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The Secret of the Teaching Profession – Physics educationalists examine what makes a good lesson

Physics lessons thrive on experimental learning. Photo: Fotolia/Christian Schwier.

Physics lessons thrive on experimental learning. Photo: Fotolia/Christian Schwier.

You can tell good teachers by their students. But what makes them good? Why are some teachers better able than others at giving their students a leg up? “The professional knowledge of teachers is a prerequisite for successful lessons,” says Andreas Borowski, Professor of Physics Education. Although educationalists agree that teaching can be learned, teachers’ requisite knowledge and skills have yet to be definitively established. Borowski and some of his colleagues who specialize in biology and chemistry education have therefore undertaken a large-scale project analyzing how teaching methods influence student motivation and learning progress, i.e. whether and how much the students actually “take home”.

“For over 50 years, research on educational effectiveness has asked what makes a good teacher,” says Borowski. Merely mastering a subject does not suffice; you also have to be able to teach it. Teachers have to be capable educators if they are to reach students, which is why general pedagogical knowledge – in addition to pure content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge – is one of the three core dimensions of professional knowledge. But what is the “ideal mix” of these three components? How can teachers convey and present their content knowledge? How do students get involved in processing the material in a way that “cognitively activates” them? The “magic formula” seems to be making students want to learn! Understanding this could be a decisive step forward in teacher training.

The difficulty is scientifically recording, analyzing, and interpreting the many factors in the complex teacher-student interactions in the classroom. Previous projects – like the COACTIV study on professional knowledge of math teachers – have therefore confined themselves to reconstructing lessons based on their fundamentals, tasks, and test results. They did not include what was really happening in the classroom and whether, in what way, and how successfully teachers actually used their professional knowledge.

Borowski and his fellow researchers want to change this with the project “Professional Knowledge of Science Teachers (ProwiN)” funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research – and not for only one subject but three: chemistry, biology, and physics. The project was initiated against backdrop of a superordinate subject “Natural Science” already or soon-to-be introduced in various federal states. “Is a teacher who has been trained for only one of these subjects also able to teach the others?” Borowski asks. Biology and physics, for example, differ not only in terms of content but also in how they are taught. Physics lessons include more experiments.

The goals were ambitious. They wanted to “develop testing procedures to operationalize – and thus make measurable – the professional knowledge of teachers of natural science,” says Borowski, and then “to correlate the test results of the teachers’ lessons with student performance.” This, the researcher hopes, would enable them to derive “predictions about the effect of professional knowledge”.

This in turn affected the complexity of the “project design”: during the first three years of the project, which began in 2009, each of the three specialized teams collaborated with a fourth educational research group to develop various testing tools for its own discipline. While still at RWTW Aachen University, Borowski and Prof. Hans E. Fischer from the University of Duisburg-Essen developed the test series for the first two physics lessons introducing the concept of force. A comparative assessment could only be done by testing, observing, and analyzing all teachers and students in the same lesson.

The first step was to separately test the teachers’ professional, didactic, and pedagogical knowledge. “We interviewed the teachers for two hours,” Borowski explains. “When being tested on subject-specific matter, they were, of course, supposed to explain physical phenomena, but it was not, however, only about their knowledge but also their skills, mainly teaching skills. We also asked them how they thought about how best to convey the subject matter didactically and how they would react to certain student comments.” The current standards recognized in the scientific community, which ultimately also represent the foundation of teacher training at universities, served as the benchmark. Getting teachers to participate in the study was not easy, Borowski admits, yet he proudly points out that 38 teachers took part in the tests.

The students’ knowledge, in turn, was tested in two stages – at the beginning and end of the teaching unit on mechanics to determine their learning progress. The core element of the study, however, was the analysis of the lesson itself. “We developed our own analytical tool that we use to capture two things: the cognitive activation of students and the structuring of subject matter during the lesson,” says Borowski. “Cognitive activation refers to the way students are encouraged to think for themselves. Do teachers adapt to the students’ level of knowledge and inspire them to think? The structuring, on the other hand, refers to how the lesson is organized: Are connections made between various aspects of the material? Does the teacher return to previously covered topics at the appropriate time? “The lessons were recorded simultaneously with three cameras: The first always filming the whole scene from the front, the second following the teacher’s every move, and the third covering the activities. In addition, four separate audio tracks were recorded. Sound and picture were later synchronized, cut into 10-second intervals, and then analyzed. They would also concentrate on other important details, such as the use of specific terminology. One study showed that there were more foreign words introduced and used in physics lessons in grades 5-10 (per hour taught) than new vocabulary words in foreign language lessons.

While Borowski’s fellow researchers in chemistry in Regensburg and biology in Munich are still collecting data, he and Fischer are now able to conduct their initial analyses. The results, however, have been quite mixed and far from conclusive, Borowski concedes. “We have been able to draw a connection between cognitive activation and student achievement, that is, you will learn better when you are stimulated to think for yourself. For physics, however, we have yet to prove a connection between the teachers’ – applied – technical knowledge and the students’ level and learning progress.”

Has it been a failure then? Not at all. “We are at the very beginning. We still have to analyze our results in more detail and understand them much better,” says Borowski. “We want to examine the material from various angles, primarily by exchanging our ideas with teachers. We have 10 years’ worth of research data and about two or three doctoral studies. And then, of course, we will also be comparing our results with those of other subjects.”

The Researcher

Prof. Andreas Borowski studied physics and then physics and mathematics for teaching at the University of Dortmund, where he also earned his doctoral degree. Since 2013 he has been Professor of Physics Education at the University of Potsdam.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Physik und Astronomie
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
E-Mail: beaunger@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Project

Professional Knowledge of Science Teachers (ProwiN)
Participating: Physics: Prof. Andreas Borowski (University of Potsdam); Prof. Hans E. Fischer (University of Duisburg-Essen); Chemistry: Prof. Oliver Tepner (University Regensburg); Prof. Elke Sumfleth (University of Duisburg-Essen); Biology: Prof. Birgit Neuhaus (LMU Munich); Pedagogics: Prof. Detlev Leutner (University of Duisburg-Essen); Joachim Wirth (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
Duration: 2009–2015
Funded by: Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)

Text: Matthias Zimmermann; Translation: Sisanne Voigt
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
Contact Us: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.de