Improving teaching in science and mathematics

Claudia Fischer and Karen Rieck report on their experiences of a German professional development programme

TEACHING AIMS TO IMPROVE pupils’ competencies and help them reach their full potential in a certain domain. Teachers have to ensure an effective process of competence development. The reality in German classrooms is far from these objectives, as past international comparative studies like TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS have indicated. The TIMSS Video Study showed that German teachers weren’t aware of the central problems of classroom teaching, couldn’t easily deal with the heterogeneity of their pupils, relied on a small repertoire of teaching methods, and had problems in correctly assessing pupils’ outcomes. International research has shown that traditional “one shot” teacher training doesn’t solve the problems.

What we know
● Professional development is a permanent social and individual need.
● There is good evidence for long-term initiatives, based on a perspective of situated learning and working in a problem-oriented way.
● There is good evidence from self-reported data: individual teachers feel empowered.
● There is a requirement for more evidence on the measured effects of such programmes on pupil learning.

The SINUS professional development programme in Germany

In 1998, SINUS (improving the efficiency of mathematics and science teaching) was launched in Germany. It was designed as a long-term professional development initiative under the perspective of situated learning, implemented on a large scale. The programme was initially aimed at secondary schools and focused on science and math teaching, and by 2007 about 1,800 secondary schools and 6,000 teachers had participated. Because of its success, the programme was – in 2004 – adapted for primary schools, and 750 primary schools and 2,500 teachers have now been involved. The programme will end in 2013.

The SINUS concept

SINUS relies on teachers as the experts in teaching and learning. They are able to identify the problems of their teaching, and work on them to improve their skills. They are interested in learning new methods, getting new information on science and maths, and giving their teaching more meaning. For this reason, SINUS invites teachers to find suitable solutions for problems and reflect on the results. To make this possible, SINUS provides some principles:

  • Working on central problem areas: Leading experts in teaching science or mathematics developed scientifically-based modules covering the central problem areas of classroom teaching. Teachers use written handouts with more detailed descriptions of the problem areas, which encourage them to intensively investigate classroom teaching and discover areas in which they could do better.
  • Introducing a process of quality development in schools: Classroom teaching forms the nucleus of school effectiveness. Schools only develop in a sustainable way if teaching develops. And teaching only develops if the teacher develops. Once science and mathematics education has changed, teachers of other subjects, such as foreign languages or history, might find it attractive or even advisable to change their teaching in a similar way.
  • Enhancing co-operation and collaboration: SINUS expects each school to build up a consistent group of teachers working constantly in the programme. This SINUS team has to guide the innovative process, meet regularly, decide aims and milestones, plan actions, reflect on results, document significant steps, etc. Teachers from one school meet other teachers from neighbouring schools. In these so-called “sets”, teachers at the regional level exchange experience, give advice to each other, and transfer best practice.
  • Providing a supportive structure and evaluating the efforts: Co-ordinators on different levels (school, set, local authority, central co-ordination) help teachers to identify realistic aims, find elaborated examples, systematically reflect on the process, etc. Regular evaluation and reports on the results of research activities help everyone involved in the programme to monitor the process and handle the tasks.

How does the concept work?

Development programmes are expected to enhance pupils’ motivation, interest, and learning outcomes. For this reason, the “hard” criterion for the effectiveness of a programme has to be the measurement of pupils’ learning outcomes. Although this may be widely accepted, it is true that profound changes in the professional behaviour of an experienced teacher take time to show effects on pupils’ learning. With this in mind, the evaluation and some smaller studies in the SINUS programme focus on:

  • Monitoring the professional development process of teachers.
  • Assessing pupils’ learning outcomes.

We rely both on self-reported data and data from external observations. All teachers and head teachers regularly report how they adopt the programme. From case studies, we gain insights into how the programme is implemented and disseminated in a school, and from teacher documentation – portfolios or logbooks – we learn more about whether, how, and to what degree the programme contributes to the professional development process in various domains. We include some of the schools in international studies on pupil assessment and use data from nationwide tests in science and mathematics. Schools only take part in the tests after some years of working in the programme.

Findings from self-reported data

As far as the teachers’ professional development process is concerned, we find:

  • Teachers work very much in line with the programme, they concentrate on mathematics (more) and science (less) in a problem-oriented way. Their activities are based on the modules.
  • Reports on objectives, actions, and reflections show difficulties in relating one’s actions and reflections to the objectives. Over time, we see a significantly better fit and more complete “cycles” of planning, acting, and reflecting. Also, the quality of reflections evolves and goes into greater depth.
  • Teaching material is important as teaching can be understood as a constructive process and is therefore closely linked to the development of teaching material. The adaptation to classroom teaching makes teachers more conscious of pupils’ different needs on the teaching level, in the domain of methods, and in the field of self-regulated learning. Working on teaching material is in this respect a result of a new perspective on a teacher’s task.
  • Teachers co-operate professionally as the programme requires steady and consistent groups in schools. Initially, only half of the documents show such groups. This increases step-by-step. Collaboration quality is assessed while investigating whether objectives and reflections refer to the group’s work. The score for these criteria significantly increases in the course of time. If co-operation is a helpful instrument to fulfil a teacher’s daily task it becomes more and more attractive and common.


The SINUS programme for the improvement of science and mathematics teaching is an example of a teacher professional development programme based on a perspective of situated learning. Research results show that teachers work in line with the concept, concentrate on science and mathematics, and work in a problem-oriented way. They collaborate in ongoing groups and use co-operation to better complete daily tasks. Furthermore teachers are willing to invest more time than they are paid for if permanent professional development helps them to do their job better.

About the authors

Claudia Fischer and Karen Rieck work for the central co-ordination office of the model programme SINUS an Grundschulen (SINUS for primary schools) at the Leibniz-Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, University of Kiel, Germany. Claudia Fischer is the leader of the office and responsible for the evaluation and the scientific research programme ( Karen Rieck is the co-ordinator of science learning and teaching.

Further reading

Programme website:

Prenzel M, & Ostermeier C (2006), Improving Mathematics and Science Instruction: A Program for the Professional Development of Teachers. In Oser FK, Achtenhagen F, & Renolds U (Eds), Competence Oriented Teacher Training. Old Research Demands and New Pathways. Rotterdam: Sense Publisher, 79– 96.

Roth KJ (2007), Science Teachers as Researchers. In Abell S, & Lederman N (Eds), Handbook on Science Education. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1205– 59.

Scheerens J (2000), Improving School Effectiveness. Paris: UNESCO

Schoen DA (1987), Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass


June 2010