Does chat work?

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Talking about science helps pupils to learn a difficult subject, says Victoria Neumark

Some people enjoy just soaking up facts, but others will also enjoy finding out that science develops when scientists talk to each other - and that's especially true for girls." Brian Matthews, lecturer in science education at Goldsmiths College, London, enthuses over his latest classroom research.

For the past two years, he and a colleague, Joni Sweeney, have been working with Year 7 and 8 classes in two local schools and with two post-16 classes in an FE college to see if talking about science will enable boys to communicate better and girls to be keener on the subject.

Originally aimed at seeing if pupils learning to listen to each other could overcome barriers of sexism and racism, the research has widened to suggest an innovative way of making science more attractive to adolescents. Starting from two basic premises - that science education needs to be more active and that science is a social activity - Mr Matthews and Ms Sweeney have developed a variety of techniques to make pupils more reflective about their own learning.

The results so far are promising, with students' own insights ranging from:

"We decided we worked better today because people interrupted less" to "We agreed on what the problems were and knew what we have to improve on."

Starting off with dividing the class into groups of five - four to work on science and one to observe their interaction - the researchers offered pupils ways to monitor their work. The observer had a sheet to record who talked, who interrupted, who listened and who was supportive.

At the end of the session, all students in the group had to estimate how much talking and listening had been going on and write down their perception of the lesson. A group discussion ensured that each of the two boys and two girls was aware of the opinions of the others, which were then all compared with the observer's notes. Sometimes the evaluation would be teacher-led and centre on written evidence; sometimes feedback discussions would be more impromptu.

Mr Matthews says the students get to know the main points: "Who talks, how often, if they listen, how well they listen, how well they have learned, how well they have talked and what they are going to do next time."

As time went on, the questioning became more sophisticated, looking at how well the boys and girls got on with each other, how well they thought they were learning science. At the end of the year, all students had to fill in a questionnaire.

Although the sample is small and much more work needs to be done, the anecdotal evidence is "very strong". Teachers throughout the schools have commented on how much more pleasant those classes are to teach. The reflective approach seems to dissolve gender barriers.

"You can get more girls interested if you look at social issues," says Mr Matthews.

A typical comment from a female pupil bears this out: "Work is more interesting because you can talk about your own feelings and someone else's." A boy says: "You get to meet different people and get to know them, and sometimes people have a lot more in common, but they don't know it."

Of course, the big question is, how about the science? Lessons may be less boring and girls may feel more fully part of them, but are they learning any physics? Mr Matthews sees this as a false dichotomy. He believes that science must be taught in a social way, partly because all science is collaborative, partly because so many girls who do well at science GCSE abandon the subject at A-level, and partly because pupils who develop social skills learn better - and have a better life.

Above all, he says: "If this method can get more people interested and can get more to do advanced science, if more girls become scientists and science teachers, then that will be proof that social intelligence and scientific understanding can and should enhance each other."

More details from Brain Matthews, department of science education, Goldsmiths College, Lewisham Way, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

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