Constructivist teaching has been a pedagogical issue in primary science for a long time. The perspective of pedagogical debate in the teaching and learning in science has been focused on increased interest in students as subjects in relation to their own learning process. As such constructivist approach to teaching and learning in primary science has become increasingly popular. There has been a shift from the traditional, didactic approaches to constructivist approaches (Tobin, 1993). Indeed constructivist teaching has attained the status of being ‘a good thing’ and something, which most researchers and teachers regard as self-evidently worthwhile. Is constructivist teaching the most effective method of teaching primary science?
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1.1 Structure of study
In order to provide an overall perspective of this study, this section introduces each chapter. The study is presented in five chapters. Chapter One provides 1) Statement of Scope including an overview, structure and significance of study, background and definition of the problem, 2) study aims and questions and 3) working definitions of words used in the study.
Chapter Two reviews the literature associated with the definitions of constructivist teaching and scientific enquiry, benefits and challenges of scientific enquiry.
Chapter Three presents a historical perspective of teaching and learning in primary science since the introduction of the Science national Curriculum. Learning theories that have guided the development of constructivist teaching will also be reviewed.
Chapter Four outlines how constructivist teaching will guide my pedagogical practice in assisting the primary school children in developing scientific enquiry skills.
Chapter Five presents a summary of key concepts from the theoretical analysis and offers ideas for teacher educators to address when preparing initial teacher trainees for school-based teaching and ideas for future research.
1.2 Significance of Study
The theoretical analysis in this study makes some significant contribution on informing teacher educators, researchers and practising teachers of the usefulness of constructivist teaching to enhance scientific enquiry skills. Most important is the transfer of theory into pedagogies. A clear analysis has been done of how available theory informs practice.
1.3 Background to the problem
Primary science is not just concerned with knowledge, but more particularly with the scientific enquiry and the effect of the use of this method on the individual child. One of the aims of primary science is to develop scientific process skills. What is valued in scientific enquiry is the understanding on the part of the learner. Depicted as the scientist, it is anticipated that, constructivist method of teaching will fire the learner’s natural curiosity and drive for science. The pupil possess greater ownership over their learning, ‘tapping into their minds’ and express excitement by this outcome, which is prerequisite to maximize learning (Palmer 2005 p1856).
Good science teachers are those who teach for deep understanding: “They use students’ ideas about science to guide lessons, providing experiences to test and challenge those ideas to help students arrive at more sophisticated understanding. The classrooms of such teachers are learner-centred places where group discussion, exploration and problem solving are common place” (Wildy and Wallace 1995 p.143). Primary science learning experiences guided by constructivist teaching, is believed to provide a solid foundation for the subsequent development of scientific concepts that children will encounter throughout their academic lives.
1.4 The problem defined
Constructivism places the child at the centre of the learning process. Being a constructivist in science education does have implications and that the implications lead to a certain approach to teaching science. The use of scientific enquiry approach in primary science encourages the learners to utilise their own schema to formulate expectations about what is like to be observed in an experiment, for example. Constructivist teaching approach has been around for a very long time. However, it is less clear how the teachers are developing the children’s scientific enquiry skills.
1.5 Study Aim and Questions
The purpose of this desk study is to critically analyse how constructivist approach can enhance the development of children’s scientific enquiry skills in primary science. A theoretical analysis will be done to find out:
What exactly do constructivist teaching and scientific enquiry mean?
How has constructivist teaching become a method of choice in primary science?
How can constructivist teaching enhance development of children’s scientific skills at key stage 1?
1.6 Working definitions
Schemas are mental models built in pupils’ minds as they construct new knowledge from their what they know.
Zone of Proximal Development is the gap between learner’s assisted and unassisted competence.
Scaffolding is a process of guiding the learner from what t he/she knows to the unknown.
Chapter 2 Theoretical Perspectives of Constructivism and Scientific Enquiry
Currently, there is so much literature on constructivist teaching and scientific enquiry that it took me a long time to select the suitable sources for this study. An on-line Google search revealed that 39 100 studies on constructivist teaching, scientific enquiry and primary science have been conducted since 2000. I started listing down all the literature sources that were provided during the course then went on to select other sources I found useful for this topic.
The theoretical analysis started with the definitions of constructivist teaching and scientific enquiry then went on to work out how the two concepts are linked. The benefits and challenges of scientific enquiry are also included in this chapter.
2.1 What is constructivist theory?
Lorsbach & Tobin (1997) states that constructivist theory is an epistemology, a theory of knowledge used to explain how we know what we know. The Oxford English dictionary defines epistemology as the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Constructivist approach is obviously difficult to label as different types of constructivism have emerged from learning theories for example cognitive, radical and social constructivism to name but a few. These theories have been discussed in detail in section 3.1 of chapter three.
The object of science is to coordinate our experiences and to bring them into a logical order. From a constructivist perspective, learners ‘construct’ their own knowledge on the basis of what they already know (Dole and Sinatra 1998). Therefore the questions addressed by epistemologists; ‘How do we come to know what we know? What is knowledge? What is truth? What is reality?’ are also important to the science teachers. It is really important to understand how the students construct new knowledge from what they know.
Tobin and Tippins (1993 p4) explained how the new knowledge is constructed in science education. They explain that “scientific knowledge continues to change over time because goals and problems of society change leading to new experiences; technology provides new ways of experiencing; what is known continues to increase at an exponential rate; and the individuals that comprise the scientific discipline continually change”. They further explain that in order to have new knowledge, that “knowledge is accepted by the scientific community as viable because of its coherence with other understandings and its fit with experience”.
2.1.1 What is constructivist approach?
There are different types of constructivism, hence varied perspectives of constructivist teaching methods, which could be applied to teaching and learning. As such, Brown and Adams (2001 p7) defined this approach as:
â€¦ a view of learning, that sees learners as active participants who construct their understandings of the world around them. Using past experiences and knowledge, learners make sense of the new information that they are receiving.
It is important to note the type of constructivist theory presented otherwise one may get a somewhat different interpretation (Ernest 1995). However, the type of constructivist approach applied has to be congruent with the scientific enquiry that takes place in a particular science lesson. Osborne (1996 p50) explained that knowledge and understanding of the epistemology of science is an essential aspect of any education in science, and any approach, which neglects a consideration of it is incomplete and epistemologically thin.
2.2 What is scientific enquiry?
The National Research Council (1996) defines enquiry as:
â€¦ a multifaceted activity that involves: making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations. (p 23).
This definition shows that scientific enquiry is child active, developing manipulative and mental activity skills striving to make sense of events and phenomena in the natural and made world around us (Murphy and Beggs, 2001). Thus scientific enquiry helps the students to construct new knowledge from what they know.
There is concern that some teachers are unclear of the purpose of scientific enquiry, which prevents them from teaching effectively. Perhaps an explanation would help clarify the misconceptions about constructivist approach and scientific enquiry. Constructivist teaching focuses on how learning takes place that guides decisions about learners and teacher’s actions while scientific enquiry focuses on what learners and teachers need to do to develop understanding in primary science. Furthermore constructivism recognizes the importance of the ideas that children develop for themselves from their experience and interaction with others and of the use of these ideas in teaching while enquiry contributes to skills and the collection and use of evidence in testing ideas (Murphy, et. al 2001).
2.3 What are the benefits of scientific enquiry in primary science?
From a constructivist perspective, children understand and enjoy what they are learning when they are actively involved. In constructivist teaching, knowledge is not passively received, but is actively built up by the learner. That means ideas and thoughts cannot be communicated in the sense that meaning is packaged into words and `sent’ to another who unpacks the meaning from the sentences. That is, as much as we would like to, we cannot put ideas in student’s heads, they will and must construct their own meanings (von Glasersfeld, 1996). Learning is a process of knowledge construction instead of absorption.
Scientific enquiry does not view primary science as a random activity that has little meaning in real life. Learners are expected to understand the nature or purpose of scientific inquiry. A constructivist view (Richardson, 1997) perceives learning as an active process where learners actively construct meaning from their experiences in connection with their prior understandings and the social setting. The notion that learners (Windschitl, 2002) play an active role in ‘constructing’ their own meaning makes scientific enquiry effective in primary science. Pupils learn best when they actively construct their own understanding. This means that learners must be able to fit new material into what they already know rather than memorise it word for word in order to learn meaningfully (Littledyke 1998 p10). The constructivist view emphasizes the process and not the product. It is not the answer that is important but how one arrives at that particular answer. Learning is a process of constructing meaningful representations, of making sense of one’s experiential world.
Scientific enquiry-oriented teaching promotes the development of oral communication skills. This seems particularly important when teaching bilingual students. Scientific enquiry plays an important part in the teaching of primary school science as it provides opportunities for pupils to talk about their ideas concerning particular concepts or issues that are prominent in their learning process. Vygotsky’s social constructivism promotes social interaction and social contexts.
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2.4 What are the challenges of scientific enquiry?
In principle the suggestion that teachers should plan activities on the basis of what the learner already knows and understands seems quite educationally sound. One of the major problems a teacher faces when using constructivist approach in primary science is the consideration of the different ideas and experiences brought to teach new science topic by each pupil in his/her class. Teachers do not have the expertise in eliciting the students’ ideas and unfortunately little guidance is given in the resources that provide the children’s ideas. This really affects the teachers’ enthusiasm to use the constructivist approach. Teachers who have made a commitment to a constructivist approach often feel guilty that they are unable to manage to implement this in their practice. Even if the teacher has adequate information about the learners’ initial ideas, attempting to respond to their individual ideas can become an enormous task in classroom management.
Ponchaud (2001) indicated that further pressures on UK primary teachers that affects the delivery of good science teaching may include the recent government initiatives in literacy and numeracy, which have resulted in the timetabling of science as short afternoon sessions in many schools. They put so much on these subjects timetabled in the morning and by the time they come to science in the afternoon, they do not have much energy to teach effectively. As result they just give students worksheets to complete instead of carrying out experiments or let the students watch videos.
Chapter 3 Historical Perspectives of Learning in Primary Science
The perspective of pedagogical debate in the teaching and learning in science during the twentieth century focused on increased interest in students as subjects in relation to their own learning process. As such constructivist approach to teaching and learning in primary science has become increasingly popular. There has been a shift from the traditional, didactic approaches to constructivist approaches (Tobin, 1993). Unfortunately there have been few publications that provide a detailed description on how teachers should develop scientific enquiry in primary science.
3.1 Learning theories that have shaped constructivist teaching
Constructivism is not a new concept in education. It has emerged from the work of psychologists and educators such as Piaget, Bruner and Vygotsky to name but a few.
Piaget’s work is related to the theory of cognitive constructivism. The underlying factors of this theory are ‘age and stage’ component that predicts what the children can understand at different stages of their development. Piaget asserts that children cannot be given information, which they can immediately understand and use. Instead, they can ‘construct’ their own knowledge, which they build through experience.
Piaget portrays a picture of the child as a ‘lone scientist’, engaged in constant enquiry and continually faced with the puzzle of new experience and evidence, which creates questions in the mind (Loxley, et. al., 2010). Put in another way, the experiences the children gain enables them to create schemas (mental models) in their minds. These schemas are changed, enlarged, and made more sophisticated through two complimentary processes; assimilation and accommodation. The cognitive constructivist view comes from Piaget who asserted that ‘human learning is constructed, and that learners build new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning’ (von Glasersfeld, 1990). This principle forms the core of the constructivist epistemology and determines the constructivist view, not only of the results of scientific endeavor but also of all the ordinary knowledge we glean from everyday experience.
Constructivist teaching is based on this premise of successive knowledge building that increases in depth and complexity from stage to stage. Piaget believed that humans learn through the construction of one logical structure after another. He also concluded that the logic of children and their modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults. Piaget concluded that humans learn through the construction of progressively complex logical structures, from infancy through to adulthood. The implications of this theory and how he applied them have shaped the foundation for constructivist education.
Bruner, influenced by Piaget’s research on child development, proposed a cognitive development theory that emphasizes the student’s active role in the learning process. The learner formulates hypotheses, constructs new ideas, and selects information that is integrated into existing knowledge and experience. Bruner initiated curriculum change based on the notion that learning is an active, social process in which students construct new ideas or concepts based on their current knowledge. Bruner advocates teaching activities that allow students to discover and construct knowledge and that knowledge instruction should progress from simple concepts to formulating new propositions and the manipulation of information.
The major influence of Vygotsky’s theory is on social constructivism. This theory is based on social interaction and social context, which are essential in cognitive development. He noted that ‘language is the most important tool for cognitive growth’ (Vygotsky 1978:57) because the world is full of other people, who interact with the child from birth onwards. He points out at the idea that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span, which he names the “zone of proximal development” (ZDP). This is the gap between the learner’s assisted and unassisted competence. Full development during ZDP depends upon full social interaction.
There is no single ZPD for individuals because the zone varies with culture, society, and experience. Vygotsky claimed that the larger the zone, the better students will learn in school. For a ZPD to be created there must be a joint activity that creates a context for student and expert interaction. Constructivist teaching links up with Vygotsky ZDP where learners are challenged within close proximity to, yet slightly above, their current level of development. By experiencing the successful completion of challenging tasks, learners gain confidence and motivation to embark on more complex challenges.
Vygotsky argued that students could learn through instruction. That is you could “scaffold” the learner’s development. Other people play important roles in helping children to learn, providing objects and ideas to their attention, talking while playing and sharing while playing, reading stories, asking questions. . The ability to learn through instruction and mediation is characteristic of human intelligence. By the help of adults children can do and understand more than they can on their own. Therefore social interaction is important because the expert can model the appropriate solution, assist in finding the solution, and monitor the student’s progress.
Scaffolding allows students to perform tasks that would normally be slightly beyond their ability without that assistance and guidance from the teacher. Appropriate teacher support can allow students to function at the cutting edge of their individual development. Scaffolding is therefore an important characteristic of constructivist learning and teaching.
3.2 Teaching and Learning in primary science
Significant changes are noted in primary science since the introduction of compulsory science for all children between the ages of five and sixteen in UK (Murphy, 2003). Constructivist perspectives have influenced the teaching of primary science. In constructivist teaching, knowledge is not passively received, but is actively built up by the learner. Indeed, actively engaging students in science through scientific enquiry is the goal of recent science education reform. Science version 2000 is the first version to focus on the importance of scientific enquiry and since then much emphasis is placed on it. Scientific enquiry formed a significant part (25%) of the National Curriculum in science in England.
The main reason for constructivist teaching approaches to be acceptance in primary science is that the grounding of learning activities in an authentic, real-world context, scientific enquiry stimulates positive attitudes and engages students meaningfully on tasks assigned to them. Learning is a process of constructing meaningful representations, of making sense of one’s experiential world. In this process, students’ errors are seen in a positive light and as a means of gaining insight into how they are organizing their experiential world. The notion of doing something ‘right’ or ‘correctly’ is to do something that fits with “an order one has established oneself” (von Glasersfeld, 1987, p. 15).
However scientific enquiry is still lacking in primary science. Despite the emphasis put on scientific enquiry, children are not getting adequate opportunities to experiment in primary schools. Harlen (1996) commented that it might appear too difficult for teachers to find out about the ideas of all the children in a class in such a way as to plan activities to accommodate them for scientific enquiry. In my opinion, teachers lack the confidence to support students to develop the scientific enquiry skills. Take for example the majority of students accepted on primary Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Most of these students do not have science degrees. The course content covers mostly teaching strategies, which will help them to teach children in primary schools but do not help them to acquire the knowledge of the topics they will teach.
It is important to remember that constructivism places the child at the centre of the learning process. The child constructs new knowledge from what they already know. Constructivism transforms the student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the learning process. Always guided by the teacher, the children construct their knowledge actively rather than just mechanically ingesting knowledge from the teacher or the textbook. How does the teacher who lacks the content knowledge in science plan lessons focussing on scientific enquiry in primary science?
It is really an unfortunate situation that teacher are still using the transmissionalist approaches in primary science. Ofsted (2008) reported that teachers heavily directed practical work and there was too much reliance on work sheets. In these circumstances, practical activities were often used to illustrate points rather than to give pupils the opportunity to plan and conduct their own investigations in some schools. Such the teaching learning does not comply with the constructivism theory as the tasks like group work, problem solving and discovery learning, if used, are often characterised by a high degree of teacher control and a low level of pupil participation.
Wildy and Wallace (1995 (p.143)) asserted that good science teachers are those who teach for deep understanding: “They use students’ ideas about science to guide lessons, providing experiences to test and challenge those ideas to help students arrive at more sophisticated understanding. The classrooms of such teachers are learner-centered places where group discussion, exploration and problem solving are common place.”. Indeed, understanding is a key aspect of scientific enquiry.
The fact that many teachers lack confidence and training in scientific enquiry places greater demands on the subject coordinator. The need for professional development by teachers on scientific knowledge and constructivist teaching will increase the subject coordinator’s workload as he/she will be expected to offer support and guidance when needed. Therefore the extent and quality of in-school training depend very much on the effectiveness of science coordinators. The science coordinator at the school played an important role in ensuring quality delivery of lessons. However, Ofsted (2008) noted that ‘little training is available, beyond that which the school provides. Some coordinators are successful in extending their colleagues’ skills, knowledge and understanding. To be effective, the need the support of their headteachers but this is not always forthcoming.
3.3 Research project in Primary Science
There are a number of projects that have been carried out to improve the teaching and learning of primary science. One of the major ones, the Science Processes and Concept Exploration (SPACE) project (1990-1998) generated major interest in children’s own scientific ideas, which has given weight to constructivist approaches towards learning in science Murphy 2003). The Project was based on the view that children develop their ideas through the experiences they have. The Project aimed at establishing (through an elicitation phase) what specific ideas children have developed and what experiences might have led children to hold these views; and secondly, assessing whether, within a normal classroom environment, it is possible to encourage a change in the ideas in a direction which will help children develop a more ‘scientific’ understanding of the topic (the intervention phase) (Leeds, 1992).
As a result of the SPACE project, curriculum materials began to emerge which adopt an explicit constructivist teaching for example the Nuffield primary science teaching materials. The teaching approach in these teaching materials; start with what children know, build on the ideas the children bring with them to their lessons and help them to develop their understanding of scientific concepts. As a consequence teachers have made some attempt to modify their practice by taking these constructivist principles into account. The implications of such a view are that teachers need to find out the learners’ ideas in order to take these into account in their teaching. Teachers then need to provide experiences, which challenge the learners’ current understanding in order to help them restructure their ideas.
However the SPACE Project raised many issues in addition to those of identifying and changing children’s ideas in a classroom context. The question of teacher and pupil involvement in such work has become an important part of the Project, and the acknowledgement of the complex interactions inherent in the classroom has led to findings, which report changes in teacher and pupil attitudes as well as in ideas. Consequently, the central core of activity, with its pre- and post-test design, should be viewed as just one of the several kinds of change upon which the efficacy of the Project must be judged.
The collaborative effort among researchers and teachers on constructivist teaching was to encourage teaching which takes account of the prior ideas and understanding of children in the development of specific concepts in science, and to stress the need to provide prospective science teachers with a model for constructivist learning situations. Considering the fact that guidance available to teachers on how to promote restructuring of the learners’ ideas is very limited, the separation of the two phases could be confusing to the teachers. In my opinion, the purpose of the elicitation phase is only evident to the teacher and not to the learner. Teachers may find the SPACE resources very helpful but will find it difficult to link these ideas to what the pupils already know.
3.4 Impact of the SPACE project on teaching of primary science
The SPACE project results on the pupils’ attitude towards science and choice of topics have stimulated interest among othe researchers. For example, Murphy and Beggs’ study (2001) confirmed that most of the older children had significantly less positive attitudes than younger ones towards science enjoyment, even though the older children were more confident about their ability to do science. The negative attitudes towards science could be attributed to lack of experimental work as reported by Campbell ( 2001) and Ponchaud (2001) whose studies showed the importance of experimental work both for motivating children and enhancing their learning in science when they found out that children enjoyed ‘doing experiments’ and ‘finding out new things’.
Two further studies confirmed the SPACE project results. Johnston et al (1999) study showed that girls were significantly more positive than boys about doing science in the classroom and Woodward and Woodward (1998) study showed that girls showed a higher preference than boys for health education confirming the results from the SPACE project which showed that girls preferred topics in the life sciences and boys preferred some of the physical science topics.
3.5 Current status of science in the primary school curriculum
The government-sponsored Relevance of Science Education Project Report recommended Science to be dropped as one of the core examination primary subjects and to be replaced by ICT despite the 11-year olds doing exceptionally well in the national tests. On a positive note, alt schools have the freedom to decide how to teach its content to best meet the needs of their pupils. From a constructivist view, learning and making sense of what happens rests ultimately with individual learners. Therefore the new curriculum brings hope to constructivist teachers. The scrapping of examinations means learners might mean more time for learners to clarify, elaborate, describe, compare, negotiate, and reach consensus on what specific experiences mean to them in a more relaxed manner without any for learning facts for examinations.
On a negative view, we have those teachers who do not have the enthusiasm, confidence and knowledge to teach science. This might mean that other areas might be taught at the expense of science. Attention to constructivist theories of learning science and to scientific enquiry mights diminished in primary scienceand result in factual science taught again.
3.6 Comparative studies in science education
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Report revealed an alarming trend towards pupils’ performance in science tests, particularly for England. This study included a section on Performance Assessment (PA), which investigated pupils’ ability to carry out short investigation tasks, indicating the high level of international interest in this aspect of science learning. An ‘investigation’ of this nature means a practical task which the student undertakes, but for, which detailed instructions are not given. England fell on the sixth position among the forty-five countries included in the performance Assessment.
It is difficult to reach conclusions about why pupils in England are not performing better than pupils in other countries. One possible suggestion could be the differences in the methods of teaching. From a constructivist perspective, it is the process that matters more than in the product. What is important in examination results or an educated individual? Edu
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