Verity is a Physics with Teaching (Bsc Hons) graduate with years of experience in the classroom and a passion for delivering education.
Empowering the Learner
The introduction of Broad General Education (BGE) into The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Scotland aims to provide, for learners, the opportunity for personal growth both within and outside of the traditional classroom setting. It seeks to encourage an environment and attitude among learners in which they are, in part, responsible for the choices that they make regarding their own progression through their schooling career, in order to become well-rounded and individual problem-solvers who are prepared for a versatile future (Educationscotlandgovuk, c2016).
Within BGE, teachers are able to customise their teaching practices, known as pedagogies, as the BGE is made up of building blocks known as experiences and outcomes (Es&Os). Pedagogy can be defined as the methods and processes in which a subject is taught and knowledge is transferred (Hall, 1905), and as both the “art and science of teaching” (Ozuah, 2005). These definitions of pedagogy allow for the learning of individuals and groups, either independently or with assistance.
These Es&Os allow a teacher to tailor their pedagogies to a particular learner’s needs and strengths and can allow the learner to enhance their own learning and achieve a greater depth of understanding via the way they interact with the curriculum. Es&Os also allow for more cross-curricular learning opportunities in which a learner can develop multiple transferrable skills simultaneously, and can apply these skills in a variety of activities (Educationscotlandgovuk, c2016).
The goals of BGE and the CfE in the long term are to continuously develop and diversify pedagogy to consistently nurture an environment of growth, understanding and empowerment of the learner. In order to achieve these goals, it is crucial that, when designing and developing pedagogy for implementation, an investigation of and behind learning theories takes place.
The first of these learning theories is behaviourism, in which the learner is passive and learning takes place as a result of conditioning, association, trial and error, and reinforcement (Gray & Macblain, 2015). An example of this practice in classroom situations is awarding a learner with merits (points) for displaying approved positive behaviour, and the removal of said merits following negative behaviour. The learner then: associates positive behaviour with reward and negative behaviour with punishment; learns which acts are considered positive and negative; and has these ideas reinforced by the teacher. This is a technique used daily in many schools and behaviourism has been a major influence in curriculum design and pedagogy since the early twentieth century (Woollard, 2010). Criticisms of behaviourism are that it does not allow for much independent thinking or questioning of facts and ideas, and has been described as a “cloning process” (Bayyurt & Akcan, 2015). This contrast of opinions in the 1970s resulted in the development of a different learning theory known as constructivism.
Constructivism can be split into two categories: cognitivist constructivism and social constructivism. Cognitivist constructivism views learning as split into distinct stages of cognitive development, in which learning is a strictly mental process which occurs via interactions between the learner and their environment. This allows for assimilation accommodation in which knowledge is reviewed and adapted when presented with new information (Piaget, 1954). The idea of introducing a problem to create a knowledge ‘disequilibrium’ which the learner will feel the compulsion to ‘equalise’ allows for differentiation to meet the learner’s developmental requirements. A limitation of cognitivist constructivism is that the static stages of development do not account for learners who are particularly gifted, enthusiastic or have been raised in an environment promoting early education. This can result in the capability of the learner being underestimated (Sutherland, 1992).
Social constructivism focuses on learning via cultural tools (both material and psychological, i.e computer and language respectively) and through social interaction with a more knowledgeable individual in a zone of proximal development (ZPD) with the learner. The ZPD is where learning may not occur individually but will occur with assistance from a more knowledgeable person, be it a parent, teacher or peer. This introduces the concept of ‘scaffolding’ in which the assistance needed by the child is provided to them initially and then gradually withdrawn allowing the learner to gain confidence and be able to apply this knowledge effectively in the future (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976). A criticism of this theory is the assumption that all social interactions have a positive impact on learning. There are some interactions (such as ridiculing) that can dissuade a child from engaging in learning. There are also meaningless interactions, such as a teacher ‘parroting’ a learner which offers no opportunity to develop knowledge (Gleitman, Gross & Reisberg, 2011).
With Attention to Science
In education, science has traditionally been seen as a discipline involving rote learning and memorisation of facts and numbers. Recently, however, with the introduction of BGE and the CfE, the shortcomings of science education have been brought to light. The need to develop skills in critical thinking, wider-ranging investigation and inquiry skills, and to create active learners and responsible citizens has been highlighted in reports (Educationscotlandgovuk, 2008). These goals can be achieved by adopting a variety of pedagogical techniques.
Enquiry-based learning (EBL) is a constructivist-based process, instigated by either teacher or learner, which allows the learner to explore and investigate the key questions, topics, and ideas, of a provided subject matter while being guided by the teacher. This allows for the learner to apply their own previous knowledge to the information presented to them and to use their own personal experiences during investigations. This results in the learner developing their ability to think scientifically (Alvarado & Herr, 2003). As the information is directly relevant to the learner, the science becomes more interesting and is personalised to the learner, thus allowing for diversification.
A useful tool for engaging a class in EBL is Science Writing Heuristic (SWH). SWH allows the creation of an environment closely resembling that of a professional laboratory. In this environment learners are encouraged to use prior knowledge to assert a hypothesis (which can then be debated), gather data first-hand and use their results to form opinions which can then be used to further enquiry. It is believed that implementing this technique at a high-quality level has significant advantages including narrowing science attainment gaps and building transferable skills (Uiowaedu, c2013; Akkus, Gunel & Hand, 2007).
A challenge presented to beginning teachers by EBL is that the subjects being presented to the class may cover information that they themselves are not familiar with, and as a result, do not have the confidence to be questioned on the ideas. To combat this, it may be useful for teachers of varying disciplines to come together and share knowledge of their subjects (Harlen, 2010).
Another challenge can be the time required to plan and gather resources, if the lesson is object-based, for an EBL. For a beginning teacher, planning lessons takes a longer time than it does for more experienced teachers and as a result, the beginning teacher might find it difficult or intimidating to find the extra time to plan and source materials. This can be remedied by asking students to provide materials from home (provided that they are safe and reasonable, e.g. an empty bottle for a bottle rocket). This allows the pupil to take their learning outside of the classroom and possibly involve family in their learning also (Alvarado & Herr, 2003).
A criticism of EBL is that it is not synchronous with standardised testing, as a test focuses on measuring knowledge through pre-defined criteria. Teachers, especially beginning teachers, might fear poor test scores as a result of choosing EBL instead of simply feeding the learners the correct answers. This problem was recognised by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and as a result, open-ended questions have been introduced to the Scottish examination system. This type of question is one with no clearly defined correct answer e.g. the learner may be asked to explain why a person walking along a beach would notice that the sand is warmer than the sea (S-lanarkschuk, 2016). This allows a learner to demonstrate the depth and understanding of their subject knowledge in whichever way that they deem appropriate (Educationscotlandgovuk, c2016).
Thus enquiry-based learning has many benefits to science teaching by allowing learners to actively engage and interact with both theory and practical work, at a level which personally interests them and is relatable to them. Teachers choosing to use EBL techniques can be easily supported by colleagues, parents and by the Scottish Qualifications Authority; making it a valuable social resource.
Co-operative and Collaborative Learning (CCL)
Co-operative and collaborative learning (CCL) are concepts, based on social constructivism. These concepts focus on the creation of small structured groups with clear tasks and goals, in which learners can develop their own learning and assist others in their learning (Casey, 2012). It has been noted in reports of Scottish education that schools do poorly at assessing learner’s skills in talking and listening, that learners need to feel a more well-developed ownership of their learning, and that learners need to ensure that they help one another through the learning process (Educationscotlandgovuk, c2009; Educationscotlandgovuk, c2016). It is believed that CCL pedagogy practices can be used to improve in these areas.
Gillies, Ashman, and Terwel (2007) suggest that CCL is a superior method to individualism when used efficiently, and can result in the greater achievement of the learner, greater wellbeing of the learner, and improved positive relationships between peers. This is due to the development of effective communication and an increase in the learner’s confidence in expressing their thoughts and ideas.
Allowing learners to work in pairs (i.e. Think-Pair-Share, in which a learner individually interacts with information, then discusses it with a partner and finally presents their thoughts to the teacher for feedback) offers the unique benefit of letting the learner consolidate their own knowledge through assisting a peer. This also allows the peer in question to ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking a teacher. This can also be a benefit to the teacher in lessons with learners who may have additional support needs as the teacher is free to give the learner in question some extra one-on-one support (Strebe, 2014). Allowing learners to engage in peer-marking, by issuing a short end-of-lesson quiz, can assist the learner in understanding how to interpret a test question and allows the learner to consider answers to the question that they themselves had not considered. Peer-marking is also useful for teachers as it provides the opportunity to gauge how well learners perceive their understanding of covered material, allows the teacher to highlight learners which may require a more diversified pedagogy, and can provide feedback on any ideas that may need to be discussed again (Cohen, Brody & Shapon-shevin, 2004).
CCL also provides the learner with the opportunity to reflect and develop their opinions on social issues out with the classroom, with a larger world view. For example, engaging in debate on ethical queries such as stem cell research allows the learner to develop their role as a responsible citizen in the community (Educationscotlandgovuk, c2016).
A critical problem facing beginning teachers is learning which types of classroom dialogue are constructive and productive. There is disputational talk in which learners have cyclical “Yes it is”, “No it isn’t” arguments and there is an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation. Cumulative talk results in an uncritical sharing of knowledge in which learners all simply agree rather than discuss. Exploratory talk results in questioning and challenging ideas in a respectful manner (Mercer & Littleton, 2007). A beginning teacher may make the mistake of assuming that the learners do not know how to talk productively and abandon attempts at such CCL practices. However, to ensure that this does not happen, time must be allocated to clearly establishing goals and aims of the group work with the learners, perhaps also including a brief discussion on how to talk productively with the learners volunteering examples of productive discussion.
Another mistake that a beginning teacher might make is assuming that all group work is also CCL. For CCL to take place effectively, the groups and tasks must be structured to foster an atmosphere of interdependency, in which the learners are individually accountable (for example designating every individual in the group with a title and job description, or giving a group presentation in which every member of the group must speak). This can, however, take time and extra planning which may seem intimidating to beginning teachers (Jolliffe, 2007).
Encourage Active Learners
In conclusion, constructivist theories imbue the current effective science pedagogy. The theories discussed allow a learner to play an active role in their education and engage with the science curriculum on a personal level, while also encouraging them to become responsible citizens, critical thinkers and motivated learners. Beginning teachers, despite challenges, can use the network of support offered by the CfE to refine their own teaching and provide framework and opportunities to learners in order to prepare them for any flourishing future which awaits them.
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