Managing Uncertainty for Productive Struggle: Exploring Teacher Development for Managing Students' Epistemic Uncertainty as a Pedagogical Resource in Project-based Learning

This project is exploring teachers' capacity to manage student epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource that supports student’s productive struggle and the development of conceptual knowledge during project-based learning instruction in middle school science classrooms.

Full Description: 

The research team is exploring teachers' capacity to manage student epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource that supports student’s productive struggle and the development of conceptual knowledge during project-based learning (PBL) instruction in middle school science classrooms. Although scientists consider uncertainty to be a primary driver of the progression of scientific knowledge and making sense of the world, the way science is typically taught in middle school obscures the productive role of uncertainty in science. Indeed, science is typically taught to emphasize its assuredness and authority instead. If teachers are going to shift their teaching practice to engage students with uncertainty in scientifically productive ways, the educational community needs this area to be researched. It is known that managing uncertainty in the classroom is a challenge for teachers and students. Many are not familiar with how scientists and engineers manage uncertainty to make sense of the real world, and few studies explore learning science as an enterprise of uncertainty management nor how student uncertainty is identified by teachers and students, advances discussion, contributes to knowledge development, gets resolved, and appropriately raises new uncertainties, and what strategies are available to teachers to manage students’ desirable uncertainty for productive struggle. This project is exploring how teachers' instructional practices change over time with repeated use of epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource to support students’ engagement in PBL, and what effect those changes have on student perceptions, practice, management of epistemic uncertainty and learning outcomes. The project will result in the following outcomes: (1) an evidence-based model and learning materials for sustained PD that focuses on developing teacher capacity and practice while using targeted materials and approaches; (2) a productive teaching model for managing uncertainty that will promote a culture of scientific inquiry and engineering design as well as a set of strategies to foster student agency; and (3) evidence of increased student learning outcomes when teachers adapt students' epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource to support students' productive struggle in STEM PBL.

Using a longitudinal, design-based research, mixed-methods study structure, the research team is investigating middle school science teachers' capacity to recognize, utilize, and manage students' epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource for productive struggle. The study follows the same cohort of 24 sixth-grade teachers in Phoenix, Arizona, for three years beginning in fall 2021. Program activities are impacting approximately 1080 students’ learning outcomes over the life of the project. The following research questions guide the study: (1) How does sustained engagement with professional development in uncertainty management affect teachers' capacity to recognize and utilize students' epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource for engaging students in productive struggle to develop scientific knowledge? (2) How do teachers' instructional practice in managing epistemic uncertainty change over time when they utilize epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource for engaging students in productive struggle? (3) How do teachers' approach to managing uncertainty influence students' perceptions, practice, and management of epistemic uncertainty? Quantitatively, existing measures are being employed an two new instruments are being developed. Qualitatively, interviews and surveys round out the exploration of these questions. The results of this study are informing widely-adopted learning standards, and dissemination will help science teachers to recognize and use students’ epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource to support their learning in science and engineering classrooms.

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