More Than Staying One Chapter Ahead of the Students: Updating
Teachers' Content Knowledge

Year: 1993

Author: Parker, Lesley, Wallace, John, Wildy, Helen

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

One of the emerging paradoxes of teacher education concerns teachers' subject matter knowledge. There is general agreement that effective teaching is, amongst other things, 'knowledge- based' (see, for example, Eltis and Turney, 1993). Thus, on the one hand it is recognised that the best teachers are those who understand their subject matter well (Buchmann, 1984; Shulman, 1986, 1987; Grossman, Wilson & Shulman, 1989) and it is emphasised that such understandings involve much more than 'staying one chapter ahead of the students' (McDiarmid, Ball & Anderson, 1989). On the other hand, however, as knowledge in all areas increases exponentially, there is a similarly increasing likelihood that both the depth and the recency of teachers' subject matter knowledge will suffer.

The two dimensions of this paradox are especially evident in science education. Recent research (Hashweh, 1987; Tobin & Garnett, 1988; Lewis & Treagust, 1991) has demonstrated the value of a sound basis in subject matter for the teaching of science subjects. However, the rapid increase in amount, complexity and specialisation of science knowledge makes it extremely difficult for science teachers to keep up-to-date. Further, in Australia, where science teachers comprise a relatively aged sector of the workforce, and are becoming more and more remote from their last experience of up-to-date scientific knowledge, the paradox is particularly problematic (Speedy, Annice, Fensham & West, 1989). In this context, the importance of research on the effectiveness of attempts to update science teachers' content knowledge is paramount.

This paper presents an analysis of one such attempt to update science teachers' knowledge. It focuses on a pilot project funded by the Australian Commonwealth government and conducted at the National Key Centre for Teaching and Research in School Science and Mathematics in Western Australia. As described in detail elsewhere (Parker, Wallace & Fraser, 1993) the project aimed to update teachers' science content knowledge through interaction with experts in their discipline area. It was based on a 'training of trainers' model (Musella, 1992) targeting initially 34 'key' teachers, each of whom then worked as the 'trainer' of a small, district-based group of science teachers. An important aspect of the model was its attempt to provide an experience which engendered ongoing participation by the teachers in their own professional development. This 'sustainable' dimension of the program was built in through links to a variety of forms of credit towards post-initial teacher qualifications, through the district networks established as part of the project and, especially for the 'key' teachers, through encouragement to take on active roles as leaders in professional development.

The purpose of the research reported here was to analyse the model of professional development utilised in the pilot project, with the aim of increasing understanding of the most effective ways of maintaining the currency of experienced teachers' scientific knowledge. The analysis is based on the participating teachers' perspectives on their own needs. It highlights the challenges faced by all involved in the project, and the practical and theoretical insights gained from the project.