Fun Science: The Use of Variable Manipulation to Avoid Content Instruction

From Section:
Instruction in Teacher Training
Feb. 01, 2013

Source: Journal of Science Teacher Education, Vol. 24, No. 1, (February, 2013), p. 199-217.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this study was to develop an understanding of the process that preservice teachers use to select activities for a week-long summer science camp for upper elementary students, their rationale for choosing them, and their perception of implementation.

The study took place at a major university in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
Six undergraduate elementary pre-service teachers were observed as they took a semester-long science methods class that culminated in a 1-week science camp.
Data sources for this study were the following: written assignment at the beginning of the first class prompting students, a pre- and post-test of the Science Teaching Efficacy Beliefs Inventory—Preservice, (c) field notes from the camp implementation, reflective portfolios assembled by the students, and interviews with participants 2 weeks after the course was completed.

Discussion and Implications

The findings revealed that counselors chose activities with the possibility of fun being a priority rather than teaching content, even after they were confronted with campers who demanded more content.
The counselors developed lessons for the students based on their own goal orientation, which was to avoid science content because it was boring.
When the interaction with the campers did not match their expectations of the campers needs, they became anxious about keeping the campers engaged because they had not developed a clear framework of understanding in science content for themselves.
Additionally, the counselors began to depend upon variable manipulation activities, where the camper used trial and error to solve a problem to avoid the possibility of students asking questions they couldn’t answer.
For counselors faced with enthusiastic campers and underdeveloped personal content knowledge, the focus on logistics and process-oriented activities reflected behavior consistent with avoidance motivation, and the counselors believed the campers were learning science because they were changing a variable.

All six of the counselors agreed that activities involving variable manipulation were the most successful, even though content knowledge was not required to complete the activities.
The counselors felt the variable manipulation activities were successful because students were constructing products and therefore getting to the end of the activity.
This study also indicated a lack of connection between self-efficacy and content knowledge which may have occurred due to the counselors’ beliefs that elementary teachers did not need to have deep content knowledge in science.

In general, the interaction with the campers, albeit stressful at times, may have been a useful precursor to these preservice teachers’ upcoming educational experiences.
The intensive camp experience helped the counselors to consider the outcomes of teaching in terms of student learning, and helped them to minimize the focus on activities keeping the students busy.
Field experiences are powerful tools in preparing preservice teachers to be effective educators, and every opportunity must be taken to help the preservice teacher focus on student outcomes of the learning environment rather than only focusing on the lesson design.

The authors conclude that as with many novice teachers, the counselors in this study did not have enough experience to gauge the ability levels of their students and prepare accordingly.
Because they did not have suitable lessons, they relied heavily on variable manipulation and activities with insufficient content.
Developing lessons based on process was a way to control behavior, make lessons ‘‘fun,’’ and offered the possibility of avoiding content which may be intimidating to inexperienced teachers.

The results of this study highlight the critical role teacher preparation programs play in developing content specific pedagogy and student outcomes from the learning environment.
Hence, the authors suggest that teacher educators must be cognizant when preservice teachers are using variable manipulation to teach a scientific phenomena or when it is being logistically used to avoid content, so that they can provide the necessary intervention to redirect the preservice teacher.

Updated: Nov. 13, 2018
Elementary school teachers | Preservice teachers | Science instruction | Self efficacy | Student attitudes