Science education reform efforts set clear expectations for K-12 education:
to produce scientifically literate adults (American Association for the
Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1990, 1993; National Research Council [NRC],
1996). The reforms also universally recognize that, in order for this goal
to be achieved, the process of educating a scientifically literate population
must start in the earliest grades and proceed in a coordinated fashion
throughout the public school years. Science is a basic, as important as
acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to read, write, use mathematical
ideas, apply technology, understand the social sciences, and appreciate
the fine arts (Loucks-Horsley et al., 1990).
Despite such goals, 25% of all elementary teachers do not teach science
at all and, among those who do, science accounts for less than 2 hours
of the instructional time each week (Raizen & Michelsohn, 1994; Tilgner,
1990). These figures are offered in contrast to the recommended 120 minutes
of weekly science instruction at the K-3 levels and the 300 minutes at
the 4-6 grade levels (Loucks-Horsley, 1990). Why don't elementary teachers
teach science? Potential explanations include insufficient science content
knowledge; limited resources, academic time, and physical space; an overly
crowded elementary curriculum; and low levels of science self-efficacy
(Raizen & Michelsohn, 1994; Schwartz, Abd-El-Khalick, & Lederman,
1999; Tilgner, 1990). Regardless of explanation, limited science exposure
in the elementary grades results in low levels of science achievement.
In addition, poor attitudes toward science developed by students in the
elementary years may inhibit future science pursuits (National Center for
Educational Statistics, 1995). Both achievement and attitudinal outcomes
will inhibit reaching the ultimate goal of scientific literacy.
How do we best ensure adequate and appropriate science instruction at
the elementary level? This article will explore potential answers to this
question. Through an examination of the specific outcomes that constitute
scientific literacy, the attributes needed in a teacher for effective science
instruction will be outlined. This needed knowledge base will be used to
evaluate five delivery models for elementary science instruction, as well
as associated financial, institutional, and human resource costs. The article
concludes with a call for research to determine the best delivery models
for elementary science instruction.
Scientific literacy is not a single characteristic, but a compilation
of qualities. On the most basic level, scientific literacy includes a basic
understanding of key science concepts, often delineated into the categories
of physical, life, earth, and space science (NRC, 1996). Hand-in-hand with
conceptual understandings, a scientifically literate individual is facile
with the methods of science, can use these methods to answer personal questions
and judge the answers proffered by others, and can recognize the strengths
and limitations of scientific inquiry. More important, a scientifically
literate person should have an understanding of the concepts and processes
that unify science and recognize the interrelationships and interdependencies
between science and other disciplines (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996). Finally,
the recognition of the personal and social value of science provides the
rationale and motivation to study the discipline. These four characteristics
(conceptual knowledge, nature of science, integration, and relevance) could
then be considered fundamental elements of scientific literacy. Despite
variations in wording and organization, these elements are pervasive in
the reform documents and have specified outcomes at the lowest grades as
precursors to adult science literacy.
Teaching science in the manner specified by the Standards "requires
integrating knowledge of science, learning, pedagogy, and students; it
also requires applying that knowledge to science teaching" (NRC, p. 62).
Using this statement and the elements of scientific literacy, I suggest
that there are four teacher attributes necessary for quality science instruction:
content knowledge and attitudes, pedagogical knowledge, knowledge of students,
and knowledge of curriculum. Content knowledge and attitudes are
composed, at minimum, of an understanding of the four elements of scientific
literacy: conceptual knowledge, nature of science, integration, and relevance.
Attitudes that support science teaching include an enthusiasm and a willingness
to create time for science instruction and recognize that all students
have the right to be engaged in meaningful science instruction. Teachers
with positive attitudes toward science will encourage similar attitudes
in their students by modeling curiosity, using problem solving approaches
when answering questions, relying on data, being skeptical of explanations
while being open to new ideas, and respecting reason and honesty.
Pedagogical knowledge and skill refer to the ability to plan,
implement and assess student engagement in meaningful science instruction.
This instruction should be active, relevant, developmentally appropriate,
and build on prior knowledge. Activities should be inquiry oriented, support
the social construction of accurate science knowledge, and develop classroom
community. The range of activities used should promote the science learning
of all students and assist in the development of positive attitudes toward
Knowledge of students includes both a general knowledge of student
development and specific knowledge of the students in one's classroom,
allowing the teacher to capitalize on student interests and motivations
to create a relevant science curriculum. This category also includes knowledge
of student misconceptions for commonly taught topics.
Knowledge of curriculum allows a teacher to select, adapt, or
create instructional materials to meet student needs and recognize how
these materials combine to create a coordinated program of science both
across grade levels (as specified in state or district guidelines) and
across the curriculum (through integration or co-development of knowledge
and skills in other content areas). Curricular knowledge synthesizes the
other knowledge bases through the selection of developmentally appropriate
content and activities based in student interests and experiences, and
through the extension of science beyond school boundaries.
All elementary teachers possess some degree of each of the attributes
needed for quality science instruction, but few possess high levels of
knowledge and skills in each of these areas. And, in addition to science,
elementary teachers are expected to have this level of knowledge for multiple
disciplines. Is it realistic to expect all elementary teachers to possess
these attributes in all content areas? If not, what type of elementary
science delivery model would provide instructors who possess these attributes?
In thinking about the models for the delivery of science instruction,
there are a multitude of alternatives. At one end of the spectrum, each
elementary teacher is responsible for science instruction; at the other
end, only science specialists are adequately prepared to handle such a
task. The relative merits of these two positions have been argued in the
literature for nearly 20 years (Abell, 1990; Hounshell & Swartz, 1987;
Neuman, 1981; Olson, 1992; Williams, 1990). Between these two extremes,
other delivery models exist. In this article I will describe five delivery
models for elementary science instruction. This delineation of models is
not intended to be exhaustive, but illustrative of the options that exist.
Each model will be described in terms of the assumed characteristics of
classroom practice, teacher preparation, and potential advantages and disadvantages.
Following the example set by Abell (1990), similar delivery models in other
content areas will be identified.
Elementary teacher preparation typically follows a generalist model,
with each teacher taking content and methods courses in each of the areas
typically included in the elementary curriculum: reading, writing, mathematics,
science, social studies, health, physical education, and the fine arts.
As a result, it is assumed that the teacher has sufficient knowledge and
preparation to design and deliver a curriculum that adequately covers each
content in a self-contained classroom. Once employed, each teacher has
the flexibility to organize and allocate class time to the various content
objectives as they see fit.
Model advantages include a deep understanding of student interests and
development, curricular flexibility in terms of planning for thematic,
interdisciplinary or integrated instruction, and no need for additional
personnel. Disadvantages include limited content knowledge, limited science-specific
pedagogical and curricular knowledge, and dispersed material resources.
The most devastating disadvantage of this model may be the lack of time
dedicated to science instruction resulting from multiple teaching responsibilities,
pervasive accountability measures for reading and mathematics (but not
science), and low levels of interest or self-confidence in science teaching.
Classroom science specialists
Most classroom teachers find that they have a preference for one or
more of the content areas that they teach. Allowing teachers to identify
a specialty area--either through a content major or minor, additional course
work or workshops, or other forms of formally or informally recognized
advanced preparation--would create classroom-based content resources within
schools. For instance, a classroom science specialist would still be responsible
for a self-contained classroom, but would take leadership or offer assistance
to other teachers in the area of science instruction. The science specialist
could be given the primary responsibility for previewing and selecting
science curricular materials and ordering and maintaining science equipment,
thus creating a division of labor for the benefit of all. This model is
similar to the one proposed by the National Commission on Teaching and
America's Future (1996) and would flatten school-based hierarchies and
result in the maximum number of specialists in contact with students.
Advantages for the students of the classroom science specialists include
increased teacher content and curricular knowledge, and time dedicated
to science instruction. While other teachers have access, close proximity,
and the support of a science specialist, unless there is an infrastructure
of support within the school, few benefits may extend beyond the boundaries
of the specialist's classroom. For instance, unless there is time planned
into the school day for teachers to collaborate, the presence of the specialist
will be underutilized. In addition, unless differential hiring patterns
for specialists are introduced, there would be limited incentive for a
teacher to become a science specialist. Most elementary teachers, if required
to select a speciality area, would gravitate toward the language arts (Tilgner,
1990). Only if a per-school number of science specialists were required
would the market demands encourage teachers to focus in this area.
Science support teams
With the addition of personnel, increased support in the area of science
instruction can be achieved. A science specialist, a scientist, or a paraprofessional
with science expertise could be assigned to a self-contained classroom
for some part of the school day to promote science instruction. Three levels
of support could be provided. In the first, the science specialist would
take primary responsibility for science instruction with only minimal assistance
from the classroom teacher. For instance, the classroom teacher would help
select science content or activities that the specialist would then plan
and implement. The teacher would assist with classroom and material management.
A second scenario would include the teacher and specialist co-planning
and implementing the lesson. In the third, the teacher would co-plan the
lesson with the specialist and would then take the lead role in lesson
implementation. The specialist would help locate curricular resources,
collect and manage science materials, and assist in lesson delivery. Versions
of the model may be equated with the role played by the school media center
specialist (Abell, 1990).
Depending on the support level used, the advantages and disadvantages
of the science support team model vary. Advantages include the shared expertise
of two adults with differing specializations. The classroom teacher would
specialize in knowledge of students, pedagogy, and the general curriculum,
and the specialist would contribute knowledge of science content and curriculum.
Depending on the level of support, teaching generalists would have a structured
and supported opportunity to increase their knowledge and confidence in
science instruction. Time for science instruction would be guaranteed and
opportunities to integrate science into the rest of the curriculum would
be maintained. Potential disadvantages are increased personnel costs, administrative
structure, and time for collaborative planning.
Departmentalization within grade levels
Following a model most often seen in secondary schools, some elementary
grades have elected to departmentalize. This arrangement is often informally
organized by a group of teachers as opposed to mandated by the administration.
In this model, each teacher is responsible for the majority of the academic
content taught within a self-contained classroom. During specified times
each week, however, the teachers "rotate" classes, teaching a specialized
content. Science, along with social studies and health, is often taught
in this fashion.
Departmentalized models guarantee time for science instruction and allow
for science resources to be centralized with each grade level. While instruction
from a teacher who has science content and curricular specialization would
appear a likely benefit, conversations with teachers indicate that departmentalized
arrangements are rarely induced with student learning in mind. More often,
efficient use of teacher planning time is cited as the reason for departmentalization
and content assignments are made by convenience or seniority rather than
by specialized content knowledge. Disadvantages include decreased knowledge
of students and minimal opportunities to integrate science with other curricular
topics. Most important, departmentalization may result in relegating all
the responsibility for science content to a single team member.
The delivery model most often depicted in the literature employs a science
specialist who maintains a science laboratory/classroom. Hired as a science
specialist, this teacher is solely responsible for science instruction
and therefore has a higher degree of science interest, enthusiasm, and
content expertise. As a recipient of specialized preparation, the specialist
is skilled in the implementation of reform-based science instruction, assessment
techniques, and knowledgeable of curricular guidelines and resources. In
this model, classrooms have regularly scheduled times in the science lab.
Science instruction is the primary responsibility of the science specialist
who may interact to varying degrees with the classroom teacher. Similar
to specialist programs in the fine arts or physical education (Abell, 1990),
the classroom teacher generally "drops off" his or her students and uses
the much-needed release time for planning rather than assisting in science
Advantages to the specialist model include guaranteed time for science
instruction by a highly qualified individual and the centralization of
science materials. Disadvantages include limited knowledge of individual
student development and interests, decreased opportunities for content
integration, the potential creation of elite images of science, and increased
costs for personnel and administration.
The models offered in this article are not new. Advocates for science
specialists argue for the benefits of increased time, interest, and expertise
in the teaching of science, as well as the ability to centralize science
materials (Abell, 1990; Hounshell & Swartz, 1987; Neuman, 1981; Williams,
1990). In support of this contention, research has shown that content knowledge
is often the limiting factor to effective science instruction (Dobey &
Schafer, 1984; Gess-Newsome, in press), and that teachers' level of content
knowledge positively correlates with student outcomes on standardized tests
of science (Schwartz et al., 1999). Specialist preparation programs would
concentrate efforts on those individuals who show enthusiasm for the science
rather than dilute their impact across all teachers. Proponents of the
classroom generalist model worried about the uncertain financial resources
for specialists as well as decreased opportunities for content integration,
decreased knowledge of individual students, and the creation of the view
that science is the providence of only a privileged few (Hounshell &
Swartz, 1987; Olson, 1992). Advocates for science specialists counter that
integration and knowledge of students can be fostered by communication
and planning with the classroom teacher.
Table 1 characterizes the five delivery models of elementary science
instruction in terms of the four teacher attributes needed to teach for
scientific literacy. Each category has been assigned a ranking of low,
medium, or high based on the perceived level of expertise held by the model's
science instructor(s). In addition, categories related to the amount of
time spent in science instruction, personnel needs (in-house versus extra
staffing), and the centralized or dispersed nature of science-based equipment
and materials are included. Finally, infrastructure requirements (relating
to the time needed for planning, coordination, and collaboration) and teacher
preparation needs (as academic generalists, science specialists, or a combination)
|Classroom Generalists||Classroom Specialists||Support Teams*||Departmentalization||Science Specialists|
|Science content knowledge, skill, & attitudes||low||medium||low/high||medium||high|
|Pedagogical knowledge & skill||medium||medium||med/high||medium||high|
|Knowledge of students||high||high||high/low||low||low|
|Knowledge of curriculum||medium||medium||medium/high||medium||high|
|Time in science instruction||low||medium||high||high||high|
|Personnel costs||in-house staff||in-house staff||extra staff||in house staff||extra staff|
|Science material location||dispersed||dispersed||dispersed||centralized||centralized|
|Type of teacher preparation||generalist||gen/specialist||gen/specialist||gen/specialist||specialist|
Interestingly, this 20-year-old debate continues with little empirical
data to support the contentions of either side. With the exception of a
recent study by Schwartz et al. (1999), I was unable to find any research
that examines the student outcomes of classroom generalists versus science
specialists. In the Schwartz et al. study, science specialists were found
to have more sophisticated understandings of inquiry, the nature of science,
and the national reforms. Their lessons plans clearly reflected these understandings
and resulted in increased levels of higher order thinking skills in students
when compared to academic generalists. This study also revealed that, in
schools that employ science specialists, the regular teachers participated
in fewer professional development activities and graduate level courses
related to science. These teachers offered unsolicited constraints to teaching
science (i.e., time, content, experience, equipment, and space) and cited
the need for a science specialist. In the generalist district, the teachers
had higher levels of science content preparation and offered no constraints
to science teaching.
Clearly, research about the use of science specialists in the elementary
schools is needed to transform this debate into reasoned action. First,
the various delivery models must be evaluated as to the cognitive and attitudinal
outcomes they produce in students and teachers. Which models result in
increased student learning? Does attention to science content integration
and process skills decrease in the presence of a science specialist? Second,
why do so many teachers leave their preservice programs uninterested or
unwilling to teach science? What program structures produce improved content
knowledge and attitudes toward science teaching? A third area of research
relates to policy: In the crowded curricula of the elementary school, can
science become a basic? If schools hire science specialists, can time be
found in the school day for collaboration? Can differential hiring practices
increase market demands for teachers specializing in science? Without this
knowledge base, academics will continue to argue the value of various models
based on opinion rather than empirical evidence, and elementary schools
will select models based on tradition, opportunity, or perceived need.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (1990). Science for all Americans: Project 2061. New York: Oxford University Press.
AAAS. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy: Project 2061. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dobey, D. C., & Schafer, L. E. (1984). The effects of knowledge on elementary science inquiry teaching. Science Education, 68, 39-51.
Gess-Newsome, J. (in press). Secondary teachers' knowledge and beliefs about subject matter and its impact on instruction. In J. Gess-Newsome & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Examining pedagogical content knowledge: The construct and its implications for science education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Publishing.
Hounshell, P. B., & Swartz, C. E. (1987). Elementary science specialists? Definitely!/We know better. Science and Children, 24 (4), 20-21, 157.
Loucks-Horsley, S., Kapitan, R., Carlson, M. D., Kuerbis, P. J., Clark, R. C., Melle, G. M., Sachse, T. P., & Walton, E. (1990). Elementary school science for the '90s. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
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National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Neuman, D. B. (1981). Elementary science for all children: An impossible dream or a reachable goal? Science and Children, 18(6), 4-6.
Olson, A. K. (1992). In praise of the classroom teacher. Science and Children, 29(1), 16-17.
Raizen, S. A., & Michelsohn, A. M. (1994). The future of science in elementary schools: Educating prospective teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schwartz, R. S., Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Lederman, N. G. (1999, January). An explanatory study of the "effectiveness" of elementary science specialists. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Education of Teachers in Science, Austin, TX.
Tilgner, P. J. (1990). Avoiding science in the elementary school. Science Education, 74, 421-4Back to the EJSE