Personal practical theories, self-identity, and astronomy teachers' interactive decision making

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Richmond, Marvin Elliot

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Research has suggested that beliefs play a major role in selecting and defining teaching tasks and organizing the knowledge needed to perform those tasks. Teachers, consciously or unconsciously, depend on beliefs because they work in ill-structured domains where traditional problem solving techniques and academic knowledge do not work as well. The goal of this project was to establish, if possible, a causal link between teacher beliefs and interactive decision making through empirical, qualitative research. The hypothesis was, that when faced with those sorts of situations, the participants would fall back on belief systems that did not necessarily have a rational basis. The research focused on astronomy teachers in community colleges. Since most science reform efforts are directed toward primary and secondary schools, community college science teaching remains a neglected area of study. Yet community colleges are predicted to play an increasingly important role in higher education in the near future. For many students, community college science classes may represent their last encounter with formal, academic, science programs. The three participants were interviewed and observed in the classroom over an extended period. Initial interviews were conducted with each participant to capture stated beliefs. After the extensive classroom observations, stimulated recall interviews were held with each participant viewing short, edited segments of the classroom videotapes. No direct causal link between beliefs (in the conventional sense of the word) and participant decision making is apparent from this empirical research. However, the construct of personal practical theories, which includes beliefs as one component, shows promise as a significant determining factor in interactive decision making. Themes have been developed that represent each participant’s personal practical theories. The strongest theme, applicable to all participants, is based on the notion of extemporaneous lessons within a structured context of an implied contract between the students and the teachers. The terms of this implied contract are found in the administrative constraints, the systemic constraints, the personal restraints of the participant teachers, and the personal restraints of the students. The name assigned to this unifying theme is “planned spontaneity.” While sounding like an oxymoron, it concisely suggests the kind of flexibility required of all teachers who are faced with an ever shifting classroom environment.