Saturday, 9 June 2012

something from the pgce days

Raising attainment through enjoyment in Science: A review

Learner attitude towards science seems to change as they progress through the key stages. One theory is that this change is a dip downwards due to the way in which they are taught in key stage 3 and how it differs to what they are used to from key stage 2 (Galton 2002). Galton’s paper talks about how key stage 3 had at the time of writing not changed much over the years and as a result it was a culture shock to the learners as they moved up from their primary schools. He advocated a change in pedagogy rather than changing the curriculum in order to provide more continuity to these learners. The idea being that potential scientists were having bad experiences adjusting in a new school and so being put off the subject group at the beginning of their secondary education. Another slightly different view is that learner opinion of science changes continually throughout their secondary education. This leads to the notion that there is not one hard or fast point at which a learner might be put off science but that the balance is much more finely struck and that the final choice whether to pursue science at post 16 is not made until the learner has to make it (Cleaves, 2005). This scenario seems more realistic considering that science is a core subject that learners are unable to drop until they leave school. It is worth considering that many learners may choose to drop science when they choose their options if they had the choice. Whether this is due to a lack of interest in the subject or because they do not see it as being a subject which is relevant, an issue that apparently exists with history and geography (Adey and Biddulph, 2001), would require further study (although there is a push in science to constantly make links to everyday life). However as there is now a level of choice with regard different paths that a learner can take within school science (triple award, BTEC etc) maybe not having a choice as a reason for a drop in science is no longer a valid point to consider?

It is suggested that one reason why there is a negative attitude towards science is because the idea of challenge (this being defined containing a cognitive or metacognitive component combined with an interest component (Baird et al.1990)) seems to diminish as learners progress through the key stages (Baird and Penna 1997). It is possible that this lack of interesting components as learners approach the ‘business end’ of their school careers begins to move them away from an enjoyment of the subject. This is the notion that the results achieved become more important than the subject being taken. A different idea is that learner’s enjoyment of the subject is not based on their experiences in school but the learner’s background. An extensive study into this by Gorard and See (2009) found that there was a distinct difference between the participation of learners from different economic backgrounds (the lower the economic backgrounds the lower the participation level) however they were unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation for this trend. It was suggested that previous attainment was a factor. That learner’s who did better in key stage 2 were willing to try harder in key stage 3 and so on. This would go against the findings of Galton who claims that it is a more universal drop off, where as the drop being based on previous attainment seems more specific.

The idea that students need challenges is supported by other literature as Covington (2000) wrote a detailed review of goal theory. The idea being that there is a strong link between the will of a learner to work hard and the perceived goals at the end of the task. Whilst this is hardly a groundbreaking finding what was really interesting is that learners seemed to place just as much emphasis on social goals as well as academic goals. A report on learners in P.E. (Carroll and Loumidis, 2001) found that whilst learner enjoyment tended to be similar across the board the attainment level was higher in those learners who invested significant extra time outside of school in the relevant sports, other papers not included here also seem to find similar trends in P.E.. Again however this is not exactly a groundbreaking finding, people who do more sport tend to be better than those who do less, but it does have implications in science. Surely if you could increase the time spent on skills then the learners will get better at what you are doing. In the context of ideas and evidence and how science works there is plenty of scope to perform investigations – which could be dressed up as challenges to the learners – in order so that they all know the difference between continuous and discreet data, that they understand what an independent variable and can present data in an informative way.

The question then becomes two fold. Firstly could improving enjoyment of a subject have a positive effect on results and secondly how can this be achieved? This is especially important as learners attitudes towards science can be based on who their teachers are, the gender of the learner, which curriculum they are following, in short it many different things (Osborne et al. 2003).

Pell (1985) found that those learners who were enjoying their physics lessons also were the ones who performed better. Unfortunately he didn’t say whether he tried different teaching methods to increase the enjoyment or maintain the learner’s interest. It sounds as though he taught the course as he would normally have done and then charted how they enjoyed the lessons and correlated this against their results. Enjoyment of a subject in general is shown to increase the attainment level (Osbourne et al. 2003, Howard- Jones et al. 2002, Gorard and See 2010) This leaves a big question as to whether Pell’s teaching style could have been altered in order to raise the enjoyment and thus the attainment of some of his other learner’s.

One way to increase enjoyment is to use Baird’s definition of challenge in a competition. Competitions in science can easily be implemented and with the increase in coursework based courses they can naturally be added without seeming to be ‘tacked on’ or for the sake of it. Competition is important as it piques interest and because the result is not set learners have been shown to be more receptive and harder working during a competition (Howard-Jones et al. 2002). However it is not practical or beneficial to use competitions every lesson! It is also common for there to be minimal exposition from the class teacher to promote learners to become more proactive with their learning, something which is encouraged and supposed to help raise attainment (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006). Harris (1990) developed a theoretical model of self regulated learners in order to improve learners behaviour and work ethic however Kirschner et al. (2006) state that minimal instructions are actually to the detriment of a learners ability to perform a task. As such tasks should always be properly scaffolded (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976) so that the learner is able to accurately achieve what is being set them, even if the task is meant to be a learner based challenge.

Providing frequent and encouraging feedback also has been shown to be benefit to learners in raising their attainment (Black and William 1998) and this would be especially important with those learners who may be having a difficult time with science because of background, current attainment level or difficulty adapting to a new school. Other ideas to improve enjoyment of science include putting trainee secondary teachers into primary schools to teach some key science skills (Murphy et al 2004). This makes some sense if we consider that it not only improves the teaching of the trainee teachers, but also gives the learners a taste of how secondary teaching might be undertook. Both of these ideas would help to lower the effect of changing school that Galton comments on.  

It is established that enjoyment is linked to attainment. Generally people who enjoy a subject do tend to perform better than those who do not. However what is meant by enjoyment is highly subjective (Lumby 2010). Most pupils seem to agree that in order to increase enjoyment can be increased by variation in lessons, a positive demeanour from the teacher and giving the learners some control over their learning (Gorard and See 2010).

Providing variation, making sure there is some form of challenge and allowing the learners to take ownership of their education are the key things to take away from this review. It appears that efforts to create one ‘catch all’ model are not sufficient. It is the opinion of the author that different groups have different needs and that a teacher should very quickly be able to see what works for a class. In this way lessons can be planned that are both challenging and rewarding for learners, whilst also allowing the learners to enjoy learning about science which should improve their attainment.

Chris Gibson

Words: 1,530


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