Improving teacher experience in maths and science

The ORS project has developed a model enabling pre-service teachers to focus on science and mathematics, with support from a mentor teacher and ORS specialist advisor.

This was a direct response to previous findings that pre-service teachers in primary schools rarely observed or taught science during their professional experiences, and that most of the teaching of maths and science they observed or practised was traditional and teacher-centred (Campbell & Chittleborough, 2014).

Key features of the ORS professional experience model

The ORS specialist professional experience model included several unique elements:

  • selection of pre-service teachers (PSTs) who expressed a particular interest in completing a science/mathematics-focused professional experience
  • selection of mentor teachers who agreed to support the pre-service teachers in teaching of science/mathematics
  • support from an ORS specialist science/mathematics advisor
  • focus on the 6Es inquiry-based approach, and access to ORS modules.

Implementation varied between trials but generally included the following:

  • pre-service teachers were invited to submit expressions of interest
  • schools known to ORS project staff to have a particular interest or expertise in teaching science and/or mathematics were approached to participate in the program and to nominate appropriate mentor teachers
  • pre-service teachers and mentor teachers were selected, matched and advised about the ORS project aims and requirements
  • the specialist ORS advisor provided support for pre-service teachers during the professional experience and visited pre-service teachers on site
  • mentor teachers completed a specific one-page report focusing explicitly on their pre-service teachers’ competencies
  • mentor teachers, pre-service teachers and the specialist university advisors were interviewed at the conclusion of their professional experience period.

From 2014 to 2016, five specialist professional experience trials were conducted: four in primary schools and one small-scale trial in secondary schools.

Not all mentor teachers and schools could commit to involvement in multiple professional experience trials within a year due to the structure of alternating semesters of science and history/geography in school programs. In later professional experiences the criteria widened from seeking ‘expert’ science mentor teachers to recruiting those committed to supporting a pre-service teacher who wanted to focus on teaching science or mathematics.

The goals and expectations of the specialist professional experience regarding a focus on science and/or mathematics were explicitly outlined, and mentor teachers and pre-service teachers were able to meet their professional experience partner if available. The modules were introduced and their place in the project was clarified.

A pre-program survey of the pre-service teachers’ competence and confidence in science, using the Science Teaching Efficacy Belief Instrument (Riggs & Knochs, 1990) and a post-program written survey, provided in-depth evidence of the change process. Two different formal assessments were provided by mentor teachers and the university advisors. Pre-service teachers’ learning plans/units of work, student learning data, and reflections provided supporting evidence of the impact of the program. Semi-structured interviews with pre-service teachers, mentor teachers and the ORS specialist university advisor also contributed to the evaluation process.

Mentor teachers reported on pre-service teacher competencies at the end of the 20-day professional experience, making an overall assessment using a specific ORS mentor teacher professional experience evaluation report. This ranked pre-service teachers on 15 competencies as ‘yet to be demonstrated’, ‘working towards’, ‘demonstrated’ or ‘exceeds expectations’Mentor teacher assessments of pre-service teachers on three key science competencies are reported.

The ORS specialist university advisor completed a report after visiting the classroom and observing at least one lesson. A standard university pre-service teacher report based on the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (issued by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)) at similar levels was completed. Four relevant elements of the Standard 2 section are reported.

An important result from the Primary professional experience trials was the increase from 2015 to 2016 in the percentage of pre-service teachers who were assessed as ‘exceeded expectations’ in science teaching competencies and subject and teaching knowledge.

Mentor Teacher Evaluation of Primary Science Professional Experience 2016

Results suggested that the skills and competencies of students have generally been raised, and demonstrate that pre-service teachers did use a ‘real’ science approach and engaged in higher order thinking and rich tasks.

In meeting the AITSL standards (elements) pre-service teachers demonstrated a substantial improvement in demonstrating knowledge, and understanding of the concepts, substance and structure of the content and teaching strategies (element 1) and organising content into an effective learning and teaching sequence (element 2). These data were supported by observation notes, pre-service teachers’ reflections and student work samples.

Participant comments supported the quantitative review. The following are indicative of comments received.

From pre-service teachers

"I got to teach science. In all my other pracs they actually didn’t do science at all during the time I was at the school. I never saw a science lesson. They never taught a science lesson. So that was good, that I got to see a teacher actually focusing on science."
Pre-service teacher, 2015

"In my first prac last year I was just absolutely terrified after teaching maths and science because I just didn’t know what I was doing. [In this prac] I felt like I was more confident and I felt more excited to teach maths and science  and I want to teach it just 24/7 now."
Pre-service teacher, 2016

From mentor teachers

"This Opening Real Science prac that we’ve had over the last few years has changed my outlook in science. We in Year 6 this year … that’s been our main focus for the last six months. So that’s Year 6, but the rest of the school was just – get a unit, most probably don’t finish it; would barely touch it." 
Mentor teacher, 2015 and 2016

"A major positive was the support from the university advisor … he spoke to the class and worked closely with us. He gave us ideas … I asked him about changing how we teach science here and he spent time with me … He has been a wonderful advisor and a major part of the program."
Mentor teacher, 2015 and 2016

"I learned a lot from her (PST). Not only her energy and engagement with children – the way she explained things, she was very collaborative, the way she set key inquiry questions for the children. My teaching practice has changed – I ask more questions the way she modelled … I am doing more of that."
Mentor teacher, 2014–2016

"The big advantage was the focus on science. I found it challenging as I lacked confidence and also found it hard to fit into the crowded week, so being forced to do it helped over time. We tried different ways and I got to try ways that were not teacher-directed." 
Mentor teacher, 2015.

The small-scale secondary mathematics and science trial identified issues and pressures on implementation different from those of the primary specialist professional experience.

Secondary pre-service teachers are being trained as specialist science or mathematics teachers, unlike the primary pre-service teachers. Therefore, the challenges for them generally do not relate so much to confidence and competence, but more to pedagogy, encouraging an inquiry-based approach and establishing authentic contexts for learning.

Evaluation data suggest that the ORS professional experience was successful in meeting these needs. One mentor teacher saw the focus on ‘hands-on’ science (with demonstrations and experiments) as a major benefit, assisting pre-service teachers to ‘support theory with practice’, an element seen to be missing in previous professional experience periods. ORS pre-service teachers were judged to have connected lessons more to real life (i.e. ‘real science’), planned together more collaboratively than in the past, and successfully engaged some quite challenging students through a more active inquiry approach to lessons. It was noted that other in-service science teachers also joined in the discussions.

The input of the specialist ORS university advisor, who provided support by email and visited each student several times, was seen as a particular advantage, as was the self-nomination of pre-service teachers for the program.