observed. This opened up a dialogue that produced a recognition of shared challenges and eventually a development of common language. Both faculty shared resources with each other, including the physics faculty sharing the book Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching (Knight, 2004), which the education faculty member drew from in his science methods course the following fall.
Short of the opportunity for collaborating in these more manageable ways with colleagues, there is value in college faculty learning some of the same strategies to which the MAT candidates in PHYS 7210 were exposed. This article provides a number of references that would be valuable starting points for gaining exposure to some of those strategies. Additionally, online resources such as Page Keeley’s Uncovering Student Ideas (Keeley, 2011) and Diagnoser (FACET Innovations, 2020) are available. With such easily accessible starting points, faculty can strengthen the learning experiences of their students to support them in not only learning science content but also thinking scientifically.
Kadir Demir (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of science education in the Department of Middle and Secondary Education at Georgia State University; Brett Criswell is an assistant professor of science education in the Department of Secondary Education at West Chester University; and William Stoll is the head of science faculty at Newton College in Lima, Peru.
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