Teachers and researchers as knowledge builders for better school science

The proposed project takes two concrete school problems as the point of departure. One is the fact that a majority of students, despite teaching, have a rather limited conceptual understanding of science subjects at the end of compulsory school, as demonstrated by many studies e.g. in Sweden and the UK. The other is that research results, that could be used to improve science teaching, are not studied by teachers and put into practice. With these problems as starting point, the main aim of the project is to investigate what happens when researchers in science education and teachers of science work together with the question: 'How could we teach so that students at the upper part of compulsory school (13-16 years of age) get a good understanding of school science?'

The project will be organised to make contributions to the development of science education research as well as teaching practice at school. By using the professional knowledge of the project teachers, research results and a theory of what are favourable conditions for lasting conceptual understanding, three teaching sequences will be developed and tried out. The topics chosen are 'A particulate theory of matter', 'the theory of evolution' and 'genetics and genetic engineering'. During the work, we will study how research results interact with the teachers' professional knowledge and are put into practice, as well as how the teaching sequences are received and understood by pupils.

Finally, we will investigate what happens when the results and experiences, gained by the project, are disseminated to other teachers of science, who are interested improving their teaching. The project will be a collaborative undertaking by the University of Göteborg and the University Colleges of Borås and Skövde. There will be an exchange of knowledge with Leeds University and the University of Lyon, where similar projects are in progress.

Starting points

Our starting points are two important school problems. One of them is the lack of scientific knowledge in the majority of students at the end of compulsory school as has been shown in studies in Sweden and internationally. For a review, see Andersson 2001. If you don't understand you tend to loose interest, and this is perhaps one cause of lack of uptake of science education amongst students.

The other problem is that ämnesdidaktical research findings, which have the potential to improve education, do not reach teachers and are therefore not put into practice.If you start thinking of these problems you will realise that teachers' practice is of major importance for what students learn. This practice is based on knowledge about the specific contexts in which teachers work, for example the different individuals that are involved and the different framing factors that are salient in each situation. The teacher also has knowledge about what it means to teach the content of the curriculum to specific groups of students. This knowledge is partly implicit (Kroksmark, 1995). The teacher also knows how their colleagues teach on a scale from informal conversations to more formally documented case studies. There is also both specific and general knowledge which is the result of research and that might influence the teachers' practice. This knowledge appears in scientific journals, but often on a high level of abstraction. It takes time to understand and interpret, and it is therefore hard for teachers to operationalise.

In Sweden there is currently no developed tradition for systematically capturing teachers' insights and experiences from their practice, while in other countries major parts of teachers' school development is based on this (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999). You can't say that we in Sweden use research findings in a systematic way to improve practice. This, to us, is problematic yet at the same time we notice some positive signals. For example:

  • In the proposal for a new teacher education curriculum the government asks for more research that is directed towards the school world and they specifically mention the need for ämnesdidaktical research. They think that the education of future teachers should rest more upon scientific grounds than is currently the case. An equivalent need for scientific anchoring is valid for practicing teachers.
  • In the proposition, they emphasise that teachers' development of competence includes teachers doing research under supervision from competent university-based people.
  • The research council (Vetenskapsrådet) has identified one specific area for development, namely the development of educational research in close association with teacher education, and with direct relevance for teachers' practice.

We share the views expressed in the points above and are convinced that an increased use of findings from research from science teaching can lead to obvious improvements, both in terms of pupils' learning and their attitudes towards science. In this context it is important that there are studies showing that research-based changes in practice can not be forced upon teachers from above, but only by researchers working together with teachers (Baird and Northfield, 1992).

The project that we propose will therefore involve close co-operation between teachers and researchers as a 'red thread'. The starting point for the research process is that teachers and researchers face a common problem which is: how do you teach so the students develop a good scientific understanding? It involves a joint building of knowledge which demands different kinds of expertise.

The teachers bring their practical knowledge and take part in the design of the teaching/learning sequences, and in the collection of data, analysis and interpretation. The researchers bring ämnesdidaktical competence (at the level of professors), content knowledge in physics (at 'docent' level), biology and chemistry (at doctoral level), and have the overall responsibility for the project.