Encountering and exploring early entrenchment: pre-service teachers' response to a novel science teaching and learning space

Objectives or purposes


            Our purposes for this study were to examine a group of preservice science teachers' response to inquiry activities that use a suite of web-based bioinformatics tools, the Biology WorkBench. We were most interested in exploring their views of students' ability to engage in these inquiry activities, as well as in locating their attitudes toward teaching using this type of inquiry activity. We were interested, as well, in the teachers' visions of technology use in their classrooms. We locate and organize their comments about the activities we designed and they executed, with respect to inquiry, to teaching inquiry, and to teaching teachers to teach inquiry. We embed in our discussion an exploration of the purposes of teaching inquiry and of teaching science, and, necessarily, to what is legitimate science teaching, learning, and knowledge.


            There is a resurgence of interest in inquiry teaching and learning (Bruce, 1997, and Crawford, Hurd, Lappan and Schwab, all 2000). We, the authors, believe there is educational value, validity and power in students engaging in authentic inquiry in the science classroom and elsewhere. We have been involved in a project to develop curricular materials for preservice science teachers that utilize a particular suite of tools used by research scientists in the area of bioinformatics. We saw in this project the opportunity to build in and maintain both the spirit and the practice of inquiry. Indeed, central to all of the materials we have developed is the deliberate architecture of inquiry space; that is, a space for students to ask questions, search for answers, and communicate the results of their searches.


            As we have shared the materials with teachers and students at various educational levels and disciplinary specialties, we have noted several trends. Biology teachers, compared with teachers of other science subjects, have been less likely to think their students can engage successfully with the materials, and they point to the students' relative lack of necessary and appropriate background as the major obstacle. They also tend to think that only the most advanced of their student population can perform the activities, and then only in special situations, even though we have successfully used these same materials with middle-school students, non-A.P. high schoolers, and non-science major undergraduates. We designed the study described here to investigate these trends.


Perspectives/theoretical frameworks


            We bring to our work in science teacher education several overlapping perspectives. The central perspective is that of constructivism--the belief that students construct knowledge rather than receive it, and that rather than dispense knowledge, teachers facilitate their students' unique and personal construction of it (von Glasersfeld, 1987 and 1995). Implicit in this is a decentralization of the role of facts and established truths. While this perspective is anything but revolutionary in the rhetoric of (most areas in) the education community, in practice, positivism continues to reign.


            We also bring to our work a framework that considers science education to include multiple domains, including but not limited to what is usually considered science knowledge, per se. Our conception of science education includes domains of process, creativity, affect, application, and global connection (Yager, 1980 and 1996).


            Students learn through activity (Dewey, 1966), activity which is purposeful, teacher-facilitated, and student-mediated if not student-directed. The experience of education is what educates. Like Dewey, Greene (1988) places freedom as a central perspective, and endorses education that builds in (to itself and its participants) freedom, an ability to live freely, and a capacity to enhance freedom.


            We apply to our analysis the notion of a paradigm (Kuhn, 1963), and how inculcation into a paradigm limits one's ability to work or even to see outside of it. The paradigms we consider in this study are about teaching in general and science teaching in particular, especially as they relate to teachers' attitudes toward student inquiry within the curriculum.


            Finally, we turn to Bourdieu (1977), to consider the obstacles to successfully introducing authentic inquiry into the science curriculum. According to Bourdieu, the status quo is likely to maintained at least in part through a persistent belief that the existing situation is the natural, and therefore, inescapable one.


Methods, techniques, modes of inquiry


            This is a small-scale, qualitative, close-focus study of a workshop the authors conducted with one secondary science methods class for student teachers. The workshop was on inquiry-based activities in bioinformatics, which the authors designed and which the preservice teachers completed, discussed during the workshop and commented on in writing during and after the workshop.


            The study combines several aspects of action research, as we examine our own practice, as the subject of the study, and in terms of implications for our future practice as science educators. We have applied an iterative thematic analysis to the written comments.


Data sources/evidence


            Primary data come from a workshop with preservice teachers and the week following the workshop. During the workshop, we presented three deliberately sequenced activities. The first was a context-setting discussion-based activity in which students considered seven separate scenarios, each of which was outlined on cards and read by individual students within a scenario group. The scenarios touched on issues related to bioinformatics, including for-profit and not-for-profit genome projects, gene patenting, and forensic application of DNA testing.

            The second activity involved a specific scenario involving the DNA of an individual animal, and trying to learn something about it by comparing it to DNA of other animalsóthrough examining raw amino acid sequence data, a multiple amino acid sequence alignment, and a phylogenetic "tree," all generated by the Biology WorkBench, the tool suite with which we have been working. In this second activity, the participants were shown how to interpret these data sources and then guided through a consideration of what could be learned from them. It did not involve the participants using the technology to generate their own data.

            The third activity was also initiated by a specific scenario, examining the similarities and differences of chimpanzee populations based on their geographic location and sub-species designation. In this third activity participants were responsible for both defining a specific research question and using the bioinformatics analysis tools to carry out their own analysis. Over the course of the activity series, the students were oriented to the components of the tool suite, introduced to the data set, and were asked to identify possible investigations.


The data for our study are of three types.


            First are the student teachers' written comments after each of three activities. Each time we asked the student teachers the following two questions:


A1. What learning, if any, took place?


A2. Would you use an activity such as this in your class? Why/why not?


            Second are their written responses the week after the workshop to three questions:


            B1. What teaching and learning goals would drive/guide your use of these activities (or activities like these) in the classroom?


            B2. What teaching and learning goals would drive/guide your use of this technology in the classroom?


            B3. What teaching and learning goals would drive/guide your use of any technology in the classroom?


            Third are written notes we, the authors/workshop presenters, took during and immediately following the workshop.


            Secondary data are from workshops we have held with other populations, including all high school biology teachers, all undergraduate biology instructors, or mixed groups of high school and undergraduate teachers and students, preservice teachers and teacher educators.




            The student teachers who participated in the workshop engaged enthusiastically and, from our perspectives, productively in the three activities we designed and presented to them. However, they were not quick to embrace as teachers the inquiry space that they embraced as students.


            The results of our study reinforce the idea that before teachers can embrace an inquiry space (especially a novel one), several issues need to be addressed and accounted for. According to these students teachers, the space must not seem too large or too undefined. Students must be sufficiently directed. The teacher must feel adequately prepared. These issues are related to fear of a real or perceived lack or loss of controlóover the goals and means of the classroom, over the curriculum, over time, and over the learning that occurs.


Students' construction of their own knowledge is believed in, or at least attested to, but only when that construction is carefully controlled by the teacher, out of materials furnished by (or routed through) and completely understood by the teacher, into structures pre-determined by the teacher, and within the teacher's experience (therefore, recognizable and certifiable as knowledge), and that will fit with or match the knowledge that is supposed to follow.


            Possible exceptions are:

            activities considered either exploratory of future knowledge or confirmatory of existing knowledge,

            activities that, perhaps oddly, are not recognizable as science, such as discussion, brainstorming and role-playing), although these tend to be allotted minimal curricular and temporal space in a classroom,

            activities or inquiries for which the possible outcomes are entirely predictable

            activity that can be seen as accomplishing subsidiary goals, such as technological competence, problem solving skill, nature of science understanding, and awareness of social and ethical issues.


Educational/Scientific importance


            Our goals in our curriculum design project have been to architect space for inquiry, learning and teaching. confident that the suite of tools we have been using (the Biology WorkBench in this project) is robust enough to accommodate authentic inquiry. We have worked within that suite as if under a giant umbrella. We have tried to orient teachers and students to the umbrella, so that they can get a sense of what ground it covers, and what kind of shade it provides, so that they may direct it to "shed some shade" on something the students (and their teachers) will find interesting, useful, and educational to do. In other words, we have been trying to build inquiry spaces in which to pursue and construct science knowledge.


            However, as long as teachers view the "other" goals and domains of science education (e.g., technology and social issues) to be subsidiary to "real" science knowledge, rather than embedded within and part of science, and to be threatening to teachers' control (in all its senses), we see ongoing and substantial challenges to locating authentic inquiry "safely" within teachers' repertoire, and, therefore, within the science curriculum.


            As believers that students should have the experience of pursuing answers to questions that they themselves have asked, we want to work with teachers to increase their confidence in their students' abilities to do inquiry. Yet, according to our data, the more the teacher knows, the more the teacher thinks the student needs to know BEFORE they can DO, which presents some real obstacles to students pursuing inquiry. The deferment, perhaps forever, of allowing (much less sanctioning) students to ask and pursue their own questions, is one way that we as teachers uphold the scientific paradigms in which we have been inculcated. It is also a way that we fail to gird students to engage in revolutionary science, to conceive of questions outside of the paradigm. Maxine Greene (1988) argues that one of our responsibilities as teachers is to build in the capacity for freedom; insisting that our students have "comprehensive" background enforces a tool-bound conception of science and enhances the likelihood that freedom will not occur.


            Our data show that these teachers believe extremely undesirable for a student to make a misstep or to arrive at an undesignated or unanticipated destination. For many teachers, this represents a threat to the order and control that are considered so essential to the classroom. It is an invitation to chaos, and certainly a complication of teachers' and curriculum designers' lives.


            This significance of this study lies in the sobering message it communicates to teacher educators and curriculum designers about the obstacles to instituting inquiry education, and perhaps, we would hope, to the perceptive reader, in hints about ways to overcome those obstacles.



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