Small changes can make a huge difference

Over the past few years I have been constantly changing the way I teach due to introduction of 1:1 laptop initiatives in some classes and a continually-developing understanding of how students learn. In a lot of cases it has involved turning things upside down and completely rewriting units of work. This is tiring. Worth it but tiring. But I found out recently that small, minor changes can make a huge difference too. The Student Research Project (SRP) has been around since I was in high school. It’s an oldie but a goodie. The SRP involves students planning, doing and reporting on an experiment of their choice. It is a compulsory activity for all Year 7-10 students in NSW, Australia. Each student must do at least one SRP once in Year 7 and 8, and another one in Year 9 and 10. By doing the SRP, students learn how to design a fair experiment, a must-have skill for all scientists! See here for more info on the SRP.

It was the Year 8’s turn to do the SRP in September this year. The traditional way of doing the SRP is for students to choose an experiment, plan it, do it and then submit a written report. This year my faculty decided to revamp it and not just rehash the status quo. However this didn’t involve major changes that would stress everyone out. It involved a few tweaks that would have the most impact. Like always we gave students the choice of whatever experiment they wanted. My class were doing experiments ranging from water absorption of different types of soils to whether particular types of video games would improve people’s reaction times to using Gary’s Mod to run a simulated experiment. However instead of forcing students to do a written report, we decided to let students choose how to present their SRP findings in whatever medium they wanted. Some students still chose to submit a written report (but by sharing it as a Google document to make the feedback process more efficient) while other students chose to create Prezis or videos. Students had to justify why their chosen medium would be the most effective in communicating their findings to others. At the conclusion of the SRP, students shared their findings with their class over a two-day conference, just like real scientists.

In the presentations I would usually get students to give each other feedback (one medal and one mission) by writing it down on a piece of paper, which I will take home and collate and then give back to students. This was a really inefficient way of doing it. Students had to wait at least 24 hours to get peer feedback and it took me time to type of the students’ feedback. This time I decided to create a backchannel on Edmodo that students used to give feedback to each presenter. Students did this by using laptops. A designated student had the role of creating a post for each presenter and then the whole class will reply to that post with a medal and mission for the presenter. Doing it this way meant that the presenter got the feedback as soon as they finished presenting; they didn’t have to wait till the next day after I’ve collated the class’ feedback. Students really liked the immediacy of the feedback they got from the Edmodo backchannel. There was also one student who made a video for his SRP, but he was ill over the two days of the presentations. His video was still shown and he was able to receive feedback on it at home from his peers via the Edmodo backchannel.

A sample of the Edmodo backchannel

So just with a little of tweaking, the good ol’ SRP has been thrusted into the 21st century. I didn’t have to completely re-write it or turn it upside down. Just by adding Google docs, more student choice and Edmodo, the SRP was made a million times better for students as a learning process. From the end-of-term evaluations, many students from across all Year 8 classes identified the SRP to be their favourite activity this term because it gave them choice, it let them use technology and they learnt by doing.

Next time I’d like to have students sharing their findings with a global audience, or at least with an audience beyond their class. But one small step at a time 🙂

Using video as evidence of learning

Today my Year 8s used lollies and toothpicks to model elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures. This isn’t anything new. Lots of teachers and students have done this before. However, I decide to allow students to film themselves explaining how the lolly models they made represent elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures as evidence of learning. For one group, I decided to record a question-and-answer conversation on my iPad.

The video showed that this student understood to a certain extent how particles are arranged in elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures. The student did accurately use the lollies for this, but upon questioning, she was confused about how many different types of particles made up her lolly models of compounds and mixtures.

I’d like this type of evidence of learning to be prominent in schools. As a system I think we rely too heavily on written exams and assignments to elicit student understanding of concepts. Having videos such as the one shown above is much more powerful to give feedback to students and to use as evidence of learning. Eventually I’d like each of teacher in my faculty to a collection of videos like this for professional discussions on our students’ learning.

What do students think of their learning?

Student voice is something that I really value. In the perfect world students would have a complete say in what they learn and how they learn. But in the meantime the confines of syllabuses I still like to give my students a say in the learning that’s happening in the classroom. What things do they like learning about? How do they like to learn? Is what they are learning too difficult or too easy? What parts of the classroom learning design do they think needs improvement? What can I do as their teacher to make learning better for them?

My Year 8 class gave their feedback on their learning this week as Term 2 in NSW, Australia drew to a close. Here’s what they thought:

infographic of evaluation results

 

The main topic we studied in Term 2 was called Water Water Everywhere, which is essentially using the particle model to explain the properties of solids, liquids and gases and why one state of matter changes to another when energy is added or removed from the system. This topic is probably one of the most difficult and often disengaging topic for students because it involves an abstract concept. The particle model lends itself to a lot of student misconceptions and is generally something students find difficult to understand, which I have discussed in a previous post. To overcome this the learning was designed so to involve lots of interesting hands-on experiences such as making quicksand and using technology for students to increase their conceptual understanding and allow their misconceptions to be picked more and addressed more frequently.

From the students’ feedback, scientific metalanguage was emphasised as an area they thought needed improvement, so next topic there will be more activities that emphasise the use of scientific metalanguage.

What I also find interesting is students’ decisions on whether they will continue with Science in the post-compulsory years of schooling. What I find particularly interesting is that quite a few students who consistently say they find the learning in Year 8 science fun, interesting and related to the real world, do not want to study science in Year 11 & 12 because their chosen career does not need science. There seems to be a perception with my Year 8s that science in Year 11 and 12 are for people who want to be scientists. This perception is also found in evaluations completed by Year 9 and 10 students.

So one of my challenges for the rest of the year is how am I going to design the learning for these students value science and view it as important to learn, even though they aren’t going to pursue a career in science.

The future of science education in Australia – there is an elephant is in the room and no one is looking

When I took on my first Year 11 physics class in 2007, I remember saying this to a colleague:

“I do so many things to make science interesting in Year 7-10. But when it comes to Year 11 and 12, it all goes out the window. It’s just about learning the dot points.”

I was reiterating what many senior science teachers feel – science in the senior years of high school is mostly about passing on content, making sure students can remember the content and pass the exam so they can get into the university course they want. (Note: I still do engaging activities with my senior students. I just have less time to do it)

This is one of the major findings in the report “The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools”. The report indicated that science in the senior years of high school is mostly taught via the traditional transmission model, driven by the perception of teachers and students that the purpose of Year 11 and 12 science is to get them into university and prepare them for university. According to the report this has made the senior science curricular cramped with so much content that teachers don’t feel like they have enough time to integrate the social aspects of science and students feel they don’t have enough time to think about what they are learning. These quotes from students in the report sums up how students feel about science as they progress through high school:

“Science just got harder and harder … it went from like fun and exciting to like boring and numbers.”

“There is a major difference [between junior and senior science]. In junior they had to make it fun and interesting otherwise we just wouldn’t have done it.”

 

While the report pointed out that junior science is more about scientific literacy rather than just content, and allows more flexibility to make it more engaging, the report did indicate that the transmission model of teaching has filtered down to junior science in for some students, perhaps in order to prepare students for senior science.

Some other interesting points of the report are:

For students who don’t chose not to study science in year 11 and 12:

  • Many of these students like science and think learning about science is important
  • These students often had negative experiences in year 7 to 10 science, but still think science is important to learn
  • Some of these students have been counselled against studying science in year 11 and 12 because teachers and career advisers think it is too difficult for them and will not help their university entrance score

For students who do choose to study science in year 11 and 12:

  • The majority of these students indicate that the purpose of year 11  and 12 science is to get into a university course they want to apply for and/or meet prerequisite requirements set by universities
  • These students also think that science is enjoyable to learn

So the trends are showing that many students have an intrinsic interest in science and think it is important, but they are turned off from studying science.

The report made several recommendations including:

  • Setting a realistic amount of content in senior science courses so that the social aspects of science and science inquiry skills can be included
  • Making junior science more interesting by using an inquiry based approach where learning has authentic contexts and audiences

I wholly agree with the second recommendation. However it seems to me that the report in general appears to be avoiding the elephant in the room – that a summative, high stakes, university entrance exam is possibly driving pedagogy in year 11 and 12 science and unless that changes, it will continue to do so. The report findings such as an overcrowded curriculum, students copying notes from the board and a focus on memorisation, are typical teaching strategies that result from trying to maximise scores in high stakes exams.

The report overall asks this question: “Are we as a nation content that only half our senior secondary students are studying science?”

 

I would like to ask these questions instead:

  •  If year 11 and 12 science is to prepare students for university, when did universities say they wanted students who spend most of their time copying notes, memorising a lot of facts and not have enough time to think about what they are doing? How does this prepare them for university?

 

  •  Are we as nation content with our future scientists and innovators being prepared to solve the complex problems of the 21st century by being encouraged and rewarded for low level thinking?

 

  • If we reduce the amount of content in year 11 and 12 science would it have any impact on the way it is taught if there is still a high stakes university entrance exam?

 

Perhaps there should be a recommendation of getting rid of university entrance exams as they currently are and look at alternative models of university entry. Without the exam, students will be able to learn science for the love of science and not as a means to an end.