Research Summary

Enhancing teachers’ application of inquiry-based strategies using a constructivist sociocultural professional development model

Constructivist Professional Development Boosts Inquiry-Based Teaching

International Journal of Science Education

The authors of this paper, who aimed to provide training to teachers to boost their use of inquiry-based science teaching methods in elementary school, first interviewed teachers about their feelings toward inquiry in the classroom. The teachers’ initial comments might sound familiar to environmental educators engaged in teacher training:
As far as state standards [objectives], there are X amount of topics that I have to cover in a couple of weeks. If they want to go off on a tangent with volcanoes, that’s great, but we don’t have time to let them.
I have to admit sometimes I feel that I’m in second grade and they know a lot more than I do. That makes me feel--that scares me as a teacher. I’m supposed to be teaching and I don’t know.

These feelings of doubt about the feasibility of inquiry-based methods (both in terms of time and teachers’ expertise) likely contribute to the low rates of adoption of this method among elementary school teachers. In fact, science instruction of any kind is limited in elementary schools. According to one study, 25% of elementary teachers do not teach science, and if it’s taught at all, it only adds up to 2 hours of instruction per week. And most of that instruction comes in the form of traditional worksheets and other didactic approaches.

Because the National Science Education Standards recommend a move toward more inquiry-based, student-centered, constructivist teaching approaches, this research focused on the best ways to prepare teachers for this kind of teaching. The authors of this paper lament that “Too often, professional development activities are based on a training approach in which teachers are presented with ideas and are expected to return and duplicate them in their classrooms.” But, they explain that research shows that “professional development is effective when it is sustained, consists of hands-on applications of content, integrated into teachers’ daily responsibilities, and involves group participation.”

The research reported in this paper investigated this engaged, constructivist, social model of teacher education. In a three-year study, 30 K-5 teachers from a rural elementary school participated in long-term professional development in which “the teachers were encouraged to construct their own meanings of inquiry through immersion, implementation, and reflection.” In the first phase, the teachers participated in a two-week workshop that included hands-on, inquiry based explorations of a schoolyard habitat. The activities addressed local standards and included time for group discussions, grade-level study groups, team planning, and implementation of instruction. In summer study group sessions, teachers selected reading material from a list provided by facilitators, and met several times over the summer to discuss and plan units. In the second phase (years two and three) the teachers implemented and reviewed their units and continued to meet with their grade-level groups in off-site meetings with project facilitators. These sessions helped teachers further refine their instruction.

The researchers analyzed the programs’ effectiveness with interviews and semantic maps, and found that the approach did indeed help teachers move toward more inquiry-based teaching. The researchers believe that “The opportunities to discuss their prior experiences, constraints, and conceptions while participating in the workshop activities were crucial to the teachers’ learning.” Only by thinking about potential barriers could the teachers plan for change. The researchers found that the teachers not only were beginning to move toward more inquiry-based methods in the units they implemented from the training, but also modified some of their lessons on other topics. They introduced more activities with a question and added more time for students’ discussions. And they perceived greater interest and motivation from students as a result.

The semantic maps confirmed the interview data, with the teachers demonstrating a transformation in their ideas about teaching science. The researchers noted a change from more traditional approaches to what they called a more transitional style, where the teachers demonstrated some, but not all, aspects of reform. Transformational change, in which teachers’ approaches were strongly aligned with inquiry-based reform, occurred in only two of the thirty teachers. Nevertheless, the researchers see these results as a success, and they credit the teachers’ involvement in the project planning and decision-making, the constructivist nature of the activities, opportunities for reflection and revision, and the long-term nature of the project as key factors in its success.

The Bottom Line

With heavy emphasis on reading and math in elementary school, getting teachers to focus on science can be a challenge. And getting them to use reform-based, inquiry-led approaches is even harder. This research suggests that in order to support teachers in adopting this method, a long-term, constructivist approach to professional development may be effective. The method investigated here involved inquiry-based workshops with activities that modeled constructivist teaching, grade-level study groups, team planning, implementation of new teaching methods, and whole-group and grade-level group discussions over a long term. The researchers think it was vital to involve teachers in the program’s development, model inquiry-based activities, provide opportunities for reflection and revision, and provide support over the long term.