Reflections and Implications

Reflections

To inform evaluation of the approach, quantitative and qualitative data were collected,
using Russell’s Model of the Affective Quality of Places (Russell & Pratt, 1980), three of the
seven Test of Science-Related Attitudes (TOSRA) scales (Fraser, 1981), and interviews with
students, parents, and members of the broader community. It appears this approach to junior
science education can fulfil many goals; develop knowledge and deepen understanding, allow
students to acquire a broad range of lifeskills and experiences, promote personal development,
and foster positive attitudes towards science and scientists and students’ own self-images, all
at an individual level. It could be adopted as part, or for the whole, of a Junior Science course.
As Lucinda, a Year 10 student said, “I have lived near the Condamine River all my life but
have only recognised it’s vital importance to our community after completing this project.”
Most importantly, it shows science as the cultural activity it really is; influenced by, and
influencing, society.

This interdisciplinary approach encourages the integration of language, concepts, and
thinking and working styles from different traditional subject areas, just the kind of lateral
thinking needed for the important lifeskill of creative thinking. By scaffolding, and therefore
facilitating, creative thinking, the program also negates the “right answer approach” which
seems so deeply ingrained in our thinking. While this approach may be appropriate for some
purposes, like some mathematics problems, students are provided with opportunities to
appreciate that life is not like that, and that there may be many right answers to a problem,
depending on what one is looking for.

The use of student portfolios in assessment allows students’ assessment to be broader-
based, and hence more valid, than traditional forms of assessment, and to reflect their stronger
intelligences. Students can demonstrate what they do know and can do, in contrast with what
they don’t know. This impacts positively on students’ self-esteem and motivation.  Also, in
addition to self, peer, and teacher assessment, validation of students’ work by members of the
broader community, such as members of their families, further promotes students’ self-esteem
and the value of learning. The common student question “Is this going to be on the test?,”
implying that passing the test is more important than other learning, did not arise.

The program requires, and provides an ideal vehicle for, teaching students attitudes
and motivational skills essential for success in both school and in other relationships. These
attitudes and skills include self-acceptance and confidence, having an internal locus of control
for learning and valuing effort, high frustration tolerance and delay of gratification, risk taking
and not having to be perfect, independence and non-approval seeking, tolerance and
acceptance of others, goal setting, and time management.

The control given to students over some aspects of what and how they learn, together
with the success they experience (at their aptitude level), contributes to students’ intrinsic
motivation. Two strategies, in particular, appeared useful in enhancing the extrinsic motivation
of students. First, I communicated regularly with parents, including inviting interested parents
to attend classes as guest speakers and/or to review students’ work. Second, quality student
work was rewarded with a Crest Award, taking the form of a certificate and impressive
medallion presented at school assemblies.

Implications

On the negative side, this approach requires an enormous amount of teacher
preparation, especially when addressing a project for the first time. Worse, though, the high-
quality monitoring of students’ work, essential for ensuring high-quality outcomes, is a huge
task with traditional class sizes and school structures. In fact, it may be asking too much of
teachers, who commonly see 130 or more different students each day. Since form should
follow function, this brings us to the need for school reform.

Our traditional secondary school structures appear obsolete. They were designed for a
past era, an industrial age in which teachers were the sole source of knowledge, where a job
was available for anyone who wanted one, and in which schools mass-produced students
before they were placed in domestic niches or other areas of the workforce. The school day
was divided into multiple periods so a teacher could fill the “empty heads” of a class of
students with knowledge before they moved on to another teacher for another dose. Schools
were the educational factories of society.

Society, and our understanding of how people learn, has changed. Consideration of
desirable school reform could fill a book, so let me mention a couple of relevant issues only.
Implementation of the approach to junior science education discussed in this series of articles
is aided by a reduced student: teacher ratio, block timetabling, and team teaching. The
Coalition of Essential Schools, a United States school reform movement, recommends that no
teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students (Sizer, 1989), some Australian
schools have a 10:1 student:teacher ratio, and homeschoolers often experience 1:1. As the old
adage goes, “you only get what you pay for”!

One strategy for reducing the student:teacher ratio without incurring additional salary
expenditure would be to recruit voluntary teaching assistants from the local community.
Retired residents who like young people, for example, appear to be a largely untapped
educational resource. They may gain much enjoyment and satisfaction from monitoring
students and facilitating quality student work. Older students in a school could also act as
teaching assistants, and be given appropriate recognition of their role when they leave the
school. Students themselves could be responsible for recruiting the assistants.

Block scheduling (90-minute, half-day, or longer) can promote more meaningful
learning and is especially beneficial for team learning. There is a considerable research base to
suggest that, done well, cooperative learning can produce cognitive and affective outcomes
superior to those achieved via individualistic or competitive structures (Johnson & Johnson,
1989); but done poorly, it is another story.

It is common for journalists, health workers, members of sporting teams, and lawyers,
for example, to use team meetings to combine talents and review progress, yet timetabling,
routines, and incentives in traditional schools often stifle team teaching, which can enhance
planning and implementation. There is no room in this paper to discuss classroom strategies in
detail, but I have found the following useful; use of audio tapes for progress reporting by
students, flower and petal displays for visually monitoring students’ progress, a heterogeneous
gender, and achievement, mix in student learning teams, use of a student project planner, peer
review of draft written reports, and the production, by each student, of a book to summarise
their outcomes from a project. Team teaching can improve, and increase the diversity of, such
strategies, and also assist in monitoring students who are working at different locations and
allow students to benefit from interaction with more than a single subject teacher.

However, it has been my experience that changing structures and cultures in traditional
educational settings can be very difficult and frustratingly slow. What is more, innovation in
schools is often curtailed by the existing structures and often of an “add-on within the existing
structure” nature when in fact superior outcomes could be achieved by adopting a completely
different mind-set. The result is that function changes to follow form, as demonstrated by the
fact that many traditional schools are among the few places in society still operating as they
did 50 years ago (Nummela & Caine, cited in Dryden & Vos, 1997). It appears easier to create
a learning community from scratch, as I have recently applied to do, than to modify a
traditional one, although opportunities to do this, with government funding, are limited.

Finally, this approach to education has implications for teacher evaluation. With the
role of the teacher very much that of a facilitator, dwelling for much of the time in the
learners’ place with the students rather than above them, the criteria for judging teacher
effectiveness shift from the delivery of good lessons to being able to create a classroom
learning community, and secondary science educators can probably learn much here from
primary school teachers and their social science counterparts.
 

References

Dryden, G., & Vos, J. (1997). The learning revolution. Auckland: The Learning Web Ltd..
Fraser, B. J. (1981). Test of science-related attitudes. Hawthorne, Victoria: The Australian
     Council for Educational Research.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1989). Leading the cooperative school. Edina, Minnesota:
      Interaction Book Company.
Russell, J. A., & Pratt, G. (1980). A description of the affective quality attributed to
     environments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 311-322.
Sizer, T. R. (1989). Diverse practice, shared ideas: The essential school. In H. J. Walberg & J.
     J. Lane (Eds.), Organizing for Learning: Toward the 21st Century (pp. 1-8). Reston,
     VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.