What are the process skills associated with Scientific Enquiry?
What features do you think are important when engaging children in practical work?
How can practical work enhance the development of children’s scientific ideas?
Scientific process skills are a means for learning and play a crucial part in developing thinking skills, problem solving, making decisions and helping to evolve children’s ideas. There are seven scientific process skills identified by Harlen (2000). These are: observing, raising questions, hypothesising, predicating, planning and conducting investigations, interpreting and communicating. Practical work can be a useful tool to aid the development of children’s process skills and can be used to illustrate a scientific concept, for observation purposes, or to teach specific skills. Sharp et al. (2007) highlights that; ‘these are all worthwhile. However, it is important to be clear about the purpose of the activity.’ (Page 25.) Jones (2001) supports this statement, affirming that children understand what is required of them it will then be fixed in their memory. Setting clear learning objectives and warranting that the children are provided with a structured framework or scaffold, and setting clear success criteria aids children in being able to achieve the learning goals. Vygotsky (1978) ‘views children as actively constructing their understanding as result of their experiences’ (cited in Robson, 2006. Page 25), therefore it is the roll of the teacher to facilitate these experiences to promote thinking and learning amongst the children in their class.
Practical work an important method that can incorporate all seven of the process skills. However, trying to incorporate all process skills at one time is difficult and is not a realistic expectation. It is important to focus on specific skills one at a time. Science has a range of methodologies, and each methodology leads to a focus on differing process skills. Observation through practical work is important as it enables children to develop understanding. ‘Because children’s ideas make personal sense, they can be very stable and resistant to change… children – and indeed many adults – find that many scientific ideas are counterintuitive, in that they seem contrary to everyday experience.’ (Sharp et al. 2007. Page 29.) To change children’s personal ideas that they may already have, cognitive conflict needs to take place. Cognitive conflict has been used as a teaching tool aiming at the conceptual change of pupils’ perceptions with respect to science concepts. Observation of practical work is an effective way of formulating cognitive conflict for children.
According to Piaget (1963, cited in Robson, 2006), learners construct their knowledge when he or she encounters input from the environment – the learner’s schemes or mental structures incorporate the new experiences, this is called; assimilation. If and when newly assimilated information conflicts with previously formed mental structures, the result is called disequilibrium. This motivates the learner to seek resolution between conflicting ideas, or equilibrium. Regaining equilibrium results in what Piaget called accommodation. Accommodation results in the development of new mental structures and ideas.
By children either observing a teacher carrying out practical work or observing the results of their own practical work in the classroom, these ‘personal’ ideas can be changed to help children understand the world in a scientific way.
While on a placement with a year 5 class, I taught the class about the water cycle. Most children had struggled to grasp the concept that rain was not new water and that it was in fact part of a cycle. I demonstrated this to them by recreating the water cycle on a smaller scale in a box. The children observed the evaporation of the hot water (sea) and condensing on the cling film over the box (clouds) and finally ‘raining’ in the box. By observing this happen the majority of the children grasped the concept of the water cycle and that rain was not new water. Cognitive conflict had taken place through observation and therefore the pupils were able to understand the process of the water cycle.
Through practical work children can also develop their questioning and communicative skills by working together. This relates to Vygotsky’s theory that; ‘social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development’. (Vygotsky. 2013. Online). Through discussion, sharing ideas and thoughts, a child’s learning can progress. Vygotsky’s theory has been based on the supposition that learning takes place as a result of an individual’s exploration of, and exposure to his own surroundings. “Classroom-based involvement in culturally-based ways of thinking collectively can make a significant contribution to the development of individual children’s intellectual ability”. (Mercer and Littleton. 2007. Page 114)
Language is fundamental to cognitive development. Language development, simultaneous cognitive development and thinking skills result from a child’s social and interactive experiences. There is a broad range of evidence about the importance of early interaction and the role of adults in the development of children’s receptive and expressive language development. (Hanen Manolsen, 2011) By creating opportunities for children to improve and use their language skills to reason, predict, comment and develop concepts during practical tasks in science, the process skills are acquired and strengthened.
Teachers should establish a learning environment where discussion and raising questions is encouraged. Displays and question boxes or boards can be a useful, visual tool to promote questioning. At the beginning of a new topic potential questions can be brainstormed and displayed and then answered throughout the topic. “There should be a school climate where questions are treated seriously and teachers should be role models.” (Sharp et al. 2007. Page 31).
A beneficial way of incorporating questioning, discussion and development of communicative skills is through group work, and especially group investigation when carrying out practical work in science. ’Over the past twenty years, group work between pupils has been promoted in many countries as a key component of elementary science. The relevance of group work to science education is a recurring theme in contemporary guides for practitioners.’ (Howe, 2007. Online) Dewey’s (1978) theory is the contention that pupils should be encouraged to operate as members of communities, actively pursuing interests in cooperation with others. Linking back to Vygotsky’s theory of social interaction, groups can discuss their ideas, eventually achieving a group consensus over crucial points. Goldsworthy (1998) considers the importance of investigative work for children and states that ‘pupils need to make their own decisions: they must have some autonomy at some stage about how the investigation is carried out.’ (Goldsworthy, 1998. Page 68.) Pupils may require a degree of autonomy but there is a need for scaffolding and support from the teacher. Group investigations can present children with the impression that they are working autonomously as their work is independent from the teacher and can give support to, and receive support from, their peers.
I observed a year 5 class participating in a group investigation about evaporation. The groups were encouraged to decide on a question about evaporation, for example; ‘does evaporation take place under all conditions?’ Then, in their groups they had to decide how they would carry out the investigation, what the variables would be, how they would record their results. They then made a prediction and finally, carried out the investigation. This task motivated the children as they felt they were working independently from the class teacher. Discussion was promoted through group work and as the children worked with guidance from the teacher, but with fewer instructions, they were motivated and enthused to carry out their investigations (and to get it right) as they felt they had ownership of their own learning.
Practical work is not always a positive method for learning if it is carried out incorrectly. Hodson (1991) reported that ‘the research literature indicates that there is little to show that practical work is effective in helping students to learn scientific knowledge, and that some reports suggest that it is less successful than other methods.’ (cited in Abrahams and Millar, 2008)
Watson (2000) conducted a study that supports this premise. WatsonHhHH compared two groups of children, one that had been exposed to a highly practical curriculum and the other group, a low practical content. The sample groups showed few differences in scientific conceptions. Hodson (1991), claims that: ‘As practiced in many schools it [practical work] is ill-conceived, confused and unproductive.’ (cited in Abrhams and Millar, 2008)
There are numerous positive aspects of carrying out practical work in science lessons; however, it can often be used incorrectly and therefore not have the intended impact. For example; there are many different types of investigations, however, in a study carried out in by AKSIS it was found that the most commonly used type of investigation in the classroom is fair testing and in some schools it was the only type. (Goldsworthy, 1998). Watson (2000) supports these findings and contends that fair testing limits the variety of methods used by scientists, therefore limiting the practice of these skills amongst children. Without a variety of practical teaching and learning experiences children will be limited in the practice of their processes skills. It is important to have a variety or practical work, for example; fair testing, classifying and identifying, pattern seeking, exploring, investigating models and making things and developing systems. It is important to have a range and wide variety to encompass all the different skills at various times so that children have a chance to learn all the different skills spread over the span of the science curriculum.
Supporting the theory that practical experience in science promotes progression of skills, is a study by Braund and Driver in 2009, discussing pupil’s attitudes to practical science. Their study showed that; ‘Y6 pupils in particular, operate in a frame that sees practical work as generally useful and enjoyable and a natural consequence of scientific endeavour, whether this be for learning in school or as part of a job. (Braund and Driver, 2009. online) Children can make logical sense of their findings, while recognising the point of the exercise and enjoying it. By scaffolding children’s learning and deciding on a focus, having a range of practical work that encompasses the process skills can be a valuable tool to aid children’s knowledge, skills and understanding of the scientific curriculum.
‘It is not sufficient simply to use scientific processes in carrying out a practical activity, but there is also a role for the teacher in helping students to understand the underlying concepts of evidence.’ (Watson, R. 2000).
It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure all process skills are incorporated through a breadth of practical work. It is essential to incorporate scientific practical work into the classroom as it enhances the development of children’s learning and understanding. Through questions being raised and ultimately being answered and observation taking place, children are given the chance to progress and advance their scientific knowledge.
Written By: Rose O’Halloran
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