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.
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:
- If teacher semantic structure of similar core knowledge is
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.
- If there are differences in course features.
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:
- Systematic differences exist across transitional years in life
science teacher concept understanding of the same content-specific
- 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:
||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
|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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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."
- 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
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
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.
VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING OF
CORE CONCEPTS BY TEACHER-PARTICIPANTS BY GROUP.
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.