Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Education

Faculty

Faculty of Education and Arts

First Advisor

Professor David H. McKinnon

Second Advisor

Dr Geoffrey Lummis

Third Advisor

Dr Julia Morris

Fourth Advisor

Dr Khadeeja Ibrahim-Didi

Abstract

Science is one of seven-mandated Key Learning Areas (KLAs) Foundation to Year 10 of the new Australian National Curriculum (ACARA, 2012). Not only, therefore, is science to be offered in every school as part of the curriculum, there is also the expectation that science is to be taught well to all students regardless of location, gender, cultural background or socio-economic status (ACARA, 2012). Studying science provides benefits to individuals by developing their scientific literacy skills (Goodrum, Hackling & Rennie, 2001; Hackling & Prain, 2008). Its study also benefits the national economy by equipping students with the innovative, inventive, and creative skills to generate and apply new ideas as knowledge workers in an interconnected and interdependent global economy (Marginson, Tytler, Freeman & Roberts, 2013; Productivity Commission, 2007).

A study of recent literature, including the national and international data on the middle years of school (ACARA, 2012; ACER, 2011, 2013; Goodrum et al., 2001; Goodrum, Druhan, & Abbs, 2012; Hackling & Prain, 2007; Marginson et al., 2013; Office of the Chief Scientist, 2012; Productivity Commission, 2007), could reasonably be expected to show rural and remote students doing well in science if not at least as well as their metropolitan counterparts. Sadly, this is not the case. Science performance in national and international assessments overall is flat-lining (ACARA, 2011; ACER, 2011, 2013) and the gap between metropolitan, rural and remote students in some assessment data indicates as much as 18 months of difference in schooling in favour of metropolitan students and with the gap increasing with increasing remoteness.

What are the causes of this inequity and how can it be addressed? Science teachers hold the key (Australian Council of Deans of Science, 2005; Dow, 2003a; Goodrum et al., 2001). Improving the effectiveness of science teachers helps improve science learning outcomes for students. One way to improve the effectiveness of science teachers is to improve their Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Kind, 2009b; Magnusson, Krajcik & Borko, 1999; Loughran, 2010; Loughran, Berry & Mulhall, 2006; Shulman, 1986) through professional learning experiences. However, improving teachers’ science PCK in the middle-school years in rural and remote settings through traditional face-to-face professional learning activities poses a number of challenges. These include lack of casual relief teachers, difficulties in attracting and retaining science teachers, the provision of experienced mentors and coaches and, the provision of fewer professional learning opportunities compared with metropolitan areas (Australian Council of Deans of Science, 2005; Australian Secondary Principal’s Association, 2006; National Centre of Science, Information and Communication Technology, and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia, 2006). Educative curricula designed to improve teachers’ science PCK as well as learning outcomes for students provide an alternative to traditional face-to-face professional learning for teachers in rural and remote locations (Davis & Krajcik, 2005). Can educative curricula help address the inequity in student science outcomes in rural and remote areas?

The Middle Years Astronomy Project (the Project) is an example of one educative curriculum currently in use in the middle years of some rural and remote schools (McKinnon, 2005). This educative curriculum is aligned with the Australian Science Curriculum. It comprises access to telescopes and digital cameras located in NSW (Australia) and Wyoming (USA) that students can control remotely to take photographs of many astronomical phenomena, which can form the basis of further investigations. It also comprises a teachers’ guide designed to improve teachers’ science PCK by providing guidance on designing instructional strategies for science projects with knowledge of five factors in mind. These factors are knowledge of the science content, knowledge of students’ alternative conceptions, knowledge of instructional strategies and the most appropriate assessment strategies to employ, knowledge of the science curriculum, and knowledge of personal beliefs and orientations toward science teaching and learning.

This thesis explores the potential for this educative curriculum to improve the PCK of teachers of science in the middle school years in rural and remote settings. It does this by employing a Type IV multiple-case, embedded mixed-methods design (Yin, 2014) over two phases in two states of Australia collecting a range of data from four remote sites in Western Australia and four rural sites in Victoria. Participants comprised 12 teachers, four principals, four teaching principals, one Science KLA Consultant, one Cluster Coordinator and over 200 students. Data were gathered from interviews; archival records; researcher direct observations; an astronomy diagnostic test; student artifacts; and school based documents. A framework, developed from the works of Davis & Krajcik (2005), Kind (2009b) and Magnusson et al. (1999), is used to analyse the data for evidence of changes in teachers’ science PCK.

The results of this research indicate that the Project improved teachers’ science PCK for most teachers. Reasons for this are presented. An emerging phenomenon from the research was the ability of experienced science teachers to move holistically and fluidly between components of PCK to make in the moment pedagogical decisions to improve student learning. This has been referred to as ‘pinball pedagogical reasoning’ (Mitchell, Pannizon, Keast & Loughran, 2015). The findings of this research have implications for both current practice and future research, providing guidance to teachers and designers of professional learning experiences, including educative curriculum designers, on the areas to target when seeking to develop components of PCK for experienced teachers and on assisting less experienced teachers to acquire the ‘pinball pedagogical reasoning’ skills of experienced teachers. The findings also suggest that PCK development takes time and requires a planned and systematic approach to teacher career development with support from the employer.

This thesis suggests further areas for research and concludes by arguing that a poor science education, which results in poorer scientific literacy skills and a reduced ability to contribute to, and thrive in, the national and international knowledge economies, adds to the education disadvantage students in rural and remote locations experience relative to their metropolitan peers. It advocates a moral imperative to ensure this does not happen. It also suggests that using educative curricula to improve the PCK of rural and remote science teacher, as well as science student learning outcomes, is a strategy worthy of pursuit.

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