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The use of critical incident vignettes to share a pre-service primary teacher's science learning journeyChristine Howitt
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Looking through one eye never did provide much depth of field. (Eisner, 1981, p. 9)
Case studies have been used widely as a means of presenting stories or narratives to describe and explore teachers' beliefs and experiences. Case studies of critical incidents provide another perspective to these stories, where teachers identify and describe significant turning points or changes.
This presentation describes a third perspective to the case study methodology, where critical incident vignettes are constructed by the researcher based on information provided by, and written in the voice of, the teacher. This approach, which I have called "dual perspective", provides a means of allowing the researcher to recreate the lived experiences of the teacher, and to step into those experiences and become part of the teachers' world. These vignettes move away from the decontextualised quotations that are selected to illustrate a specific argument, in an attempt to more readily reflect the teachers' language and their construction of reality.
The use of these "dual perspective" critical incident vignettes will be illustrated and interpreted through the science learning journey of one pre-service primary teacher.
Critical incidents tend to mark significant turning points or changes in a person or in some social phenomenon (Tripp, 1993). Critical incidents are not characterised as being "critical" due to any drama or sensationalism attached to them. Rather, their criticality is based on the justification, significance, or meaning given to them by participants (Angelides, 2001). While incidents happen, critical incidents are produced by the way we view a given situation, hence a critical incident is an individual "interpretation of the significance of an event" (Tripp, 1993, p. 8). Typically, critical incidents are only recognised after the consequences of the incident are known (Angelides, 2001). Critical incidents are often unplanned, unanticipated, and uncontrolled (Woods, 1993).
Critical incident vignettes are short, personalised, narrative accounts of a particular event, that provide specific detailed information about the author. Since critical incidents are written by individuals about actions in their own lives, they are incontrovertible sources of data representing the learners' existential realities (Brookfield, 1990). Further, critical incidents stand alone as primary data sources giving insights into learners' assumptive worlds in the learners' own language and expression (Brookfield, 1990). In contrast to traditional case studies based on the synthesis of secondary source material, critical incident vignettes are raw, first-hand commentaries of real events affecting individuals (Macfarlane, 2003).
Within an educational context, critical incident vignettes have been used primarily in two ways: the study of cases of critical incidents, and the writing of personal critical incident vignettes. The former approach provides a teaching strategy to promote pedagogical reasoning, reflection and learning (Herman, 1998; Doyle & Carter, 2003; Preskill, 1996). The latter approach allows for the identification, description and analysis of particular phenomenon. Examples of the latter include the investigation of students' perceptions of teacher characteristics that support or inhibit help seeking (Le Mare & Sohbat, 2002), the analysis of the role of culture in school improvement (Angelides & Ainscow, 2000), the exploration of the dilemmas experienced by principals (Wildy, Louden & Robertson, 2000), and the identification of ethical dilemmas that confront front-line management as a tool in business ethics education (Macfarlane, 2003).
When writing critical incident vignettes a number of approaches have been used. The most common technique is to have the participants themselves identify, write and reflect on the critical incident, usually in some form of reflective journal, as used in Macfarlane (2003). A second approach is for the researcher to discuss the phenomenon under study with the participant, and then the researcher identifies, writes and interprets the critical incident. This approach was used in Le Mare and Sohbat (2002) and in Angelides and Ainscow (2000). Wildy, Louden and Robertson (2000) introduced a third approach where critical incidents are identified by the participant, but written and interpreted by the researcher. This paper extends the third approach, where critical incidents are identified by the participant, written by the researcher, and interpreted by both the participant and researcher. This approach, which looks through the lenses of both the participant and the researcher, will be used to illustrate the science learning journey of one pre-service primary teacher.
A substantial body of research exists on how best to improve pre-service teachers' science knowledge and attitudes towards science. The majority of this research has been directed at improving science content knowledge and science methods courses with the aim of improving the confidence of the pre-service teacher (Skamp, 1989; Riggs & Enoch, 1990; Hand & Peterson, 1995; Appleton, 1995, 2003; Cahill & Skamp, 2003). The influence of the science teacher educator in improving the confidence of the pre-service primary teacher by creating an effective science learning environment has also been examined to a lesser degree. General results indicate that learning environments need to be positive and supportive to minimise anxiety and encourage freedom to experiment and verbalise opinions. This should include a variety of authentic teaching methods that concentrate on student-centred learning experiences that make connections with prior knowledge, which are supported by constant feedback to allow for the development of science and pedagogy, and increased beliefs and attitudes to science and self (Hardy & Kirkwood, 1994; Mulholland & Wallace, 1994; Huinker & Madison, 1997; Watters & Ginns, 1997; Rice and Roychoudly, 2003)
To better understand how the pre-service teacher learns science and how to teach science, it was decided to describe the science learning journey of one pre-service primary teacher during a second year science unit. The approach taken was to follow and interpret the science learning experiences from the dual perspectives of the pre-service teacher and myself, the science teacher educator. By sharing the lived experiences of the pre-service teacher, it would then become possible to understand the processes by which this teacher comes to learn science and also learn how to teach science. Background to Study
This study focuses on the science learning experiences of one pre-service primary teacher, Sam (a pseudonym). It was conducted over a 12-week semester science education unit during the second year of a 4-year Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood Education) degree at an Australian University. The science education unit consisted of nine weeks of workshops followed by a three week practicum (supervised teaching practice). I was the science teacher educator of these workshops.
The purpose of the workshops was to provide students with a range of holistic science learning experiences that focused on developing students' pedagogical content knowledge, through the modeling of science teaching methods and strategies, the development of a positive learning environment, and enhanced reflection. All learning experiences emphasised placing science into a relevant context. The workshops were delivered using a constructivist referent for teaching and learning. Emphasis in the workshops was on participation and reflection. In terms of participation, students were encouraged to be actively involved in all investigations and to ask questions to their peers and the science teacher educator. To encourage this involvement, students were not expected to take notes during the workshops unless they wanted to. Rather, detailed notes covering both content and pedagogy were handed out to the students at the end of the workshops. The last 15 minutes of each workshop was dedicated to reflection, where students were encouraged to discuss such issues as what they had learnt during the lesson, what had happened in class to encourage this learning, what the role of the teacher had been during the lesson, and how this information could be applied when they are teaching.
Semi-structured interviews were used throughout the study. The initial interview with Sam concentrated on her previous experiences with science, her current attitudes to science, and how she would like to teach science to her future students. Subsequent interviews were held after each of the workshops. In these interviews Sam was asked to identify, describe and explain a significant event or critical incident during the workshop which influenced her in regards to learning science or learning to teach science. Such critical incidents could relate to science content, pedagogy, epistemology, learning environment, teacher educator, or a combination of these. The influence of the event could be positive or negative. Written notes were taken during these interviews.
Short narrative vignettes were constructed by myself from these interviews, each containing the critical incident identified by Sam. Each vignette incorporated enough local detail to provide authenticity, and enough structure to identify the critical incident. Each vignette is then a constructed narrative account, based on actual events and written in the voice of Sam. However, these accounts are not intended to be mirrors to reality (Schwandt, 1994), but rather expressive reconstitutions of the experiences from which they originated (Eisner, 1991). Both "artistic reconstruction" and "distillation" (Eisner, 1985, p. 229) were used in writing the vignettes, in order to capture the action and interactions in a vivid and life-like manner (Wildy, 1999).
In constructing these vignettes, I was attempting to live and feel the experiences, and identify the challenges, facing the pre-service science teacher through their very eyes. Not only was I trying to recreate the lived experiences of the student for others to read, but also step into those experiences and become part of the student's world. Eisner (1981) used the term "indwelling" to describe the process of imaginatively participating in the experiences of another. However, I have chosen to use the term "dual perspective" in this report as it more appropriately describes the process. These vignettes move away from the decontextualised quotations that are selected to illustrate a specific argument (Wallace & Louden, 2000) in an attempt to more readily reflect Sam's language and her construction of reality. As suggested by Wallace and Louden (2000), rather than being caught up in the reality of the world of the science teacher educator, I have chosen to move to the reality of the pre-service teacher.
The checking of the vignettes for authenticity and interpretation was achieved through cycles of reflection (Wallace & Louden, 2000) from both Sam and myself. Initially, Sam checked each vignette for authenticity, and changes were made to reflect any feedback. Once a vignette was considered representative of Sam's significant event, I then interpreted the vignette from the perspective of Sam's growth as a science learner and teacher. Sam was the n given the opportunity to read and reflect upon these interpretations, and suggest changes. This iterative process allowed Sam to become a silent author in this research, and to take some ownership of the process. But more importantly, in retelling the original story both Sam and I were allowed an opportunity for increased reflection, growth and change in the way we perceived our practice (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994).
This was a great literacy lesson that I can see young children enjoying immensely. Strange that we were doing it in science!
Sam's strengths and confidence lie in literacy. Sam was comfortable in this lesson because of the continual use and discussion of the "descriptive words" of oobleck. Sam admitted it is "easier to move into the literacy side as opposed to the science side". However, this lesson provided an opportunity for Sam to realise the connection between science and literacy.
Starting a unit with a simple, enjoyable and fun science investigation, disguised as literacy, provided an opportunity for those students who lacked self confidence in science to participate wholly and experience success in science. Even better if Sam chose not to call this lesson science. Sam was making connections through what she was comfortable with - literacy.
Starting with scientific literacy also provided an opportunity to perceive science from a very different perspective to the traditional views of abstract and analytical high school science. This lesson challenged Sam's existing views of science. The simplicity of the lesson, along with the "fun" component, was in stark contrast to her high school memories. For Sam, science had been taken off its pedestal of professors, theories and formulas, and made accessible to her. That accessibility had come about through simplicity.
This lesson also demonstrated to Sam how science could be taught to young children. Science should be kept simple, fun and very concrete so that all can participate and experience success. Further, the materials required for science should also be highly accessible items.
While this one lesson would not be enough to change Sam's fear of science, it provided an opportunity for her to look at science with fresh eyes.
I played with bubbles today, and learnt about bubbles at the same time.As a means of investigating bubbles, each group in the class was given different questions to investigate. These were:
While investigating our problem, the teacher checked on our progress. She asked us questions to check we understood the problem. She asked us questions to help us explore our problem. She asked us questions to help us explain what we had found. She asked us questions to make us think.
At the end of the lesson each group had the opportunity to share their investigation with the rest of the class, and to answer any questions from the class.
Each group had conducted a simple investigation on the properties of bubbles. Yet when we combined our results we had an informative study of bubbles that was the consequence of some well-chosen questions.
I played with bubbles today and learnt about the importance of focus questions and the power of questioning in science.
Once again, the majority of this vignette reflected what Sam's group experienced during the workshop. However, it became personalised by the specific question that Sam asked her group on square shaped bubbles. Sam's realisation of the importance of questions in this workshop is reflected through the italicised sentences at the beginning and end of the vignette.
Initially, this narrative illustrates to Sam the importance of questioning in science. Through this lesson Sam has discovered that having appropriate focus questions, and letting students question each other and the teacher, are all effective science teaching strategies.
However, Sam's main attention was on the focus questions themselves. Sam found that these focus questions provided the direction for the lesson and the boundaries for the investigations. For Sam, these focus questions helped to create order from disorder, and provided her with a life-line to learning about science. These life-lines could be considered as Sam's connections between literacy and science. This science lesson further built on Sam's strength in the literacy area as a means of developing her confidence in science.
Science questions are a source of anxiety for Sam, both in her learning and teaching. This narrative shows that Sam is afraid to ask questions in class, for fear of the question being classed as a "stupid" question. This highlights Sam's lack of confidence in herself during science lessons through her limited knowledge of science. However, she was quite proud of herself for coming up with such a good question. This experience, as a student teacher, is similar to how many young children feel in their science classroom. It has allowed Sam to perceive being both a student and a teacher, and illustrated the importance of establishing a positive learning classroom environment where all questions and comments are valued. Sam's limited science content knowledge is also a source of anxiety during her teaching. Sam stated that not being able to answer a pupil's science question, or not being able to further question a pupil appropriately about a science topic, was a major contribution to her lack of confidence in teaching science.
I am looking at the holes in the ceiling, trying to make patterns with them. Like a "join-the-dots" game. There are so many holes, but I cannot find a pattern. I cannot find any way to connect all these holes. I know there has to be a pattern, but why can't I find one? Is it me? Why can't I make any connections?
The teacher is talking to the class. I can hear a noise in the background, but it has no meaning to me. I cannot pull my eyes away from the holes in the ceiling panels. I have to make some connections!
All the students are moving to do an activity. I can hear them calling to me to join them, but I cannot move. I can hear them moving chairs, talking to each other, manipulating objects, but it has no meaning to me. I cannot pull my eyes away from those holes. So many holes. So many sounds. But no connections!
Sam's disconnectedness with the content of the lesson is directly related to the abstract nature of sound. While the activities provided in the workshop were an attempt to illustrate the physical nature of sound, Sam required even more concrete information. Even the analogy of a slinky as a sound wave was not concrete enough for Sam. She needed to "see" sound waves in order to understand them, before investigating what happens as a consequence of moving sound waves. This highlights the difficulty of teaching abstract concepts, even through analogy.
By using the guided discovery model of learning, Sam found she had no foundation on which to build her sound knowledge. Consequently, each of the activities had no connections and no understanding for Sam, and was completed simply because it had to be and because she was drawn along by her fellow group members. Based on these experiences, Sam was critical of this model, and originally stated that she would be unlikely to use it in her teaching. Upon further reflection, Sam commented that she could see the merits of the guided discovery model, especially as an assessment tool.
Sam readily admitted to being off task in this lesson, even describing herself as being "distracted and somewhat disruptive". This was directly attributable to her not understanding the lesson, and therefore not being interested in it.
Sam used this negative experience to reflect upon science teaching and learning in early childhood. This lesson allowed her to not only experience science through the eyes of a child, but a disinterested child. Sam experienced first hand how easily it is to become distracted and disruptive in a classroom. From a teaching perspective, this lesson demonstrated to Sam how important it is to use concrete experiences for young children, and to modify teaching methods if it becomes apparent that students are not understanding the content. Sam further made the statement that "if children become disconnected from science in the early years they may form negative images/attitudes of science in their latter years in and out of school". This statement clearly shows Sam's growing maturity and understanding of the importance of attitude in science education, as well as across the whole curricula, and the correspondingly important role the teacher plays in changing (hopefully improving) that attitude.
The use of dual perspective provides more than just imaginatively participating in the experiences of others (Eisner, 1981). Through dual perspective I have had the unique opportunity to be part of Sam's lived experiences, and to observe, describe and interpret these experiences from her perspective. This alternative perspective allows me a valuable insight into Sam's learning process, and an opportunity to truly share in her learning journey.
The relationship between the teacher educator and the pre-service teacher is paramount when implementing dual perspective in order to gain access to pre-service teachers' perspectives. Due to the nature of the science workshops, where I was the facilitator and the constructor of the learning environment, and the small class sizes (approximately 20), it was possible to develop close professional working relationships with the pre-service teachers. It is this positive relationship that leads to sharing of information, and this sharing then leads to insight into pre-service teachers' learning. Such sharing and insight is not possible when interpreting quotes from reflective journals at some time interval after their entry into the journal, or when an "outsider" comes into a classroom to interpret some educational phenomenon.
Another advantage to using the dual perspective methodology is what I call the "here and now" factor. As the teacher educator of the workshops, I am a part of all learning experiences. Being an integral part of this process makes context and interpretation much easier than having to rely on any "third party" reports or descriptions. Another aspect of the "here and now" factor is that critical incident vignettes can be written and interpreted immediately after discussing them with the pre-service teacher. Hence, they provide a means of quickly gathering rich, qualitative data and obtaining information on a particular phenomena (Angelides, 2001).
The use of dual perspective methodology, over a period of time, allows for a synthesis of the learning process. This is in contrast to the common use of decontextualised quotes which support common themes that are identified through the lens of the researcher (Wallace & Louden, 2000). By looking through the pre-service teacher's perspective over the semester, it is possible to identify change and growth, and to start describing the subtle but continuous learning process that is occurring.
As a teacher educator, dual perspective readily allows for the linking of critical incidents, reflection and inquiry (Angelides, 2001). By sharing Sam's science learning journey I have heightened my own critical interest of reflection, forcing me to question taken-for-granted thoughts, feelings and actions (Schon, 1987). Such reflections after each workshop encouraged me to adjust both my teaching methods and the science learning experiences I was providing: a form of teaching as praxis.
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|Please cite as: Howitt, C. (2004). The use of critical incident vignettes to share a pre-service primary teacher's science learning journey. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2004. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2004/howitt.html|