Role play gives student science teachers insights15/01/2012
Role play, using the Primary Connections Programme, in pre-service primary science teacher education gave Year 2 student primary teachers insights into the teaching and learning of science in primary classrooms, as Anne Hume (University of Waikato) explains:
Like many other countries, NZ primary schools tend to place low priority on science education and there are a number of reasons for this situation. Research indicates many primary teachers may lack confi dence in teaching science, which is often linked to limited science content knowledge (Bolstad & Hipkins, 2008; Kenny, 2010), and may even lead some to ‘avoidance’ of science in their classroom (Tytler et al., 2008). Another factor possibly compounding the problem is the raised profile of literacy and numeracy in the New Zealand Curriculum (2007), placing even greater pressure on primary science education if schools relegate science in their curriculum.
Not surprisingly, there is evidence that many primary students are disengaging from science at a time when their inherent curiosity about the physical world should be to the fore, capitalised upon and promoted in teaching and learning programmes. Here in NZ attitudinal data collected during the National Educational Monitoring Project (NEMP) across four sample rounds (1995, 1999, 2003, 2007) indicate a trend for students to disengage in science from middle primary, Year 4, to upper primary, Year 8 (Bolstad & Hipkins, 2008).
Clearly in this environment the task of science teacher educators preparing primary student teachers for their future career is going to be challenging! How does one equip these novice teachers in teacher education programmes with the knowledge and skills that will raise the status of science education in primary schools and engage their students in long-term science learning?
Developing a pedagogy using Primary Connections
As a science teacher educator, I want my student teachers to develop pedagogies that extend their thinking about teaching science beyond good classroom management and activities that transmit information. I want them them to focus on developing pedagogies that are student-centred.
The initiative known as the PrimaryConnections: linking science with literacy (Australian Academy of Science, 2005) has at its core a teaching and learning model known as the 5Es which is closely aligned to the pedagogical approaches and learning goals of the New Zealand Curriculum (2007). This model (see Figure 1) “is based on an inquiry and investigative approach in which students work from questions to undertake investigations and construct explanations. …Assessment is integrated with teaching and learning.” (Academy of Science, 2005, p.2).
For several years I have been working with the PCP and its resources, selecting various activities for use in workshops with my Year 2 science education option class. I’ve been impressed by the quality of the resources and find them very flexible and easy to adapt to the New Zealand context.
Each topic contains extensive coverage of the science background, linkages to literacy, and the 5Es approach as it applies to that topic. The teaching notes to support the 5Es stages and activities are detailed and designed to guide a teacher through every aspect of each lesson including: learning outcomes, background science concepts and skills, teaching sequence for the lesson including focus questions and photocopiable activity sheets. The programme is sufficiently flexible for teachers to adapt to their students’ specific learning needs and provide opportunities for the students to investigate their own questions if they so wish.
I began exploring the possibility of selecting a PCP unit to teach as a component of the course in a form of role play, rationalising that if my student teachers participated as ‘students’ and then reflected on their learning experiences and the actions of their ‘teacher’ (me!) they might gain some insights into the thinking and basis upon which expert science teachers make decisions about their pedagogy for particular science topics/concepts. The experience might also have the added bonus of enhancing the student teachers’ science content knowledge.
I planned to use 8 of the 24 two-hour workshops to teach a PCP unit called ‘It’s Electrifying’. The student teachers were required to keep science journals (a reflective tool used in the PCP approach) and to write an evaluation of the suitability of the programme for the New Zealand context for course assessment purposes.
As the simulation unfolded and the processes of teaching and learning proceeded, many interesting dynamics came to light as we interacted. For example, all of us went into role with ease and felt very comfortable and involved. The student teachers responded positively to my PCP pedagogy and appreciated my attempts at enacting the teaching as advocated by the PCP. However, on occasions the boundaries between real and imagined became blurred as my student teachers found it difficult to stay in role and wanted answers which were not always forthcoming. Despite some frustration at not getting straight answers they came to realise the value of my teaching strategies.
Here is some feedback with my comments appended to them (note: pseudonyms have been used for the student teachers):
[The teacher] would always repeat back to us what we were saying to clarify our understanding…Why can’t you just tell us if we’re right or not you know, but she was getting us to really think deeply and sort of critically about what we were saying and what other people were saying and whether if we could back up what we’re saying with reasons and stuff. She was always questioning us and making us explain what we meant. (Elaine)
I sometimes found the pressure to ‘simply tell’ difficult to ignore at times and fell into transmission mode, but the student teachers were forgiving. As they reflected on their experiences as learners they were somewhat surprised at their own reactions and the depth of understanding they gained about learning as Gina notes:
I also think that doing it from the learner’s perspective we also were able to critique it more deeply because if we just looked at it from a teaching perspective…you can sit back and think oh well if I was a kid I could really engage with that – well, I engaged with it.
The unusually prolonged nature of the role play provided my student teachers with insights into science teaching and learning processes, both from the perspective of learner and of the teacher. The simulation gave them a platform from which to reflect about issues and problems that may face them as novice primary teachers of science, and interestingly, they identified and took ownership of potential solutions offered by the role play experience. As novice teachers, their confidence and enthusiasm about teaching science was boosted by the availability of the PCP resources, which they believed helped them understand the NZC requirements.
…and what Primary Connections does is it gives teachers a way of teaching and it explains it and it goes in-depth and it actually enables them to teach it rather than making them feel left out or uneasy about it. (Zane) Well, it also sort of opened our eyes to the New Zealand curriculum…it’s a [core] statement and sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, especially for beginning teachers, to sort of look at it and think, ‘what do I do?’ (Gina) It just made it a lot more approachable because, like they’ve said that science can be such a complicated thing and it scares a lot of teachers off; maybe [they’re] looking into it too much at primary level. So yeah, the Primary Connections just made it that much more approachable. (Louise)
For all student teachers the simulation facilitated further development of their science content knowledge as Steve and Carl note:
Well, I guess the ‘It’s Electrifying’ was at a higher stage, which was probably quite relevant because we’re older as well, and then it had a bit more detail, I guess, than some of the lower ones. So it kind of got us really thinking and we didn’t obviously know that much about the battery when we got into it so it was quite…it was good for us as well. (Steve) We also had a few side lessons where we explored a little bit more than what you could in a class, like cutting opening the battery and having a look at what’s inside it, which is… (Carl)
Their science journal entries recorded many instances of new science learning occurring, including understanding about science and how scientific ideas develop over time.
This [cartoon history of Volta’s life] was really interesting because I never thought that the battery was invented so early in time and it showed what work and how long it had taken to lead up to the invention of the battery.
Their growing professional knowledge was very apparent and directly related to their simulation experiences. Here Gina comments in her reflection journal on a key aspect of students’ understanding of science that she had learned during an electric circuit role play activity:
Avoiding misconceptions, it is important that the teacher makes sure the students don’t build misconceptions such as “we are carrying electrons to the bulb” – must say “you are the electrons – what are you picking up at the battery and taking it to the bulb.”
Similarly Steve alludes to his orientations towards science teaching and knowledge of assessment when he notes:
I am beginning to see the importance of the EXPLORE part of the Primary Connections programme. There’s no difference at any age when it comes to experiencing science by doing, instead of just listening. It allows the students to make formative assessments about the work they do, and increases their observation skills by being involved in the process of investigation, planning and understanding of how it works.
Zane also picks up on his orientations towards science teaching as he identifies knowledge of instructional strategies, and when and how to use them through his knowledge of students’ understanding of science:
I also think the activities in it [the It’s Electrifying unit] were a bit more sophisticated and more relevant for us as well; like, [so if] the cross-sectional drawings, the labelled diagrams – there was a lot more terminology in it than there is in the younger books and I think for me particularly it gave me a broader awareness of all the things that science does involve and if you say the wrong word you’re actually talking about a whole different thing of what you want the students to do. I think when [she asked us] to do a cross-sectional drawing and we came back with eleven different things that were all wrong, because we all took it our own way.
My student teachers gained science content knowledge but they also became more aware of their own national science curriculum as they drew parallels between the PCP and the NZC as Elaine comments:
...it was an Australian programme so it’s not written for the New Zealand curriculum but it just made us have a look at how easily you can fi t it in with the New Zealand curriculum and that it does just transfer straight across – you can use achievement objectives from the New Zealand curriculum to fi t in with it really easily so it’s really useful. Yeah, and so it just showed us how it does relate to the New Zealand curriculum and it’s perfectly relevant in New Zealand, it’s not just for Australia.
The evaluation task proved to be a showcase for the student teachers’ growing professional knowledge. In giving positive endorsement to the PCP for use in New Zealand classrooms they highlighted their understanding of: the purposes of science education; curriculum requirements including scientific literacy; student learning of science, and effective pedagogy and assessment; when illustrating the close linkages between the programme and the NZC.
Students felt the keeping of the science journal throughout the unit was a very useful part of the assessment, because, while it informed the final evaluation, it also had longer-term value, as Carl notes:
I think it’s probably one of the few assignments that we can actually use again. I mean, if we teach a unit in Primary Connections, we can flip back through the journal just to see how it all works, what we did, see what we liked, see what we didn’t like, and remind us what we should be doing with the kids. Whereas writing, let’s say, or some of the other assignments we get, you finish them and you throw them in a box and you never really look at them again.
Learning to teach is a complex business. The PCP simulation allowed me to model student-centred pedagogy in a context that met many of my student teachers’ learning needs and it enabled them to reflect from both sides of the teaching-learning boundary.
Subject matter and pedagogy were taught together through role play using high quality resources, and reflection through different lens helped my student teachers transform the type of knowledge they acquire during course work into the type of knowledge they might need to teach in a (primary) school context. Their confidence levels about prospective science teaching grew appreciably. Hopefully this confidence will translate into a readiness and desire on their part to teach science using inquiry-based student-centred approaches when they enter primary classrooms in a year or two and to greater engagement of students in science at primary schools!
For further information contact: annehume@waikato. ac.nz, and for information about PCP visit: www.science.org.au/primaryconnections
- Australian Academy of Science. (2005). Primary Connections. Stage 2 Trial: Research report. Canberra, Australia: Australian Academy of Science. Bolstad, R., & Hipkins, R. (2008). Seeing yourself in science. The importance of the middle school years. Wellington, NZ: NZCER.
- Kenny, J. (2010). Preparing pre-service primary teachers to teach primary science: A partnership-based approach. International Journal of Science Education, 32(10), 1267-1288.
- Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.
- The Royal Society. (2010). Science and mathematics education, 5-14. A ‘state of the nation’ report. London: The Royal Society.
- Tytler, R., Osborne, J.F., Williams, G., Tytler, K., & Cripps Clark, J. (2008). Opening up pathways: Engagement in STEM across the primary-secondary school transition. A review of the literature concerning supports and barriers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics engagement at primary-secondary transition. Canberra: Commissioned by the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.