TESSA: Teaching Elementary School Science as Argument

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This project has two main purposes: (1) to develop electronic resources (e.g., video cases) to support preservice elementary teachers in learning to teach science as argument, and (2) to study the development of preservice elementary teachers’ knowledge and practices for teaching school science as argument.


Participants’ development as teachers of science was examined within the content of an elementary professional development school (PDS) program that involves a school-university partnership between Penn State and the local school district. Of the 300+ students admitted to the elementary education major each year, approximately 60 participate in the PDS program. The science methods course that PDS students take is informed by the Teaching Science as Argument framework.

Research Design: 

This project uses a longitudinal design to generate descriptive [case study/design research] evidence. Original data are collected through diaries/journals/records kept by study subjects; observation [personal; videographic; weblogs]; and survey research [structured and semi-structured interviews].

The study participants are preservice elementary teachers enrolled in a science methods course that explicitly addressed scientific discourse and practices, such as argumentation. All participants used online video-based cases developed as part of the TESSA project during their methods course. Some participants had taken specialized content courses, prior to the science methods course, in which evidence and explanation were emphasized. A subset of these participants were followed into their first years of teaching.

For studies that involved content analysis of interns’ responses to TESSA cases, data were compiled into tables by case, question, and intern, and were analyzed using methods adapted from grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). A constant comparative approach informed by the framework for teaching science as argument guided the identification of salient categories, such as the purpose and use of evidence, the role of discourse in learning, and the role of the teacher (see Zembal-Saul, 2005 for a more in-depth treatment of categories). These categories and their properties were continually refined until saturation was reached. Teaching science as argument was identified as the central phenomena of interest; thus, the next phase of analysis involved examining the interrelationship of categories with the central phenomena. From this process, patterns of responses were identified within TESSA cases, across cases, and over time. Ultimately, assertions were developed regarding how preservice teachers used the framework to make sense of science teaching.

For case studies of participants’ knowledge and practices for science teaching, the first phase of analysis involved constructing a case summary for each participant independently. First, responses to the TESSA cases were analyzed. Patterns of development were noted, such as when and how participants began using evidence and argument to interpret science teaching. These patterns were then mapped onto science methods course experiences, particularly the implementation of TESSA cases, to identify possibly influences on development. Next, participants’ science teaching videos were examined for teaching practices associated with the framework. Finally, relationships among knowledge and practices were identified. The second phase of analysis involved looking across the participants and identifying patterns in development of knowledge and practices for teaching science as argument.

Note - Because a central goal of this research was to understand how interns make sense of practice, responses to TESSA cases served as a primary source of data for all of the studies reported here. While field placements and teaching topics varied widely, by using TESSA cases all interns had access to a common set of teaching episodes and consistent analysis questions. Each case had 4-6 questions associated with it, and participants’ responses to questions ranged from 100-300 words.


The first phase of research involved initial implementation of the framework for teaching science as argument in the science methods course (Zembal-Saul, in press). Our goal was to characterize the ways in which preservice teachers made sense of science teaching. TESSA case responses were the primary source of data. Findings allowed us to propose a continuum for teaching science as argument. Most preservice teachers made initial shifts from activity-based to fair tests and a focus on evidence. However, few preservice teachers advanced to coordinating evidence with claims as a central activity in school science.

The next phase of research involved the implementation of a refined framework for teaching science as argument in the elementary science methods course (Zembal-Saul, in press, 2005). Our goal was to track the appropriation of aspects of the framework across the methods course. Again, TESSA case responses served as the primary source of data. Findings suggested that many interns began explaining science teaching using the following ideas: investigations provide data for argument construction; classroom discourse plays a central role in science learning; the goal of science talk is to negotiate consensus; and the teachers’ role is to monitor and assess students’ thinking, which is possible because of public discourse.

The third phase of research involved examining how TESSA cases mediate the uptake of aspects of framework over time (Zembal-Saul, in press, 2007). Ultimately we hoped to explain the influence of aspects of the framework on initial science teaching practices. Therefore, video recordings of preservice teachers’ science instruction and responses to TESSA cases served as primary data sources. There was strong evidence that teacher reflection videos influenced the uptake of aspects of the framework. In addition, particular cases had a strong influence on the uptake of aspects of the framework (e.g., role of conflict in learning). Finally, there was a high level of coherence among uptake of framework components and initial teaching practices.

Finally, we followed a subset of preservice teachers from their elementary science methods course into their student teaching experiences (Barreto, 2009). These student teachers responded weekly to a protocol for reflecting on their science teaching. Responses to the protocol were audio recorded. Findings suggested that (1) emphasis on evidence and explanation in their teaching was influenced by opportunities to plan and teach lessons in which children interacted directly with phenomena and collected data first-hand; (2) student teachers continued to see science talks as essential in aiding learners in constructing evidence-based explanations and making meaning of science concepts; (3) a focus on teaching science as argument prompted student teachers to attend to important science content, as well as engaging children in scientific inquiry; (4) responding to the reflection protocols themselves positively influenced student teachers’ attention to giving priority to the construction of evidence-based explanations in their science teaching; (5) student teachers’ beliefs about children’s capabilities influenced their attention to certain aspects of the framework.

Publications & Presentations: 

Zembal-Saul, C. (in press). Learning to teach elementary school science as argument. Science Education.

Barreto, R. (2009). Teaching science as argument: Prospective elementary teachers’ knowledge. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Penn State University: University Park, PA.

Zembal-Saul, C. (2007, August). Evidence and explanation as a lens for learning to teach elementary school science as argument. Paper presented at the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA) meeting, Malmo, Sweden.

Hershberger, K., Zembal-Saul, C., & Starr, M. (2006). Evidence helps the KLW get a KLEW. Science & Children, 43(5), 50-53.

Zembal-Saul, C. (2005, April). Preservice teachers’ understanding of teaching elementary school science as argument. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST), Dallas, TX.

Zembal-Saul, C., Haefner, L., Mitchell, K., Richardson, N. & Barreto, R. (2005, January). Supporting the development of argumentation pedagogy for elementary school science. Demonstration session at the annual meeting of the Association for the Education of Teachers of Science (AETS), Colorado Springs, CO.

Other Products: 

This project will generate the following products: TESSA online video-based cases; an online system for disseminating cases and collecting written responses from participants; and research findings to be disseminated within the science education community.