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These include the following: posing problems of emerging relevance to learning, structuring learning around primary concepts, seeking and valuing students’ points of view, adapting curriculum to address students’ supposition, and assessing student learning. Constructivism provides a philosophical view of learning where learners actively construct their own knowledge because of their interactions with the natural world. The construction of knowledge takes place in a socio-cultural context, is mediated by their prior knowledge, and then is applied in new situations (Straits & Wilke, 2007). A teaching style like inquiry-based instruction that recognizes the constructivist learning model attracts much attention, because it suggests ways for student learning and the changes in teaching that are essential for it to occur.

Grounded in constructivist philosophy, inquiry-based instruction provides students with learning opportunities where the construction of understanding a new concept is based on student exploration of an authentic problem using the processes and tools of the discipline (Straits & Wilke, 2007). From the constructivist perspective, Inquiry-based instruction impacts learning in six ways. First, it requires that the curriculum be customized to the student’s prior knowledge. Second, it emphasizes problem solving in the form of hands-on activities. Third, the teacher becomes a facilitator by connecting facts and fostering new understanding in students. Fourth, the teachers individualize their teaching strategies to student questions and comments and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict data. Fifth, teachers rely on openended questions or activities and foster collaboration and dialogue among peers. Sixth, assessment becomes part of the learning process, where students play a role in evaluating their own progress. Concurring with the constructivist approach, inquiry-based instruction provides opportunities for students to redefine, reorganize, and elaborate their current concepts through interactions with objects, peers, and events in the environment (Bybee, 1993). In accord with constructivism, inquiry-based instruction emphasizes student development of knowledge through mental and physical active participation. Students are encouraged to make meaning; the students are usually involved in developing and modifying their knowledge schemes through experiences with phenomena and through expository talk and teacher intervention (Driver, 1989).

Many reformers advocate a move away from traditional, didactic, instruction where the students are passive receptors of knowledge, towards more student-centered, inquiry-based teaching that focuses on explorations and experimentation. Constructivist and inquiry-based learning is purported to produce meaningful learning, improves attitudes toward learning and science, increases knowledge acquisition and retention, promotes self-efficacy and motivation, fosters community among students, and promotes the view that science is a process and not merely a set of facts to memorize (Burrowes, 2003; Ebert-May, Brewer, & Allred, 1997; Straits & Wilke, 2003, 2007; Svinicki, 1998).

In a meta-analysis of the 1990 NELS data, Von Secker (2002) reviewed demographic data of 4,377 students in 1,406 classes as well as surveys completed by their biology teachers. Von Secker identified five elements of constructivist teacher practices and examined their effects in biology classes. She also examined the effects of these elements on the achievement of the students. The purpose was to learn the significance of the effects. The five elements of constructivist practices included the degree of emphasis to which teachers increased student interest and engagement, use of appropriate laboratory techniques, problem-based learning, student initiation of further supplemental research, and appropriate use of scientific writing methods. These elements were aligned with reforms designed to promote inquiry-based learning opportunities recommended in the National Science Education Standards (1996). Each of the five identified constructivist teacher practices contributed to a significant increase in overall achievement ranging from.22 to.36 standard deviations.

These five identified constructivist practices resulted in increased student learning.

Aligned with constructivist philosophy, inquiry-based instruction provides learning opportunities through the construction of a new understanding based on student exploration of an authentic problem using the processes and tools of the discipline (Wilke & Straits, 2006). Inquirybased teaching encourages students to make sense out of curriculum content where the students are usually involved in developing and modifying their knowledge schemes through experiences with phenomena and through expository talk and teacher intervention (Driver, 1989). The National Science Education Standards (NSES) (National Research Council, 1996b) and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) both stress the need for inquiry-based learning. Inquiry allows students to experience science as it occurs in the laboratory or in the natural environment, where scientists create new knowledge through constructivist processes.

Teacher Preparedness and Inquiry-Based Instruction Inquiry-based instruction is a major trend in science education reform. At the heart of this reform is the notion that students need to be engaged in activities that develop understanding of the investigation processes. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) Teaching Standard B (National Research Council, 2000) encourages teachers to use the “skills of scientific inquiry, as well as the curiosity, openness to new ideas, and skepticism that characterizes science” (p. 32). When teachers display these values of everyday science, students will assimilate similar attitudes in their dispositions (National Research Council, 2000). However, to engage in this type of pedagogy, teachers need to be prepared with a knowledge base for how inquiry-based instruction is implemented successfully. Teachers not only need to believe that inquiry-based teaching is the best instructional approach to support their students’ learning, but also, teachers need confidence in their content knowledge and their ability to teach using inquiry-based approaches (NRC, 1996b).

Factors that influence teachers’ practice are complex and numerous. One factor that has emerged in research literature is the effect teacher preparedness has on teacher practice. Teacher preparedness is defined as a continuous process of self-renewal and professional development, where the teacher works to influence and improve the quality of one’s own knowledge of content and pedagogy (Bolyard & Moyer-Packenham, 2008). Increasingly, teachers are being required to have a thorough grounding in the subjects they teach, so they can guide their students effectively through subject area content and respond knowledgeably to students’ questions and in class discussions (Bolyard & Moyer-Packenham, 2008).

Teachers are the primary means of curriculum implementation. Regardless of how closely prescribed the curriculum, or how explicit the textbook, it is the actions of the teacher in the classroom that most affect student learning (Mayer, Mullens, & Moore, 2000). Mayer et al.

(2000) suggested that to ensure high levels of academic achievement, teachers should have high academic skills, teaching in the field in which they received their training, have more than a few years of experience, and participate in high-quality induction and professional development programs. Effective teacher practice is achieved by knowledgeable, committed teachers who tailor and adapt their practices to the ongoing needs of their students in order to accomplish high levels of achievement across heterogeneous groups of learners (Alton-Lee, 2003).

The key to better learning for students is better teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2000). A teacher’s level of preparedness in their content area of expertise is of critical importance (Darling-Hammond, 2000).

When discussing teacher preparedness, one factor to consider is the content knowledge a teacher acquires in their field of expertise. Research indicated links between teachers’ subject matter preparation and teacher effectiveness (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Rice, 2003; Wilson & Floden, 2003). Monk (1994) showed the number of science courses taken by a science teacher had a positive influence on student achievement in science. The results of studies examining the relationship between teachers holding subject-specific degrees and student achievement are positive at the secondary level (Goldhaber & Brewer, 1997, 2000). In their study, they found science teachers holding a bachelor’s degree in science, rather than having no degree or a bachelor’s degree in another subject to have a statistically positive relationship with student achievement (Goldhaber & Brewer, 1997, 2000). Researchers indicated that students having teachers who are fully certified in their content area scored significantly higher on achievement tests than students with out-of-field teachers (Hawk, Coble, & Swanson; 1995). Teacher content preparedness has been widely shown to have a large impact on student achievement (Saderholm & Tretter, 2008).

The importance of content knowledge emphasizes a potential area for improvement in middle school science teacher preparation (Saderholm & Tretter, 2008). A major focus in this study is the relationship of the preparedness of 8th grade science teachers on the achievement of 8th grade science students. Goldhaber and Brewer (1998) found many middle school science teachers do not have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they are being asked to teach.

Furthermore, most of the middle school teachers who possess a degree in science have a degree in life science, and only a minority of those have many hours in the earth and physical sciences (Chaney, 1995). This trend is problematic for middle school science teachers; because many middle school curriculums are integrated in nature, with several science content areas per grade level (Saderholm & Tretter, 2008).

Another factor to consider when discussing teacher preparedness is the pedagogical knowledge a teacher acquires in their field of expertise. Studies of mathematics and science teachers’ pedagogical knowledge have reported positive effects of education training on teachers’ knowledge and practices (Adams & Krockover, 1997). At the secondary level, studies indicate that coursework taken in subject-specific pedagogy is positively related to implementing sound pedagogy and secondary students’ achievement (Chaney, 1995; Monk, 1994). A major trend in science education reform is an emphasis for science teachers to use inquiry-based instruction.

However, for teachers to engage in inquiry-based instruction successfully, teachers need to have the necessary training. Teachers need to be confident in their ability to teach using inquiry-based techniques.

The reasons that influence teachers’ pedagogy are multifaceted. Content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge are two factors that contribute to the preparedness of teachers. Teachers need confidence and a feeling of preparedness in their content knowledge and in their ability to teach using inquiry-based approaches (NRC, 1996b).

–  –  –

In the twenty-first century world, science achievement is imperative in order for citizens to make informed decisions about themselves and the world in which they live. There is a strong interest among educators, researchers, and policy-makers in understanding the determinants of science achievement in the United States.

Recent international studies have shown that students in the United States lag behind their peers in other countries in science achievement (Martin, Mullis, Gonzalez, & Chrostowski, 2004; Parker & Gerber, 2000; Roth, Druker, Garnier, Lemmens, Chen, Kawanaka, Rasmussen, Trubacova, Warvi, Okamoto, Gonzales, Stigler, & Gallimore, 2006;

Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). Science achievement in middle and high school is of critical importance because it prepares our students for future advancements in our competitive and technological society (Martin et al, 2004).

The teaching of science has undergone many changes over the past century, because of political, economical, social, energy, technological, and environmental concerns.

New ideas and goals for science teaching are continuously being developed to help produce scientifically literate citizens. The content of most K-12 science curricula and delivery of the content in the United States are not appropriate for meeting the individual and social needs of people living in our twenty-first century world (American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2001).

Furthermore, there is little uniformity in classrooms around the country (Pederson & Totten, 2001), resulting from an inconsistent educational framework in teaching a diverse group of students at every readiness level. In addition, many of today’s science teachers are unprepared for classroom practice, design and implement poor lessons based on low standards (Eisenhart, Finkel, & Marion, 1996).

Because of this variability and consequential curricular instability, many schools are failing to produce high school graduates who are adequately prepared for the workplace or college-level classes. Some college freshmen must enroll in remedial courses in order to be prepared for collegiate standards that require rigorous high school academic requirements (Arenson, 2004). Problems such as these diminish the nations’ prospective capacity for being a global competitor in the economy and a leading voice in serious scientific, technological, and environmental concerns (Eisenhart et al., 1996).

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