Monday, May 01, 2006

Teaching science, III.

Commenting on Teaching science, part deux, John said:

First, to your comments on questioning, I am currently reading the Stages 4 and 5 Science Syllabus for an Engineering course I am undertaking. I found it somewhat interesting that the domain is meant to be the framework upon which students can base their questions. Aside from the fact that I doubt most of the students have read the syllabus, it is essentially written in by the BOS to think inside the box, and inside the box only. The point I wish to convey here is that the students are not really being inspired to be critical citizens at all - their "questioning of authority" is only to be as designed by the institution itself. It is almost circular: the government wants us to question it and all those in power, but only as much as it wants us to. That way, we get the impression of power through our authoritarian questioning, and they remain firmly in control.

One of the outcomes for Stage 5 science (years nine and ten) is for students to "[use] critical thinking skills in evaluating information and drawing conclusions". Identification, analysis and evaluation, in concert with each other, forms the basis of several other learning outcomes throughout both Stages 4 and 5. I'm sure that similar outcomes exist in the other curriculum areas; science is not the only curriculum area upon whom the task of encouraging critical thought falls, and I apologise if I've given that impression. Surely, through immersion across several disciplines, a student would gain some kind of critical thinking skills. Critical thought, in my opinion, is transferential. Combined aspects of it from the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences in schools, I think, should go some way to fostering critical discourse on society.

John says that the conceptual framework, the domain, which provides a focus for student questioning, as presented in the syllabus document constrains student thinking. I beg to differ. I think that the framework provides an underlying structure for which questioning can occur. That framework, or skeleton as it were, provides a basis which teachers and students can 'flesh out', and I'll get to why I think so in the next part.

J: To the changes to the syllabi specifically, then, and the reduction in mathematical basis was, as you say, to dumb it down. Personally, I didn't chose either Phys or Chem to learn about Planck vs Einstein. Yes, their differing views are important to a fuller understanding of the relationships between politics and science, and have probably shaped the way we learn today; however, it is structured in such a way that we learn they had different views only. If, perhaps, the syllabus lead to us adopting one perspective or another and then developing our arguments for either side, we would THEN become critical citizens.

The construction of knowledge is a social activity according to Vygotsky. When one enters a field of knowledge, one can't pick and choose which knowledge to take or leave; that is pretty much all decided by societal and academic contexts. The content in syllabuses has been collated by educators, academics and bureaucrats alike for one reason or another, as representatives of their respective communities of practice - educators on behalf of teachers and schools, academics on behalf of the body of knowledge for that curriculum area, and bureaucrats on the behalf of government and ultimately or ideally, the electorate and greater society. So someone must've thought it important to include Planck versus Einstein, and probably for some of the reasons John has given.

It must be remembered, though, that the syllabus is not a stiff board that teachers and schools are bound to. Teachers, after all, are not robots implementing the law of the Board of Studies, nor are they merely just an interface between the students and the curriculum. While the syllabus provides the broad structure and essential content for teachers to implement in their classrooms, it is up to a teachers own pedagogy to facilitate the construction of knowledge and the development of skills amongst his or her students. The syllabus, while somewhat prescriptive is not overly didactic. Teachers take an active role in implementing the curriculum through the syllabus as a tool, not a cage. And at least in Stages 4 and 5 Science, a large responsibility for linking content with the domains (knowledge and understanding, skills, and values and attitudes), and the broad learning outcomes of schooling (including an unconditional goal for creating critical thinkers) lie with the teachers, within with their respective school faculties themselves, rather than it being dictated to them explicitly in the syllabus.

So rather than being an issue of the syllabus, I think that the issue that John brings up really lies with the teachers in the classroom. The specific syllabus statement says that students "process information to discuss Einstein and Planck’s differing views about whether science research is removed from social and political forces" (Stage 6 Physics Syllabus, p.51). Now a teacher isn't, or shouldn't, merely going to set a task in which to rote learn facts involved, despite that being the seeming intention of the syllabus document. If a teacher wants students to engage in deep learning, which teachers should and do aim for and in some respects are obligated to do, they would approach that lesson with some creativity to not only satisfy the syllabus requirement but to impart real, concrete knowledge and to satisfy the broad learning outcomes. Those outcomes include the development of critical thought, although not in those specific terms. There is teacher discretion in how a teacher presents syllabus content, and that creativity may well manifest itself in an approach that John has suggested.

Surely though, not every single learning outcome stated in the syllabus leads directly to skills in critical thought. After all, that which is critically thought about has its own context and its own history, so isn't that knowledge of background important? While as stated in the syllabus, it makes no mention of critical thinking, nor analysis or evaluation, surely that knowledge of sociopolitical influences and consequences of science through two different perspectives then, as used in our example, provides a basis for critical thinking through how it relates to now. Students do not have empty heads and nor do they switch off their minds when they leave the classroom. They will, on their own, whether they realise it or not, relate what they see in the world to what they have learned.

J: The humanities side isn't being taught properly to my knowledge, either by teachers who disagree with the revised structure (my Phys teacher) or just spewed it forth onto the unsuspecting class, and we were left to mop it up, absorb it, and regurgitate it in an exam without consideration being given as to what was being taught (my Chem teacher).

Science teachers who have been educated and trained to teach science and only science probably wouldn't have the experience to teach the humanities side to science. The current HSC science syllabi are only relatively new, and a large bulk of teachers have been teaching for twenty or thirty years. Some of those teachers may just be averse to change, don't understand the Board's intentions, lack the relevant professional development, or may have genuine concerns about the new content in their curriculum area. It's an issue that can only be addressed by further in-service training and greater consultation with teachers at the next and subsequent rounds of syllabus revisions. The syllabus isn't perfect.

J: I do agree to your comments on cognative development. Whilst the Year 1 student is taught that sugar dissolved in water and sand doesn't, the understanding of these principles does come later and we have been able to develop what was originally just a pocket of useful knowledge into a complete comprehension of the phenomena.

Your example of atomic theory, though, leads to an interesting conundrum. What is the purpose of early-stage (Stages 1-3 or K-6) education? If it is more to give them the foundations on which to structure their secondary education, then yes, teach them the atomic theory and all other foundation techniques, such as the Newtonian Laws of Physics or the theory of evolution (vs creationism, to keep the religious happy) here. The current syllabi across the science stream in particular does not have enough cross-linkage between stages. And this leads to a lack of enthusiasm and interest in the sciences...

My choice of example in the model of atomic theory was merely to counter Matthew's Meissner Effect/Lenz's Law example and put cognitive development into a science education context. On reflection it was probably a poor choice based on ego rather than considered decision, but I digress.

Certainly, the science curriculum over the first, second and third stages, and the fourth, fifth and sixth stages is discontinuous. But the realities of today's primary and secondary education prevent in-depth science teaching in Stages 1, 2 and 3. Where as secondary schools can have specialised science staff, primary schools as we know them have teachers with only general science knowledge, or in-depth in one particular science (often biology). Those teachers also have the demands of teaching primary literacy and numeracy to their pupils.

In as far as cognitive development goes, I would risk saying that many abstract concepts in the physical sciences would be beyond primary school-age children, where as biological sciences could be more appropriate. However, I think a better grounding in scientific method - developing hypotheses and testing them - would be beneficial, and done properly, could foster an enjoyment of discovery which would feed into later science study. My curriculum studies are only in secondary science, however, so I think I would be even less qualified to comment on that.

J: As a final point, as to your shifting focus, I can agree whole-heartedly that focus has already begun to shift. I know several recent education graduates, and they all have no classroom control at all. Because, it is impossible to teach at any school by merely "orchestrating classroom activities". If you ignore Little Jimmy who is currently punching poor Suzie, he is not going to stop. And, unless he is required to do this activity as part of the "orchestrated classroom activities", should he not be doing this. Yet, you are avoiding behaviour issues. Whilst there is a need to have a more wholly organised lesson, any decent teacher has been doing this for years already, and many issues with individual behaviour management do seem to dissipate. Even the most organised lesson can go to hell, and you will need to deal with individual behaviour. And, I am willing to bet you $10 that, in your first week of actual teaching, you will realise all of this.

As a part of a teacher's responsibility regarding student welfare, there would need to be intervention if Jimmy were punching Suzie. I was merely suggesting that, in response to Matthew's point, the focus in the classroom is shifting even further to where the main priority was the construction of knowledge - learning. Of course, behaviour and order in the classroom are major issues and shouldn't be ignored. But focusing on keeping kids behaved and then teaching them on the side as a second priority undermines what schools and teachers are and do. If that were the case, then schools would be nothing but day prisons, engaging their inmates in training for better employment prospects on the outside. While stated explicitly that schools are where students learn and where teachers teach, the hidden curriculum amongst such institutions can be wildly varied.

The way in which a teacher approaches a class, the mode of a teacher's practice for example, can have implications on the classroom. If a teacher comes into a classroom with with conceptions that his or her task is to control the class first and facilitate learning second, then that's how he or she will teach - with an iron fist and through intimidation. Pre-emptively invoking authority, either tacitly or explicitly as some teachers do, will alienate the students in one's class, even those who initially did want to learn. Engaging students on the otherhand will and does help to reduce disorder in the classroom.

John mentions that the education graduates he knows have no classroom control at all. I don't want to seem pedantic, but that implies a teacher-centred view of teaching/learning. Students need to be at the centre of educational activities for learning to be effective. But the point I want to make is that as a beginning teacher, one has not yet built a repertoire from which to draw upon. While being fresh out of university, armed with the latest theories and principles does not equal expertise, neither does experience in teaching. However, together through reflection in, on and about practice, teaching expertise in general pedagogical and pedagogical content knowledge does develop. So the teething problems in managing a class are, unfortunately, a necessary torture.

Also, in addition to his last comment, Matthew said:
In any model of modern teaching there will be situations where authority can not be questioned and the child understanding why it can not be.

For example teachers are responsible for the health and safety of the children under their care. While these symptoms might be restrictive you have situations where legally teachers must stop children from questioning authority. Again leading to a situation where children are on one hand being told to question authority and on the other being told to follow orders without necessairly knowing the reason why (often because the teachers themselves can't understand and "because the law says so isn't really a decent reasoning when discussing questioning authority".

Questioning authority is quite distinct from open rebellion. I don't think teachers do nor should stop children from questioning authority - well as far as healthy scepticism goes. It may not be practical, but at some stage a teacher would need to explain actions, ideas or paradigms held by the authority - often that's the only avenue for which information like this can reach children. Saying that "because the law says so" is a bit of a cop out, and if a teacher doesn't know why something is, then it's his or her responsibility to find out the intentions or motivations for those law or policy makers and pass that on. A simple thing like that can build trust and respect between student and teacher.

Listening to:
Title: Ocean Breathes Salty
Artist: Modest Mouse
Album/station: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
Length: 3.49