Wednesday, August 12, 2015

New Zealand’s all but forgotten science research about valuing the both the views students hold and the process of learning to clarify their thinking – The Learning in Science Project. (University of Waikato Science Education Research Unit 1985)

What are students ideas about scientists. science. any concept?

I am in the process of trying to clear out the books and notes I have collected over the decades. A very distracting task but one that has to be faced up to.

For most of my career (now receding into the distance) I worked with  schools as a science adviser
and was later a teacher, an art adviser, a school principal and finally an independent educational adviser. Now I am happy just to think about education and limit my involvement to writing a regular blog.  I still find educational issues interesting.

From my early years I believed strongly in an education system that focussed on helping all students develop their gifts and talents making full use of the immediate environment. My own beliefs came from working with creative teachers I came in contact with –backed up by reading educationalists that supported student centred learning. I still think creative classroom teachers are where all the bes ideas come from - not distant experts who have little appreciation of the reality of classroom teaching.

The problem is, as I see it,is that student centred/creative learning is now under threat by a narrow instrumental education focussed on ( in New Zealand)  achieving arbitory National Standards. I  hope that there will always be a few creative teachers will  will be able to survive in such an environment.

In the 80s, along with the other Science Advisers, I was involved with the Learning in Science Project based at Waikato University School of Education.

The project arose when Dr Osborne a physics lecturer at Waikato University came to the conclusion that his students entered his class lacking understanding he thought ought be in place. After working with secondary science teachers however he found they were being taught appropriate physics but without real understanding. From this beginning Dr Osborne became interested in the often naive views students held – even after teaching.

The project starting in secondary schools was extended to the primary level and we were  involved in
How are voices made?
collecting data on students view about a range of science concepts. Around the world other researchers were also exploring the prior views students’ hold and how they modify and construct their knowledge and how , even after explicit teaching,  why students still hold on to their original view.

Common sense when you think of it. We are all involved in modifying our views through experience – and often refusing to give up on ideas we had before the experience. This makes teaching but interesting and challenging.

Knowing what students’ think before they enter a learning experience would seem sensible – and respectful. This was the basis of the Learning in Science Project ( LISP) extending into the kinds of teaching that help children change their minds.

The LISP research was focussed ‘on investigations to determine what learners bring to the classroom by way of word meanings, and explanations for why things behave as they do.’ It also focussed on how to help teachers assist their students in helping them construct ‘more scientific’ concepts.

How to shadows change?
The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum and recent research continues these understandings now referred to as ‘constructivist learning’ – or better still when working with teachers ‘co-constructivist learning. 

In the 60s a visiting educational physiologist to NZ David Ausabel said ‘first find out what the learners knows and then teach accordingly’. Good advice but by and large ignored by class teachers.

The LISP research showed that many primary teachers were insecure about teaching science for a variety of reasons – a situation that still exists today. Teachers' views about what science is was a variable as was their role in teaching science.

Today science, along with other learning areas, is being neglected as schools programmes concentrate on literacy and numeracy  to ensure their students do well on achieving  the counterproductive National Standards.

The concerns uncovered from teachers was that students might not learn much from activity based programmes ( added to by  problems of equipment and organisational issues) particularly since transmission teaching had been shown not to transfer knowledge to students.

The research showed dilemmas facing primary classroom teachers resulting from the lack of confidence about teaching science; many simply avoided taking science a situation that remains common today.

Not only  were student beliefs an issue but also the beliefs  of the teachers . Teachers beliefs about any learning area area, as stated ( in the LISP findings) by Postman and Weingartner , ‘The beliefs , feelings and assumptions of teachers are the air of a learning environment, they determine the quality of life within it.’

Teachers needed help  to develop positive beliefs about science teaching and this was the role of the  primary science advisers - disbanded  following the introduction of Tomorrows Schools in the 1980s.
What ideas do students hold?

Our current New Zealand Curriculum provides direction  for today's' teachers but the problems of implementation  still remain. 

Students need to be given  opportunities to raise questions and undertake investigations to find answers to their questions. The view of learning expressed in the curriculum is that  ,’learners construct meanings for themselves  by 'seeking, using and creating their own knowledge'  The 'construction of personal knowledge begins at birth and continues throughout life' (LISP).

Whatever students do in primary schools  LISP research shows they do not enter secondary education with blank minds  in respect to science concepts but unfortunately these intuitively constructed children’s ideas can have severe limitations. This, of course, applies to all areas of learning.

Science teaching in primary classrooms cannot be ignored or forgotten. Primary schools need to provide worthwhile challenges to stimulate and challenge children’s’ present ideas as well as  
How is lightning and thunder made?
providing  opportunities to 'learn how to learn'. Primary science, above all else, needs to encourage children to take an interest in their environment and their own learning, explore ideas, and seek and develop understandings about their world.

The process LISP encouraged was to present challenges to the students, to uncover and value the ‘prior’ ideas, help them explore the ideas of others (to challenge their current understandings) and  that scientists’ ideas should not be forced on students. Teachers need to help students clarify their ideas and if exposed to scientists' views at least will see that others hold different views

This ought to be the basis of all teaching.

This approach has come to be known as ‘interactive ‘teaching. An interactive approach combines providing the scientists views  at an appropriate stage( if known) and  an inquiry / activity model  to uncover and challenge student views.

Obviously children cannot be simply lefty to learn by themselves, neither can scientific explanations be simply transmitted. The real issue is one of valuing the students’ role in their own learning. An interactive approach is a good example of personalised learning. Students, it has been shown will only share their ideas if there is a supportive environment; and conversely some class environment inhibit students questions and  the expressing their views..
Lots of question, theories and things to try

Some of the ideas explored  by the LISP research to discover children’s questions, and prior views were identified by asking them for their ideas about : seeds, native plants, trees, hatching chickens; fruit, earthworms, wind, water, waves, floating and thinking, dissolving, melting; keeping things cold; keeping humans warm; shadows; mirrors; musical instruments; falling things; seasons.
Identification of such students' questions and ideas, and how learning experiences has clarified and modified their ideas, ought to be a feature of modern classrooms

An amazing finding  from research at the time was that students from around the world hold similar views about such things such as: rocks,  what causes the wind, or how electricity works and also that there was a developmental process - ideas being modified with age.

What was important was the process developed to uncover such ideas and how explore such science topics ( or topics from any Learning Area) As in the 80s here is a need to find ways to ensure children’s’ questions have a more central role in primary school science ( or any area of learning).

The LISP research developed  a model of learning.( basically an inquiry learning model) that is relevant in today's' classrooms.

Step One:  put children into an interesting situation which stimulates the children to ask questions.

Step Two:  Gather and record students’ questions. Questions and prior ideas will arise throughout the study. Students will need help to refine /combine questions for research. It was found that students initial questions were often superficial and more valuable questions crystallize as the study progresses.

Step Three:  Gather /record children’s suggested answers to their questions- their ‘prior’ ideas Students may well change or modify their ideas during this process

Step Four: Develop children’s; research proposals. Students work individually or in groups to develop research proposals – how they plan to go about finding answers. Proposal will need teacher approval before embarking. Teachers found that best student planning occurred  after teacher discussion. Some children/groups will need more guidance than others.

Step Five: Children undertake their research activities – using experiments or by consulting other sources. At this point teachers need to interact to guide and challenge students. Teachers might find it valuable to have students  discuss  their research plans ideas with the whole class  As required or groups could  report their progress  to the  class.

Step Six: Completed  Research Reports. These to be shared with class and may include further ideas to investigate. It is important to avoid ‘cut and paste’ answers in reports. Reports ought to include phrases such as ‘what I thought before’ ,’ what I found out’, ‘what I think now’ ’,’ I am uncertain about and further questions to think about. A good model for teachers' to hold in their minds are the exhibits student develop for science, technology or maths fairs. Students need to be able to explain and defend their findings.

Completed studies could be  loaded up to an ongoing electronic portfolios.

The LISP approach relieves teachers of having to have the ‘right answers’ before undertaking the study – they have the opportunity learn along with their students. Teachers  no longer have to see themselves as ‘experts’. which was a problem with traditional/transmission teaching.

The LISP research developed material for teachers to use that showed for selected topics the kinds of questions and prior ideas students had been shown to have. Such resources would be valuable today.

Ideally teachers would 're frame' their literacy time (and where appropriate numeracy time) to ‘frontload’ appropriate inquiry/literacy /numeracy skills to be used during  content study time.

Creative teachers see the inquiry topics as central to their class programmes – with literacy and numeracy providing the ‘foundation ‘skills.

Such classrooms are true communities of inquiry.

Today there are moves to develop communities of schools to share ‘best practices’ but it would seem that current proposal  will result in conforming ( to Ministry targets)  rather than sharing  the ideas of creative teachers.

The best ideas in education most often come from teachers working at the edges and could  be at risk in this proposed way of schools working together. They key is tapping into and haring the ideas of  creative outliers.


Chris and Gillian said...

A great post, and one I found very interesting particularly as i am undertaking study and researching the many approaches to teaching science in Primary School.

Bruce said...

Thanks Chris/Gillian for your feedback. Maybe if you you e-mail me I could put you in contact with someone who might know how you might get a copy of the final research booklet.

I am presuming you live in NZ?