Research Summary

A multi-year study of the impact of the rice model teacher professional development on elementary science teachers

Intensive Training in Inquiry-Based Teaching Pays Off for Urban Teachers

International Journal of Science Education

Leading voices in education, including the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have stepped up recommendations for teachers to adopt inquiry-based science teaching methods. At the same time, however, teachers also face increasing pressure to focus their teaching on the standardized tests that will evaluate their students and themselves. Many teachers understandably fear that student inquiry might lead students away from mandated material toward subjects not covered by standards and tests.

Add to this nervousness about the unpredictability of inquiry-based teaching and the additional challenge that most elementary school teachers feel less qualified to teach science than any other subject, and it’s not surprising that 30 percent of elementary school students receive no science instruction at all on a typical school day. In urban settings, teachers face yet another hurdle: Students often perform below their grade level in basic skills. As a result, teachers and students in urban schools often lack the knowledge and confidence to effectively use an inquiry-based approach to science.

The study described in this paper set out to address some of these considerable barriers with an intensive, multi-year teacher training program called the Rice Elementary Model Science Lab (REMSL). The REMSL program aimed to increase urban elementary teachers’ ability to use constructivist teaching methods by adopting the 5E Model, in which teachers and students move through the stages of engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation. Over the course of a year, teachers met once a week, working within professional learning communities to test out science content activities, receive training in the theories of constructivism, and participate in leadership training. The teachers also kept reflective journals and created digital portfolios of their development through the year. This frequent, intensive model amounted to 200 direct hours of training.

To test the effectiveness of the model, the researchers randomly assigned teachers in the participating schools to either a treatment group (which received the training) or a control group (which did not receive the training, but was guaranteed participation in the following year). Specifically, the researchers investigated whether the program (1) increased teachers’ content knowledge, (2) improved their inquiry-based teaching methods, and (3) improved their leadership skills. The evaluation research focused on the program’s third and fourth years, in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, respectively. The 2008-2009 year saw 64 teachers in the treatment group and 30 in the control group, while the 2009-2010 group included 61 in the treatment group and 38 in the control group.

Based on the results of pre- and post-tests of science content knowledge, the researchers reported that “teachers who received training showed a significant increase in their science content knowledge between pre- and post-tests on all science topics tested.” In both 2008- 2009 and 2009-2010, both the treatment and control groups showed increases in science content knowledge, but the treatment groups’ scores were significantly higher than the control groups’ scores.

Although the teachers in the treatment group scored higher on a test measuring their knowledge of constructivist teaching practice (the teachers that participated in the training demonstrated a significant gain from the pre-test to the post-test, while the teachers in the control group didn’t show a significant gain), classroom observations did not reveal significant differences in the teaching practices of teachers in the control and treatment groups. Based on the classroom rating protocol the researchers used, both groups increased their rating scores from before training to after training. But there was not a significant difference between the scores of the teachers who received the training and those who did not.

Finally, the results of a survey of the teachers’ participation in leadership activities revealed that the training helped the teachers develop their leadership skills. For both years studied, teachers who participated in the REMSL training presented at more professional development programs, attended and presented at more conferences, and applied for and received more science grants than teachers in the control group.

The researchers also noted that interview data confirmed that teachers have significant reservations about the feasibility of inquiry-based science teaching, but that this kind of intensive training is valuable in developing their science teaching skills. The authors explained, “What remained important for the urban participants interviewed was to have a year-long opportunity to participate in science training every week, to have materials to take the training into the classroom and to return the following week to discuss the results of the new teaching and learning.”

The authors concluded that, overall, this approach was successful because teachers demonstrated increases in content knowledge, reported significant positive changes in their teaching styles, and took on more roles of leadership in their schools. As for the results of the classroom observations, the researchers wondered if the teachers were nervous in the presence of an observer, or if the observers were not picking up on the nuances of the teachers’ approaches. They also suggested the possibility that the observation protocol may not be appropriate for evaluating elementary school science, as it was first developed for assessing college teaching.

The Bottom Line

Teacher training can make a difference, even in tough teaching conditions like urban schools. The high-intensity approach to teacher training studied here helped teachers improve their science content knowledge and leadership skills, and improved their knowledge of inquiry-based, constructivist teaching practice. The research was not able to demonstrate that teachers who received training were better able to translate that knowledge to classroom practice than teachers who didn’t participate in the training. Future research will need to focus on whether that’s because of a teacher’s actual practice or the way the teachers are assessed. In any case, it appears that this is largely an effective approach, but it is intensive. The program included 200 hours of training, with teachers participating in weekly training, journaling, the development of a digital portfolio, and the support of a professional learning community over the course of a year.