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Research in Science Education, 1995, 25(2), 135-149

A Constructivist Approach to Change in Elementary

Science Teaching and Learning

Deborah Tippins
University of Georgia

Kenneth Tobin
Florida State University

Sharon Nichols
University of Texas


Constructivism is a set ofbeliefs that can be used by teachers to think about learning and teaching
and to plan and enact a science curriculum. This paper is a fictional account of an elementary
science teacher and her use of eoustruetivism as a referent for her various roles as a science
teacher. The paper also describes how the teacher came to teach in this manner, describing her
involvement in staff development activities and an evolution in her thinking from an ojectivist
to a constmetivist system of semantics. Implications are presented for the reform of science

The three authors gathered around a single Macintosh with the goal o f writing a paper to
illustrate how a teacher might teach science using constructivism to make sense o f teaching and
learning. How should we do this? We were not experienced at working together, our experience
in science education was varied, and we were not sure about the extent to which we would be
didactic in the paper or descriptive. However, we soon reached an agreement that we wanted the
paper to be alive. Ken had recently worked with two teachers, either or both o f whom would have
made ideal cases on which to base a paper. Deborah had not worked with either teacher and nor
had Sherry. The interviews and vignettes from the classes taught by these two teachers, and the
teacher development programs in which they had participated were extensive and were a
compelling source ofttata for the study. Deborah had extensive experience in interpretive studies
of science classrooms and had recently undertaken a major study involving a middle school science
teacher who had made significant changes to his teaching based on the use o f constructivism to
guide his actions as he taught. Sherry was particularly aware of the sociocultuml factors involved
in maintaining change and had numerous vignettes involving the supportive actions o f a school
principal. Together we had a vast reservoir of experience with teacher learning and curriculum
reform and had thought about these areas from a constructivist perspective. Accordingly, we soon
agreed that the best approach to the paper was to focus on what we knew. We would communicate
what we had learned from our research and practice in science education through the use of a gory.
Gradually art idea came to us. The teacher in the story should be a female from a minority
population and we would largely tell the story to emphasise her role and those o f selected students
in the class. We would avoid didactic methods in the preparation o f the paper through the use of
a narrative approach. Narrative, as defined by CormeUy and Clandinin (1988, p. 16) refers to "the
making of meaning through personal experience by way of a process of reflection in which
~torvtellin~ is a key element and in which metaohors and folk knowledge take their place." To the

extent possible we felt the narrative should be in the present tense with reflective components. In
this way we could begin to share with readers what we knew about the cognitive and social
dimensions o f teacher and student roles in science classrooms. The narrative approach, as a form
o f inquiry and view o f knowledge, would enable us to focus on building a dynamic image o f life
in science classrooms, from a constructivist perspective.
The teacher emerged as the story unfolded. She was a composite teacher built from the
several hundred with whom we had worked over a period of 20 years o f research in science
classrooms. She was not one o f the teachers with whom we had worked, while at the same time,
she was all o f them. Ms Halfaday, our composite teacher, was an imaginative creation who lived,
and lives, in our minds. She lived in our minds as a teacher who has used constructivism as a basis
for her personal learning and making changes to the way she taught elementary science. The
creation o f a composite character based on research is consistent with Barone's (1988) use of
fictional ttata and Bruner's (1986) notion of narrative. Some of the interview data are taken directly
from transcripts from the Mentor Teacher Project conducted at Florida State University, the
vignettes are likely stories based on composite images of many teachers and science classrooms,
and one set o f data involving an interview with Ms Halfaday is fictitious. The interview was
essentially based on the research team asking questions o f an imagined Ms Halfaday and
documenting her answers. These fictional data were grounded in the images o f practice that were
built around our experiences in science education.
In writing the paper we endeavoured to build a coherent, credible, and authentic picture o f
teacher and learner practices in a science classroom built around beliefs that were consistent with
constructivism. The evolving story was consistent with our learning and publications over more
than a decade. In one sense it was like a review o f our own research; however, unl~e most reviews
that are published, the synthesis took the form o f a narrative, which in our minds is more access~le
to those who are struggling to find applications o f constructivism in science teaching and science
teacher education.

Science in Ms Halfaday's Elementary Classroom

Spiders on the loose. Josh entered the classroom, grabbed a chair, and dragged it toward the
science centre. He wanted to be close to the spider display area, since today his group would be
sharing. Scott and Marie found some chairs and joined Josh to form a group o f three. They were
in luck, the spiders had hatched.
Science in Ms Halfaday~s fifth grade class was built around students' interests and always
consisted o f high levels of student involvement in varied activities. In the past month the class had
been on numerous early morning school yard walks to observe webs and collect live specimens for
their spider habitats. The month had been intensive. Not only had the class set up and maintained
habitats for a variety of spiders, they had also prepared learning logs which provided a basis for
the books they were writing and editing at the publishing centre. Library books, video resources,
and newspapers had assisted them to understand what spiders needed to survive. Students from
another fifth grade class were collaborating with Ms Halfaday's class via a computer network to
share what they were learning from their studies o f spiders. A recent innovation in the classroom
was the introduction o f portfolios to record what students had learned and to assist Ms Halfaday
in assessing student learning.
Marie began to count the newly hatched spiders as Scott went to find a magnifying glass.
Marie jumped back in amazement as she noticed small spiders on the outside of the jar. "How did
they get out?" she exclaimed. "Maybe through the ventilation holes in the lid," said Josh. "Should
we change the lid? " asked Marie as she swept the spiders on to a sheet of paper. The three

students got together to ponder their latest dilemma. Scott recalled seeing several pieces of netting
with various mesh sizes. After examining the netting and estimating the size of the spiders, the
group agreed that the finest mesh would probably contain the spiders and allow sufficient
After writing the latest observations in their learning logs, the three students decided to go
to the portfolio assembly area. They gathered around a large table on which they had placed their
portfolios. Each portfolio was different. For example, Josh's was a large milk crate filled with
artefacts, each of which was labelled and represented a si~mificant learning experience about
spiders. Josh had written a caption on each of the artefacts and had explained why the artefact was
important to him. This was not merely a collection of miscellaneous items. The portfolio
contained only items of particular significance for Josh-those artefacts, he believed, best indicated
his growth as a learner. The portfolio was dynamic in the sense that Josh added and removed items
on a regular basis as he learned about spiders and decided how best to show what he had learned.
Marie was helping Scott to organise his portfolio, contained in an expandable file, by arranging a
sequence of photographs portraying the development of the spider habitat. Scott was eager to
complete the task because he had mranged to show his portfolio to Ms Halfaday and the rest of the
class later that morning.
The portfolio serves a multitude of purposes in Ms Halfadzy's class. From Ms Halfaday's
perspective, the portfolio is a window into the students' minds, an opportunity for them to show
what they know. The portfolio becomes a focus for interactions between students and with the
teacher. From the students' perspectives the portfolio serves as a reflective tool which focuses
attention on their own learning. Students are continually asking what they have learned and
deciding how best to represent their knowledge. In this way they are empowered to make decisions
about their own learning and how it is assessed. When used in these ways, portfolios offer the
potential of enhancing science teaching and learning.
Ms Halfaday provided opportunities for students to elect to learn science in small groups.
She encouraged three types of small group activity:, peer tutoring, collaborative learning, and
cooperative learning. Peer tutoring occurs when students with a better understanding of science
provide assistance to students who are struggling to make sense. Collaborative learning involves
activities such as the small group as a whole negotiating the meaning of a problem, the strategies
to be adopted in pursuing solutions, and identifying viable solutions. Cooperative learning occurs
when the students in a group each select different tasks to facilitate the goals of the group. In Ms
Halfaday's class, these three types of group learning are interwoven as the students pursue their
Made realised that Ms Halfaday had assembled the students together for a whole class
discussion. She had hoped to write a newspaper story about the "Spider Escape" at the class
publishing centre. But this would have to wait as she quickly joined the group. Scott had
volunteered to descn'be what was learned in the few days since his group's last report. Scott
opened his learning log to the page in which the group had prepared a concept map about spiders
and their habitats. He moved to the overhead projector and began to draw the concept map.
Almost immediately hands shot up. Some students did not understand the links on the concept map
and others disagreed with what was being represented. An argument was imminent.
Whole group discussions did not occur inMs Halfaday's class every day, but they were an
important part of learning science content_ During such activities students are able to negotiate
their differences, identify areas of agreement, and move toward consensus. These discussions
provide opportunities for students to make sense of their experiences through the use of everyday
language rather than invoking scientific terminology that is rarely understood. Attentive listening
is an important component of effective discussions. The students in Ms Halfaday's class had
learned to listen carefully to the contributions of their peers, comparing what was being said to

what they had learned and framing questions to highlight similarities and differences. I f they did
not understand an explanation it was safe to ask questions to seek clarification on what was being
said. Furthermore, it was also safe to be wrong. Ms Halfaday realised that meaningful learning
involves reconceptualising naive understandings in a supportive environment.
Scott was pleased with the resulting concept map. Although the map had changed a great deal
through the many negotiations that occurred in the discussion he agreed that the map was
improved. This was something he would put in his portfolio.
The learning that was taking place through interactions such as these could only occur as the
participants perceived a sense o f shared support. It could have been that this group discussion
resulted in hurt feelings and angry reactions as the students began to actively challenge each others'
ideas, but this was not the case. The students shared a mutual desire to learn and worked as
collaborative colleagues to engage in learning opportunities that could contribute to their own

Struggling to Teach Science: The Case o f Ms Halfaday

Life in Ms Halfaday's class has not always been as it was described above. On the contrary,
in her first year o f teaching, Ms Halfaday rarely taught science, and when she did, it involved
reading science from the textbook, usually late in the afternoon. In an interview with Ms Halfaday
she provided an overview o f her approach to science teaching throughout her career as an
elementary teacher.

During that first year I was so overwhelmed with trying to learn to teach so many different
subjects plus learning to do all the paper work and just trying to survive as a teacher. It's a
wonder I came back the next year. Well, I did and I decided to concentrate on science
instruction. The fast year, science instruction was almost non-existent. Someone on my team
had ordered a few films about the subjects to be covered and we would show those and maybe
discuss them on occasion. I felt very inadequate with this approach because I did not have the
content knowledge of most of the subjects of the films. For most of the teachers at my school I
believe this same thing was true. We did have a state adopted science textbook and I decided I
was going to teach science using that book. Dutifully I assigned readings, we discussed it as best
I could, then I quizzed them to see if they could fill in those blanks and answer those true-false
statements correctly. This continued for a few years.

Next I decided I would learn all I could about the different units I was required to teach and
impart my great knowledge to the ftfth grade students. I had become a different kind of teacher,
one who stood proudly at the front of the class just filling those little heads with all kinds of
information. They began learning to take notes and I would give them hints about items that
might be on the test. Later I even matted handing out study sheets. My science classes started
getting higher scores on science tests. And besides, my school principal thought I was the
greatest. I was asked to co-chair and later chair the school science fair. That was when I realised
the films, the textbook, and all my so called knowledge I was giving to my students had not
prepared them to do the science fair project. That's when I decided to teach the kids about the
scientific process and started searching for some mini-projects to do in the classroom. So now
I'm doing mini-projects, still using films, textbooks and giving my .great lectures imparting all this
information that I thought was science.

One poss~le reason for Ms Halfaday~s emphasis on learning science as a b o d y o f facts to be

memorised stems from her beliefs about the nature o f science as a body o f knowledge that
represents truths about the universe and how we live in it. Her role as a teacher was built on an
assumption that students knew very few o f these truths and that she had to translate them into a

comprehensible form and present them clearly in a way that could be absorbed and digested. Ms
Half;__day'sbeliefs about how students learn also accounted for her approach to teaching. Students
were regarded as "empty vessels" to be topped up with knowledge. Most students came to school
with very little knowledge, and in the process of learning, acquired it from sources such as teachers,
books and videotapes. Fortunately for Ms Halfaday, the textbook was perceived as a valuable tool.
The text was reasonably easy to read for most of her grade five class, and had emphasised all of
the important facts that students at this grade level needed to know. Her school district had
adopted the text for use because it conformed to the state and county guidelines. Furthermore, at
the end of each chapter was a s~lmmaryofrnaln ideas and questions that would take students to the
relevant parts of the textbook and have them write answers which constituted the essence of what
was to be learned- Accordingly, her transmission view of the teacher's role was consistent with her
beliefs about the nature of knowledge. Knowledge viewed in this way, as the search for ultimate
truth, is often known as objectivism. It is recognised in our schools as a form of educational
reductionism which emphasises memory of isolated facts, the breaking down of thinking into
distinct steps, the teaching of subjects in isolation from one another and the testing of mastery of
prearranged objectives. However, changes in the way Ms Halfaday thought about elementary
science were about to occur.

Project best: Collaboran'ngfor change

Ms Halfaday continued to teach science in a traditional manner consistent wi'th objectivism

until she became involved with Project BEST (Becoming Better Elementary Science Teachers)
during the summer of 1989. Project BEST was initiated as several teachers, including Ms
Halfaday, and the school principal had become dissatisfied with the science curriculum they were
using, and began to search for ways to initiate change. While attending a workshop at a nearby
university, during the previous spring, they became excited to learn about new ideas for thinking
about elementary science, and invited the workshop facilitator to meet with them at the school.
This was the beginning of Project BEST.
During the summer, this small group of teachers and their principal held several meetings with
a university science education resource team to examine their beliefs about science teaching and
learning, and the way in which those beliefs influenced practice. The teachers were introduced to
ideas ofconstructivism as a way of knowing and thinking about teaching and learning, and in the
process developed a commitment to change. This partnership provided the support necessary for
the teams to construct subject matter (content) knowledge, general knowledge of instructional
methods (pedagogical knowledge), and pedagogical content knowledge. Cochrau (1992) has
described pedagogical content knowledge as "a type of knowledge that is unique to teachers, and
is based on the manner in which teachers relate their pedagogical knowledge (what they know
about teaching) to their subject matter knowledge (what they know about what they teach)."
Teacher education researchers (Shulman, 1986, 1987) have described these three forms of
knowledge as important aspects of what teachers need to know in order to facilitate learning.
Furthermore, they provide a basis for planning a constructivist-oriented program for science
The teachers were somewhat anxious about implementing the plans they had constructed for
the new school year. As the school year began, the teachers felt a strong need for ongoing support
as they began to implement their new ideas in their classrooms. Unlike the traditional mode of
implementing workshop ideas without follow-up,the collaborative parmerships that had developed
over the summer among the teachers, principal, and university team became an opportunity for
continued professional growth.

Project Best became a collaborative inservice project in which elementary classroom teachers
and university faculty met on a biweekly basis throughout the school y e a r to reflect on science
teaching a n d learning from a constructivist perspective. The group encouraged one another and
acted as role models for each other. In this way, change was made less traumatic b y the presence
o f a colleague who understood what was happening and w h y attempts to m a k e changes were
necessary. The teachers observed one another teaching and scheduled time to engage in reflective
discussions. Gradually, t h e y b e g a n to influence other teachers who j o i n e d the group and w o r k e d
together with the resource t e a m to plan and initiate school-wide change.
A s a m e n t o r teacher in Project BEST, M s Halfaday b e g a n to rethink science teaching and
learning, a n d in the process created a learning environment that stimulated students to find
personal direction and interest in science - an environment where "spiders on the loose" w o u l d
become an everyday p a r t o f the learning experience.

As a result of my participation in BEST I really changed my approach to teaching science. Even

though I felt my background in the science and math areas was weak because of my content
knowledge, I had always dreamed of knowing more about these two areas. I had wanted my
students to love math and science and get a better background than I had.

There were many changes in me as a teacher and my beliefs about science teaching and learning.
From the first day I tried to project to my students the importance of science and how much fun
it is to learn science. I did this verbally but also by displaying posters, sometimes teacher-made
but many times student-made, displaying their charts, graphs and concept maps: Students were
actively engaged in doing science and talking about science with each other and with adults who
happened to be in the room. Before, especially when I was teaching science, I don't recall
students sharing their thoughts with one another and certainly not with an adult. I believe the
change was due to the hands-on nature of science and their understanding that I didn't expect
them to know everything there was to know about the subject we were studying. Before each
unit, all o f my students did a concept map which let me know fight away their thinking about how
things were related. We would brainstorm a list of concepts from the whole group and then each
student would do an in~vidual map. I stopped giving the regular fill-in-the-blank, true-false type
test for science evaluation and relied enfia-ely on their concept maps. I found out it's really
important to conference with the student, letting him/her explain the map. The picture is made
clearer to the student as well as to the teacher.

Teaching science this year was a most enjoyable experience because I didn't feel the need for
students to do every single page in the science book that is furnished to students. I concentrated
more on hands-on materials, students working with parmers and allowing time for students to tell
each other what and how they were thinking about a situation or a problem. I realised that I had
been telling the kids too much. I started pulling back and letting kids discover a few things for
themselves. Students were then given an opportunity to share their way of looking at a problem.
It took a while, but I was gradually able to teach and at the same time do some reflecting. The
reason, I think, was because I was gradually becoming less o f the kind o f teacher who stood at
the front of the class as a giver of knowledge and more of a facilitator o f learning for students.
This just doesu~ happen overnight I found the best learning went on when students were trying
to discover the way something worked or wouldn't work, or a new way of doing a task. For this
to work, it's important for students to work together in a heterogeneous group, with materials
appropriate for the task and plenty of time to reflect on their wo@. The teacher must monitor
what's going on but not be too quick to intervene and tell them the answer.

I also began to realize that the best possible environment for learning science would be one in
which the teacher utilised as much of the real world as possible. This would make more sense
to students since the real world is where they live. If we really want students to build on what
they already know, what better way to begin? Looking back on last year, we were outside quite
a bit for science and math. I remember when we were trvin~ to under.and the meaning of an

"attribute" by looking for things in the environment that were shiny, pointy, green, oval-shaped,
etc. Another time, when we were learning about camouflage, we went outside to investigate how
small animals were camouflaged.

As far as my role as a teacher in science, I now see myself as more or less setting up the room
environment, groups, and materials and then presenting a problem situation and letting kids take
off with it. My ideal teacher would be one who wouldn't give out all the answers at the
beginning. My ideal teacher would be someone who showed a love for the subject and would
set up learning situations which enable students to work together to find some answers and would
allow a time for sharing. He/she would not give ~l-in-the-blank tests and would not give boring
lectures that would put me to sleep. He/she would be someone who would give me time to think
before going on to something else. And he/she would value me for the individual I am; I would
have a chance for some input into what I studied or didn't study.

Project BEST was conceived as inservice teacher education o f the best sort: empowering and
enriching the professional lives o f teachers, Based on a model o f constructivism, the project was
not designed to give teachers the knowledge the resource team perceived them to need. Rather,
the project recos the considerable professional knowledge and commitment possessed by the
participants. Lieberman and Miller (1990) have called for such inservice education which allows
teachers to build personal learning on a fotmdztlon o f tacit knowledge through a process o f ongoing
inquiry. Accordingly, the project was structured to provide teachers opportunities to share their
perceptions, beliefs and values and to work together solving problems. Teachers assumed new
roles as they became actively involved in seeking resources and determining how to use them to
facilitate student learning. The project emphasised the necessity o f teachers constructing their own
knowledge in such a way that it made sense to them by relating what was to be learned to prior
beliefs. Rooted in constructivist epistemology, Project BEST encouraged teachers to share their
ideas as they endeavoured to enhance teaching and learning practices at their school.

Changes in How Elementary Science is Taught

Probing the reasons for change

To learn more about the changes in the cmTiculum, Lauren, a BEST resource team member,
interviewed Ms Halfaday to find out the reasons for why she did what she did. The interview was
centred on the spider lesson described earlier in this paper.

Lauren: What can you tell me about the lesson we saw today?

Ms Halfaday: We have now been studying spiders for approximately four weeks. The students
collected a variety of spiders and set them up in micro habitats. They have
learned a tremendous amount about the spiders by direct observation, discussions
with one another, and their reading in books. I have learned a lot, too.

Lauren: I was interested in the way students seemed to be so very much in charge of what
happened in the lesson.

Ms Halfaday: This is one area in which I have changed a great deal. In my earlier years as a
teacher I believed that I needed to be in charge of nearly every aspect of the
curriculum. Now I realize that students must have the responsibility for their
own learning.

They must have the freedom to pursue their own interests and learn in such a way
that their immediate curiosity is satisfied. In effect, the students need to be able
to decide what to begin with, what to pursue next, what resources to consult, and
when to write their results. There are some things I have to do, but I find as the
year goes by the students have become more responsible for getting their tasks

9 Lauren: Although the students do seem to have considerable autonomy, your mark on this
class is very evident.

Ms Halfaday: I have high expectations of them. I expect them to learn and understand. I do
expect them to write a lot and to keep track of what they learn.

Lauren: What can you say about the books they are writing?

Ms Halfaday: I am a strong believer in the idea of writing to learn. These students decide what
is most important about what they have learned. They then plan with their group
to publish their findings. It is as if they are scientists publishing the results of
their investigations. The books are a great success. The kids are so proud of
them. They write them directly onto the computer and we can print them with
a laser printer. Each book is bound and included in the class library for the
benefit of future students. The Dinosaur books over there are from last year's
class. This group really enjoys reading them over and over.

The other publishing effort we have is the class newspaper. Students enter their
science remits in the science section of the newspaper. Each week we have a
different editorial team who sift through the items and decide what to print in our
weekly newspaper. The paper goes home to parents. We all get so involved in
the newspaper. Can you imagine parents being interested in the birth of several
hundred baby spiders? Well they are if their daughter wrote about it in the
family newspaper. We even have a section for community comments on our

Lauren: What can you tell me about the portfolios?

Ms Halfaday: I learned about portfolios at an inservice for language arts. The idea swept me
offmy feet. I had been worried about the use of true-false quizzes for so long
and the standardised tests for science didn't make any sense at all. But I didn't
know what to do as far as assessing what the kids had learned. The portfolio
solved all of that-

The idea is for the students to put examples of their work into a container of
some type. I call the materials they include artefacts. A descriptive caption is
provided for each artefact together with a short reason explaining why the
artefact is included in the portfolio. Each artefact should represent something
significant about the student's learning. The portfolio is a record of what
students have learned in a unit. They can put things in and take them out again
if something better can be added at a later time. I lay to look at the portfolios and
talk to the kids about them at least once a week.

The best part of the portfolio is the attention each kid gives it. They work
together to keep it up to date and they talk about the artefacts. In this way they
learn so much from one another.

Lauren: You do seem to have an integrated approach to the curriculum.


Ms Halfaday: Yes. I try to get all of the subjects integrated through an emphasis on language.
Their writing and reading come out of their investigations. The work we do in
mathematics often comes from science investigations and if possible I make the
mathematics curriculum problem centred. We do not say now we are going to
do math or now we are going to do science. At any time we are just learning and
having fun. This class is set up for learning.

9 Lauren: How would you describe the learning that takes place in your class? You seem
to have a lot of group work.

Ms Halfaday: I believe in discussion. The kids need to put language to their experiences. I let
them use their own words and they can pick up the science terms from their
reading. They use the technical terms when they have a need. By working in
groups of two or three they can speak to one another about what they are finding
from their investigations and their readings from books. The talk allows them to
clarify their ideas. Of course, they don~talways talk about science. They have
their social agendas. But I find that the interest keeps them on track more often
than not. They accomplish a lot because there are few rules in this class.

I usually allow 90 minutes for science. This past week I have been having
science in the morning. The first 45 minutes or so is for small group
investigations. They know they have to attend to their habitats, make entries in
their learning logs, and if something interesting is happening, write a short piece
for the newspaper.

We have several approaches to small group learning. Sometimes the students

work together on a task and sometimes they divide the task into parts and each
does his/her share. There are other times when students teach one another.

After about 45 minutes or so I get the students together to share with one another
at the whole class level. Here they focus on listening and making sense of what
one another is saying. If there are areas of agreement they identify those and if
disagreements arise they talk them through. Sometimes we have the greatest
arguments. But this is the way we learn. We negotiate meaning and we search
for consensus.

Lauren: Does every science lesson have the same structure?

Ms Halfaday: Goodness me, no. Every lesson evolves into its own structure. Sometimes we
will spend the entire time on investigations and sometimes the whole class
discussion will take more than an hour. I guess we do what makes sense, and
that depends on what the students are doing. I am responsive to the students. I
am here to facilitate their learning.

Lauren: Is this just like discovery learning?

Ms Halfaday: No, I think it is different from that. The knowledge is not out there to be
discovered. On the contrary. The students have to construct the knowledge for
themselves. They usually begin with an interest, such as spiders, and then they
set up some hands-on experiences to carry out investigations. From there on it
is one long adventure until the interest wanes.

Lauren: What about rules?


Ms Halfaday: Our rules are few in number. The first is to be a sensitive listener. Each student
has the responsibility to give respect to the ideas of others. It has to be safe to
say what we believe, ff students disagree they should ask questions to seek
clarification. Already they are appreciating that there are often several ways of
looking at a problem and also that multiple solutions to a problem are possible.

The students use two signs to have some control over what happens in the
classroom. The red light is indicated by raising one arm and saying red light.
That means that it is time for the group to re-focus on the task. The second sign
is time out. Just like in basketball, ff a student does not understand or needs
time to think something through they can call for time out by giving the sign.

Lauren: You have an interesting set of beliefs about learning. I'd like to hear more about
your views on learning.

Ms Halfaday: I am very much influenced by construetivism. I believe that each student

constructs her own knowledge based on her experiences and the sense she makes
of them.. I need to provide opportunities for students to experience and make
sense of these experiences. Each person starts from a somewhat different place.
It depends on personal interests and what he/she knows already.

Constructivism has helped me in other ways too. I now realize that what we
regard as science knowledge can often change over time. Today's truths are
tomorrow's misconceptions. I do not project science as a set of truths to be
learned by rote. Rather, I like to have the kids get involved in the process of
science, building knowledge from a base of experience, interest, and
collaboration. This class sees science as something that is done, something that
can help them to better understand their worlds, and something at which they can
succeed. Don't get me wrong. Books are an important part of learning about
science, but the books are used as references and so are people. We have lots of
visitors to this class. You would be surprised at the number of parents who work
in science related jobs.

Lauren: You have changed your role so dramatically in such a short time. Has it been
hard for you?

Ms Halfaday: To begin with I found it hard to give up control. I am so used to being in charge.
It was me who had to motivate the kids, me who had to spread the information
around. I had to keep them quiet, decide where they would sit, and above all set
the tasks for the period. You will notice that they are now in control of all of
those things. I could not have done it without the support of my colleagues and
the principal. They were great. At first, so many of the things that should have
worked did not. I needed someone to unload on. I would plan to do it one way
and then come in and forget all about my plan. The fi'ustmtion was unbelievable.
But then I could tell Betty about my frustmtious and she would ask me about
what did work. Together we worked out what to try next and how to change the
classroom organisation. I could never have changed without support from the

La~." And the parents?

Ms Halfaday: At first they did not understand what was happening. But Hal [the principal]
called a meeting of all parents. We told them what we were trying to do and
asked for their help. Many of them have been marvellous in providing the simple
equipment we need to make this work. They have acted as guest teachers, too.

Understanding the changes

Why did Ms Halfaday do what she did in the classroom? From the interview with her it is
readily apparent that her beliefs about constructivism and control appear to have changed as a
result o f her participation in Project BEST. Her learning o f constructivism allowed her to use it
as a reflective tool as she planned and implemented the science curriculum. She used
constructivism as a referent for reconceptualising the roles of teacher and student_ Accordingly,
the metaphor of facilitator and learner in her own classroom became operative. She realised that
students needed to be given as much control for their own learning as possible. How else could
she take account o f differences in prior knowledge and interests. Furthermore, it was necessary
for each student to progress at a rate that enabled him/her to learn with understanding. The
structure that evolved in her room was therefore based on two referents, constructivism and control
being with students.
Change was not instantaneous in Ms Halfaday's class. In fact, ataterMs Halfaday had learned
about constructivism she made every effort to change the curriculum. However, two factors made
this difficult_ Initially, she had her own routines which were built on images of her own learning
as a student and experience as a teacher. These routines were built on a platform o f objectivism
and needed to be deconstructed in the sense that she reflected on the reasons for teaching as she
did, and rebuilt the routines based on constructivism. The process of rebuilding routines was slow.
The second factor concerned students. They were not ready to assume a different set o f roles and
had to learn how to assume the control that Ms Halfaday was wanting to transfer to them. The rate
of change in the class was determined by the actions of both the teacher and the students. Not only
was it necessary for Ms Halfaday to learn and change but also for the students to construct and
implement new roles that fitted with the new roles o f the teacher.
An additional factor that relates to the change in Ms Halfaday's curriculum was her attitude
toward restraints. In her earlier years, Ms Halfaday viewed restraints as rules over which she had
no control. However, as she learned about constructivism she realised that her role as a teacher
was to assume the respons~ility for maintaining a learning environment that was conducive to
learning. If rules or customs prevented her from doing this she was inclined to speak with those
whom she felt had control over the constraint_ Many o f the obstacles to change were her own
constraints. She could overcome them just by thinking through the problems or by changing her
priorities so as to give highest priority to learning. Her motto of "put learning first" was a
continual reminder of the importance of the student in the curriculum.

Changes at the school level: A culture of reform

It had been interesting to consider an observation made by one of the university resource team
members o f the seating which is assumed at the biweekly faculty meetings. The teachers tended
to cluster in groups restricted to a particular grade level. The BEST group began to consider the
implications of teachers being constrained to share only within limited circles. The group decided
that perhaps one o f the greatest motivations they had for attending the meetings was to listen to the
varying perspectives which represented views of teaching and learning from kindergarten to grade
five. This greatly conm'buted to their efforts to build constmctivist-oriented curricula which take
into account social factors influencing teaching and learning at their school.
The roots o f reform that had begun with this small teacher group continued to grow with the
support o f the principal, who saw both his role and that o f the teachers as learners. He provided
opportunities for reflection to occur, and encouraged teachers to observe each other teaching and
exchange personal journals. His "stamp ofapprovar' legitimised the project, and helped to create
a climate conducive to change. As the group began to examine their beliefs about teaching in terms

o f metaphors and images they developed a vision o f what elementary science classrooms could b e
like. This was nourished as t h e y became researchers in their o w n classrooms, striving to m a k e
sense o f the way in which students were understanding science, and the role o f the teacher in
facilitating the sense-making process.
Ms H a l f a d a y and her t e a m members were committed to changing the w a y in which science
was taught and were e m p o w e r e d to make these changes. Yet they still encountered m a n y
constraints that stood in the w a y o f some o f the desired changes. Change did not occur overnight -
the process o f change was lengthy and on-going. But b e c a m e these teachers and their principal
h a d developed a sense o f mutual respect and trust they were able to resolve m a n y o f the constraints,
and gradually bring the rest o f the faculty into the process o f reform. A sense o f mutual respect
grew as the teachers, researchers in their own classrooms, collaboratively began to build theory and
k n o w l e d g e frameworks out o f their experience. Ms Halfaday, reflecting on the meaning o f a
teacher as researcher, recalled a recent team meeting.

I was excited about our BEST team meeting because I wanted to show the other teachers the
wonderful concept map that Scott had shared during his portfolio presentation for the class. He
had re-designed the concept map several times as he developed his understanding of spiders, and
finally placed it in his portfolio to show his new understanding. I felt like I really had some
insights to offer the group, particularly since alternative assessment had been the recent focus o f
our discussions.

It seemed that the group as a whole had some concern for dealing with the perceived constraints
of assessment. It was apparent that the issue o f assessment was perturbing and complex in nature.
Each person at the meeting had his/her own tough assessment issue to resolve. For example, Mr.
Harmon wanted to know how to assign letter grades to portfolios, since each was so unique in
design and content. Ms Cloud felt that parents were confused because the quizzes and tests that
were traditionally sent home to provide a "measure" of student progress were no longer being
used. We decided to focus on a couple of problems which seemed central to several of the
questions posed by the group. Sally, a university team member, acted as a facilitator to assist us
in the intense discussion which followed. She made sure that no one person dominated the
discussion and encouraged us all to participate. Since the group was very interested in Scott's
portfolio, I invited them to visit my class to observe and talk with students about their portfolios.

Our team meeting concluded with a discussion o f some important ideas related to assessment in
Duckworth's (1987) The Having of Wonderful Ideas. Our BEST group had been reading and
discussing this book, and it had become a valuable resource to us. It was not uncommon to watch
us eagerly flip through the pages searching for a statement that seemed fitting for the discussion
at hand. Sally shared one statement that was particularly relevant to our discussion o f

... it was as teachers that they wanted to make sense of what the
children were doing. It was as teachers that they realised that the
better they could judge how children were seeing a problem, the
better they could decide what would be appropriate to do next"
(Duckworth, p. 96).

I lef~ our team meeting feeling good - knowing that we had accomp~shed a lot and were engaged
in practices which enhanced our understanding of teaching and learning science. In this way,
we could make a difference in the school lives o f the children with whom we worked.

Implications for science education reform

Ms Halfaday was always on the lookout for ways to change her teaching. In this paper we
have described how, over a period of time, she made several changes to her practices, always with
the thought that she wanted her students to improve their learning. Perhaps it was her inclination
to focus on the needs ofthe learners that made constructivism so sensible to Ms Halfaday as a way
to think about teaching and learning. In any event, once she knew about constructivism and used
it as a referent to build roles that were coherent with it, she was able to reflect on what she and her
students did in terms of constructivism. To be sure there were days when she and her students
reverted to their former ways of acting in science, but over a period of time, the culture of her
classroom adapted and evolved in accordance with her constructivist oriented beliefs.
Elementary science teachers who are contemplating ways of improving their everyday
professional pmedce become empowered as they collaborate for reflective practice and engage in
research in their own classrooms (Berkey, Curtis, Minnick, Zeitlow, Campbell, & Kerschner, 1990;
Carr & Kemmi% 1986). They take the first step in the process of becoming constructivist teacher
researchers when they, like Ms Halfaday, begin their inquiry by drawing on their own experience
to understand how children make sense of science. As teachers begin deh'berating about what it
means to learn, they are confronted with their personal beliefs which constrain their actions as
teachers and researchers. Teachers must carefully reexamine the ways in which prior experience,
social factors, and research conventions shape their conceptualisations of effective teaching and
Our research suggests that the reflective process begins with the recognition that the process
of becoming a science teacher is deeply rooted in our personality and experience as a learner. This
sitmifies the need for teachers to construct images of themselves as both a teacher and learner and
to make their images and beliefs about teaching explicit. When teachers are ~ven opportunities
for reflection they are able to modify visions of what the science curriculum could be like and
compare what is happening in their classes to their visions of what they would like to happen. In
this way, teachers are able to recognise improvements that are needed with respect to their own
practices, and develop a personalised vision. Through this growth in understanding about their
own beliefs and practice in relation to science teaching, teachers become empowered to make
conscious choices about what should and should not be done to facilitate student learning in
science. Tobin and Espinet (1990) reported that the extent and nature of change may ultimately
rest on the persons involved in the collaborative process, opportunities to experience alternative
images of teaching and learning, and the extent to which discussions lead to reflection on
classroom practice. A commitment to personal change is essential, and establishes a basis for
teachers and university faculty to come together and form "self-critical communities of enquirers"
to examine the beliefs, practices, and culture of elementary science.
When teachers begin to develop ways of thinking about their beliefs and practices they make
sense of experience in terms of key referents in the form of images, metaphors and beliefs. These
referents act as organisers of teacher knowledge and provide insight into particular images,
metaphors and beliefs that influence teachers' actions. It is essential for teachers to consider how
they are making sense of science teaching in terms of referents that guide their actions.
In the case of MS Halfaday, her initial use of control and objectivism as referents acted as
constraints that suppressed any changes she considered. But as she engaged in reflection, and
actively reconstructed her experience in terms of new images and metaphors, her ideas about
teaching and learning changed and shaped her actions in new ways. Constructivism and the belief
that students should have control over their own learning became the principal referents used by
Ms Halfaday to form a coherent set of beliefs associated with teacher and student roles.
Constructivism served as a referent for reconceptualising her role as "teacher as facilitator" and

this reconceptualisation has been translated into classroom practices which gave students control
over their own science learning. When Ms Halfaday used constructivism to make sense of the
science curriculum, she was able to establish and maintain an environment that was conducive to
students learning science with understanding.
As Ms Halfaday engaged in reflective practice she learned a great deal about teaching and
learning science and developed a commimaent to change. But she might not have endeavoured to
make changes if she had not perceived the school climate to be conducive to change. Personal
commitment, vision and reflection are necessary elements o f change, but they must be understood
within the context o f the larger school culture. Tobin and Jakubowski (1990) described three
conditions that appear to be necessary in order to effect school change: changes must be initiated
within schools; change involves individual practitioners reflecting on their own beliefs; and change
must be ex~mlned in the context of organi.~ational factors which comprise structural, institutional
and cultural elements.
When Ms Halfaday and her colleagues began to share experiences and negotiate meaning,
a basis for cooperation and mutual support was established. Osterman (1990, p. 139) describes this
process by which school-wide change is facilitated: "through reflection and communication
focused on common professional concerns, the ideas o f others become less strange, those others
cease to be strangers, and the search for new and better ways o f achieving professional goals
becomes a public and collaborative process, rather than an isolated and individual effort." Today,
Ms Halfaday and her colleagues continue to meet and identify aspects of their science teaching that
need improvement, overcome constraints that act as barriers to implementing new ideas, and create
changes in practice. Because change was able to occur in an atmosphere o f openness,
participation, and support, a shared vision of science teaching and learning has emerged. An
atmosphere o f excitement is evident as teachers begin to focus their efforts on creating a
professional development school that will radically change the nature of what it means to be an
elementary science teacher.


At the conclusion o f the paper we had one major unresolved dilemma. As a story we were
pleased we had captured the essence o f many oftbe features of a science classroom built around
a referent o f constructivism. However, we were unsure o f the extent to which the community of
science educators would accept our narrative approach to communicating what we had learned
from a program of research. To us itno longer mattered whether Ms Halfaday was a "real" person,
whether she was a composite character, or whether she was entirely imaginative. Through this
narrative account of her teaching and her classroom she was as real to us as any other teacher we
had written about. We decided that, just as it is in any case study, the significance and
meaningfulness of this paper would be gauged by the reader. We were equally sure that others
within the science education community would be reluctant to accept the idea o f composite
characters, imagined teachers and students, fictitious data, and likely scenarios built from
applications o f consmactivism as a referent. We do not think that narrative is a tool to be used in
all situations, but we do see it as a powerful tool to communicate with practitioners, a tool that has
greater application in science education than we perceive at the present time. Therefore, in the
spirit o f scholarly debate we invite our colleagues to engage in rich conversations on the issues that
emanate from this paper.

Correspondence: Dr Deborah Tippins, Science Education Department, 2t2 Aderhold Hall,

University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7126, USA.
Intemet email:


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