Wanting to help young learners who were grappling with abstract concepts in Science, a group of teachers at Pasir Ris Primary School embarked on an action research project in 2009 to test the effectiveness of using concept cartoons.
Concept cartoons are drawings that present “characters with different viewpoints around a particular situation” (Roesky & Kennepohl, 2008, p. 1355) (Read more about concept cartoons in “Cartoons in the Classroom”, Issue 18).
When we interviewed then Science teacher Ms Farah Aida Rahmat (currently Head of English Department at Pasir Ris Primary School) in 2009, she was testing out the use of cartoons on a Primary 4 class of high-ability students.
The study showed clear benefits of using concept cartoons in the classroom. “There was higher engagement and higher retention, so we were convinced back then that it is an effective tool,” says Senior Teacher and Covering Head of Science Department Mrs Jalene Chang, who was part of the team.
“We decided we wanted to use it in a more pervasive manner and not just limited to the Primary 4 classroom but to introduce it to other levels – from Primary 3 to 6.”
A Valuable Tool
“Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I will remember. Involve me, I will understand.” Jalene believes in this Chinese proverb when placed in the classroom context. For pupils to benefit, they have to be actively engaged and involved in the learning process.
Besides higher engagement and retention, concept cartoons also helped pupils with poor language skills grasp abstract science concepts better.
The teachers were encouraged by the outcome, and decided to venture into using other kinds of assessment-for-learning (AfL) tools.
Expanding the Toolbox for Teachers
Getting teachers to design their own teaching tools on top of their daily teaching workload can be a rather tall order, says Jalene. “So we decided to support them by making resources available to them,” she adds. “We have to level up their competencies and build up their capacities.”
As part of that, Jalene gave a copy of the Assessment for Learning (AfL) book authored by Page Keeley to all Science teachers. The book contains a variety of AfL tools that teachers could pick from and implement in their classrooms.
“We do not want them to know just one tool but to also expose them to other AfL tools,” explains Jalene.
Using the Coyote Fund (a fund conceived by MOE in 2006 and aimed at encouraging educators and the Ministry to experiment with new and innovative ideas), the team developed their very own customized Science AfL package.
“We included a CD and hardcopy notes in the resource package,” explains Jalene. “The package is a continuous work-in-progress where tweaks and refinements are made along the way.”
The end product is a resource package that features a wide variety of AfL tools that is over and above teachers’ instructional materials, says Jalene.
We don’t want to wait until exams when it is already too late (to give feedback). We want to monitor student learning daily.
– Jalene Chang, Pasir Ris Primary School
Variety of Assessment Tools
Providing feedback to student on their performance via exam grades is not timely enough— at least for Jalene and her team. “We don’t want to wait until exams when it is already too late,” she says. “We want to monitor student learning daily.”
Here are two examples of the tools included in the AfL package besides concept cartoons:
“Pupils are given a variety of cards,” explains Science Level Head Mrs Indriana Seet. “They are required to sort them according to categories.”
Living things and non-living things—these are some of the categories that pupils should identify. To do so, they first need to understand the characteristics of these categories.
After sorting them, they will also have to justify their answers. This is a quick way for teachers to gauge their level of understanding.
Animals, fungi, plants, and micro-organisms—each corner of the classroom is assigned one of these four categories.
In this activity, the teacher flashes a list of items that fall under those categories on the screen. Pupils then pick an item each and write it down on a card. They will then individually proceed to the categorized corner which befits the items they have chosen.
For example, a pupil who picks a toadstool will move to the fungi corner and tiger, the animals corner.
Pupils will discuss with their friends within the same group on why they picked that corner and if required, they will make the necessary changes. “As a group, they will show their cards and as a class, they will discuss if they are in the correct group,” says Indriana.
The teachers also find this activity an instant remedy for restless pupils. “Sometimes, the lesson can get quite tiring so this helps pupils to be more actively involved in the lesson,” shares Mdm Dawn Tan, also a Science Level Head.
Addressing Misconceptions Immediately
The team feels that sometimes, learners may give the right answers to questions in class, but that does not necessarily mean they have truly understood the science concepts. The activities in the AfL package allow them to quickly assess their students before the end of the lesson.
“It is important to assess whether the children have understood the learning outcomes for the day,” Indriana shares. “These short activities don’t take a lot of time and they allow us to gauge their understanding level.”
Dawn also adds that she uses simple “True or False” questions to assess her students. It often creates teachable moments as well.
“Pupils will have the chance to actually articulate their thoughts in class,” she says. “You can then use that moment to correct any misconceptions for the class as a whole.”
While it has been 6 years since the first AfL tool was tested, the team is constantly looking at expanding the package further. In fact, one of their aims is to ensure that all their Science teachers are professionally equipped and competent to create their own AfL activities.
As Jalene puts it, “We want to empower the teachers and let them know they can do it!”
Roesky, H. W., & Kennepohl, D. (2008). Drawing attention with chemistry cartoons. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(10), 1355–1360.