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Discussions lift science standards

Factual recall may help exam results but does little for conceptual understanding. Adi Bloom reports

CONVENTIONAL SCIENCE LESSONS teach pupils to recall facts without equipping them to apply this knowledge to different scientific situations, according to a study which recommends a new way to teach the subject.

Researchers from the universities of York, Leeds, Southampton and King's College, London, examined teaching approaches for secondary science, observing lessons in 17 classes at local schools.

They said: "There is a widely held perception among science teachers that current testing regimes rely excessively upon questions requiring factual recall.

"Current testing practices may result in an over-estimation of pupils' conceptual understanding in science."

The study suggested that teachers adopt a new approach to science lessons. A sequence of between four and six lessons were used to teach topics that pupils traditionally struggled with. These included plant nutrition, electric circuits and particle change in matter.

Each sequence began with the introduction of a new idea or concept. The teacher would convey this idea to the class, using either a whiteboard presentation or a whole-class discussion, both led from the front.

The researchers said: "The belief that science teachers should do more discussion in lessons, and that teacher-led whole-class interaction is somehow bad, has gained currency in some circles recently. We take the view that different forms of teacher-pupil talk are useful for different purposes."

This teacher-led presentation was followed by a discussion, during which the teacher would listen to pupils' ideas about the concept being introduced. This was conducted using open questions, such as "What do you think about this?", in whole-class or small group settings.

Finally, pupils were encouraged to discuss their nascent ideas on the topic, either in pairs or in small groups. The teacher helped them in this process by asking key questions and answering their enquiries.

After learning a topic in this way, pupils were asked to sit a test designed to evaluate their understanding of the new knowledge. The test included questions that required straightforward factual recall as well as those which required the application of scientific concepts.

The answers these pupils gave to the factual questions were as accurate as those given by pupils taught conventionally. But they performed significantly better in the questions that required application of knowledge. In all but two cases, their scores were between 20 and 74 per cent higher than those of the other pupils.

The researchers concluded that if standards in science are to be improved, science teachers need to focus more effectively on conveying conceptual understanding, rather than factual content. Professional development courses are therefore needed.

They said: "Implementation of carefully designed teaching approaches, particularly when linked to systematic continued professional development, has the potential to lead to widespread improvement of pupils' understanding of key science concepts."

* j.t.leach@education.leeds.ac.uk

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