Voices in Education

The Critical Role of Science Teaching and Learning during COVID-19: How Teacher Educators Can Support Science Teachers Learning and Preparation in These Times
“I want to assure you that on other fronts partners in the US Government and across the pharmaceutical industry are working quickly to develop effective tools to treat and prevent this virus, including anti-viral drugs and vaccines. With the global increase in cases and the spread that is occurring here in the United States, there have been a lot of questions about what might happen to us. I wish I could give you that answer. Unfortunately, I cannot.” —Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Center for Disease Control’s Telebriefing Update on COVID-19, March 3, 2020.

This year we have seen science being made publicly and in real-time as a result of the current COVID pandemic. Science teachers and science teaching have never been more important and urgent as they are in this era of COVID, when our everyday, personal, and family decisions about safety—how to survive and attempt to engage in daily tasks—require understanding and weighing of scientific evidence. How do we know which mask is most appropriate? How do we determine when our children can safely return to school? If a vaccine is developed, how do you choose if you would take it? As our understanding of the virus has changed, the recommendations around our activities have shifted over time. Understanding how scientists produce knowledge is critical for shaping how we learn science, most especially in the context of making decisions about human health in relationship to novel diseases or viruses.

The COVID virus has also laid bare in the most striking ways, the disproportionate impact of public health crises upon communities of color, and revealed social and economic inequities that have intersected with this crisis. How can we ensure that students and teachers are prepared to directly, creatively, and productively discuss these critical issues for our country and the globe? How can we ensure they are exploring and understanding the socio-economic relationships that are intertwined with critical scientific phenomena, like a pandemic or a natural disaster like a wildfire or a hurricane? Fully understanding the impact of a scientific crisis from the standpoint of the nature of the virus, the role of vaccines and how they work, or the science of protection against a virus, and being better able to prepare for and support one another during these times, requires not simply understanding the science, but also the public health reverberations and how we choose, as a larger community, to address them.

What, as teacher educators, can we do to help science teachers teach in ways that acknowledge and support the authentic practice of science, and acknowledge the intersection of science with other critical, ethical, public health, and public equity concerns?

At this time, more than ever, we need to prepare science teacher candidates to help students and the public understand how science knowledge is produced, how scientists must make evidence-based decisions under uncertainty, and the important scientific practice of changing recommendations based on new data. In turn, this understanding can help us be even better prepared for a global public health crisis and to make the important personal and policy decisions that rest on scientific learning and scholarship. As teacher educators, we need to facilitate important conversations between teachers and students about scientific crises—conversations that provoke important humanitarian deliberations and support the constant weighing of scientific evidence that does not leave aside critical questions about public access and emerging inequities. Without addressing these critical issues, we do not fully prepare teachers to help students work on—and become leaders in—the science challenges for the future.

Helping students of all ages—and the public—understand how science knowledge is produced and the way science practices are enacted, requires science teaching that immerses students in doing science in relationship to big ideas that are foundational for important conversations about complex issues such as public health and climate change. Further, students must have opportunities to interrogate how science is produced by calling into question the White, Western, and masculine framing of problems and solutions.

Such opportunities require centering science teaching in terms of the ever-evolving norms of science, and, especially now, upon how science knowledge is developed and affirmed; and how it changes over time. It requires focusing science teaching on helping students learn practices of science—asking questions, analyzing and interpreting data, developing models, and arguing from evidence. And, most centrally, it requires teachers to center students’ ideas in the public discourse of the classroom—so they can authentically engage in the process of their ideas being discussed, critiqued, revised, and developed over time.

To learn in a classroom that focuses upon students’ ideas, teachers have to focus upon building and sustaining relationships with students. Students need to feel safe, valued, and agentic in order to participate; and in turn, this requires teachers who can create classroom communities where students feel able to and ready to participate. This means helping prospective teachers learn to prioritize students’ communities, languages and cultures by leveraging and connecting to local resources, materials, families, and settings. For new teachers, this requires an inquiry stance—which can help them learn about their own classroom and school contexts, in turn valuing and centering their students, communities and schools. Importantly, they are learning to help students critique, challenge, and change the culture of science to create more inclusive and socially-just learning experiences that scaffold participation of all students.

What does this look like in teacher education?

As teacher educators, we must embody the same principles we honor in K-12 classrooms. We must build and sustain learning communities in which future teachers feel safe, valued, and encouraged to share and engage with each others’ ideas. We must provide opportunities for future teachers to interrogate their own identities; as well as their experiences of learning in order to become clear about how conceptions of race, culture, socio-economic status, gender and physical ability shape both their science instruction and their expectations of students. Teacher education learning contexts must draw on preservice teachers’ ideas as a foundation, but also create a community where those ideas about teaching are pressed and interrogated, especially with regard to equity and justice. In light of the vast inequities made so clear by the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic, ensuring that teachers have considerable and substantial opportunities to develop a critical consciousness is foundational to support, honor and strengthen youth identity.

We need to provide future teachers with opportunities to learn about ambitious and equitable instructional practices in relationship to their learners, to learn to prioritize children’s ideas and their sensemaking, and to rehearse such practices with peers. We must help future teachers learn to connect their instructional actions to student learning while we push them to center equity and justice work in their instruction to create classrooms in which humanizing efforts are a core feature of daily life.

COVID-19 presents an enormous challenge to everyone on planet Earth, but it is not unique. We will continue to be faced with challenges that can be informed by and improved by a public who understands how science works as a practice, and how the knowledge it produces can be judged. We want current and future science teachers to consider how they can use their positions and power to help the next generation of scientists, policymakers, and people to manage not only with our current pandemic, but also future challenges—human, moral, scientific, ethical—to our global community.

About the Author: David Stroupe is an associate professor of teacher education and science education at Michigan State University. Karen Hammerness is the director of Educational Research and Evaluation at the American Museum of Natural History. Scott McDonald is a professor of Science Education at The Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and director of the Krause Innovation Studio in the PSU College of Education. They are the editors of Preparing Science Teachers Through Practice-Based Teacher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2020).