Monday, May 14, 2012

The science of teaching – or the teaching of science

What happens if you do this? What are students 'prior' views about how  electricity works? What theories do they have? How can teachers challenge their thinking? Students' ideas 'grow' out of experience. The worst case scenario is for teachers to teach them.

I have just listened to a discussion on National Radio about the poor state of science teaching in primary schools.

According to a recent report from the Education Review Office science education is not up to the mark; that new teaching graduates and current teachers lack confidence in the teaching of science.

Lots of reasons were discussed but perhaps the main point was that teachers had poor attitudes towards science and lacked confidence to teach it.

I don’t think there is anything new in the findings.

It would seem that students’ experience of school science has not helped them see science as an exciting way of thinking about fascinating areas of learning. Problem solving, finding out how things work, exploring ideas, learning through enlightened trial and error are all innate way of human learning – the default mode inherited from birth. All life is a search for meaning. It is not that children are young scientists but that scientists still see the world with the passionate curiosity of a child.
So why is science teaching, or learning, not strength in our primary classrooms?

I have to own up. For most of my teaching career I was a primary school science adviser with a particular fascination in natural science and, later, with an equal fascination with how students learn – the so called scientific process.  Later I became interested in  how students’ develop their ideas about any new content they become involved in. The last idea introduces the concept of constructivism – how learners reconstruct their  current or prior ideas through their experiences.

I  soon learnt as a primary adviser science that education was not popular with teacher and not only for reasons already expressed. It is also that a traditional mind-set holds sway in teachers' and the publics' mind. The 3Rs come first. New transformational ideas about education for the 21stC are needed.

The original thinking behind appointing advisers was to assist teachers in areas teachers lacked confidence – in the arts, physical education, science and music- areas often seen as the ‘frills’, attended to if time available after the ‘three Rs’. Advisers (specialist teachers) originally visited all classes taking demonstration lessons once a term and were also in the position to share innovative ideas picked from creative teachers. Such advisers did help.
Well that’s all history. Advisers come and go on contact and now the ‘Three R’ advisers areas have priority.

The solution to the dilemma of science teaching is to make science, or rather inquiry learning, central to the whole curriculum – to extend into schooling the way the very young learn before learning is distorted by the imposed demands of formal schooling. The traditional emphasis on literacy and numeracy is now being further exaggerated by the need to comply with the politically imposed National Standards  leaving little time or energy for such things as science teaching. Ironically this neglect is further reinforced by the very Education Review Office that has brought the matter to our attention!

My suggestion would be for schools to base all learning around the primacy of inquiry learning and then to re frame literacy and numeracy so as to achieve in depth learning and understanding.
In the classes I used to admire when I was an adviser this was the case. In such classrooms literacy and numeracy were still to be seen but most of what was being done contributed to the current inquiry study – or studies. Such studies were often science orientated or required the introduction of the various science strands.

 The key to success, if this were to be done, is to do fewer things well. Another suggestion would be to use science content as part of reading comprehension or science experiments to develop the skills of science recording. Many science experiments are as much maths as science.  Naturally not all literacy and maths (or science) needs to be integrated.
Just imagine if such an inquiry learning approach became the default way of teaching throughout the whole schooling experience with subject area contributing as required . It is such interdisciplinary learning that future careers will require.

 If this were to happen classrooms would be full of evidence of children’s questions, thinking and researched and presented findings. Such an approach would change the schooling from a standardised delivery model (‘one size fits all’) to a customised or personalized approach.
 Teachers would see themselves as learning advisers, or coaches, and involve themselves as required with individuals or groups with shared needs.

Teachers, in such a learning community, would learn with their pupils, challenging their ideas and introducing content and teaching appropriate skills as required.s ‘just in time’ helping at point of need
By such means both teachers and students can develop a better idea of science learning – and to learn to appreciate the true purpose of literacy and numeracy as means of making sense of their experiences. Many students have been, and still are, turned off learning because they cannot see the point of it. This brings us back to why teachers and students develop poor attitudes towards science –and also other areas of learning taught out of context.

In the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum teachers have a document that could change both teachers’ and students’ perceptions. This document asks teachers to help students become ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’.

This phrase, students as 'seekers, users and creators', sums up the essence of science and/or learning.


Allan Alach said...

Excellent, Bruce - I couldn't agree more. As you write, things are only going to get worse, as the national achievement database becomes operative in 2014, thus forcing teachers to do very little except 'raise achievement.' I can see that science 'standards' as proposed in USA, being introduced to 'raise science achievement.' Chalk and talk, and learning of 'science facts' is going to dominate, so that behavourist 'assessments' can be developed. As you know I had developed an educational programme that was heading very nicely down the road you described, but due to me being 'knee capped' at the end of last year, this has gone by the board. Frustrating.

Bruce said...

I fear you are right Allan. All this corporate, so ,called 'scientific management' is just about narrow impersonal achievement not about real childrens' capabilities. The easier to meausre, as in the USA, the less real learning will happen.

Jody Hayes said...

We are investigating how does the water get into the tap ... a question posed by a five year old in my class.
The children are very motivated and we spent an hour or so looking carefully at a tap and taking it apart this afternoon ... nothing can compare to this motivation and interest when the question is your own and the discoveries are yours to make!

Bruce said...

Thats what I call real science Jody

sazzled said...

Absolutely couldn't agree more. As a science AST I've seen schools where science is crammed into a weekly lesson of 45 minutes because of the increased focus on literacy and numeracy.
I often think that part of the lack of investigation stems from having to set up for investigations which eats into lunch break or involves starting school day earlier - and that's from someone who loves teaching science! Imagine those teachers who don't confidently enjoy science teaching and don't like the "mess" that's made from 30 children investigating independently and getting the "wrong" answers! In some respects I can see why there are some teachers who feel that demonstrating an investigation to the class then given them a literacy based exercise to write it up is a viable science lesson.
I worked on a project a few years ago looking at using science as a starting point for topics in primary and it was amazing what we as teachers came up with. Now imagine if we'd involved children in finding out their interests!
I can understnad why teachers lack confidence in teaching inquiry based learning. My memories of science lectures on my PGCE, invovled turning up to a room with 5/6 science investigations set up, following instructions and then writing up what we found. Is it any wonder that this is the model teachers are taking into the classroom?

Pauline said...

Bruce, your article cuts to the heart of the matter. IF primary school science learning and teaching was based on Inquiry with real life contexts for reading and writing, the NS would be covered in meaningful and exciting ways. Having been a LEARNZ teacher my passion for teaching science through Inquiry continued to escalate when I returned to the classroom. Inquiry can be messy and certainly not linear, which does not fit into the viewfinder of many teachers or managers.
I no longer teach FT in NZ schools and feel sad to see the 'possum in headlights' attitude to anything other than numeracy & literacy. Teaching without engaging, relevant, significant contexts seems hollow.

Bruce said...

Thanks Sazzled and Pauline - I enjoyed your responses. We seem to be on the same wavelength! The answer to the so called 'achievement tail' is to tap into students' interests, as you say Sazzled, and to engage them in 'engaging , relevant, significant contexts' as you say Pauline.

I still think school leadership has something to answer for - inquiry learning could be given greater emphasis if principals had a guiding educational philosophy rather than simply complying to NS requirements.