Understanding Teacher Expertise in Primary Science: A Critique from a Sociocultural Approach

Traianou, Anna (2003). Understanding Teacher Expertise in Primary Science: A Critique from a Sociocultural Approach. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000e889


This thesis is concerned with the role that subject knowledge plays in the classroom practice of primary science school teachers. This knowledge has come to be seen, both by researchers and by policymakers, as the major component of teacher expertise. Within research in primary education, the emphasis on teachers' subject knowledge was initially linked with constructivist ideas about the significance of establishing children's prior conceptions of scientific concepts for effective teaching. Later, during the 1990s, the definition of teacher expertise was extended to include pedagogical content knowledge, which was seen as the kind of knowledge that 'translates' what teachers know about science into children's learning. In this thesis, I discuss two constructivist views of teachers expertise which treat subject knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge both in some similar and in some distinctive ways. The aim is to subject these views to critical scrutiny by examining the arguments and evidence on which they are based, and the assumptions they involve - in order to provide the basis for future thinking about primary science expertise. Following on from this I compare the image of expertise projected by these views with the perspective and practice of a teacher who has recognised as a primary science expert.

This thesis is inspired by the belief that research in primary science education has not take adequate account of sociocultural perspectives of knowing and learning, which view knowing and learning as necessarily situated and contingent. Above all, these perspectives stress that expertise is defined in action by relevant communities of practice: its character is tied to the perspectives and activities of those who are recognised as experts.

The thesis is organised in two parts. Part A is concerned with the assumptions about knowledge, learning, and teaching that underlie the two constructivist approaches to teacher expertise that are currently influential in research on primary science education. In the first chapter changes in ideas about primary science are traced, and in particular the rise of emphasis on teachers' subject knowledge, and on the importance of pedagogical content knowledge. In the following two chapters, constructivist views about these two components of primary science expertise are examined, in some detail, and compared with sociocultural views of knowledge and learning.

In Part B, I begin by discussing the implications of a sociocultural perspective for the methodological approach used to study teacher expertise in my own work (Chapter 4), and then provide a case study of a primary science teacher who was recognised locally, and to some extent nationally, as an expert teacher in the field. In Chapter 5, I investigate the ways in which this teacher understands her own expertise. This involves an exploration of her views about scientific knowledge and its role in teaching, and her beliefs about the learning and teaching of science. Following this, in Chapter 6, I provide a detailed analysis of an episode of her teaching, in order to describe the ways in which an expert practitioner employs her expertise in action. This case study allows some assessment of the relationship between currently dominant views about primary science expertise and the form that such expertise can take in the classroom. Finally, in the Conclusion, I summarise the argument as a whole, discuss the nature of primary science expertise in light of the case study I have provided, and examine the implications of my research for professional education and development.

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