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Mind the gap

Ann Benson reports on an attempt to let trainee-teachers in science and maths share ideas by computer conference

So why haven't teachers done something about it already?" No, this isn't a comment from an impatient parent or a stressed school governor. It's from a student science teacher during her postgraduate training year.

It was her response to finding the mismatch in the mathematical demands of the national curriculum's programmes of study for science and maths. She was yet to discover the limitations put on teachers' control of the national curriculum.

But for a trainee science teacher to have considered the impact of the national curriculum for maths on the teaching and learning of science was - and still is - uncommon. Rarer still are opportunities for science and maths trainee teachers to discuss the teaching and learning of each other's curriculum domains.

Yet science and maths are inextricably linked. How many science teachers have felt the need to teach the maths as well as the science so that children can handle equations? And how many maths teachers have wished to develop their pupils' mathematical skills using scientific data collected during maths lessons, so as to bring their subject to life?

The boundary between the two domains is hazy - if it exists at all. But in the vast majority of teacher-training institutions, liaison between science and maths student teachers and their trainers is unusual, mainly because of the pressure of time.

The Open University's postgraduate student teachers are all equipped with computers and communicate with each other, their course tutors and OU staff by means of electronic conferencing. As the academic responsible for the OU PGCE science course, I found the idea of using electronic conferencing to bring science and maths students together quuite irresistible. My maths counterpart, Michelle Selinger, was just as enthusiastic.

So we decided to stimulate our students with a compilation of perspectives on the science-maths relationship. This was "posted" to a computer-generated electronic conference, from which students downloaded and read at their convenience.

We invited our students to explore their own experiences of learning science and maths, the controversial servant-master dimension of the science-maths relationship, research on the relationship of pupils' achievements in science and maths, and their own and qualified teachers' teaching experiences.

Students were invited to share their thinking with one another. We emphasised that there were no preconceived "correct" viewpoints about the science-maths relationship. The computer-mediated conference was open for students' responses one week after the compilation posting.

We reckoned there would be enough momentum to sustain the electronic conference for two weeks. We underestimated. The conference was eventually closed after seven weeks, primarily because students were then embarking on their period of school experience and would have limited time for logging on for electronic communication. However, the nature of electronic conferencing is such that it was possible to leave the students' responses to the compilation and their interactions with each other for others to read at a later date.

So what did the whole computer-mediated conference achieve and what did it facilitate that could not have been happened as a result of calling a meeting or running several workshops for science and maths PGCE students?

Student teachers' thinking was developed in terms of teaching science in maths lessons and the mathematical demands of teaching science, and many students felt others had influenced their thoughts. Indeed a high spot in the conference was when the maths and science students talked about what they needed to teach to pupils aged 11-16, and discovered for themselves the mismatch in the mathematical demands of national curriculum science and maths.

The great advantage for the students was the technology's flexibility. Students could dip into the conference, read a contribution and then explore the associated issues in texts and by discussion with school-based tutors. They could reflect and then, when ready, could themselves contribute - and in so doing aid the development of their own and their fellow students' thinking.

Responses were thus in many cases more considered than they would have been in a traditional discussion. What's more, the contributions are now electronically stored and available for a range of activities, including access by future cohorts of students and researchers.

What was particularly useful to us as teachers was that we could tell, from tracing the computer-stored histories of the contributions, who wrote what and who read what. That gave us an insight into what individual students had been thinking about, providing us with an invaluable resource to promote our students' learning. But the greatest reward was the high level of student participation.

Several students stayed on line with their computers after qualifying and continue to talk to each other at times convenient to them from their homes or schools. Perhaps that is the most useful outcome of the computer-mediated conference. It paved the way for a continuing collaboration of science and maths teachers to bridge the gap between their disciplines.

* Ann Benson has recentlystarted as science education lecturer at the University of Bristol. She was formerly lecturer in education(science) at the OU.

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