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Warkentin, Dan. and Bates, John.

Discontinuities in Science Teaching: A Developmental Analysis

Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Education Research Association. April, 1994. ERIC DIGEST ED404135.

Abstract prepared by Chuck Downing, PhD.

It's heard every year in high school faculty lounges or science department prep rooms:

Don't those middle school teachers teach any science in their classes? The kids I've got this year don't know a thing.

I know I was guilty of uttering those remarks from time to time when I taught high school science. I now hear similar comments from college professors in science departments around the country-except they substitute "high school teachers" for "middle school teachers" in their comment. Even if you don't say the words, you are aware that many of your students seem to have passed, unaffected, through their previous science experiences.

So, what's the problem? That is the underlying question in Warkentin and Bates' article. The authors offer this admonishment from the beginning of their paper: Don't blame prior teachers. Rather work to increase student success throughout their science career.

Science teacher concept knowledge of subject matter and teacher knowledge of student characteristics and student learning influence teaching practices. Teaching practices affect what and how students learn and, therefore, future science success. Continuities in teacher goals, knowledge, and practices (especially in transition years, grades 6-7, 8-9, and 12-13) support continuous progress. Discontinuities in these areas are likely to impede progress.

Warkentin and Bates point out two potential sources of discontinuity:

  1. If teacher semantic structure of similar core knowledge is different.

    The more closely a student's semantic structure aligns with his/her teacher's structure, the more successful that student will be in that class. If differences exist between middle school teachers & high school teachers and high school teachers & college teachers, learning constructed in past classes can impede construction of knowledge in the current class.

  2. If there are differences in course features.

    Differences between classes in middle school & high school and high school & college in the areas of a) performance criteria, b) task requirements, c) feedback, d) practice, and e) review hinder students from successfully meeting course demands.

They offer two hypotheses:

  1. Systematic differences exist across transitional years in life science teacher concept understanding of the same content-specific concepts.

  2. Corresponding differences exist in science teacher conception of a successful student, science class practices, and science teacher beliefs about student learning.

The study reported in this article included the following participants:
Course Taught
7th grade Science
10th grade Life science
College Intro. life science requirement

Each teacher rated the following 12 common concepts from core curriculum supplied by each group.

Biochemistry: chemical bonding, photosynthesis, respiration, organic compounds
Genetics: chromosomes, genetic inheritance, natural selection, species, sexual reproduction, mitosis
Ecology: ecosystem, food webs

Final ratings were based on the quality of relationships between matched pairs of terms from each area. The rating scale ranged from 1 (weak relationship) to 4 (strong relationship).

  • Results of the rating of the pairs of terms indicated that all three groups showed good correlation and coherence. This means that all three groups of teachers constructed meaningful (for them) relationships. However, comparing high school teacher ratings to both middle school and college ratings showed a weak relationship. There was "only slight structural resemblance of a concept network" between groups. Diagrammatic representations of the concept ratings appear at the end of this review.

Teachers also rated factors that influence student learning, types of teaching used, and indicators of a successful science student using the same 1-4 rating scale.

  • There was a statistically significant difference between the three groups in four areas of student learning. Support structures for feedback and guidance, teacher-student relationships and rapport, student [sociological] characteristics, and student performance and assessment were all ranked differently.

  • There was statistically significant difference between the three groups in two areas of teaching activities. Worksheets/seatwork and practice (e.g. small groups) were different between middle/high school and college.

  • There was statistically significant difference between the three groups in one area of characteristics of a good science student. Only high school teachers felt that organization of time and effort was a significant characteristic.

In the end, Warkentin and Bates present four discontinuities.

  1. Middle school teachers have different conceptual understanding of core concepts than do their high school counterparts. And high school have different conceptual understanding of core concepts than do their college counterparts. Therefore, knowledge constructed at one level of science course is of little (if any) value at the next level of science course.

  2. Middle school and high school science classes are more "immediate goal-oriented" than college classes. They also have more support, guidance, and direction associated with them. The dramatic change in support system at the college level in both type and amount has a potentially devastating effect. This is especially true for "at risk" students who have been even more heavily supported than "regular students" in middle/high school.

  3. High school teachers feel that following directions, organization, and preparation for class are more important than do either middle school or college teachers. Moving to college

    "involves a critical shift in the nature of agency, control and responsibility. This shift involves a change from a reliance on teacher-directed or other-controlled learning to a demand for self-directed and self-controlled learning during college. Abrupt changes between high school and college can leave many students unprepared to cope in a context where autonomous, self-regulated learning is at a premium."

  4. Middle school and high school teachers give more worksheets than their college counterparts. This supports the "other-controlled" environment described above. Unfortunately, it also indicates that middle school and high school classrooms "may be [are?] still emphasizing a passive, 'receptive' learning approach to science education."

So what are you supposed to do about this? I wish I could give you a simple answer. This article reports on one small sample population. While too much extrapolation is unwarranted and unwise, we can all benefit from looking closely at what we are doing now.

I offer the following:

  • Warkentin and Bates point out that at no grade level was any significant amount of independent observation or original experimentation performed by students. All three groups rated those techniques between 1.9 - 2.1 on the four point scale. I suggest we all try to improve this abysmal statistic.

  • If you teach middle school or high school, you might try talking with your colleagues at the "other level" schools. What concepts do each curricula consider important? How are those concepts presented those concepts to our students? What are ways to bring conceptual understanding of the groups closer together?

  • Reduce the number of worksheets your students fill out. While you are reducing, cut back on the number of "questions at the end of chapters." In place of these passive procedures add activities that allow students the opportunity to explore a problem they have not encountered before. This strategy change kills two birds with one stone.

  • College teachers, look at your methodology. In ranking of independent student investigation, why were the college teacher rankings so low? College teachers were lowest ranked in terms of "practice" like small groups too. A change in presentation strategy here would help ease the transition between high school and college.

  • Finally, high school people, talk with your departmental colleagues about their perception of a good science student. What are the criteria used in such judgments? If organization and planning are predominant, how can other equally significant scientific characteristics (like objectivity and deduction) move up in the ranking.

There will continue to be discontinuities as students progress from one level of science class to another. Each of us needs to work in our own area to minimize discontinuity while not overly criticizing our students or their prior teachers.


The three visual organizers below are based on computer-generated relationships derived from each teacher-groups' rating of pairs of terms for each core concept. Notice how each group developed a viable association. Notice also, however, the significant differences in relationship and hierarchy of concepts. Although not specifically stated in article, it was implied that the position of concepts in the diagrams is hierarchical.

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