3 reasons why students are switching off science

There is a decline in student interest in science. Just type “students decline science” and hundreds of articles will come up of students not choosing to study science in post-compulsory schooling in countries like Australia, USA and the UK. At a time where technology is rapidly increasing and the world is facing issues like climate change, rapid rates of extinction, water shortage and food shortage, it is worrying to see students switching off science.

What I find more concerning is my observations that kids love watching science YouTube channels at home in their own time, but they are not enjoying school science. Something is wrong. While the reasons below for why students are switching off science are not validated by any research data, they are inklings that I have based on observations of students and numerous student surveys completed at my school on their engagement in science.

Reason #1 – Science teachers rely too much on whiz-bang experiments to make science interesting

I think every science teacher is guilty of this. I certainly am. We often use showy experiments for entertainment to keep students engaged. Instead of promoting our subject as intrinsically interesting, we use colourful and bubbly experiments to “trick” students into liking science. How many times do we have students walk into a science lab and ask “are we doing an experiment today” and groan when the answer is no. Of course experiments have a place in science, but science isn’t about setting things on fire or making things explode. Science is a way of thinking and aligns with humans’ natural curiosity of understanding of the world around us. I think we have pushed science as a subject of fire and explosions for so long that this is what students expect and they are disappointed when a unit of work or a series of lessons do not have experiments.

Reason #2 – Science lessons often do not allow all students to experience some success

In NSW, Australia, Year 8 students do a state-wide test called Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA). At the end of ESSA, students are asked to rank their favourite subjects. Since 2006, year after year the results show students like PDHPE and Visual Art the most. My gut feeling is that these subjects allow ALL students to experience some success. In Visual Art, it doesn’t matter if you are a not-so-good painter or if you are as brilliant as Picasso, every single student is able to produce an artwork, which is showcased. Same with PDHPE, it doesn’t matter how bad or good you are at sport, every single student have been part of a team that has won a game and experienced the excitement of success. Not so in science. In many science lessons, students don’t produce anything that can be showcased. Only a handful of student who are “good” at science feel success. A lot of students think they are “bad” at science. This is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of project based learning (PBL). PBL enables students to create a product that shows their learning and they showcase that product to an authentic audience. This give students a sense of success.

Reason #3 – Students don’t know the careers that science can lead to

Not many students see scientists in their everyday lives. They see bankers, accountants, lawyers but they rarely see scientists or associate jobs with science. In the surveys at my school, the most common reason given for not wanting to study science in post-compulsory schooling is that they don’t need science for their job or career. While we as science teachers know that many jobs and careers require some understanding of science, do our students know? Do we link our students to current practicing scientists so they can what they learn in school is actually used in people’s jobs in real life?

At my school we have been pushing for connections with university pHd students and current scientists. Through the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), our students have been lucky enough to go to the university regularly and hear about current research conducted pHd students and meet scientists face-to-face and know that science can lead to a fulfilling career. We have utlised the scientists in schools program to have a scientist come to talk to our students about what she does in her everyday job and why finds her job fun and rewarding. We also ask parents to come to school and speak to our students. This year, we had a parent who works in the communications industry speak to our students about his job, how it requires an understanding of energy transmission and waves and how much he loves his job.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

And has all this gotten results? Many of our year 10 students apply to attend UTS summer school where they can choose from film, design, science, IT and health over the Christmas holidays. In previous years I have struggled to get any students to apply for the science summer school. Everyone wanted to film and design. After a couple of years of connecting students with university science students and real scientists, we have 12 students apply for science summer school this year.

As we are entering the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum in NSW, it is time that science teachers re-think HOW we teach science and how can we work with the scientific community to increase student engagement in science.

 

School holidays – the perfect time to learn from other schools

“I don’t know why you would even think about going near any school while you’re on holidays”

This is what one teacher said to me when I told them that I was going to spend half a day visiting a school during the school holidays. At the moment it is the Term 3 school holidays in New South Wales, Australia. For me teaching isn’t something I can switch off. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my down time and I think this down time is important for all teachers’ wellbeing. But I personally like to take advantage of the school holidays and use the time to visit schools that are outside the NSW public education system. Especially schools that are drastically different to the one I currently teach in because what I’ve learnt is that almost every school faces a similar set of challenges whether it is student engagement, student wellbeing or finding ways to develop students higher-order thinking. I find that when I visit schools that have different circumstances than my own, I am exposed to different solutions that I can adapt to my own school and my own classes.

Over the past two years I have been able to visit schools outside of New South Wales and outside of Australia, and they have been some of the best professional learning I have ever had. While some of these visits were done during term time, most visits were done during school holidays. Here are some of the schools I’ve visited and what I’ve learnt from them.

During my time with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning team in 2012, I was able to travel to Auckland, New Zealand and visit Ferguson Intermediate School and Howick College. These two schools kick-started my journey and my faculty’s journey into using the Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) framework, learning intentions and success criteria to design learning for the new science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. Howick College is also where I saw the fantastic Julia Breen and got ideas from her on how to use green screens in student-produced videos.

I took a week of without pay from school in December 2012 and travelled to London and visited ACS International School, Egham. I ‘met’ the Principal of ACS International School, Egham online via LinkedIn and he was kind enough to take time out to show me his school for half a day. I was also privileged enough to speak to their Head of Science and observed a part of a middle school science lesson. During this visit I learnt more about the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program and how technology was integrated into the school’s middle years science program.

Just last week I was able to visit two schools in Canberra – Brindabella Christian College and Dickson College. I was able to further connect with two passionate educators who are part of my online professional learning network on Twitter, Melanie Spencer and Betty Chau. From these schools I took away ideas for learning space design, how to drive change and how to further develop the digital leaders team at my own school.

Visiting other schools is one of the best professional learning that I undertake. If you’re a teacher and you have some spare time in the school holidays, ask another school if you can visit them and then return the favour to them 🙂

Incidentally I am planning to travel to Tokyo, Japan in the April school holidays in 2014. Would love any suggestions of schools in Tokyo that I can visit.

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.

Leading learning design with SOLO

A photo of resources for designing learning for new syllabus

I led my science faculty in using structured observed learning outcomes (SOLO) to design learning for the new NSW science syllabus over the past two days. Like all other NSW schools, we are spending this year preparing for the implementation of new syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum. As a faculty we felt that this was a great opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of our current teaching and learning practices. We are using the new syllabus as a driver of change in teaching and learning.

We decided to use SOLO as the framework to design learning for the new syllabus. Why did we choose SOLO? One of the main reasons is that the Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA) uses SOLO to assess students’ understanding. ESSA is a state-wide science assessment that is completed by all Year 8 students from NSW government schools. An analysis of the trend data shows we needed to work on moving students from being able to recall scientific information to making relationships with this information and then applying this information to real world situations. Another reason why we chose to use SOLO is because it makes learning visible to students and teachers when it is accompanied by learning intentions and success criteria. Learning intentions and success criteria help students focus on the purpose of learning activities rather than just merely completing work. They also help enhance students’ self regulation.

So the two days played out like this:

(1)    Getting everyone on the same page

We started the two days by analysing where our students currently are and where we want to move our students in their learning and achievements. Why SOLO was explored. We used a KWHLAQ table to do this.

 (2)    Drawing out main concepts from the syllabus

We decided to program a unit on human health and diseases first. We familiarised ourselves with the relevant sections of the syllabus and brainstormed all the concepts, ideas and facts that students needed to understand. Individually we wrote each concept, idea and fact onto post-it notes and stuck them on the whiteboard. As a team we sorted the post-it notes into logical categories.

 (3)    Classifying into SOLO categories

We then classified each concept, idea and fact into SOLO categories. We decided to have 3 SOLO categories:

  • Level 1 – unistructural and multistructural
  • Level 2 – relational
  • Level 3 – extended abstract

IMG_4162

 (4)    Assigning SOLO verbs

We assigned SOLO verbs for each concept, idea and fact.

Level 1
Uni/multistructural
Level 2
Relational
Level 3
Extended abstract
Describe
Identify
Name
List
Follow a simple procedure
Compare and contrast
Explain causes
Sequence
Analyse
Relate
Form an analogy
Apply
Criticise
Evaluate
Predict
Hypothesise
Reflect
Generate
Formulate
CreateJustify

 (5)    Creating learning intentions and success criteria

We created learning intentions and success criteria based on the verbs for each category.

 (6)    Teaching and learning activities

We split up into three teams to design teaching and learning activities that will allow students to meet the success criteria.

We also designed an assessment task gives students an authentic context to learn this unit.

What next?

We are still in the progress of completing the unit and I will share it once it is completed. Meanwhile some of our next steps will also include

  • using SOLO for feedback and feedforward
  • working with our school’s PDHPE faculty to see whether we can make this into a cross-curricular unit and assessment

It will be great to get some feedback on how we are going so far in using SOLO to design learning.

Learning about learning from the London Underground

I am currently on holidays in London. London is a fairly easy city to get around if you speak English fluently, but I have an extremely bad sense of direction (I sometimes still get lost in my hometown of Sydney). I am just someone who just takes a little longer when getting my bearings with a new place.

I am in London with my partner. He has an extremely good sense of direction and learns his way around new places quickly.In London, he has been the one leading the way from our hotel to the nearest underground station, Southwark. He has been the one figuring out which stations we need to change at and which colour lines we need to go on. I’ve just been daydreaming while following him. Even though I have walked from the hotel to the Southwark station many times, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how to get there. I looked like I knew what I was doing, and I was successful at getting from A to B, but really I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even bother looking at or carrying a map of the Tube, because I knew I didn’t have to use it. I can just follow my partner.

Today my partner was sick. While he was resting in the hotel room, I ventured out into London city by myself for the first time. The first thing I noticed was that there were orange light poles that pointed to where Southwark station was, telling you when to keep walking straight and when to turn a corner. I never noticed these before. I made it to Southwark station without getting lost at all. I wanted to get to the British Natural History Museum and worked out I needed to change at Westminster station for the green district line. I was much more aware of signs that gave clues to where I was supposed to go. If I was with my partner, I would never have noticed those signs because there was no need to notice them.

This experience has made me reflect on the way I have designed learning for some of my students. Some students generally take more time to do some things (like how I am with learning new directions). This may be team work, a mathematical concept or extended writing. In these situations many teachers, including myself, often hold our students’ hands and lead them from A to B; just like how I was led from A to B. We give our students scaffolds that tell them exactly what to do. We work through questions in worksheets as a whole class so all students have to do is copy the answers from the board or write down what they heard from another student. Students look like they know what they are doing, but really they were like me, just following someone who knows what they are doing.

But what if we just let our students get from A to B by themselves? Why are we so scared of letting them find their own way? They might take a little longer, or take the wrong turn and have to double back. Instead of assigning an extended writing task and giving them a scaffold straight away, why don’t we let students figure it out by themselves, but provide the clues for them. Figuring out something by yourself is one of the most powerful learning experiences. How can we design learning experiences that allow our students to do that? How can we design learning experiences that strike a balance between giving students the freedom to discover things for themselves and enough guidance so that they are set up for success?

Learning in Term 3

Now that Term 3 has come to an end, I am again analysing the data from Year 7’s evaluation of their learning. Year 7s complete a weekly reflection on their learning as well as an end-of-term evaluation. Their end-of-term evaluations gives me an idea on how they feel about how I structure their learning activities so that I can adjust the next term’s learning accordingly.

For Term 3 our project based learning focus has been on newspapers. For 8 weeks, students deconstructed the language features of news articles and put together a range of articles on the Olympics, the Paralympics and other newsworthy items. Some of these articles were written in groups and some were written individually. Year 7s then selected some of these articles to put together a newspaper using Microsoft Publisher. Each news article involved students revising the article at least twice using the goals, medals and missions structure of feedback. In Term 3 we also did science experiments on Tuesdays that were based on sport science under the theme of the Olympics. For half of Term 3 the class worked with Year 6 students from Merrylands East Public School on Murder under the Microscope, an online environmental science game where students acted as forensic scientists to solve a crime involving the pollution of a catchment area. One new activity I introduced in Term 3 were weekly revision quizzes. These quizzes were essentially thirty-minute pen-and-paper-exams that tested Year 7’s understanding of concepts we have learnt during the week. However, they were allowed to refer to their books if necessary (I just think this is more realistic of real life. When in your life do you come across something you can’t do and force yourself to sit there for 30 minutes without makin any attempt on finding out how to do it. I also think it gives a purpose to students’ book work and instil in them a routine of what revision and studying looks like and feels like.) With these weekly revision quizzes, students mark each other’s work. The quiz is divided into concept areas such as algebra, language features of newspapers and scientific investigations and marks are awarded separately to each concept. Students then look at their performance for each concept area and write a short reflection on what they are good at and what they need to improve on.

So this week, Year 7s completed an end-of-term evaluation of their learning on Survey Monkey.

Term 3’s evaluation consisted of these questions:

  • What is your favourite subject?
  • What makes this subject your favourite subject? What do you like about it?
  • Rate how much you enjoy the following activities (students choose from “I enjoy it”, “I find it OK” and “I don’t enjoy it”
    • Project work
    • Science experiments
    • Maths and numeracy
    • Murder under the Microscope
    • Edmodo homework
    • Rate how much you learn from the following activities (students choose from “I learn lots from it”, “I learn some things from it” and “I barely learn anything from it”)
      • Project work
      • Science experiments
      • Maths and numeracy
      • Murder under the Microscope
      • Edmodo homework
      • Do you want to continue doing project work on Mondays and Fridays?
      • What are 3 things you have learnt from the newspaper project?
      • List 3 things you want to improve on next term.
      • If you were the teacher of 7L, what would you do to improve learning for the class?

So here are the results:

What is your favourite subject?

A pie chart of Year 7's favourite subject

I’m going to conclude by just saying it takes a lot to beat PDHPE as students’ favourite subject.

Reasons why integrated curriculum is their favourite subject

Below are some of the responses from students who chose integrated curriculum as their favourite subject:

Because we get to have fun in those classes and do interesting stuff.

 

The experiments we do and how all the subjects are put into one class.

 

It involves technology.

 

There are so many opportunities to do fun activities and showing people my work.

 

Some of the major themes from this question are that students find integrated curriculum classes “fun”. They also like using technology such as laptops and tablets for their learning, as well as having 5 subjects embedded into one class.  Some students enjoy having their work showcased on the class blog.

Rate how much you enjoy the following activities

A sector bar graph showing year 7's enjoyment rating of different activities

Rate how much you learn from the following activities

A sector bar graph showing how much year 7s learn from different activities

What are 3 things you have learnt from the newspaper project?

 A word cloud was created for students’ responses to this question where the larger the word in the word cloud, the more frequent that word appeared in the responses.

A word cloud showing what students have learnt in the newspaper project

List 3 things you want to improve on next term.

This term was the first time students wrote features of effective team work for their improvements for the following term. In previous end-of-term evaluations, students often listed relatively superficial things they’d like to improve on such as write faster or finish work faster. For this term’s evaluation, the majority of students listed features of team work skills such as listening to other students, working as a team and self control. Many students also identified specific areas of content they’d like to improve on such as algebra or types of scientific variables. This is in contrast to how they listed their improvements in previous evaluations where many students wrote umbrella terms such as numeracy or literacy.

For me, this shows an increased level of maturity in the way they assess their learning. While I can’t attribute the cause of this change to any particular strategy I’ve used, I do have a strong feeling it is to do with the goals, medals and missions structure of providing feedback in their PBL tasks and also their weekly reflections on their revision quizzes. Over a term I think most Year 7s have increased their self-awareness of their own learning.

What have I learnt?

For most of this year I have been experimenting on strategies on guiding students to become more effective learners. The PBL initiatives, the goals-medals-missions structure of feedback, the weekly revision quizzes and weekly reflections of learning have all been things aimed at allowing my students to further develop into effective learners. While I always knew that features such as working together and being self-aware of your strengths and areas for improvement are equally important as understanding subject-specific concepts, I think teaching my Year 7s for 5 different subjects have really made that clear to me. When I think back to how I structure my learning in previous years for my science classes it has always been more focused on content rather than developing students into effective learners. When I do eventually return to teaching science classes only, the way I will structure learning for those classes will be very different to how I used to structure them. Teaching an integrated curriculum has so far been one of the best professional learning I’ve had.