What does it take for a pupil to be confident about Science? To a teacher from Si Ling Primary School, just being knowledgeable about the subject is not enough. We find out from him what else is important in Science learning.
Complexity of Science
Teachers will introduce a Science concept, and pupils will learn and then apply their knowledge when solving problems related to the concept. This sounds straightforward enough. But having taught the subject for more than 6 years, Lead Teacher (Science) Mr Leonard Teng from Si Ling Primary School knows that things are not always like that! He finds that children tend to have difficulty articulating or applying the ideas that they have learned to new situations.
Are my ideas relevant to this particular question or situation? Leonard says this is a question that pupils often ask themselves. “It’s not just about knowing (how to conduct) an experiment, or knowing a concept, or being able to regurgitate information,” says Leonard. “Often, we also need to know how to communicate what we learn in Science.”
Determined to help his young learners, Leonard decided to test out certain strategies in his teaching practice. He also collected data and feedback as part of the action research project.
When Leonard presented his work at the Redesigning Pedagogy Conference a few years ago, Dr Tang Kok Sing from NIE (The Guest Editor of this issue) was seated among the audience. Kok Sing happens to be keenly interested in Science communication too. They “share a common language” and decided to work together.
“It is like match-making,” Leonard says. “We needed that kind of research support in our school. I would even say even in many schools, we need that kind of support from NIE. And the researchers are also interested to do their research so why don’t we collaborate?”
Making Science Digestible
“I would say for any Science teacher, when they talk about students’ work, we always talk about this: ‘Hey, they are not able to answer open-ended questions.’ Yes, they have done the activities, we have covered the topics, but they are not able to answer this type of questions,” Leonard observes.
It could be that the answers are incomplete, or pupils are not answering to the point. What gives? “After you have learned a concept, you need to apply it. Are you able to communicate it effectively to your audience?”
Much of the time, pupils pick the wrong words to express themselves.
“There must be a reason why they choose the wrong word,” Leonard explains. “They are not able to judge what the appropriate word is.” This can result in pupils misrepresenting the scientific concept that teachers are trying to elicit from them.
“From an education research point of view, it is interesting that pupils understand the concept but yet not able to effectively use the right words,” Leonard says.
That made him think even harder about how he might help his young learners. Leonard decided to break down the teaching of Science into two main parts: articulation and writing.
Leonard believes in the power of verbalizing our thoughts out loud. During his lessons, he gets his pupils to speak up by prompting them with the proper questioning techniques.
For example, Leonard would show his class a glass of cold water with droplets forming on the outer surface. He would then ask them what was happening.
And Leonard will not stop at “condensation” for an answer. To him, that is incomplete. How do you explain condensation? Where did the water droplets come from? Leonard will prompt his pupils further with questions.
The responses from the pupils can then be used as a gauge of their understanding of the scientific concept. “You may think that they know but it’s not necessarily so,” Leonard says. “It’s important to get them to articulate their ideas. They have to think of words to use and that is some kind of practice for them.”
When you write, you are also verbalizing words, Leonard says. Although this form of utterance takes place in one’s mind – not aloud – it still helps pupils in organizing their thoughts before penning them down.
This is especially so because writing in Science is different from other forms of writing. “In Science, we have to describe our observation and make comparisons,” Leonard says. “So we have to expose children to words that describe and compare things.”
Such words include phrases like “heavier than”, “more than” and “takes up more time”.
More importantly, Leonard believes that teachers have to be role models in the way they describe and compare things.
He also finds it useful for his pupils to write a summary of what they have learned. At the end of every activity, he gets them to construct evidence of their learning. This helps train them in writing hypothesis-explanation text type, which is very common in Science.
The Teaching Journey
When asked about the challenges he face in the classroom, Leonard feels that the classroom is always changing. “Every year, we see different pupils,” he says. “We inevitably try out different things in the classroom.”
To keep up with the constant changes, Leonard believes that recording his teaching journey in a journal helps. In it, he writes about the challenges he faced and how he overcame them. It could be about his lesson plans or even his interaction with pupils.
“It is not just a journey of teaching but also the journey of pupils’ progress,” he shares.
While that journal is Leonard’s own personal story to tell, his pupils can now say that they know Science and that it is more than just about content mastery!