In-Service Professional Development In Inquiry Based Science Education – Outcomes And Challenges

Country in Focus Article #6: In this short article, Christian Bertsch from the University College of Teacher Education in Vienna, attempts to explain the outcomes and challenges of Professional Development in Inquiry-based Learning. This article was prepared for the the 12th Conference of the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA).

You can download the full article in PDF form, here.


Inquiry is a central term in the rhetoric of science education reforms around the globe over the last two decades. One goal of these reforms is promoting positive attitudes towards science and learning science. The importance of this promotion is emphasized by the mounting evidence of a decline in young peoples' interest in science studies and careers in industrialized countries (OECD, 2006). Motivating students to study science is a worthy aim, however the primary goal of science education must not be to produce the next generation of scientists, but to offer an education that develops students' basic understanding both of the major ideas which science offers and the way it produces reliable knowledge. The aim of science education should be educating students in and about science (Osborne & Dillon, 2009). To achieve this goal we need to refocus science teaching on meaningful learning and conceptual understanding of scientific ideas rather than teaching and learning isolated fragments of theoretical knowledge. Inquiry Based Science Education, if carried out effectively, is an efficient way to facilitate conceptual understanding and deepen the understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. Learning with understanding differs from remembering facts such as the names of the planets in the solar system, which particular objects float or sink or the photosynthesis equation (Harlen, Artigue, Dillon, & Lena, 2012). Facts alone are insufficient for developing understanding. Understanding means that students can explain why there are four seasons in Austria, why things do or do not float, why plants can't grow in the dark and which evidence supports these concepts. A review of 138 studies focused on the outcome of Inquiry Based Science Education has shown that students who are getting the opportunity to engage in active thinking and being subsequently asked to draw conclusions from data are more likely to understand the inherent scientific content than in traditional teacher-centered lessons (Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010).

Inquiry Based Science Education requires students to become more independent learners. Teachers must allow students to develop their own ideas taking into account that these ideas can also be wrong at first. Teachers used to teaching science by giving information from text books need the chance to experience, understand and value Inquiry Based Learning if they are to develop the confidence and skills to implement Inquiry Based Education in their classroom (Harlen & Allende, 2009). To achieve a change in teaching practices Professional Development is still seen as the most effective way. Alternative methods, such as policies to support ambitious instructional reforms, have been found to have little impact on basic classroom routines (Suppovitz & Turner, 2000).


Within the project AMGEN TEACH ( the University College of Teacher Education Vienna, the University of Graz and the Open Labs in Vienna and Graz designed, implemented and evaluated Continuous Professional Development (CPD) sessions on IBSE for more than 300 secondary life science teachers between 2014-2017. Usually teacher trainings in Austria only span one or two afternoons. Evaluation of various projects on the dissemination of IBSE shows that short term teacher trainings do not necessarily lead to a change of classroom routine. Harlen and Allende (2009) concluded in their evaluation of various Professional Development (PD) programs on IBSE

"when teachers learn to use new materials and pedagogy, their needs are similar to those of any learners, particularly the need to communicate with and have feedback from others and to have time for reflection. These are more likely to be provided, and teachers take ownership of their learning, when professional development sessions take place intermittently over a period of time, with opportunities between sessions for teachers to practice what they have learned in their own classrooms and to share experiences with others." (Harlen & Allende, 2009, p 25 )

The developed training lasted for 20 hours and we engaged teachers in concrete teaching tasks to allow personal experiences. Teachers were asked to put into practice what we discussed in the workshops between the training sessions and discuss their experiences with the other participants. We also included a workshop focusing specifically on the Nature of Science into our training.


The evaluation is focusing on the first year of the project. 60 teachers took part in the three trainings in Vienna and Feldkirch The course was evaluated with a pre/posttest design with questionnaires and interviews. In this article some results of the post-questionnaire will be discussed.

Impact on teacher knowledge and self-confidence

92,2 % of the participants strongly agree that the PD course improved their understanding of Inquiry Based Science Education, 46, 2 % of the teachers reported a strong influence on their content knowledge of relevant science topics. The focus of the CPD course was on IBSE skills and NOS, therefore we did not expect a strong improvement of content knowledge. 73 % strongly agree that the PD course improved their self-confidence in inquiry based science teaching.

Impact on science classroom routine

75 % of the participants reported that the PD had a strong influence on their science teaching. 67 % strongly agree that they often use the material that was developed during the PD sessions in their classroom. 81 % reported that they worked with new methods in their science classrooms. In the literature (Capps & Crawford, 2013) it is suggested that PD on IBSE should contain opportunities for learning through inquiry and learning about inquiry. Therefore one workshop on the Nature of Science was added. Teachers were very enthusiastic about this workshop and in the interviews they mentioned, that this workshop had a strong influence on their own understanding about inquiry. However, only 48% of the teachers strongly agree that they discuss the nature of scientific inquiry explicitly with their students. In the interviews some of the teachers mentioned that NOS is not an explicit topic in the Austrian curriculum and that – due to a lack of time – they did not include it in their teaching so far.

Dissemination of knowledge

Successful PD should empower teachers not only to use new methods in their teaching but also to promote new learning methods at their schools. At the end of the PD course 86% of the participants said that they have discussed content of the workshops with colleagues at school, 81% have shared knowledge and material. 52% strongly and 48% rather agree that they know more about IBSE than most of their colleagues at school. However, only 24% strongly agree that they are able to offer in-school trainings on IBSE for their colleagues.


Inquiry Based Science Education has been shown to foster both understanding of scientific concepts as well as understanding of how scientists work when solving problems. Within the project AMGEN TEACH Professional Development sessions on Inquiry Learning in science including a strong focus on the nature of scientific inquiry were planned, implemented and evaluated. The 20 hour training improved participant's knowledge of Inquiry Based Science Education and their self-confidence in science teaching. Teachers reported a strong influence of the training on their science teaching practices.

The major determinant of any education system is the quality of its teachers. If we want a reversal of school science-teaching pedagogy from mainly deductive to inquiry-based methods investment in long-term Professional Development is crucial. Changing teacher pedagogy cannot be done through short, one-off courses, which currently dominate Professional Development for teachers in Austria. However, motivating large numbers of teachers for long-term trainings is still a big challenge.