Primary teachers in Auckland attended a korero with scientists

Kōrero with Scientists: Quality PLD for early childhood and primary teachers

Abstract Efforts by a partnership between the MacDiarmid Institute and NZEI Te Riu Roa to develop more effective ways of delivering science professional learning to teachers have identified key issues….


Efforts by a partnership between the MacDiarmid Institute and NZEI Te Riu Roa to develop more effective ways of delivering science professional learning to teachers have identified key issues.

The partnership was inspired by several factors, including the relatively new New Zealand Curriculum; the loss of science advisors at the Ministry of Education; and a ‘fear factor’ voiced by teachers, who are more likely to have an arts background. Their ‘fears’ centred on a lack of understanding of scientific method.

New ways of delivering PLD were devised by focus groups of educators and scientists, and the first Kōrero with Scientists ran in May 2013, attended by 50 teachers. Instead of outside ‘experts’ instructing teachers on how to deliver new content, the Kōrero inspired teachers with the confidence to ‘act like scientists’ in the classroom and foster inquiry learning.

Using feedback from attendees, along with additional focus groups and pilots of Kōrero (run nationally), the sessions are now in a second phase, running through 2015 in a more educationally robust format. Follow-up evaluations indicate the Kōrero are boosting teacher confidence in science and teachers are using their learning from the Kōrero in schools and centres.


The partnership between the MacDiarmid Institute and the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) developed as both institutes were responding to external events. NZEI, an organisation of 48,000 support staff, teachers and principals working mainly in primary and early education, has a long history of members providing professional development for members. In 2012, it had recently launched its then Centre for Educational Excellence to formalise this learning.

After 2008, the Ministry of Education dis-established many of its professional learning services, including its science advisors. Subsequently, the Ministry contracted outside providers to deliver professional learning programmes, but with a focus on numeracy and literacy. NZEI members have reported that, along with areas such as cultural competency, special education, the arts and technology, they lacked effective and affordable professional learning on science. (1)

In early 2012, Professor Kathryn McGrath, then Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, was working on ideas to engage scientists more actively with primary and early childhood teachers. This interest echoed a growing awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the need to teach science more effectively in early and primary education. (2)

The MacDiarmid Institute is a strong supporter of student-centred learning, consistent with the direction set out in the New Zealand Curriculum. It also believes that if science is not taught well to students under the age of 10, it then becomes more difficult to interest teenagers. Professor McGrath had been exploring options, with the Ministry of Education and other networks such as the Science Roadshow, on how to engage with teachers in primary and early childhood settings. The MacDiarmid Institute had noted a ‘fear factor’ when talking with educators and policymakers about science – that science was seen by early and primary teachers as very hard and complex and expanding rapidly. (3)

Teachers were concerned that if they taught science they would not be able to answer students’ questions. (4)

A 2012 Education Review Office study found that only 27 percent of schools had effective or generally effective science programmes for Years 5 to 8 students and that a significant factor in this was that teachers lacked the confidence to deliver science learning. (5)

It has been posited that this lack of confidence with science reflects the education of early and primary teachers themselves, who are more likely to have a background in the arts and humanities than in the sciences. (6)

‘Compelled to be excited by science’

In late 2012, a fortuitous meeting between Professor McGrath and Nicola Meek from the then Centre for Educational Excellence led to the two institutes beginning to develop a Kōrero with Scientists programme. The need for more effective science PLD had also been heightened by the introduction of the New Zealand Curriculum in late 2007, which had shifted the emphasis from content and knowledge of science to – understanding, investigating and communicating in science. (7)

Over nine months, small groups met to explore teachers’ learning needs for the science learning area and how to meet them. These groups included researchers (students and senior scientists alike) from the MacDiarmid Institute as well as primary and early education teachers with extensive science teaching experience and teachers with limited or no experience. Specific teacher focus groups were also run.

These meetings recognised that, given the right conditions, teachers can design and deliver professional development services for themselves, together, by drawing on the expert knowledge they already have and by knowing they can work with others, such as scientists, who are ready to help.

From this starting point – how teachers see themselves – teachers can overcome a ‘fear factor’ by building the confidence to improve their practice. A number of issues were raised in the initial meetings – including that the teaching of science in initial teacher education is extremely limited, with as little as an hour and a half on the subject in a one-year graduate course.

The meetings also considered data obtained from a survey of nearly 90 NZEI members, mainly classroom teachers, conducted early in 2012 that asked, ‘What are your science learning needs?’ Some 73 percent of respondents were classroom or centre teachers and 8 percent were principals. Respondents were more familiar with ideas about science content, but had concerns about their overarching, broad understandings of science.

The survey showed that teachers were very keen to take up professional learning on science, and that they wanted to work in small groups, away from their worksites, and do hands-on activities with scientists. (8) It was concluded that professional development that involved ‘experts’ lecturing to teachers on content would not foster teacher learning, and that a more collaborative and interactive method would yield better results.

The MacDiarmid Institute also saw potential in this kind of professional development for scientists to learn to be better communicators with a public audience, and for the MacDiarmid Institute to gain access to the ‘simple, elegant’ solutions that some teachers had developed to convey science understandings to their students.

The MacDiarmid Institute is compiling a database of suitable science experiments (The Best 100) for primary schools and early education centres, many of which have come from early and primary teachers.

Together, the MacDiarmid Institute and NZEI decided to run events together such that educators would ‘be compelled to be excited about science – and to believe in themselves and their capacity to do science, to learn science, to teach science.’

The inclination toward a hands-on, collaborative venture is backed by best practice evidence of professional learning, particularly as it relates to science.9 For example, one programme run by Columbia University, New York, USA, commits teachers to working in school holidays as members of science faculty research teams.

It found: Rather than content knowledge per se being the reason for improved [student] achievement, the researchers believe that ‘program participation increases teachers’ confidence, problem-solving skills, professional abilities, and identity as teachers; and that these factors elevate their ability to stimulate student interest in science.’

A research experience encourages and empowers teachers to focus on student understanding and reasoning, not on facts and rote memorisation. For example, by the end of their first summer at Columbia, teachers report that ‘… they reduce the frequency with which they say to students “That’s right,” or “That’s wrong,” and increase the frequency with which they say, “Why do you think that?” … They have gained the confidence to tell students, ‘I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know how you and I could find it out.”’ (10)

The programme envisioned by NZEI and the MacDiarmid Institute could not replicate the scale of this programme, where teachers spent several weeks at a time working with scientists, but it was agreed that together they would develop and trial a series of ‘Kōrero with Scientists’ that would bring teachers and scientists together in hands-on, collaborative ways.

Authentic scientific inquiry

The MacDiarmid Institute and NZEI ran its first Kōrero pilot in Wellington in May 2013 in NZEI’s boardroom. Demand for the session exceeded availability.

Some 50 early and primary teachers split into small groups and met with scientists (PhD students through to senior researchers) at workstations, each featuring simple experiments with particular materials (for example, water and ice, light, batteries). Teachers engaged in the experiments and in rich conversations with scientists.

They were learning ‘how to be scientists – how to have those dispositions and understand it without feeling threatened; to undertake authentic scientific enquiry’. The workstations were not about ‘answers’ but about people talking about their ‘findings’. Scientists were keen for the process to be ‘messy and mucky’ because this models what they do in practice.

The aim was to shift the perception of science as a silo learning area, to science as being the way to create an environment where children and teachers alike ‘get to wonder’. Scientists were encouraged to share their science heroes and stories, and teachers were encouraged to reflect on their own attitudes to and engagement with science. Science was promoted as a ‘socially valuable knowledge system’. (11)

This fits well with the ‘Understanding about Science’ achievement aims in the New Zealand Curriculum, namely that students learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society. (12)

Participants completed evaluation forms after the Kōrero. These confirmed the enthusiastic response of participants on the day. Participants particularly liked the hands-on activities and the richness of the conversations. Their reluctance to stop the activities was taken as an indication of their relevance.

However, a number of suggested improvements to this first Kōrero pilot were also indicated: the scientists tended to talk a bit too much, the activities weren’t quite so relevant for early childhood teachers, and the invitation needed to indicate that the sessions were specifically for teachers who did not feel as confident as they wanted to be about science – not for those who were already reasonably confident. (13)

Building on this first success, three more Kōrero were then scheduled – two in Auckland and one in Wellington. Variation in the formats offered were explored during this next stage. In Wellington, the number of unique stations was reduced so that during the rotations teachers didn’t feel like that were missing out on something; all stations became significantly more hands on for the teachers, with the teachers exploring how to lead inquiry and feel confident with not knowing the answers.

At the same time, the MacDiarmid Institute researchers began to develop materials that the teachers could use with their classes. In Auckland, where there are relatively fewer MacDiarmid Institute members compared with the number of teachers, some of the workstations were run by expert teachers, such as those who had been Royal Society Teacher Fellows.

Confidence boosted – then boosted again

This second tranche of Kōrero, like the original pilot, were oversubscribed by teachers and schools, even though publicity about them was limited. Again, immediate feedback from attendees was positive and enthusiastic. A follow up survey, five months after the Kōrero, found that 46% of teachers who had attended had subsequently used what they learnt in their teaching or in a school-wide programme.

Some 33 percent reported increased student engagement, 44 percent reported that their own confidence with science had increased, and 32 percent reported that the Kōrero had led to their taking on a greater science-related leadership role in their school or centre. (14) While this seemed like quite a considerable, albeit self-reported, achievement for one two-and-a-half hour, after-school session, the organisers believed that more could be achieved, particularly in boosting teacher confidence with science.

In this light, NZEI and the MacDiarmid Institute signed a two-year Memorandum of Understanding at the end of 2013 to continue the joint initiative. It recorded their ‘joint strategic interest in building the confidence and competence of primary and early childhood teachers in the field of science; and engendering a passion for science and innovation across society’.

The MOU specifies it will be successful if:

Teachers feel supported and connected in their science-based professional development (directed and individual), confident to lead science learning, to utilise active science researchers as a source of information and inspiration and to approach teaching, within a subject area where everything cannot be known, with assurance that they have the skills to direct inquiry, thereby engendering science learning as an important and central tenet of an educational framework that delivers appropriate knowledge, skills and capacity to all learners allowing them to utlise, appreciate and drive science and technology-based innovations.

It set out that the parties would undertake informed analysis of the Kōrero in order to enhance them. The feedback data, including the comments from attendees, was analysed, and used to inform the next Kōrero. These would be more clearly focussed around their purpose, that is: to grow teachers’ confidence about the ‘nature of science’ curriculum strand.

NZEI would do more to ensure that teachers understood the goals of the programme (hands-on science, discussion, questioning, and trains of thought and resources around discovery).

Teachers would come out of the Kōrero with better documentation, provided by the MacDiarmid Institute researchers, particularly in relation to the activities, to help them get started in the classroom. Teachers also shared their teaching notes such as on the likes of ‘Fizzing and Foaming’, courtesy of teacher Tina Cochrane. Her materials included specific learning outcomes such as, ‘I will: use prior knowledge to make predictions and develop and test ideas’; and, ‘I will: develop questions to investigate in practical ways’.

In Auckland, teacher presenters shared a number of ‘simple, elegant’ activities that they had used in their classrooms. These included a study of the anatomy and physiology of the heart that involved the dissection of a sheep’s heart; the creation of a cabbage juice pH indicator; making ‘elephant toothpaste’ from hydrogen peroxide, yeast, warm water and soap; getting raisins to ‘bob’ in soda; and experimenting with light using milk and water.

The MacDiarmid Institute undertook to do more to ensure the scientists at the Kōrero also understood the goals: that they were not there primarily to do a demonstration of an experiment, but rather to demonstrate how scientists do scientific investigations. They were to build trust and rapport with teachers, in a peer teaching and learning environment. (15) In this context, the MacDiarmid Institute and NZEI looked at Professor John Hattie’s work in Visible Learning, specifically its key message that ‘the more the student becomes the teacher and the more the teacher becomes the learner’ the more successful the outcomes. (16)

Again, the immediate feedback from of the next stage of Kōrero, run in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Tauranga in late 2013 and 2014, was extremely positive. More importantly, however, a follow-up survey six months afterward found this time that 69% of attendees reported an increase in their own confidence with science; and a total of 79% had subsequently used what they learnt in their teaching or in a school-wide programme.

An additional question appeared to indicate that many participants were motivated to keep learning. Some 70% reported that they needed to learn something connected to their science role or to a specific science-related challenge they faced in their centre or school. (17)

Qualitative feedback from these teachers also provided a valuable resource as scientists and teachers, including expert teachers and teachers who had attended Kōrero, identified possible models for future Kōrero that would be even more effective.

Longer term connections with scientists

This has led to a phase two development of the Kōrero with Scientists programme, with sessions being run in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch through 2015. These have been developed to be more educationally robust. There will be separate sessions for primary and early childhood educators.

But the main difference in these latest Kōrero is that they reflect a need identified by participants for a longer-term connection with scientists, and for more support in their own schools with science. To meet this latter aim, each school or centre that attends the Kōrero is sending a team of up to four teachers, who will work together over several months, with each team attending two Kōrero. As with earlier Kōrero, the first involves scientists, or teacher-scientist leaders, sharing three hands-on experimental activities that give a concrete focus to the nature of science.

During this first Kōrero, the team will also set goals and targets for its school or centre science focus; and it will set up on-going communication channels with scientists, such as through Google groups, where teachers can contact scientists with queries or feedback and scientists can keep in touch with teachers.

After the first session, the team will deliver their science plan in the school and document its implementation – successes, failures, comments, and so on. Evidence will also be gathered around the impact on teacher and student confidence, learning, and the perception of science. The team will create a 10-minute presentation about what it did to promote and improve students’ experiences with science that will be presented at a second Kōrero to be held three months after the first. There will be discussion after each presentation, and teachers will take away copies of the trialled plans and resources. The prerequisites for attendance at the Kōrero are a commitment from the school or centre to attend the two sessions; that the team would probably have access to a school science plan; and that the project would be documented and shared.

Once again, with minimal publicity about the Kōrero they were oversubscribed. About 130 teachers are expected to participate in the 2015 programme. The MacDiarmid Institute fully covers the costs of the Kōrero so that they remain free to teachers. NZEI is supplying administrative and management support.

In the feedback from the 2013-14 Kōrero, participants said they would have been prepared to pay for the sessions, though what they were prepared to pay varied from as little as $5 to $100, for one two-and-a-half hour session. Teachers from higher decile schools felt their schools would be able to pay more, while teachers from lower decile schools said they could afford only a small amount.

Teachers who attended the pilots also noted that their participation contributed to meeting Registered Teacher Criteria, by showing they were engaged in appropriate professional relationships and demonstrating commitment to professional values. The Kōrero were also useful to those seeking to be recognised as an Advanced Classroom Expertise Teacher, and gain the $5000 a year allowance.

Both parties werehopeful that the 2015 Kōrero would lead to the roll out of a programme that will make a significant impact on the teaching of science in early and primary education in New Zealand. Because of the high level of teacher input, the resulting professional learning is more likely to be tailored to and relevant to particular communities; it is also likely to be more affordable, with some of the cost met out of the ongoing budgets of both institutes.

At the same time, because of the input of working research scientists, the resulting professional learning is likely to be of high quality. The benefits of teachers, as independent professionals, being involved with and determining their own professional learning and development are well-recognised.

Auckland University academic Dr Vicki Carpenter has written, ‘Collegiality and bottom-up dialogical PD can contribute opportunities to close cultural gaps, broaden and deepen cross-cultural understandings, enhance political understandings and empathies, improve teaching practice and significantly raise teachers hopes and expectations.’ (18)

These ideas suggest the potential of the Kōrero to help close the gap between the arts and the sciences in early and primary teaching and learning.



1. Drury, Kate and Blaikie, Jane. Autumn 2010. ‘Professional learning – it’s a walk in the dark’, in Education Aotearoa magazine. NZEI Te Riu Roa, Wellington. And subsequent articles.

2. Gluckman, Sir Peter. 2011. Looking Ahead – Science Education for the Twenty-first Century. A report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee, Wellington. p4 Also Berg, Alissa. 2012. ‘De-Marginalizing Science in the Early Elementary Classroom: Fostering Reform-Based Teacher Change through Professional Development, Accountability, and Addressing Teachers’ Dilemmas’. PhD thesis, Columbia University, USA Also Duschl, R., Schweingruber, H., Schouse, A., eds. (2007) Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten through Eighth Grade, Board of Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council of the National Academies. Washington DC, USA Also Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment. (Then in development, 2013, – published 2014) A Nation of Curious Minds – A National Strategic Plan for Science in Society. New Zealand Government, Wellington

3. Professor Kate McGrath, then Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, in meetings of the joint NZEI-MacDiarmid Institute initiative to develop the Kōrero with Scientists programme Science Learning Group, 2012 and 2013

4. Ibid. Gluckman

5. Media release. May 2012:

6. – Royal Society of Chemistry, UK, downloaded 19 March 2015. And Ibid. Gluckman

7. Downloaded 19 March 2014

8. Survey Monkey, survey of 90 NZEI members. Created 14 November 2012 by NZEI’s Centre for Educational Excellence, completed 3 December 2012

9. Notes of meeting of held at NZEI, 3 April 2013

10. Timperly, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., and Fung, I. (2007) Teacher Professional Learning and Development – Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. Ministry of Education, Wellington

11. Briefing notes for participants, Kōrero with Scientists, prepared by NZEI and the MacDiarmid Institute members, May 2013

12. The New Zealand Curriculum. 2007. Learning Media, Wellington. p28-29

13. Collation by NZEI staff member of evaluation forms, completed at the end of the Kōrero with Scientists, May 2013

14. Survey Monkey, survey of 16 NZEI members. Created 22 October 2013 by NZEI’s Centre for Educational Excellence, completed

15 November 2013 15. Email of briefing notes to scientist presenters, prepared by Professor Kathryn McGrath, 2013

16. Hattie. J. 2008 Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses in Education. Routledge

17. Survey Monkey, survey of 33 NZEI members. Created 10 November 2014 by NZEI’s Centre for Educational Excellence, completed 24 November 2014

18. Carpenter, V. 2014. ‘Pedagogies of hope: Dialogical professional development’ in Twelve Thousand Hours – Education and Poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand. Dunmore Publishing, Auckland