Theoretical background - Framework of the research

2.1    Categorizations/classifications of teachers' competencies

In these last years, many studies have tried to make sense of the teaching processes and understand the influence of science teachers’ knowledge base on pupils' learning at different school levels (Schwartz, Lederman, 2002; Rice, 2005; Galili, Lehavi, 2006), and the influence of teachers' ideas and beliefs on science instruction (Ritchie et al. 1997; Ritchie, 1999).

Furthermore, all forms of education, from primary, elementary and secondary school to colleges, universities and apprenticeships, must nowadays help students acquire knowledge, skills and values that will equip them in a constantly changing world. Hence, science teacher education and training programs have been consequently challenged. In this framework, the professional preparation of a science teacher has been deeply analysed in order to search for a professional profile in the context of jobs for "Human Talent Management" (See for example http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/ampro/cinterfor/publ/sala/vargas/com_hum/index.htm). Such a profile is frequently analysed in terms of competences and this new word has been also used in most of the new international normatives.

Many authors used the word competence to represent a set of skills and the level of skills ability within the set (Evers, Rush, Berdrow, 1998; Perrenaud, 2000). It mainly involves the capacity to mobilise different cognitive resources in order to meet a certain type of situation. The definition of competence is, in all cases and fields, dynamic; in fact, it involves the capacity to carry out a series of tasks in a defined job.

Le Boterf (1994) defines different kinds of resources for teaching as "knowing how to act", "knowing how to do", ... However, he differentiates competences from resources, in that the former mobilise, integrate and orchestrate such resources. This mobilisation is only pertinent in a situation (although each situation is unique) that could be tackled according to similar previous experiences. Moreover, Le Boterf (1994) recognises that exercising competences involves complex mental situations and schemes of thought. These allow performance of actions which are adapted to a situation in a more or less efficient way.

Many papers focus on models for competence development where the ability to work independently and within different contexts is highlighted and meta-reflection, as a key element in competence development, is pointed out.

Within the framework of the reported literature, we assumed that teacher competences should include the following issues:

  1. Ability to address, master and manage specific knowledge/methods related to the area of interest.
  2. Capability to integrate these different kinds of knowledge/methods in a flexible net.
  3. Ability to transform this net of knowledge/methods into a synergic attitude towards planning and concrete actions.

The first two issues involve the following question: what are the knowledge/methods of interest in the teaching/learning process? The third point is mainly connected with the capacity to transform them into observable behaviours, such as planning teaching/learning activities and implementing them in the classroom.

In the MiS Project the partnership has agreed to refer to the previous characterisation of competence and identify several starting viewpoints to address the problem of determining the main competences required of science teachers.

2.2    The problem of knowledge for teaching

Studies about the teaching knowledge base proposed a large spectrum of viewpoints; however, it seems that the lines of research about teacher knowledge can be divided into two broad categories, those focused on the teacher’s practical knowledge and those focused on the pedagogical content knowledge as specific forms of teacher knowledge.

Research studies addressing teacher practical knowledge (or simply teacher knowledge) assume the existence of relationships between one teacher's actions and his/her whole set of cognitive resources available in a certain situation. Although this knowledge appears to be primarily an individual knowledge(for instance it allows a teacher to filter and interpret new information (Pajares, 1992)), some aspects, shared by large groups of teachers, have been pointed out by the research (Van Driel, Beijaard, Verloop, 2001; Leinhardt, McCarthy, Merriman, 1995; Loughran, 2002). In this framework, some authors used labels, such as "personal knowledge" (Elbaz, 1991), "professional craft knowledge" (Brown, McIntyre, 1993), "action oriented knowledge" (Carter, 1990) or "content and context related knowledge" (Van Driel, Verloop, De Vos, 1998) to illustrate the aspects of teacher knowledge that they considered relevant.

The other line of research has focused, since the middle eighties, on the theoretical construct of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) (Shulman, 1986a, 1986b, 1987). This is intended as the transformation, performed by an "expert" teacher, of the "classic" Subject Matter Knowledge (SMK) (quantity, quality and organisation of information, conceptualisations and underlying constructs in the subject area he/she is teaching) into knowledge appropriate for teaching. The interface between SMK and PCK is critical, since it involves the knowledge of general instructional variables, such as classroom management, communicating/questioning strategies and assessment, i.e. the other "classic" teacher Pedagogical Knowledge (PK) and Context Knowledge (CK). Due to the nature of this process, all these components are inextricable once applied to concrete teaching.

During the past two decades, PCK has been a debated framework in the teacher education research field (Gess-Newsome, 1999; Van Driel, Beijaard, Verloop, 2001; Zeidler, 2002) due to its capability of framing and re-directing the relation between research and practice.

Many researchers framed PCK as a distinct knowledge domain which encompasses other knowledge domains and identified some key elements that can support its identification (Adams, Krockover, 1997; Van Driel, Verloop, De Vos, 1998) or are included in PCK (Turner-Bisset, 2001).

Although the boundaries of PCK construct have been a debated, some consensus has been reached about the PCK's main characteristics by analysing the differences between experts and novice teachers (Clermont, Borko, Krajcik, 1994; Lederman, Gess-Newsome, Latz, 1994; Mellado, 1998; Loughran, Mulhall, Berry, 2004).

The re-directing aspect mainly concerns the research development within the framework of teacher education. Implications in this field are seen as natural outcomes of studies focused on PCK.

Studies about the effects of training on prospective teachers' knowledge base of teaching can be divided into two main broad categories, those focused on modifying and/or improving prospective teachers' knowledge about subject matter (Lederman, Gess-Newsome, Latz, 1994; Van Driel, Verloop, De Vos, 1998; Van Driel, De Jong, Verloop, 2002; Aiello, Sperandeo- Mineo, 2000), and those focused on more general aspects of PCK (Geddis, 1993; Clermont, Krajcik, Borko, 1993; Clermont, Borko, Krajcik, 1994; Adams, Krockover, 1997; Johnston, Ahtee, 2006; Sperandeo-Mineo et als, 2006). Many of these studies explicitly refer to a specific conceptualisation of PCK as a distinct knowledge domain.

The above discussed frameworks for the literature on PCK allow us to identify a broad research problem connected both with the framing and re-direction of PCK. On one hand, since PCK is not a codified knowledge field it is difficult to document it in any "reproducible" way, not directly dependent on the particular context of the specific research. On the other hand, when redirecting PCK, although most recent teacher education programs aim at helping prospective teachers to develop appropriate PCK for their future profession, the transformation process of SMK, PK and CK into PCK is not always effective. In this sense, although the MiS Project has been characterised as a Development Project, it involved some relevant research aspects. In fact, the Project Partners (PPs) evaluated the different approaches of characterising PCK drawn from literature as well as from the different national experiences, and identified several competence categories as examples of good integration in the situation of science teacher education in each partner country. These constituted the framework for the design and development of the Examples of Good Practice (EGPs) prepared by each PP.

2.3    The proposed categories for competences related to the area of PCK

Our analysis of categories of competences has been grounded on two general remarks involving the methodology for effective science teaching as well as the competences related to the disciplinary knowledge.

With regards to the problem of methodology, all the PPs agreed that teachers tend to teach as they were taught and that teachers of science form their image of science mostly through their science training. In order to supply an appropriate image of the nature of science, TTs must "receive" science courses in which they learn science through inquiry, having the same opportunities as their students will have to develop understanding. Regardless of the specific structure and content of teacher training programs, it should at first facilitate an understanding of the science processes from a users view and allow the learner to adjust to the changing needs that a user experiences. So, pedagogical activities should be heavily based on investigations, where TTs have direct contact with phenomena, gather and interpret data or are involved in groups working on real, open-ended problems. Such training activities must allow teachers to develop a deep understanding of scientific ideas and the manner in which they were formulated.

The competences related to subject matter knowledge have been recognised as relevant by all the participating partners. It is considered unquestionable that every science teacher should have a rich understanding of the subject she/he teaches and appreciate how knowledge is created and organised. A teacher training program should be centred on the acquisition of the competences related to this area. Yet, as the numerous lists of competences show, acquiring subject matter knowledge alone does not produce effective teaching. Science teaching cannot continue to be viewed as the simple pseudo-academic transfer of content that used to be.

Science teachers not only have to know and understand subject matter content, but also how to teach that content effectively; they must be familiar with organising, sequencing and presenting the content and transforming it into forms that "are more accessible" to students. Therefore, a teacher training program, apart from offering the necessary disciplinary or content knowledge, should offer a science teacher the ways and opportunity to learn about transforming this knowledge into Pedagogical Content Knowledge. The competences related to the above are acknowledged, by all partners as well as by many experts’ studies in science education, as the most relevant for teacher professional development.

In the following, we describe the competences related to the area of PCK recognised by PPs as mainly relevant for science teacher education and identify some Key notes (Kn) for their implementation in the proposed EGPs.

2.3.1    Competencies in assessing and evaluating pupils' common-sense knowledge

It is well known that pupils' conceptions of the physical world can strongly influence their disciplinary learning. Here, competences focus mainly on the TTs' awareness of pupils' prior knowledge, na´ve ideas, reasoning strategies and schemas, in order to help them to access content matter by using appropriate procedures.

A teacher training program, therefore, should allow science teachers to acquire competences in analysing available research literature as well as in designing and/or choosing appropriate tests and questionnaires able to highlight pupils' na´ve conceptions. As a consequence, TTs should be provided with methods to assess the needs of classes and individual pupils. Teachers should learn and practice how to make pupils aware of their mental models and reasoning.

These types of competences are mainly focused on in the EGPs developed by the Italian and Belgian Partners.

2.3.2    Competences in mastering and implementing appropriate learning environments for meaningful understanding of specific contents.

This category of competences refers to the awareness of how pupils elaborate content during their own learning process. Science education research has studied many pupils' learning difficulties and the underlying reasoning strategies. Many are related to conflicts between common-sense knowledge and scientific knowledge. A science teacher should be able to understand students' difficulties with respect to the objectives targeted by learning materials and make appropriate changes in the sequence of learning activities as needed in order to increase the likelihood of obtaining the stated objectives.

A teacher training program, therefore, should allow science teachers to acquire abilities in addressing pupils' conceptual nodes, in activating methods and strategies suitable to help a learner to build his/her own knowledge net, in adapting content knowledge in an appropriate form for teaching by overcoming the possible learning obstacles. This involves the knowledge of different teaching strategies coherent with the students' representations.

These kinds of competences are mainly focused on in the EGPs developed by the German and Lithuanian Partners that face the difficult problem of developing EGPs involving topics of Modern Physics. However they are at the basis of all the developed EGPs.

2.3.3    Competences in mastering and implementing pedagogical methods and tools aimed at scaffolding understanding of a given content

This cluster of competences includes the ability to adapt content knowledge in order to make it appropriate for teaching as well as to connect observation of phenomena to their representations and models in the framework of the disciplinary body of knowledge. It points to the importance of a content-centred approach, exploiting methodologies e.g, "to relate everyday phenomena to scientific models"; "to use the predict-observe-explain learning cycle", etc. in order to plan and implement successful pedagogical activities.

A teacher training program, therefore, should allow science teachers to acquire competences in using available instructional models (concept mapping, model building, role playing, games, simulations, analysing case studies, problem solving, inquiry strategies, field trips, electronic media presentations, and reflective selfevaluation are examples). Teachers should learn and practice how to communicate knowledge to their students, in order to take into account their different learning styles, reasoning strategies and previous ideas. This involves the knowledge of different teaching strategies coherent with the students' representations.

These competences are mainly focused on in the EGPs developed by the Slovakian and Belgian Partners that directly face the problem of finding new teaching methodologies. However they are at the basis of all the developed EGPs, since all give examples of different teaching strategies.

2.3.4    Competences in the use of laboratories, experiments and ICT

Teaching science strongly involves the performance of experiments. As a consequence, it is unquestionable that all science teachers should be trained in not only "doing" each of the experiments in the science curriculum but also in guiding discussions with children about the implications of the results of these experiments. Learning from experiments and laboratory work is far from trivial, as various analyses on the role of experiments have shown. This cluster of competences points also to the importance of using computers for laboratory work and modelling activities. Teachers and experts of PPs consider that a science teacher should have sound competences in the use of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) and in their implementation in subject areas and diffusion across the curriculum. They think that those who teach science should incorporate computers, multimedia, and other technology into instruction, since these tools can enrich a classroom environment and enhance learning when used both as cognitive and as laboratory tools.

A teacher training program, therefore, should allow science teachers to experience science learning through inquiry and laboratory experiences. Through their training, teachers should treat experiments and lab work not only as "confirmatory" exercises. In addition, they should receive training in lab safety issues and resolving technical problems that they or their students could encounter. With regard to the use of ICT, training activities must allow TTs to become confident in the use of learning technologies by becoming competent users. This can happen only when science teachers realise the relevance of the learning technology, how it will enrich their teaching and how their students could benefit from its use.

All the EGPs face the problem of finding innovative teaching/learning methods strongly based on learning by doing and a strong ICT support. For these reasons, they face the problem of finding appropriate methods to support TTs in the assessment of such kind of competences.

2.3.5    Competencies related to self-reflection and meta-cognition

Science teacher competencies, related to the process of assessing and monitoring one's own thinking in order to develop self regulation and learning were identified as relevant by PPs. Selfregulation is the ability to use and develop knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in one context and used in another context.

Teacher training activities should provide TTs with the knowledge and awareness of their own thinking processes. For instance, they should encourage more active learning processes such as group interactions, cooperative learning, learning in authentic environments and practices, such as self-assessment and peer assessment.

The pedagogical strategies implemented in all the workshops' approaches ensure that TTs are stimulated in meta-reflection involving the disciplinary structure proposed, as well as the required pedagogical competences.

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