Pedagogical Reasoning in Science Part 1

Characteristics of pedagogical reasoning

Good pedagogical reasoning goes well beyond just looking for activities to plug into a unit plan, it involves a high level of teacher professionalism enacted through collaborative interrogation of practice that goes beyond designing enjoyable science lessons to building meaningful learning episodes. As Ian look at what he collected he identified three key characteristics of quality PR:

1.       Questioning/interrogation. Each of our focal concepts stimulates (different) questions about both existing and suggested practice.

2.       Use of frames that scaffold quality teaching and learning; frames such as types of engagement, aspects of quality learning, ways of constructing pedagogically powerful big ideas and the 12 PEEL principles of teaching for quality learning are all discussed below.

3.       Looking for the issues that flow from characteristics of a particular topic (see Appendix 9), put another way there is no such thing as a generic approach that is appropriate to all topics, all schools, all students or all lessons.

Note that curriculum writers at both the system and school levels as well as text book authors will have engaged in considerable pedagogical reasoning to produce their documents. However this reasoning is almost always completely hidden in text books and often only partly apparent (if at all) in curriculum documents. This limits the likelihood that these resources will be used in ways that match the intentions of the resource writers. A dilemma that we identified in this project was how much of the PR behind school level curricula and resources can be put in these documents without overloading them. We do not have good answers to this at present.

Some goals of effective leadership

Good leaders develop a greater sense of professionalism and expertise in their school colleagues; who value becoming better able to articulate and achieve quality learning and engagement. This has proved to be a very stimulating and rewarding driver for change in the past.

One outcome of this is that teachers become more sophisticated in what they look for and attend to in the classroom, for example are they satisfied with mere on-task behavioural engagement or are they looking for serious and sustained cognitive engagement. The way teachers used our ideas to interrogate practice was an exciting outcome.

The above point relates to changing/improving the nature of professional conversations particularly in science or year group planning meetings, moving away from administrivia or a search for activities that can be plugged into a unit unchanged. Conversations will vary, in part, with the degree of shared educational beliefs and values. The trickiest ones to lead are ones where there is a considerable range in this. We believe that our focal concepts can provide leaders with ways of stimulating and running discussions, such as on what people would like to see in terms of engagement that can have constructive outcomes while allowing a wide range of people to contribute. The above links to the value of developing a range of more effective, but feasible structures for collaborative planning at the individual topic and lesson levels.

A Vignette: Changing views on the nature of science as a result of pedagogical reasoning.

Dominique Dybala
This story by Dominique Dybala illustrates using an important aspect of how we frame pedagogical reasoning for educational leadership. Dom was clearly skilful in the way she handled the meeting, but it is significant that bringing a focus on the purpose of the unit – clearly an aspect of interrogating practice – resulted in a deep discussion that led to some significant shifts in teacher beliefs (in this case about the nature of science).

At the beginning of term three this year, the grade five and six teachers had the chance to discuss the purpose and focus of the upcoming science unit. This unit was to focus on the details of the solar system and in particular how scientific discoveries have informed the knowledge that we have today.

I intended to use pedagogical reasoning in this conversation to help the team get clear on the purpose of the unit and what the big idea was.

Two of the teachers were new to the senior team. They were used to having all the unit content prepared for delivery to their students and using the planning time to prepare for the term ahead. The others in the team had taught this unit before and were able to draw on what they had experienced with the students previously.

The resulting conversation was eye opening. In the process of unraveling the purpose of the unit, and the notion of doing justice to space exploration in a classroom we came to discussing the very nature of science and the concept of scientific proof.

It was acknowledged that there was probably not time for the students to have a direct experience of the solar system with a visit to an observatory. And we figured it might be difficult for students to develop their own experiments related to the solar system. We would have to depend upon what science could tell us already and the proof that existed.

It was at this point that the conversation turned to proof in science. For one of the teachers, it became apparent that science was a set of absolutes to be taught to students. We probed further and talked about science not having any absolutes. Scientific evidence was not an absolute but was evidence that supported theories and hypotheses at a particular time. This could shift when new evidence came to light.

For this teacher it was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. Their changing view of science was happening in front of us.

Building shared values

What teachers think about when planning and reflecting on practice flows from their educational values. If you believe that if the “delivery” has been done properly then there should be no need for student questions then your PR will be very different from a teacher who believes that quality learning includes students reflecting on their interests and understandings and framing thought provoking questions.

There has been broad agreement that, to achieve the sorts of changes that are important in teaching, you have to carry your colleagues with you – you cannot simply mandate the changes that matter – you cannot mandate educational values.

In 1969 Frances Fuller postulated a model of three Stages of Concern that teachers move through when exposed to ideas that propose noticeable change in their practice:

·         Self concerns. What are the likely costs and benefits for me in taking this on? These are not selfish concerns, but entirely reasonable things to consider.

·         Task concerns. What do I have to do? Am I doing this correctly?

·         Impact concerns. How is this working? How can I modify and improve it?

Over the past 30 years, we have found many times that there is little point in working on what you would like teachers to do differently (Task concerns) until you have addressed Self concerns. A crucial aspect of this is building a reasonably shared set of educational values so you do not keep getting side tracked by debates about, for example, whether telling is the best teaching. We note, that before talking more about values, leadership involves a goal of moving staff to Impact concerns – working as an action research community. It is when you and your staff are identifying and brainstorming about improving problems of learning that you make real progress. Having said this, before teachers are ready to engage in this sort of thinking, they usually need time to meet Task concerns – to have decided that they understand and can enact things that have been suggested.

Some values that we argue underlie our framework; we are not putting these out as mandated, merely to stimulate thinking and discussion.

1.       Engagement should include cognitive engagement, not just behavioural or affective engagement.

2.       Students need some intellectual space to engage in quality learning; highly transmissive teaching does not provide this.

3.       There are important reciprocal relationships between the quality of learning, the nature of classroom discourse and the nature of teacher-student and student-student relationships. Put another way, relationships are built on and by discourse and quality learning involves discourse that is dialogic, not transmissive.

4.       Teachers need the intellectual space to operate as genuine professionals

5.       Skilled teaching includes trusting students and taking risks

6.       There is value in developing explicated frameworks that provide both scaffolds and vocabularies for teacher collaborative action research

7.       Quality leadership uses and works from beliefs such as these

Content is an important variable

As stated earlier, different topics provide different contextual opportunities and constraints. Dom’s vignette about the development of ideas about the solar system provides a nice example. This topic includes things that cannot be directly measured – we cannot move to the position above the solar system drawn in texts and this was particularly the case in the 16th century. This means the topic offers opportunities to focus on two important aspects of the nature of science (NOS): How can scientists make claims about things that they cannot directly measure? And, how scientific explanations are always provisional and may change in the light of new evidence. A topic such as magnetism does not provide these opportunities, but, unlike the solar system it does provide rich opportunities for hands on classroom experimentation and discovery.

Table 1 below illustrates this with thinking about the characteristics of the content in four different topics:






This is rich with activities that allow students to discover or work out most of the content. The alternative conceptions are readily testable, which is one aspect of NOS


Materials and Properties

The students’ have lots of experiences in this area – they are, after all surrounded by materials whose properties determine their uses and their conceptions are quite consistent with accepted science. However these ideas (e.g., the reasons why we make knife blades out of steel and not rubber) are tacit and need to be brought out. The history of new materials can be an aspect of NOS


Forces and Motion

There are some strongly held alternative conceptions about fundamental issues, however there are many ways of testing these in the classroom.  There are regular opportunities to extend the current answer and so provide a sense of progress. The need for a coherent and parsimonious theory can be an aspect of NOS.


Particle theory

The students’ conceptions are strongly held, simpler and less abstract than accepted science. Moreover, there are only a few ways of testing (some of) these alternative conceptions.  Consequently it is not easy to build fruitfulness for this invented abstraction except to revisit, reuse, recheck and extend understandings many times.


Table 1 Characteristics of four different topics

Appendix 10 contains a grid of 29 topics against 7 questions that provide a scaffold for interrogating content.

Ways in for other staff

OK so how might you build a set of reasonably shared values over time? We break this section, quite imperfectly, into some advice that applies more to working with all your staff and some that applies more to small groups, often pairs who are planning particular topics.

Working with all teachers

1.       One tactic that had some success was for leaders to demonstrate an authentic (i.e. not tightly scripted) PR discussion that pinballed around our focal concepts and then run a debriefing discussion on what people saw and what value they saw in this. We do not yet know whether or not, before enacting the demo discussion, it is better to give the other teachers a list of our focal concepts (without explaining them) and getting them to look for instances of these – this can then allow meaning to be built.

2.       Initiating a discussion on what teachers value in engagement and, as appropriate, introducing the framework of behavioural engagement (on task behaviour), affective engagement (fun and or intrinsic interest) and cognitive engagement (thinking about content and purposes). This can lead to discussion of how to capitalise on affective engagement moving this to cognitive engagement.

3.       Lead a discussion that provides a shared experience of what it means to look for the different issues, constraints and opportunities in (say) two different topics. Appendix 10 contains Ian’s thinking on 29 different topics.

4.       Interrogating practical (and other) activities turned out to be useful. This was a strong theme of the final year with cohort 2 as teachers reported the value of using our framework to interrogate existing practice as well as activities suggested in print resources. The focus of interrogation is not people’s personal teaching, but rather interrogating the usefulness of an activity in building understanding in students. Questions like:

·         Why might we do this?

·         What type of prac is it – what are its purposes?

·         Are there actually layers of purposes that are all worth attending to?

·         Is it actually dealing with the content we think is important in a way that is useful?

·         What sort of engagement is it generating?

·         How might we enrich it?

Have all proved useful. The final meeting discussed developing a scaffold of types of purposes for practical activities and tagging individual activities with one or more of these. The provisional list developed included:

·         a hook to get students in (generating affective engagement

·         discovery where students genuinely discover or work out a new aspect of content

·         linking theory and practice or theory to the outside world

·         a way of moving on to a new but related issue

·         a scientific investigation and if so, which skills of investigation were relevant

Ian would add

·         a way of challenging students prior views

·         resolving conflicting ideas/explanations that have emerged from the class

Appendix 1 is a document Ian and Bec Cooper produced from a 1998 analysis of all of Ian’s lesson plans. This has no more status than the purposes they could see in Ian’s teaching; it is relatively weak, for example in the skills of scientific investigation that have subsequently come into Victorian curricula.

5.       Use the science continuum. This rich resource connects teachers with the ideas many students hold, provides age appropriate explanations of content and as well as ideas for working from and where necessary restructuring students’ conceptions. Each focus idea distils a huge amount of research and classroom experience into a brief and pithy resource; we strongly advise leaders to spend some time exploring it. Appendix 2 provides some navigation advice about getting to this resource. A good example of one of the Focus ideas is  problems with Classifying solids, liquids and gases. (You can find this under Chemical Sciences Appendix 3)). As you will see in the resource it describes students everyday experiences and common prior views, then provides some age appropriate relevant acceptable science (often hard to find) the third section called critical teaching ideas are what we would now label big ideas; these flow from what is discussed in the first two sections, finally there are some possible teaching activities. This particular example includes how students use the word ‘solid’ differently from its use in classifying materials as well as some other prior views. The second section points out that common text book statements such as “matter can be classified as either a solid, a liquid or a gas” are seriously flawed and brings out an important aspects of NOS – all scientific classifications are imperfect, albeit useful.

6.       Brainstorm about one of the 12 PEEL Principles of Teaching for Quality Learning These emerged as recurring themes in what PEEL teachers reported as working in their classrooms. They provide one powerful way of interrogating existing practice. They are framed as strategic principles meaning that they reflect long term rather than lesson specific agendas and that each can be enacted in many ways and thus can be a regular feature of teaching without generating boredom from repetition of the same tactic. Because each can be enacted in multiple ways, they have proved a useful scaffold for quality discussion at teacher meetings. Each of these is a search field on the PEEL database  – selecting any one calls up a large number of classroom accounts of using that principle. Some examples follow.


Advice for “planning pairs”

7.       Look for occasions when students can work out part (or all) of the content or instructions. This is PEEL principle 2. Forty five years ago, the ideology was that students could “discover” all or most content by experimental inquiry. For several reasons this was naïve, but there are unquestionably many places where students can discover, or work out for themselves some part of the content, not necessarily by experiment of course. This principle can be used to stimulate teacher interrogation of activities and units in ways that reflect some of the values above.

8.       Provide opportunities for choice and independent decision-making. This is PEEL principle 3 and again it can be used to interrogate activities and units. One important type of choice is designing an experimental investigation, but there are many others. You can search the PEEL database by this principle combined with the subject of science (and many other search fields). Once again this principle can be used to stimulate teacher interrogation of activities and units in ways that reflect some of the values above. An important cautionary comment emerged from the October meeting in 2017. Asking younger students to design all aspects of an experimental investigation can leave them with too many things to have to think about without having the skills to do this. Scaffolding a pathway for students that provides them with the skills and thus the confidence to persist with complex tasks is important.

9.       Share intellectual control with students. This is PEEL principle 1, it emerged very strongly during the leadership program when teachers brainstormed about route to engagement. There was strong agreement of the value and power of students sensing that their questions, ideas and contributions were genuinely valued and used, often influencing the direction a lesson or unit took. It provides another frame for teacher discussion and interrogation.

10.   Build a repertoire of generic teaching procedures that promote different aspects of quality learning. – see PEEL principle 9. There are many teaching procedures, documented on the PEEL database (go to that have proved useful entry points for teacher change. Translation tasks such as Role plays or Creative writing where students have to “translate” some content into another form can provide teachers with experiences of students thinking carefully about propositional text. Predict Observe Explain is an extremely powerful tactic that typically stimulates rich student engagement as well as revealing to teachers the views their students have constructed in this area of content.’ Probes of prior views also confronts teachers with hitherto unsuspected student views. Promoting and using students questions is deeply entrenched in primary practice, but less so in secondary.

11.   All teachers know that variety is one useful source of student engagement, this is particularly needed when you are using intellectually demanding procedures such as concept mapping. PEEL principle 8 states Use a wide variety of intellectually challenging teaching procedures. The PEEL database documents over 200 different teaching procedures. It is a very rich resource here.

12.   Look for ways of linking activities to your big ideas (Principle 10), or rather for students to make these links. Providing purposes for activities is one important role of big ideas. Expect that it will take time for students to be able to do this and to understand the value of this sort of thinking. Of course thinking about if and how an activity connects to one or more big ideas is an excellent scaffold for interrogation of practice.

Some primary specific issues

The lack of familiarity with content is always huge. In the last meeting a primary leader felt that this made many primary teachers reluctant to drill down into the content behind practical activities – rather they were satisfied with hands on engagement. Once again we recommend the science continuum as a resource designed to tackle exactly this issue.

If science is to have any serious time in primary classrooms, it has to be able to be used to help meet literacy agendas as well. This means more than just having science as a context for, say writing a story about crocodiles, it means, in this example, that in writing the story, the students are thinking about and using some things they have learnt about crocodiles. Going back one step, the teacher has raised with the students questions such as What would you need to know about crocodiles to write a story about them. There is no doubt that this maintenance of a focus on the science in a literacy task can work, if you click on Fact In Fiction stories on the PEEL database you will see some examples. The crucial issue from a leadership perspective is to encourage teachers to capitalise on the opportunities the science presents for a literacy task, but to not then drop thinking about science agendas, but rather for teachers to focus on how more learning about science can be an important aspect of the task.

Similar comments can be made about constructing literacy tasks that have a NOS (nature of Science) agenda. Note that NOS means much more than the important issue of experimental inquiry – this is elaborated below.

A dilemma that needs to be managed is the balance between going wherever students take a topic (often via a wonder wall) and having some agendas that you do want students to learn. Aspects of sustainability would be an area where, in a primary classroom, we would have some agendas. Appendix 5 is some thinking by Ian after the second meeting in 2017 where a secondary teacher suggested that all content should be seen mainly as just a vehicle for teaching inquiry skills. Ian had some problems with this and the appendix reports his thinking with some specific examples of what he would call important content and why.

The big ideas of primary teachers are often bigger that those of secondary teachers in that they transcend subjects and are planned to appear in all subjects over, say a term.