Master’s courses widen evidence base for analysing teaching practices

Image: Shutterstock/Thayut Sutheeravut
Image: Shutterstock/Thayut Sutheeravut

When first considering what IOP Physics Network coordinators (PNCs) would get out of a master’s course for teacher educators in science, my strong view was that our purpose was to build on their already extensive professional knowledge and practice, and develop it further through more systematic inquiry.

That more systematic inquiry would draw on their knowledge, the expertise of other participants on the course, and pivotal research literature in science education, physics education and science teacher education. The research and literature element was intended to provide ideas for thinking about and informing the PNCs’ practice, but also we hoped that the PNCs would bring a robust and critical eye to the literature too – indeed, to all the evidence they were exposed to on the course.

I felt very strongly that there was absolutely no way I was going tell an experienced PNC what do to in their own context. Rather, what we hoped to do was provide this richer evidence base and time for the PNCs to think about how, in their unique contexts, they wanted to develop themselves as teacher educators. Finally, I have to confess that, given the already extensive professional experience of the PNCs who joined us, I wondered what we might be able to offer them and felt considerable trepidation when they first joined the course in August 2016.

Over the first two terms I hope we’ve widened the evidence base against which the PNCs are analysing their practice as teacher educators.

On the course we have regular Skype discussions in mixed study groups on the inquiry tasks set. The PNCs are in different study groups with teacher educators from contexts ranging from schools, universities, networks of schools, advisory teachers but also different countries as wide-ranging as Papua New Guinea, the US, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Singapore, China and Ecuador.

The inquiry tasks themselves have ranged from interviewing teachers about their beliefs about science, teaching and learning, analysing documents such as lesson plans, and really delving into understanding the work of new and experienced teachers through, for example, observing and talking with them.

The tasks and the study group discussions by Skype have been fascinating. For example, one PNC did a critical analysis, using a framework he developed from the literature, on two experienced teachers’ questioning. What this analysis allowed, without being judgemental, is a much deeper understanding of the chief issues that nonspecialists face when questioning, and why experienced specialists are quite so expert. It also gave us all additional insights into why effective questioning is quite so challenging for beginning teachers.

Other concerns we have talked about are language issues in science. One of our students is located in Brazil and has raised some fascinating issues about how Portuguese, as a language, interacts with science learning. We’ve also discussed and critiqued everything from big theoretical ideas such as constructivism to the use of questioning and talk in physics teaching, analysing the pros and cons of the use of a circus as a revision and learning tool, how to construct effective explanations, and how to ensure school students ask more questions.

Furthermore, we’ve also discussed issues and challenges of developing good relationships of trust with teachers in the teacher education work that PNCs do. Central to all of these discussions and debates are a consideration of the implications for the development of the practice of the PNCs as teacher educators and so have had a very practical element to them.

As a teacher educator myself these discussions have felt much more like us, as colleagues, wrestling with the challenges of our jobs to find new and innovative ways forward, and I’ve learned much from the group discussions by Skype, and these have influenced my own practice on our PGCE course. For example, next year I am going to use, with my student teachers, the analysis framework developed on teacher questioning mentioned above.

The four PNCs have been a pleasure to work with and their engagement, criticality, commitment and contribution to all aspects of the course have continued despite how busy they all are. In their second year they go on to designing research and development projects relevant to developing their practice as PNCs, which may well follow up on the issues and debates that have arisen on the course so far. Stimulating times lie ahead for us all.

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Ann Childs

Ann Childs

Dr Ann Childs is associated professor of science education at the University of Oxford.
Ann Childs
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