Transcript

Science Teaching with Vaughan Prain

23 May 2008

vaughan-prainProfessor Vaughan Prain
Email: v.prain@latrobe.edu.au

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 8.8 MB].

Matt:

I'd like to welcome you all today to the La Trobe University podcast. I'm your host Matt, and joining me today is Professor Vaughan Prain, he's the Deputy Dean of Education, let's give him a big fake round of applause!

(ROUND OF APPLAUSE)

Matt:

You're here to talk to us about the current teaching methods of science at schools, and the new approaches that are being taken. Is there a lack of science school teachers at the moment? I've heard there's a lack.

Vaughan:

There is a concern particularly in secondary schools, in some areas particularly in physics, that there is a problem of covering the teaching of these topics with people who have expertise in the area. It is often generalists or people with Biology teaching other areas of the science curriculum.

Matt:

Why's it important for primary school children to learn science?

Vaughan:

Science is a very powerful way of learning about making claims and having justified reasons for your understanding, and science has built up some very powerful ways to test and systematically organise your evidence so that you have the basis for your views. And we see that this is a very powerful resource for critical thinking but also for being an informed citizen about so many issues where science seems to occur whether it's about personal health or about global warming, or many issues where we would want people to have reasoned views and science can be, in school, an opportunity to develop these capacities.

Matt:

What do Australian primary schools need to do to encourage interest from students?

Vaughan:

Well I think we're getting very strong evidence. We're looking at engagement with science, and a very powerful way to achieve this is guided activities or enquiry, rather than it being a text based or go on the net, it's much more engaging for students if they're involved in having to explain the causes or the key ideas, the key explanations of a topic and they have a sequence of experiences that that can then motivate them to then want to check secondary sources to see whether experts agree with their views to find out whether their idea holds up against those of other class-members and to be guided by their teacher in developing what we'd see as authorised understandings. So we would see that it's got to be a mix of exciting interesting experiences where we have to test our understanding or explanations of what's causing something in the natural world, whether it's the distribution of bugs in a particular environment… why are they there, how would we explain it, or how do we explain why if you've got a ball in water and you push down on it, it pushes back up at you, and how would you try to capture that or re-represent it in 2D. These are ways we think you can make science, which is a demanding subject, interesting and sustained involvement by students. We've found that with our program that having to justify and explain your particular account of a topic is very motivating.

Matt:

These new techniques that you're coming up with teaching in primary school, are you educating the next generation of teachers at university level on how to teach these sorts of methods?

Vaughan:

One of the things we strongly recognise is that people involved in teacher preparation are the future of all subjects at primary school, so we are certainly making sure that these techniques and ways of thinking about teaching and learning are being presented to teacher education students.

Matt:

Could you give three reasons why children should study science?

Vaughan:

It is a powerful domain for explaining the world and it's important as part of its general education that they have an understanding of this world view, this way of understanding natural phenomena. It's also a very powerful way to develop reasoning capacities that could be valuable in other subject areas and we would see that in Australia we would want educated citizens who can make sensible decisions across a range of areas in their life, using a scientific reasoning approach.

Matt:

Do you consider Australia's efforts in teaching science now as being adequate? Are you seeing a difference?

Vaughan:

I think there's growing evidence from these international testing programs that science is very well taught in primary schools in Australia. There are concerns about the effectiveness of science teaching in secondary schools for a range of reasons, and I know various states at a national level are looking at ways to support effective science teaching and learning in secondary schools. The evidence is that we have a strong performance against other countries in primary schools.

Matt:

How would you go about fixing the problems in secondary schools though? I see it as a problem of a gap in knowledge.

Vaughan:

I guess there's various concerns at secondary level, often it's thought there's such a gap between what the students know, and what the teacher is aware of that the only way to get there is a shortcut through frontload teaching.

Matt:

Frontload teaching?

Vaughan:

Meaning the teacher just notes on the board a demonstration of the ideas and a limited opportunity for the students to have to imagine and engage with the topic in their own way, or even in a guided way, because of the pressure of the curriculum and so many topics to be covered. This tends to produce a limited range of teaching and learning strategies in some secondary classrooms. Again it would seem that the way to enhance science learning in secondary schools is to be able to apply some of the ideas we've been talking about for primary. I know there's now recognition because so many adolescents are now turned off the official curriculum that they need an opportunity for more extended projects for following up on topics of deeper interest rather than just being frogmarched through a whole range of minor curriculum points that they don't find interesting. The upshot of that is that we are now looking at programs where students can do more extended… maybe fewer topics but more extended topics now in year 8 and year 9. This will lead to deeper knowledge and more motivation rather than thinking we have extensive curriculum of concepts that must be learnt.

Matt:

That was a problem I had in high-school, so you're addressing that now in science class. You get physics, chemistry, and biology. You get all of them within a small amount of time.

Vaughan:

There's I guess two ways of looking at this. One is to look where there might be overarching or linking concepts across these topics so you can get a richer deeper idea rather than having to do lots of things that seem disconnected. That's one way of thinking about a richer curriculum. The other is to just not attempt such a breadth of fields, but to focus more deeply, relate it to the learner's own interests outside the classroom, more strongly, so that if it's about new technologies that it can relate directly to things that the learner is interested in, having some expertise outside the classroom rather than just learning canonical concepts from the last century. So these are ways in which we need a more nuanced, a more learned responsive but a more focused, deeper curriculum rather than the speed across the breadth of topics in a superficial way.

Matt:

The overview?

Vaughan:

Yep. So I think the idea of VELS, and this is paralleled in many curriculum around the world, is to have big ideas, richer concepts, and deeper learning in those junior secondary years where the students are likely to be uninterested in a breadth of relatively superficial topics.