Developing my use of science enquiry

It goes without saying that good science teaching involves getting the students to act as scientists, writes Andrea Mapplebeck of Formative Education…. Or does it?

I was lucky enough last year to be able to attend the Association for Science Education’s (ASE) Professional Learning Conference for science teacher educators where questions about the importance of practical work were discussed by a number of eminent figures in science education. Changes to GCSEs and how practical work is going to be assessed within them is currently something at the forefront of a lot of educators’ minds.

What is good practice in science enquiry?

One session in particular that made me think involved Jonathan Osborne debating the importance and nature of practical work in science with Paul Black. There were a number of questions asked in the session by the presenters that challenged the audience. The questions that really got me thinking were: Why do we do so much practical work in science? Is it the best use of school science time? What are examples of good practice?

It became evident that both educators were in favour of effective practical work, where effective meant that the practical work was meaningful and engaging for the learner and not the type that we would class as “recipe following”.

They stated that the purpose of practical work is to provide learners with first hand illustrations of phenomena and an experience of what it means to engage in the whole process of enquiry. Additionally, it allows creative thinking and the generation of students’ ideas in order to help them understand the world around them.

These ideas are something I have come across before and used in projects such as “Getting Practical”. However, the idea that really resonated with me was around one of the key examples provided of good practice. It was a statement given by Jonathan Osborne that “good science is either awesome or completely disturbing”.

What I think he was suggesting is that good science enquiry involves the students investigating questions, either from teachers or their own, that are interesting to them with the intention that this type of practical will stimulate their natural curiosity enough to lead on to them acting as researchers to answer their questions.

Making questions that are interesting to students

Crawford (in Chwee et al., 2012) discusses the idea that questions that students investigate should have importance to their lives and stimulate a meaningful and authentic learning experience. In other words, authenticity to the learner does not necessarily mean that the topic is of cutting-edge importance to research scientists. Rather, she argues, it could be something that is relevant to learners in the places where they live or to the lives that they are leading.

Crawford argues that questions should be relevant as children have a good sense that “made-up” scientific questions, designed only for classroom use, are just that — prefabricated and decontextualised exercises that strive to teach scientific facts and procedures, with little regard to the learner. A key aspect of this approach is that the findings from children’s investigations may not revolutionise the scientific world, but the experience may revolutionise learners’ thinking.

Interestingly, I am coming to the end of my own PhD study where I have been looking at the characteristics of oral teacher feedback that move forward student learning in a science classroom. When I have asked students what the teacher has said that has helped them learn, a significant number have stated it is when the teacher asks them questions that make them think and doesn’t provide them with answers.

As one interviewed pair of students put it, “rather than being like spoon-fed the answer, you have to try and find it your own way. I probably wouldn’t remember it if he just told me unless I had to think.”

Questions, a work in progress

In my role as a CPD facilitator working with teachers who are looking to make practical work more effective, we have been trying to create questions that:

  • are interesting to learners — something they are “bothered” about and that is relevant to their lives

  • are meaningful — something learners want to investigate and find the answer to

  • learners can apply their ideas and thinking to.

Some examples of some of the questions we have come up with are the following.

  • How can you see around corners?

  • Can we make a rainbow in the classroom?

  • How can we make the stage lights for our school play?

  • How would you survive in a rainforest?

  • Who is the fittest teacher? (in terms of respiration and lung capacity!)

  • How can we get this plank of wood to lift two students using only one finger?

These are still a work in progress and need refining. However, the process of thinking up these types of questions is one that I, along with the teachers I work with, have enjoyed and learned from.

This is echoed by the work of Crawford (in Chwee et al., 2012) where she discusses how, when teachers are given the opportunity to participate in authentic science, they demonstrate greater confidence in enacting enquiry-based instruction in their classrooms and their enthusiasm increases. This impacts on their students as they become more motivated and engaged in lessons. So the use of interesting, meaningful questions that can be investigated is of benefit to both students and teachers.

Not only did the talks at the conference provide me with food for thought, they also reaffirmed to me the importance of professional development. Without this opportunity to step back and hear from others I don’t think I would have spent quite as much time as I have thinking about the ideas that they discussed and subsequently trying to adapt and improve my own teaching for the benefit of the teachers I work with and the students they teach.

So the challenge for me is turning the uninteresting, irrelevant practicals into these types of investigations. As I said, a work in progress.

Further reading

  • Chwee, K., Tan, D. and Kim, M., eds (2012), Issues and Challenges in Science Education Research: Moving Forward.Springer, ISBN: 978-94-007-3979-6 (Print) 978-94-007-3980-2 (Online)