Diagnostic probes to cure misconceptions?

Teacher helping students

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Research has revealed a range of weaknesses in trainee teachers’ understanding of basic chemistry concepts

Teacher shortages in core subjects are a global issue, with the sciences being particularly affected. In the UK and elsewhere, secondary science teachers typically train as generalists to teach all areas of the subject at 11–14 (and perhaps 14–16) regardless of their degree specialism. As such, there is much interest in the enhancement of initial teacher training to ensure that new teachers are equipped with an appropriate level of subject knowledge in tandem with a diverse pedagogical toolkit to support genuine student learning. In this article, Vanessa Kind presents evidence of deficiencies in the chemistry subject knowledge of trainee science teachers.

The study involved 265 trainee teachers over the period 2005–2010 who were enrolled at a university in north-east England. The sample was skewed in favour of biologists (55%), with chemists (29%) outnumbering physicists (16%). All trainees met stringent entry criteria and can be classified as well-qualified in their discipline. The trainees’ understanding of five chemistry concept areas (particles/states, conservation of mass, bonding, moles and combustion reactions) was tested using 28 diagnostic probes, meaning that each concept area was tested multiple times.

The resulting data revealed a range of weaknesses in trainees’ understanding, including: ‘energy is released when bonds break’, ‘H2 and O2 are formed when water boils’ and a tendency to use macroscopic reasoning when a sub-microscopic rationale would be more appropriate, among other issues. Interestingly, the data showed that while the misconceptions of chemistry specialists were less extensive than among non-specialists, many still had flawed understanding.

It is speculated that these misconceptions arise in part because of the nature of a curriculum which has encouraged the rote learning of phrases rather than the development of sound understanding. This also points to failings in the prevailing teacher training system, since the trainees were themselves taught by teachers educated under the existing regime, which is suggestive of the need for change. However, it is noted that the school-based training programmes, which are now in vogue in the UK, are unlikely to allocate sufficient time to compensate for subject knowledge weaknesses exhibited by trainees from diverse backgrounds, and any system of training will need to address these needs. The hope is that diagnostic probes such as those used here will provide a straightforward way to identify misconceptions held by teachers and students alike, with prompt diagnosis paving the way for a timely cure.