the Dragonfly journal

An evidence-based approach to science teaching: A vomit free teaching zone

By Alan Jervis - @Alan_Jervis

I believe that we should teach for understanding and not deliver chunks of information to be memorised and carry out experiments from predetermined menus. I call the latter technique ‘vomit teaching’, requiring the student to bring up the correct chunk of information during an examination. Vomit teaching will give limited success but will fail to teach the essence of the scientific process.

A survey of 845 schools by the group Science Community Representing Education (SCORE) highlighted a lack of basic science equipment as ‘acute’. They discovered that only 70% of High Schools had the necessary basic science equipment. Professor Julia Buckingham of Science Community Representing Education said ‘Practical science is a low priority when it comes to allocating budgets’. The survey found that levels of equipment were the poorest for biology, 37% of schools reporting too little equipment for effective practical work. 60% said they did not enough items such as thermometers and ph. monitors, and 40% of schools and sixth form colleges reported a lack of magnets. It raises the concern that over 80% of state funded schools do not usually allocate part of the science budget specifically for practical work.

Student’s need to be given opportunities for experimenting on their own and to engage in detailed discussion. Science should be shown as a connected web of knowledge, in which something learnt in one place proves useful somewhere else, and something discovered later throws light on a previously encountered mystery. I want students to think for themselves, learning science as they go. I do not believe that there is much of a gain in scientific understanding by memorising chunks of information. There is much discovered by struggling with an experiment, as gained by arriving at the right answer. It is more important to discuss several rival answers to a question and discover that there may be multiple explanations than to follow an experimental menu without really understanding it.

I believe the cornerstone of students understanding of science concepts is their own investigation work. Professional scientists devise their own experiments, meeting difficulties as well as successes, trying things out with a watchful eye and an evaluative mind. Our students should do the same, as they need this hands-on experience. They need time and encouragement, but not over-detailed instruction, because they need to feel that it is their experiment and so learn by their mistakes as well as their successes. They need to experience the thrill of being a ‘Sherlock Holmes’, finding the clues, applying creative reasoning and assessing the reliability.

We should encourage students to look at the evidence as well as looking for the evidence. They should be supported in examining how valid and reliable their findings are. They should see science as building models through imaginative thinking. We are then teaching the scientific process.

The end of each block of learning will be characterised by an examination of the part played by theory in backing up the scientific process. In this way, science teaching is much more than delivering a block of information, it is something for the intellect making demands on students to stretch and challenge.

We need to devise questions which draw upon deep understanding of age appropriate science. Such questions can be found at any level of science. The accumulation of confidence and skill which answering such questions bring, can nurture an interest in the scientific process. When a student does his or her own investigation, and has real ownership of the process, then they will learn much more from it. I encourage students to work on their own, to solve their own problems, discuss their findings with other students and share possible conclusions. I avoid giving the right answer they seek, and praise wrong answers arrived at through serious work, it is hard to remain silent during investigation work and resist giving explanations that will ruin the mystery.

Some faster students will move ahead so we need additional questions so they can investigate further and share their findings with all. For a slower student, repetition may be valuable in backing up the knowledge gaining process. Such differentiation is invaluable, but difficult to manage. It is more valuable than all students following the same menu of instructions under the same tight time restraints.

Marianne Cutler of the Association for Science Education said that the lack of funding for science equipment was a source of frustration for many teachers. Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head teachers said ‘practical science skills are vital for an understanding of scientific method for many careers’ adding ‘it is not just the lack of equipment, however that stands in the way, but a lack of time in a crowded but narrow curriculum’. A spokesperson for the Department for Education said, ‘SCORE is right that practical work is essential for high-quality science teaching. The best schools teach science as a practical as well as theoretical subject’.

The special contribution science makes to the curriculum is its process. The vast majority of students will not become professional scientists. It is the process that will help a bank worker solve a cheque mystery; the process will help a plumber find a solution to a low pressure boiler; it is the process that will help a doctor isolate a disease and it is the process that will help an family decide on a suitable replacement car.

I hope this information is beneficial to you, but if you want to come along and see me deliver Science courses for @Dragonfly_Edu then have a look at whats on offer:

I look forward to seeing you.