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research & teaching

Elementary Preservice Teachers’ Use of Speaking, Listening, and Writing Skills to Understand the Importance of Nature of Science Instruction

Journal of College Science Teaching—May/June 2020 (Volume 49, Issue 5)

By Melanie Kinskey


There has been a focus on improving teachers’ views of nature of science for decades. The method in which researchers improve views of nature of science, however, varies greatly. This study aimed to improve elementary preservice teachers’ views of nature of science and nature of science instruction through a course assignment that required the preservice teachers to use speaking, listening, and writing skills through an interview with young children. They were then asked to write an analysis paper explaining their students’ views of nature of science and implications for their future practice. After engaging with the interdisciplinary work of a scientist through nature of science modules and the interview during field experiences, the elementary preservice teachers developed more informed views of science and gained an understanding of the importance of nature of science instruction.

 

The instructional implications of in-service and preservice teachers’ views of nature of science (NOS) is a widely researched area (Herman et al., 2017; Lederman & Lederman, 2014). Although NOS is generally defined as the characteristics of science, the work in which scientists engage (Clough, 2006), and the beliefs and values fundamental to scientific knowledge (Lederman, 1992), there is not one single, agreed upon set of NOS aspects teachers are expected to know (Lederman, 2007). The Next Generation State Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013) identify eight aspects of NOS for K–12 education:

  • Scientific investigations use a variety of methods.
  • Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence.
  • Scientific knowledge is open to revision in light of new evidence.
  • Scientific models, laws, mechanisms, and theories explain natural phenomena.
  • Science is a way of knowing.
  • Scientific knowledge assumes an order and consistency in natural systems.
  • Science is a human endeavor. Science addresses questions about the natural and material world (p. 4).

A person’s view of NOS has implications for one’s ability to function as a scientifically informed citizen (Lederman & Lederman, 2014). When students are scientifically literate, they understand the interdisciplinary work in which scientists engage. Scientifically literate students are aware that scientists not only engage in scientific investigations, but must also communicate their results with speaking, listening, and writing skills (Roberts & Bybee, 2014). These interdisciplinary connections to English language arts (ELA) are evident in the NGSS.

Aspects of NOS that are common in elementary teaching and the aspects that were the focus for this study are: a difference between observation and inference; and scientific knowledge being tentative, empirical, subjective, and creative (Olson, 2008).

Tentativeness. Lederman (2007) discusses the importance of understanding that scientific knowledge is not fixed and may change as new evidence is presented through either oral or written communication. The misconception that science is fixed and absolute is common among K–12 students (Lederman, 2007) and preservice teachers (Mesci & Schwartz, 2017). The misbelief that science provides absolute proof may give students the impression that there is always a “right” or “wrong” answer, creating a learning environment where students are less likely to take risks and try something new.

Empirical. Conclusions made in scientific endeavors demand support from evidence (Lederman, 2007). A misconception regarding this aspect of NOS, however, is that all evidence is collected through experimentation. Preservice teachers, especially those in the early years of elementary education, must be aware and willing to teach that evidence may also stem from making observations (McComas, 2004). Understanding the need to support findings with empirical evidence, whether that be through experimentation or more qualitative measures, such as observations, prepares preservice teachers to facilitate scientific discourse that requires elementary students to draw from evidence to support their opinions.

Subjective. Elementary preservice teachers must be prepared to teach their students that science is a subjective, human endeavor (Lederman, 2014). There is a misconception in education that scientists are always objective (McComas, 1998). This misunderstanding, much like the idea that science provides absolute proof, may cause students to look for the correct, most objective set of steps with which to engage in science investigations, missing the opportunity to make observations and interpretations different from their peers. When elementary preservice teachers understand the subjectivity of science, specifically that scientists’ interpretations of empirical data is often influenced by their backgrounds and past experiences (Lederman, 2007), they have a stronger ability to pass this knowledge onto their students. This provides their students opportunities for their own past experiences to be used when analyzing data and drawing their conclusions.

Creative. The idea that science follows a scientific method, and is not a creative process, is a commonly taught myth (McComas, 1998). Olson (2008) found that because of this misbelief, students were less likely to be interested in science because of its tedious routines. Elementary preservice teachers should be informed and comfortable with teaching NOS enough to allow students to be creative in designing their own solutions to science investigations. Understanding the creativity of science will also help elementary preservice teachers feel comfortable taking risks with instructional methods that are “messy” and require creative solutions from students, such as engineering design (Antink-Meyer & Meyer, 2016) and socioscientific issues (Abd-El-Khalick, 2003).

Observations and inferences. Distinguishing the difference between observations and inferences helps elementary aged children understand that using their five senses to make sense of the world is the same as a scientist making sense of data (Leager, 2008). When elementary students are able to move from making observations to making inferences, they are engaging in more complex scientific understandings (Lederman, 2007). Preservice teachers need to understand this difference in order to move their students from lower cognitive engagements with science to more sophisticated methods of inferring from data.

Purpose of the study

In the present study, I explored how elementary preservice teachers’ views of science and NOS instruction changed after using ELA skills to interview students about science. I sought to do this by providing opportunities for the preservice teachers to employ speaking, listening, and writing skills to collect and communicate data. The elementary preservice teachers recorded themselves administering the Young Children’s Views of Science (YCVS) interview protocol (Lederman et al., 2014) to a group of elementary aged children in grades K–5. After completion of the interview, the preservice teachers listened to the audio of their interview and analyzed student responses. The elementary teachers reflected upon the responses the elementary children provided and wrote a paper communicating their students’ views of NOS, as well as their own understanding of NOS instruction.

Young children’s views of science interview protocol

The protocol used in this study consists of two parts: (1) twelve questions that assess a student’s basic understanding of science; and (2) five questions that assess a student’s understanding of scientific inquiry and specific aspects of NOS: tentativeness, subjectivity, observation and inference, and the empirical basis of science. At the end of the protocol, the preservice teachers used a scoring chart to analyze their students’ responses. The scoring chart identifies which questions focus on scientific inquiry or specific aspects of NOS. Once the preservice teacher identifies what the question is analyzing, he or she is able to move to the next step, which is identifying if the student’s response is naïve or informed. Lederman et al. (2014) define naïve responses as those which are not consistent with scientific inquiry or aspects of NOS and informed responses as those which are consistent with most parts of scientific inquiry or aspects of NOS. For each question in the protocol, there is a scoring guide that provides sample student responses. These sample responses acted as anchor items for the preservice teachers as they analyzed their data.

Context and methods

The study took place during a 14-week elementary science methods course that emphasized explicit, reflective NOS instruction. The methods course met one day per week for three hours. The class consisted of 22 elementary preservice teachers in their junior year of their undergraduate program. The preservice teachers were completing a field experience that required them to be in a classroom one full day per week for the duration of the 14-week course.

The methods course was designed to develop the preservice teachers’ understandings of science through engagement with NOS aspects. During the first six weeks of the course, I facilitated lessons that focused only on delivering explicit, reflective instruction regarding aspects of NOS. Explicit NOS lessons that were delivered during these six weeks included scrambled sentence, NOS tubes, black box Frankenstein, NOS card sort, observation versus inference mystery sounds, and fossil find. My decision to engage the preservice teachers in hands-on NOS activities is supported by existing research that has found hands-on activities to be impactful in changing NOS views in preservice teachers (Mesci & Schwartz, 2017). In addition to the NOS modules that were facilitated during the methods course, I also assigned coursework that would allow the preservice teachers the opportunity to apply their understandings of NOS. On the final day of the course, I solicited volunteers to allow the work they completed in the course to be analyzed and used in this study, which received prior Institutional Review Board approval before the semester began. One-hundred percent of the preservice teachers in the course (n = 22) agreed to allow their coursework to be used and signed the consent form.

The interdisciplinary components of Nature of Science modules

Engaging in scientific discourse that includes speaking, listening, and writing skills is a critical component of comprehending scientific content and becoming scientifically literate (Roberts & Bybee, 2014). As preservice teachers experienced decontexualized, explicit, reflective NOS lessons in my science methods course, they learned how to engage their students in scientifically based discussions that require students to communicate claims and support those claims with evidence.

Scrambled sentence. During this activity, the preservice teachers were placed in pairs and provided an envelope that contained the exact same words. They were told the words in the envelope represented data and to work with their partner to examine the data and draw conclusions about what the sentence might say.

NOS tubes. After providing each group of four or five preservice teachers a cylinder tube with string through it, the preservice teachers began to explore the tube by pulling on one string and making observations. The preservice teachers then communicated their observations with their peers and the class worked together to draw conclusions about what was occurring inside the tube.

Black box Frankenstein. This NOS activity is very similar to the NOS tube in regard to how the preservice teachers interacted with the objects. Each group of four to five preservice teachers were provided with a black box representing Frankenstein’s head that had four dowels protruding from it. The preservice teachers were not able to open the box to peer inside. Inside the box metal washers were hanging on the dowels, and each time the preservice teacher moved a dowel they would hear a clinking sound. As they engaged with the black box, the preservice teachers had to record their observations on a piece of paper and then communicate those observations orally to the class. After presenting their observations and conclusions, the class collaborated to determine what was inside Frankenstein’s head.

Nature of Science card sort. During this activity, the preservice teachers were provided with a set of 15 cards that had theoretical statements concerning science. Individually, each preservice teacher read the statement and had to determine whether he or she agreed or disagreed. Then, the preservice teachers worked in pairs and then groups of four to discuss the statements and try to determine a set of eight cards they could all agree upon.

Observation versus inference. Each preservice teacher was provided with a numbered plastic cylinder container that contained an object. Without opening the container, the preservice teacher had to hold and shake the container to make observations. Then, they used a data sheet to record conclusions about what they thought was inside the container. Once teachers drew a conclusion, they found a peer that had the same number and had to communicate their observations and conclusions. Teachers’ goal was to communicate so clearly they convinced their peer of the object inside the tube.

Fossil find. This final NOS activity is similar to the sentence scramble previously mentioned. Each group of four or five preservice teachers were provided with an envelope of bones. The preservice teachers were instructed to only take a few bones at a time and try to assemble their bones to determine which animal they came from. This activity provided the preservice teachers the opportunity to collaborate with each other as real scientists do as they communicated their thoughts and background knowledge to draw conclusions.

Communication skills. In order to successfully engage in these activities, the preservice teachers had to clearly communicate their thoughts and claims and listen attentively to their peers as they tried to make connections between their evidence and additional evidence other groups may have collected. In addition to listening and speaking with their peers, the preservice teachers practiced thoroughly recording their observations as they made predictions about the data they had collected.

Data collection

Open-ended responses. I engaged in a pre-/postdesign to assess the elementary preservice teachers’ understanding of science. On the first day of class, to assess their initial understanding of science, I asked the preservice teachers to respond to the open-ended question, “What is science?” This allowed me to gain an understanding of their initial thinking. At the completion of the explicit, reflective NOS modules, the preservice teachers were asked to, once again, respond to the question, “What is science?” The postmodule question provided insight into any growth or changes to their views of science.

YCVS interview reflections. After engaging with the explicit, reflective NOS modules, I also assigned the YCVS interview and analysis paper where the interns were expected to interview a group of 3–5 students and analyze the student responses. In the final section of the paper, I asked the preservice teachers to reflect on their experience facilitating the interview and analyzing the student responses and to consider how their findings will influence their future science instruction. These reflective paragraphs served as another source of data to provide insight into the preservice teachers’ views of NOS, and specifically, NOS instruction.

Data analysis

To analyze the data, I engaged in a two-cycle coding process that included identifying both deductive and descriptive codes, as well as patterns and themes (Saldaña, 2009).

What is science? Open-ended response. As I coded the open-ended responses, I engaged in the following procedure: (1) read each premodule response once; (2) read through the premodule responses a second time and placed a code next to any aspects of NOS (tentative, subjective, creative, theory versus law, empirical, social/cultural, observation versus inference); (3) read each postmodule response once; and (4) read through the postmodule responses a second time and placed a code next to any aspects of NOS (tentative, subjective, creative, theory versus law, empirical, social/cultural, observation versus inference). During my second cycle of codes I did the following: (1) reread through the premodule responses and added a descriptive code to any evidence of understanding science as interdisciplinary; and (2) reread through the postmodule responses and added a descriptive code to any evidence of understanding science as interdisciplinary.

YCVS interview reflections. First-cycle codes of the interview reflections consisted of my reading through each preservice teacher’s reflection. I then went back through all of the reflections and added descriptive codes that identified what the preservice teacher identified as important during the process of speaking with and listening to students and writing the analysis report. Second-cycle codes consisted of my reviewing the first-cycle codes and identifying patterns based on repetition. I then compared these patterns to identify similarities and construct thematic statements to describe the reoccurring patterns.

Findings and discussion

What is science? Open-ended responses

Analysis of the premodule “What is science?” responses indicated that 22/22 (100%) of the preservice teachers in the course began the semester with “mostly naïve” views of science. The postNOS module results show that 21/22 (95%) of the preservice teachers held “mostly informed” views of science. Examples of the growth made by some preservice teachers may be found in Table 1.

Table 1. Representative quotes before and after explicit nature of science instruction.

ID

Premodule response

Postmodule response

Researcher’s interpretation

PST3

Science is the process of learning new methods and discovering how things work, you then apply these to make the world better. Looking back at all of my science memories, I think that seeing how all of that can be used in real life, it made me realize how much science is utilized to make the world easier for us.

Science is creative, which is something that I never knew. Science is not set in stone. Things change and there are not always right answers, or answers at all! Science does not have one specific method. There are so many methods used to collect data and form theories/laws. Overall, science is nothing like what we are taught in school. Science is changing, creative, collaborative, not all-knowing. Science does not have all of the answers!

The preservice teacher had a very generalized, naïve view of science at the beginning of the semester. After engaging with NOS, however, we see a specific, more robust understanding of science and its interdisciplinary nature. This is evident as the preservice teacher mentions aspects of NOS that require clear communication, such as collecting data and collaborating.

PST10

Science is the world around me. It is the photosynthesis of plants, the DNA and RNA of my child, it is the ball of gas the makes up the star we call the Sun, and so much more. Science is asking “why or how” and then discovering the answer through the scientific principal. I know these things because I was exposed to them through my classes from Kindergarten to college. I have taken so many different science classes and still feel that there is so much more to learn. Some of my experiences come from lectures but the examples above are all hands-on lesson that I was taught by great teachers.

Science is something that does not fit neatly into a one size fits all box. It is important to teach students how science can be done through investigation and/or observation. There is not a say all do all to the method used to complete an experiment. Science is messy, creative, can be subjective, and is not absolute. By allowing students to think creatively and explore their thoughts on how things work students can begin discovering the world around them with limited bias. Another thing for students to understand is that what is learned through scientific investigations can change based on additional information/data discovered.

This preservice teacher begins the semester with an understanding that science is the content we teach and how we teach that content. After engaging in the modules, however, the understanding of interdisciplinary skills of the work of scientists is illustrated in the references that science is a human endeavor. Specifically, the preservice teacher references the subjective nature of science as well as the ability to change our understanding of content when new information is communicated with empirical evidence.

PST14

Science is everything, every experience we have is science. To me life is one giant experiment, every day we learn and experiment in our world and the outcome of our experiments shape our experiences.

Science is subjective, as much as scientists try to prevent bias in their research and findings there really isn’t a way to make something completely bias free. Science is never absolute and is constantly changing. Scientists are always challenging others findings and testing new theories and ideas. Science tries to make sense of the world but cannot find complete answers to every question. Some things simply cannot be explained or proven by science, and even when there is sufficient evidence not everyone will believe what science claims. Science is a social activity. What scientists study is usually the result of opinions on what is socially important or considered by the majority to be important.

The preservice teachers’ naïve view of science at the beginning of the semester is present in the lack of understanding how scientific work is completed and presented. After the NOS modules the preservice teacher understands the importance of nature of science communication skills in science are as he or she explicitly states that scientists are constantly sharing their ideas and challenging the ideas of each other.

In the premodule responses to the question “What is science?” the preservice teachers demonstrated a lack of understanding NOS and instead believed science to be more about processes (PST3), content (PST10), and inquiry (PST14). This disconnect between science and NOS is common among teachers (Lederman, 2007). In the postNOS module responses, however, there is evidence of a combination of different aspects of NOS being used to describe science.

The positive change in the views of science displayed by the preservice teachers is representative of what other researchers have found after engaging preservice teachers in explicit, reflective NOS instruction (e.g., Kruse et al., 2017; Ozgelen et al., 2013). By asking the general question “What is science?” the preservice teachers were able to communicate the connections of various aspects of NOS to their understanding of science. This also provides input into possible deficit thinking based on how many and which aspects of NOS are referenced.

Young children’s views of science analysis and reflection paper

After the preservice teachers demonstrated mostly informed views of science, they were assigned the task of administering Lederman et al.’s (2014) YCVS interview protocol to a group of students in their field-based classroom. The purpose of this field-based assignment was to allow the preservice teachers to use ELA skills to determine the level of NOS understanding students in their placement classrooms held. The preservice teachers asked students questions and listened as students reflected on their knowledge of NOS. After engaging in the interview with students, the preservice teachers analyzed and wrote a report communicating students’ views of science. Additionally, they considered implications for their practice. As they considered implications, the preservice teachers reflected on their own beliefs regarding the importance of having children think about what they know about science. Themes with examples from data analysis are illustrated in Table 2.

Table 2. Representations of preservice teachers’ views about nature of science instruction.

Theme

Supporting examples

Researcher’s interpretation

Identify student misconceptions

PST2: I think this survey is something that can show teachers misconceptions their students might have about science and can show teachers how much students understand what science is. It can be used as an assessment in the classroom to see where students are.PST23: I think having this as a tool in your classroom can help to clear up any misconceptions students may have or any stereotypes.

Facilitating this interview with students allowed the preservice teachers to listen to their students’ thinking. By employing their listening skills, the preservice teachers acted as scientists as they collected data and were able to identify misconceptions their students held.

Identifying a need for more explicit NOS instruction

PST6: I believe we should raise up our students to be informed and understanding of the true nature of science, especially as most individuals are fed false information/perceptions of science from various sources.PST14: Overall, I learned my students seem to lack a complete understanding of scientific inquiry and NOS. My opinion is it was probably incorporated into the content they learned but not explicitly outlined in the lesson, so they retained the content very well but not the concepts on inquiry and NOS. I feel as though if a lesson was taught and the teacher put emphasis on how the students were collaborating, or maybe showing bias of their own, my students would be able to say, “science is collaborative” or something along those lines that pertains to inquiry and NOS.

After hearing what their students shared about science, the preservice teachers identified a need to explicitly teach their students about the work of scientists. Both preservice teachers in this sample set mention how critical communication in science is, whether it be due to misinformation being spread or the importance of teaching students how to communicate with each other.

Formative assessment

PST18: This protocol may be highly beneficial as a formative assessment in determining the science instruction my students received and inform future instruction.PST9: This can be useful in a classroom particularly in the beginning of the school year as a way to gauge a student’s prior knowledge in order to adjust instruction and cater to your students’ needs.

The interview protocol was not only valuable for the preservice teachers to listen to students’ misunderstandings, but they also considered how student responses could inform future instruction in their classrooms. By recording the students’ responses the preservice teachers will have a record to refer to while planning and adjusting instruction.

Understanding student interest

PST7: By having this information I can accommodate lessons to best meet students’ needs and create a bigger interest science. Knowing that a student loved dinosaurs as much as D does could lead me to discuss fossils and the pre historic era. I could introduce students who are like E to different science sources online that allow them to explore and learn on their own. Taking into account a student’s lack of confidence in their science abilities, like N would allow me to build their love for science throughout the year. PST12: I found that my students really enjoy science and learning about it, which I never really saw before.

Listening to their students helps the preservice teachers go beyond instruction and connect with their students. The dialogue that took place during the interview provided unexpected opportunities for the preservice teachers to learn about the skills and interests of their students.

Empowered

PST13: All throughout their education, they are taught one scientific method, that scientists perform experiments, etc. so when students think about science that’s what they remember and this science is. I want to teach kids that there is more to science than just one way and one topic.PST20: This [protocol] tell[s] me that the students are taught basic science that often confirms stereotypes and misconceptions. This information has inspired me to ensure equity in the classroom and in science lessons. Making sure that the students are given many real life examples of what science actually is instead of crazy dangerous situations taught by old insane looking men is important to engage and help students explore science.

Listening and speaking with their students helped these preservice teachers realize the impact they have on their students’ lives and understanding of science. In addition to feeling empowered by their influence on students, the preservice teachers are demonstrating confidence in their ability to make this positive influence in their students’ lives.

The responses from the preservice teachers indicate the belief that using speaking and listening skills to administer the YCVS protocol provides valuable insight into student knowledge and misconceptions and has implications for their teaching practice regarding NOS instruction. Some of the preservice teachers found that engaging students in opportunities to reflect on their understanding of science helped to reveal misconceptions held by students. As a teacher, they reflected on ways to use the YCVS protocol formatively to address those misconceptions. Additionally, engaging with the YCVS protocol helped the preservice teachers consider the quality of NOS instruction students were receiving, thus recognizing the need to provide explicit, reflective NOS lessons, such as what they had been reading and learning about in the methods course. This new realization empowered some preservice teachers to become more aware of how their science teaching influences student conceptions.

Conclusion

Overall, the preservice teachers believed the use of the YCVS protocol to solicit student understanding and reflections of NOS to be a positive experience. The administration of the protocol initiated a powerful conversation between one preservice teacher and her collaborating teacher. As she reflected on her experience, the preservice teacher shared the following: I was concerned for their lack of knowledge in aspects of nature of science and scientific inquiry. My teacher says science is her favorite. She was shocked and said that she was glad that I ran the assessment because she now knows that she needs to re-teach and give more emphasis on elements of nature of science.

This preservice teacher’s decision to share her experience with her collaborating teacher illustrates a potential missed opportunity regarding the parameters of the field-based assignment. Including the expectation that the preservice teachers would share their understandings with their collaborating teachers increases the value of the learning experience and should be considered with future cohorts.

The utilization of ELA skills speaking and listening allowed these elementary preservice teachers to gain valuable insight into their students’ understandings of NOS that may not have otherwise occurred. The process of writing to communicate their analyses provided opportunities to reflect on their own understanding of the importance of NOS instruction. The incorporation of the YCVS protocol is common in elementary classrooms with students, but had previously not been used as an educative material for preservice teachers. Therefore, this research has implications for science teacher educators as a potential assignment that will improve preservice teachers’ views of NOS and NOS instruction.


Melanie Kinskey (melaniekinskey@gmail.com) is an assistant professor of science education  in the School of Teaching and Learning at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

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Topics

Preservice Science Education

Levels

Pre-service Teachers

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