Professional learning and development of two groups of pre-service teachers with different scientific knowledge bases and different teaching training in the course of their studies

June 2019

Source: Studies in Educational Evaluation Volume 61, June 2019, Pages 123-137
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors posit that the differences between pre-service teachers’ tacit views of their professional knowledge may aid the design of professional development (PD) programs for pre-service teachers studying for a science teaching certificate. In this study, they investigated the development of knowledge about teaching among pre-service teachers, that is their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) and pedagogical knowledge (PK).
They tracked two groups of pre-service teachers studying for a teaching certificate in two different institutions.
The two groups differed in their biological content knowledge (CK) base and research experience as well as teaching experience during their studies.
They followed changes in the pre-service biology teachers' tacit and explicit views about their knowledge of practice during a year of PD programs, aimed at developing their PCK. They stress that this is important for understanding the impact of PD programs on pre-service teachers' knowledge development, in order to further improve such programs.

Research aim and questions
In this study the researchers aim was to reveal and characterize tacit and explicit dimensions of pre-service teachers' professional knowledge – namely dimensions of their PCK, PK and CK that are associated with teaching biology – and its possible development during a year-long biology didactics course. In this study the authors tracked two groups of pre-service teachers in two different academic programs.
The pre-service teachers differed in their levels of CK, teaching experience during science teaching studies and scientific inquiry experiences:
A. Pre-service teachers studying in a teachers' education college towards a B.Ed and a teaching certificate in biology education with relatively low CK and little experience in scientific inquiry, but with substantial practical teaching training.
B. Pre-service teachers with higher academic degrees and relatively high CK in biology and vast experience in scientific inquiry, studying towards a biology teaching certificate at a university, in a program offering less practical teaching training.

The research questions are:
1 What are the explicit and tacit dimensions of professional knowledge about teaching biology in each group of pre-service teachers at the beginning of their studies?
2 How does the explicit and tacit professional knowledge about teaching biology develop in each group of pre-service teachers during a year of their studies?
3 What are the similarities and differences in explicit and tacit knowledge development between the two groups of pre-service teachers?

Research design
The grounded theory used by the researchers focuses on the attempt to derive the representativeness of concepts as viewed by the participants in a study.
This process involves multiple stages of data collection and the refinement of information and of interrelationships among components.
The authors employed quantitative verbal analysis and qualitative analysis of textual and oral information (lesson transcripts) for characterization of explicit knowledge and its development over time, within each group of pre-service teachers.
In addition, they used numerical information such as content and cluster analyses of the repertory grid technique for characterization of tacit knowledge and its development over time, within each group of preservice.
Thus, the final database represents qualitative information and quantitative data for each research question in which the results from one method help inform those of the other. Accordingly, data were analyzed qualitatively, and a quantitative dimension was added within the context of the PD program for each research question.

Findings and Discussion
This research tracked two groups of pre-service teachers with different levels of CK.
Although these groups participated in a very similar biology didactics course with the same lecturer, they studied in different academic institutions within different PD programs and had significantly different scientific knowledge bases and scientific inquiry experiences as well as teaching experience and observation time, while studying.
The authors’ analysis revealed that in the beginning of the PD program, both groups showed similar interests in teaching strategies and meaningful learning categories.
This finding is consistent with their previous study that showed that teachers in PD program tend to refer mostly to teaching strategies and meaningful learning categories.
The authors report that during the year of their studies their knowledge about teaching developed differently.
All of the pre-service teachers with the lower CK base and substantial teaching experience during their PD studies, namely Group 1, were mainly concerned with the tension between student-centered and teacher-centered practices. In addition, they discussed the significance of meaningful learning and issues concerning general pedagogy, while lessening their concerns about CK.
These concerns are reflected in both their discussions and cognitive constructs. It was previously reported that pre-service teachers who experience teaching during their studies are mostly concerned with "how to teach" and with class management. Thus, they tend to focus on these needs, while issues of subject matter and its relation to constructing the teaching are pushed aside.
The authors also found that Group 1 pre-service teachers, who experienced much more practical teaching, expanded their PCK and conceptions about teaching practices during their year of study. At the end of the year they mentioned many approaches for meaningful learning such as relevance, motivation, assessment, group learning and connections of prior knowledge to new knowledge as a means of knowledge construction.
Their discussions moved from class management to grading and learning progression as means of assessing each individual student.
Nevertheless, their conceptions remained rather teacher-centered.
The tension between student-centered and teacher-centered conceptions was also reflected in the cognitive structure analysis.
The authors note that this group of pre-service teachers is an example of transforming and refining prior knowledge and stable conceptions about learning and teaching, from personal experience as high-school students, to a more sophisticated level: the student-centered practice.
Their discussions and the higher coherence between the ‘teacher- or student–centered’ construct category and other construct categories at the end of the year, imply that at the time of this study they were in a process of meaningful learning about teaching practice namely, enlarging their PCK.
Yet, since they had a relatively low CK base and almost no inquiry experience in biology they did not refer to inquiry nor to high order thinking skills toward the end of their studies.
Although previous studies have concluded that “subject-specific measures matter”), little attention has been given to the effect of low CK on teaching. This study shows that the preservice teachers with minimal CK concentrated on teaching strategies and not on high-order thinking skills.
The authors report that their analysis of Group 2 revealed that all the pre-service teachers with relatively high CK and inquiry experience as well as minimal teaching experience were mainly concerned with the gap between high-school students' knowledge and their own knowledge in biology.
This concern is reflected explicitly in their discussions about teaching strategies, meaningful learning and thinking skills.
These pre-service teachers expanded their knowledge about teaching strategies in the second semester and mentioned different teaching strategies such as: relevance, modeling, skill construction, group learning and guidance.
Their concerns about the knowledge gap were also reflected in elevated discussions in the second semester about the curriculum and ways of adjusting the content of the laboratory lessons to the high-school students' age and knowledge level. Since they were active researchers, the gap between their own laboratory skills and those of the high-school students, and the approaches for teaching them, was significant for their PCK development.
Their discussions of meaningful learning moved from concerns about the gap between their knowledge and the ability of the students to learn, in the first semester, to the advantages of inquiry and critical thinking as means of meaningful learning in the second semester.
These pre-service teachers' focus on thinking skills such as inquiry and critical thinking was also reflected in their cognitive construct structure.
The authors note that these findings are consistent with previous studies that concluded that novice teachers tend to rely more heavily on one domain of knowledge and that despite their strong content background they did not make effective use of their knowledge in their early teaching experience.
Overall, the authors note that this study sheds new light on the professional development process of pre-service teachers who differ in their scientific knowledge basis and the teaching experience acquired during the training program.
Those with limited biology knowledge and more intensive observation and teaching training were challenged by the strategy shift from student-centered to teacher-centered practices.
In contrast, those with extensive biology knowledge and less intensive observation and teaching training mainly discussed teaching strategies, meaningful learning and thinking skills (inquiry and critical thinking) as means to bridge the gap between high-school students' knowledge and their own knowledge in biology.
The latter group also displayed higher diversity and connectivity among coherent constructs about teaching, implying an expansion of learning about teaching.
The authors suggest that these findings have critical implications for the design of PD programs with regard to two main aspects: strengthening and expanding the scientific knowledge of preservice teachers and expanding the opportunities for teaching, including such diverse means as observation, modeling, feedback, and actual teaching to facilitate a better understanding of the curriculum and of students' needs.

The authors conclude that the emerging recommendations from this study are that for pre-service teachers with limited content knowledge, it is important for PD programs to include scientific courses and inquiry experience that might encourage them to foster high-level thinking skills in their practice.
For all pre-service teachers, regardless of their level of content knowledge, the authors recommend practicing and observing teaching as much as possible.
This will foster both their knowledge of student thinking, and their familiarity with the high school science curriculum, which might bridge the knowledge gap between pre-service teachers and high-school students.

Updated: Aug. 15, 2019


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