Research Summary

Elementary Teachers’ Beliefs About, Perceived Competencies for, and Reported Use of Scientific Inquiry to Promote Student Learning About and for the Environment

Elementary Teachers Believe in Inquiry Approach, but Need Support for Implementation

The Journal of Environmental Education
2010

Science education reform has focused heavily on infusing more inquiry-based practices into science teaching. At the same time, environmental education promotes an inquiry-based approach, both in learning about environmental issues and in decision making about issues. Because of this natural alignment in approaches, and because the elementary school setting lends itself to interdisciplinary teaching that can allow for the infusion of environmental topics, the authors of this study focused on how elementary teachers think about and use inquiry-based practices to learn about the environment.

The authors surveyed 121 teachers in 31 schools from communities surrounding their university. They found that the teachers felt strongly that they should use scientific inquiry to help students learn about the environment, but they felt less capable of actually doing it. The teachers were even less likely to report having used scientific inquiry to teach about environmental issues. More experienced teachers were more likely to report that they felt capable of using inquiry to teach about the environment and were more likely to have done so. Teachers who had completed a methods course in environmental education were more supportive of using inquiry to teach about the environment than teachers who hadn’t taken a methods course. And teachers who had been exposed to four or more environmentally related professional development experiences were more likely to report feeling competent to use scientific inquiry to teach about the environment. But teachers who had taken an environmental studies course as part of their preservice education were no more likely to support or use an inquiry-based approach to teaching about the environment than those who had not taken an environmental studies course.

Although the teachers believed in using inquiry-based approaches in their teaching about the environment, they rarely did. The teachers surveyed in this study spent, on average, 15.1 hours per year teaching about the environment, which amounts to about 1.3% of their instructional time for the year. This study’s results suggest that preservice and professional development opportunities can help teachers feel more supportive of and confident about using inquiry to teach about the environment. The next step in research, the authors suggest, is understanding “what specific characteristics of teacher education and professional development experiences can foster teachers’ beliefs, competencies, and ultimately their practices to support students’ learning about and for the environment through inquiry.”

The Bottom Line

This study suggests that, although elementary teachers do support using an inquiry-based approach to teaching about the environment, they rarely follow through. But preservice and inservice training does appear to help, especially in increasing educators’ confidence in using inquiry to teach about the environment.