Improving teaching in science and mathematics

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

TEACHING AIMS TO IMPROVE students’ 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 instruction, couldn’t easily deal with the heterogeneity of their students, relied on a small repertoire of teaching methods, and had problems in correctly assessing students’ 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 programs on student learning.

The SINUS professional development program 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 program was initially aimed at high schools and focused on science and math teaching, and by 2007 about 1,800 high schools and 6,000 teachers had participated. Because of its success, the program was – in 2004 – adapted for elementary schools, and 750 elementary schools and 2,500 teachers have now been involved. The program 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 math, and giving their instruction 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 instruction. Teachers use written handouts with more detailed descriptions of the problem areas which encourage them to intensively investigate classroom instruction and discover areas in which they could do better.
  • Introducing a process of quality development in schools: Classroom instruction 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 cooperation and collaboration: SINUS expects each school to build up a consistent group of teachers working constantly in the program. 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 neighboring 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: Coordinators on different levels (school, set, federal system, central coordination) 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 program to monitor the process and handle the tasks.

How does the concept work?

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

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

We rely both on self-reported data and data from external observations. All teachers and principals regularly report how they adopt the program. From case studies, we gain insights into how the program 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 program contributes to the professional development process in various domains. We include some of the schools in international studies on student 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 program.

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 program, 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. In the course of 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 adaption to classroom instruction makes teachers more conscious of students’ different needs on the instructional 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 cooperate professionally as the program 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 cooperation is a helpful instrument to fulfill a teacher’s daily task it becomes more and more attractive and common.


The SINUS program for the improvement of science and mathematics teaching is an example of a teacher professional development program 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 cooperation 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 coordination office of the model program SINUS an Grundschulen (SINUS for elementary 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 program ( Karen Rieck is the coordinator of science learning and teaching.

Further reading

Program 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