Letters to the Editor

Is Anyone Teaching Teachers of Science?

March 25, 2012

To the Editor:

Standards-based education reform, which is common in the K-12 education arena, has recently made inroads in many U.S. colleges and universities, including the University of Florida. Universities have begun to employ a variety of initiatives, including student-learning compacts and identification and assessment of course and program-area student-learning outcomes. While it makes sense for institutions of higher education to standardize their curricula across similar courses and to identify clear, measurable learning objectives for students, these outcome-focused reform efforts continue to ignore the elephant in the room, namely, instructor quality and training.

In addition to general calls for U.S. education reform, policy makers, scientific organizations, and academies, and even the Obama administration, have identified the science, technology, engineering, and math fields as an educational reform priority. Sadly, however, most of these calls for systemic, nationwide STEM-teaching reform do not include a focus on postsecondary education. To obtain certification, STEM teachers at all other levels of formal education are required to demonstrate proficiency in their content areas, and pedagogy as well. In contrast, in the U.S. postsecondary-education system, content-area expertise of STEM faculty members is highly valued, while little to no attention is paid to pedagogical knowledge and skills.

More than two decades of research document the link between teacher quality and student learning. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future and others argue that improving teacher quality in both content-area expertise and pedagogical skills is essential to any systemic reform effort.

When all of these factors are considered, one cannot help but pose the question few postsecondary faculty and administrators seem to be asking, namely: Shouldn't college-level STEM faculty be required to complete formal pedagogical training as a condition of employment and/or tenure? Curious about how colleges and universities in both the U.S. and abroad address the science of science teaching, we asked 15 science-professor colleagues on college faculties in the U.S. and 10 other countries whether tenure-track STEM faculty are required to complete any formal in-service training in pedagogy for promotion or job retention. We then asked if faculty members receive any formal feedback and mentoring based on observations of their actual teaching, and if so, whether mentoring is done by other science-faculty members or by experts in science education. While ours was only a casual survey, the wide-ranging responses were interesting.

It appears that at least some universities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Britain, South Africa, and Indonesia require formal courses in pedagogy for new science-faculty members. For senior faculty, universities may encourage such training, but no respondent in our small sample indicated that pedagogical training is required for job retention.

Regarding our second question, mentoring of teaching based on in-class observations and feedback is more common, but other than in the Netherlands and Canada, mentors are other science-faculty members rather than professional science-education/pedagogy experts. Clearly, if the faculty members providing mentoring are not familiar with best practices in science teaching themselves, the positive impact of the observation/feedback process will be minimal.

These very preliminary results suggest to us that the failure of college and university STEM departments to take advantage of the expertise of pedagogical experts in colleges of education or other instructional-support entities on their own campuses is globally common. It also appears that in the United States, either teaching acumen is mysteriously conferred with subject area-specific doctoral degrees or, by not requiring at least younger faculty to complete either formal courses or professional-development workshops focusing on science pedagogy, we are slipping behind at least some countries around the world.

Francis E. Putz
Professor of Biology
Linda L. Cronin Jones
Associate Professor of Science Education
University of Florida
Gainesville, Fla.