Professional Development in 4-H: A Case for Reform
Posted: Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
by Martin Smith, Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, Andrea Ambrose, and Steven Worker
There is a recognized need to improve the levels of scientific literacy among K-12 youth in the United States (Fleischman, Hopstock, Pelczar, & Shelley 2010; National Center for Education Statistics 2011). To accomplish this will require effective classroom-based science instruction and high quality science programs for youth in out-of-school time settings (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder 2009). Specifically, out-of-school time programs can help advance youth scientific literacy, ignite youths’ interest in science, and reinforce classroom learning by expanding curriculum offerings and complementing formal science instruction (Kahler and Valentine 2011; Mørch and du Bois-Reymond 2006).
Two of the factors that contribute to the low levels of youth scientific literacy in the U.S. are the use of didactic teaching strategies (Jorgenson & Vanosdall, 2002) and ineffective approaches to professional development of science educators (Loucks-Horsley et al., 1998; Loucks-Horsley, Love, Stiles, Mundry, & Hewson, 2003). Didactic teaching strategies – lectures and presentations – emphasize the direct delivery of information and memorization of known facts (Jorgenson and Vanosdall 2002). These methods do not provide learners with an in-depth understanding of science content and do little to contribute to their abilities to use scientific thinking (Cole et al., 2002; Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010). Conversely, constructivist-based teaching strategies like inquiry are learner-centered, foster knowledge and skills development, and hold promise for improving youth scientific literacy (Beerer & Bodzin, 2004; Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010).
Most professional development opportunities in science involve a highly skilled professional demonstrating knowledge and skills to less experienced individuals who are in the role of being passive recipients of information. Described by Lambert et al. (2002) as the “traditional approach” to professional development, this strategy perpetuates the use of didactic teaching methods and is viewed broadly as being ineffective (e.g., Garet et al., 2001; Loucks-Horsley et al. 2003; Penuel et al. 2007). Furthermore, because science educators teach most commonly using methods by which they were taught (Loucks-Horsley et al., 1998), to modify their practice “they must encounter multiple experiences with [effective pedagogical strategies] as learners” in order to use them effectively (Dantonio & Beisenherz, 2001, p. 14). Therefore, to become proficient at using effective pedagogical strategies to teach science, science educators require access to and participation in professional development opportunities that model constructivist-based, learner-centered methods (Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003; Smith & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2013).
The California 4-H Youth Development Program is part of a national community-based youth development organization. With a 100-year legacy of science programming, California 4-H offers a wide range of learning opportunities in out-of-school time settings through county-based offices throughout the state . Pedagogically, 4-H science programs and associated curriculum materials utilize experiential learning and inquiry (Worker & Smith, in press). To implement programs, the 4-H Youth Development Program relies heavily on volunteers – adults and teens – as non-formal educators who facilitate educational activities with youth (Boyd, 2004; Stedman & Rudd, 2006). However, as is true with most educators in other community-based programs that offer science programming, the majority of 4-H volunteers lack sufficient professional development to be successful (Chi, Freeman, & Lee, 2008; Smith & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2013). Thus, with youth learner outcomes associated with scientific literacy in mind, California 4-H is giving careful consideration to the design and implementation of professional development opportunities for 4-H volunteers (Smith & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2013).
Historically, professional development opportunities in 4-H have utilized mainly “traditional” methods: one-time, in-person workshops or seminars of short duration (Kaslon, Lodl, & Greve, 2005). However, such episodic strategies do not produce significant change in educators’ practice (Garet et al., 2001; Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003; Guskey & Yoon, 2009). In contrast, “reform-based” professional development strategies that take place over an extended period of time, utilize active learning strategies that provide educators direct experience using constructivist-based methods, occur within authentic contexts, and emphasize subject matter and pedagogical knowledge have been shown to be effective (Garet et al., 2001; Guskey, 2003; Guskey & Yoon, 2009; Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003; Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Supovitz & Turner, 2000).
To this end, the California 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) Leadership Team, academic and program staff that provide statewide leadership in science education, has advocated for wider use of “reform-based” professional development strategies for 4-H volunteers. Specifically, the SET Leadership Team has promoted methods such as action research and lesson study that utilize communities of practice (CoPs) (Smith & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2013). Communities of practice are organized networks of peers working toward shared learning goals that arise through authentic practice whereby participants co-construct knowledge through social interactions (Buysse et al., 2003; Lave & Wenger, 1991). A recent pilot study using lesson study with 4-H volunteers who implemented a science curriculum with 4-H youth in club settings revealed that the model has excellent potential for broader use (Smith, 2013). Further investigation of lesson study and other professional development models utilizing CoPs within the context of 4-H science programming has been recommended (Smith & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2013).
The California 4-H Youth Development Program endeavors to help advance the levels of scientific literacy among K-12 youth in the state. To accomplish this, the 4-H Program is seeking to improve the professional development of 4-H volunteer educators in order to increase their capacity to utilize effective science pedagogy in their work with youth audiences. Specifically, California 4-H strives to utilize “reform-based” professional development strategies as a means to provide science-learning opportunities for their volunteers that model best practices, provide direct experience, and occur in authentic settings.
For more information about 4-H and to access 4-H SET curriculum materials, please click here.
Steven Worker, Martin Smith, Andrea Ambrose, Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty are with the California State 4-H Office at the University of California’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources. Steven, Martin, and Lynn are members of CSTA.
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