Post By Jessy Abraham, Philip Smith and Maree Skillen
To engage children with science at primary level, we need teachers who are confident and enthusiastic about teaching science. However, research shows that in general, Australian primary school teachers are not comfortable with teaching science. They often lack content knowledge and their low sense of teaching self-efficacy is well documented in international primary science education literature science (e.g. Fitzgerald, Dawson & Hackling, 2013). The decline in confidence and interest in science is also evident when students enter primary pre-service teacher education courses. Pre-service teachers (PSTs) acknowledge a lack of understanding of content essential to teach primary science effectively (Stephenson, 2018).
Students’ early interest in science begins at primary schools and therefore, poor science teaching at this level can lead them to losing interest in science and eventual discontinuation from the subject during their transition to senior secondary and tertiary studies. This decline in science enrolment has attracted much attention in Australia in recent times.
Several factors influence a student’s science learning and teaching self-efficacy. Personal beliefs are one of them. Bleicher (2009) asserts that the science learner ‘typology’ of a PST would be shaped from their earlier experiences with science, and this can influence their teaching self-efficacy. His research classified PSTs into four types of science learners, based on disclosure of their prior science learning experiences. These types were: fearful of science; disinterested in learning science; successful in science, and enthusiastic about science. His study concluded that each ‘type’ has a distinct effect on science teaching self-efficacy and confidence to learn and teach science. For example, fearful science learners perceived themselves as substantially less confident to learn science than all other types. Interestingly, disinterested science learners did not demonstrate a lack of confidence to learn science. As an extension to this study, Norris, Morris and Lummis (2018) identified a new type of science learner (not clearly identifiable), located in the middle of the other four categories.
At Western Sydney University (WSU) in the Primary Science & Technology program, we wanted to identify the type of science learners our PSTs are. The purpose of this being to optimise their science learning during the methods unit. Our expectation was that WSU PSTs would display a range of dispositions towards science as primary teachers are generalists, not specialists like their secondary counterparts. The guidelines of Bleicher’s study (2009) were followed in classifying the types. Pre-service teachers were informed that the types are not mutually exclusive categories and, although there might be overlap between the descriptions of categories, they were to identify the category that best describes them.
Our survey attracted 91 PSTs (82 females and 9 males) and revealed interesting results. The majority of the PSTs discontinued formal study of science either at Year 12 (39%) or at Year 10 (37%). Only 19% of the students who responded had studied some science subjects to a Degree level while 6% discontinued at Year 11.
Out of the 91 respondents, 13% identified themselves as disinterested in learning science (e.g. dislike or disinterest for science during secondary education/felt bored/not engaged during class/not interested in teaching the subject), while 26% identified themselves as fearful of science (e.g. afraid or have apprehension towards science/the subject content felt foreign and did not make sense/ ‘scared’ about teaching due to a lack of conceptual understanding). It was pleasing to note that 41% are enthusiastic science learners (e.g. highly interested in science/enjoyed or enjoy science classes/attended extra-curricular science type of activities or hobbies/not necessarily achieving highest grades in classes but looking forward to teaching science). Only 6% reported that they are the successful in science type (e.g. high achievers in the area of science/ have science hobby or hobbies/specific interest outside of school science/feel confident to learn and understand science concepts/ confident in teaching science). Interestingly, 14% of students were categorised into not clearly identifiable type (e.g. like some parts of science/ like one branch of science but not some other branches/does not like school science but like science fiction or movies/ will avoid teaching science if possible).
Further, PSTs were asked about the branch of science that they prefer with more than one option being possible to select. Biology was the most popular option (50%), followed by Earth Sciences/Geology (40%), Chemistry (20%), Physics (12%), and Astrophysics (10%). It was notable that 26% of PSTs did not like any branch of science. While a fearful science learner admitted “science is boring and I just can’t retain the information”, not clearly identifiable type felt “science is exciting but challenging at the same time”. Interestingly, enthusiastic science learners disclosed that they “love science, but nervous about teaching the subject”. A successful in science learner described that they “deeply madly fall in love with science”. In general, PSTs felt they lack confidence in certain areas such as Chemistry and Physics than Biology and Geology. Yet, they are all expected to teach a key learning area incorporating all these branches, namely Primary Science, once they qualified as a teacher.
Findings of our survey indicate that a science classroom can include various types of learners. For us this means that our PSTs need more time and learning experiences to reduce their nervousness about science learning and teaching. Furthermore, the areas in which they are less confident about teaching need to be more strongly scaffolded. Thus a knowledge of science learner types can transform the design of a methods unit and assist teacher education providers in building confidence and capacity of future science teachers. Likewise, while designing programs for in-service teachers’ professional development, the typology of science learners needs to be considered.
A knowledge of learner types in school science and integrated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms can assist school teachers as well. Science programs can include learning experiences that inspire and engage various types of science learners. Engaged and inspired learners will be actively involved in higher-level discussions, critical thinking and problem solving (Tyler & Pain, The Conversation, March 15, 2017). Focusing on building the various types of learners’ identity in relation to ‘Working Scientifically’ (Science and Technology K–6 Syllabus, 2017) can boost the longer-term success of STEM education which is at the core of the government’s science agenda.
About the authors
Jessy Abraham coordinates and lectures in Primary Science and Technology at Western Sydney University.
Philip Smith is a casual academic specialising in science education at Western Sydney University.
Maree Skillen coordinates and lectures in Primary Mathematics education at Western Sydney University.
Bleicher, R. (2009). Variable relationships among different science learners in elementary science methods courses. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 7(2), 293–313. doi:10.1007/s10763-007-9121-8
Fitzgerald, A., Dawson, V., & Hackling, M. (2013). Examining the beliefs and practices of foureffective Australian primary science teachers. Research in Science Education, 43, 981–1003. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9297-y
Hackling, M., Peers, S. & Prain, V. (2007). Primary Connections: Reforming science teaching in Australian primary schools. Teaching Science, 53(3), 12-16.
Stephenson, J. (2018). A Systematic Review of the Research on the Knowledge and Skills of Australian Preservice Teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 43(4). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2018v43n4.7
Norris, C. M., Morris, J. E., & Lummis, G. W. (2018). Preservice teachers’ self-efficacy to teach primary science based on ‘science learner’ typology. International Journal of Science Education, 40(18), 2292-2308.
Tytler,R & Pain, V. (2015). Science curriculum needs to do more to engage primary school students. The Conversation, March 15, 2015. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/science-curriculum-needs-to-do-more-to-engage-primary-school-students-74523
Science and Technology K–6 Syllabus. (2017). NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). Retrieved from https://educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/k-10/learning-areas/science/science-and-technology-k-6-new-syllabus