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Pedagogical Reasoning in Science 2

Interrogating topics using our focal concepts

What follows is some advice for how one might use our focal concepts to scaffold discussion and interrogation of either existing or new topics.

Interrogating topics for engagement

One frame that teachers found useful – it made something they tacitly understood more explicit was distinguishing between mere behavioural engagement (Are the students on task?), affective engagement (are they finding this interesting or enjoyable?) and cognitive engagement (are they thinking deeply about what we are doing?).There was widespread consensus that the first of these, by itself was of little value and that, while affective engagement could be a very useful hook to get students in, you had to capitalise on this by moving it to cognitive engagement. This provides a useful way of interrogating wizz bang activities. Two other ways of thinking about engagement that we did not push for reasons of overload are metacognitive engagement (Are the students thinking about their learning and understandings?) and one that Keasty came across during the project; agentic engagement (Do the students feel they have agency in the classroom that they can influence what is going on?), this last form of engagement maps very strongly onto the idea of building a sense of shared intellectual control. These later two might be aspects considered after a group is familiar with interrogating the first three.

The challenge of designing ways into a topic that will generate engagement is much more demanding in some topics than others – in other words there is not a content free universal approach to this. Four questions that are useful:

1.       What is the availability of classroom activities for either testing prior views or for discovering/ deducing the content to be learnt (high in Air, low in Genetics).

2.       How rich are the students' personal experiences in this area? (rich in Sound, scarce in Atomic Structure).

3.       How closely can the content be linked to current social (e.g., Genetics), or historical (e.g. micro-organisms) or personal (e.g., Sex Education) issues.

4.       As a result of the above, how feasible is it to generate a list of student questions that could form the basis of all or part of the unit?

A valuable resource to assemble over time is a list of inherently intriguing phenomena that generate initial affective engagement such as trying to blow a table tennis ball out of a funnel and discovering that the harder you blow the more the ball stays in the funnel. Some of these can lend themselves to practical exploration. The challenge is always to make sure that affective engagement can be turned into cognitive engagement.

We repeat here the value of looking for ways to share intellectual control with students and build agentic engagement. Promoting students questions is one way, eliciting and then setting out to test and resolve differences between students’ prior views has also been a very effective route to cognitive engagement in thousands of classrooms. Once again the science continuum is a valuable resource.

Interrogating topics for big ideas

Big ideas is the perhaps the most tricky of our focal concepts. Microorganisms is not a big idea, it is a topic heading. Not all bacteria are harmful is a big idea. It is a sentence, with a verb, designed to be explicitly shared with students that reflects pedagogical purposes such as:

·         linking many phenomena, pieces of content and different activities

·         tackling known prior views or known problems of learning

·         providing relevance or importance a route to engagement

·         connecting the topic to their experiences

·         bringing out an aspect of the domain of science

In the example above, Not all bacteria are harmful draws teachers’ attention to a common prior view that they may not otherwise set out to tackle, it suggests a provocative opening question (Are all bacteria harmful?). It also suggests a range of phenomena involving useful actions by bacteria that are part of students’ daily lives and which can be explored and it links a range of different looking phenomena such a yoghurt, compost bins, digestion in the large intestine (and many others).

Developing good big ideas and then using them to interrogate and enrich a unit is excellent pedagogical reasoning, however it is a skill that takes time to develop.

One way in is to focus on how good big ideas can be used to enrich teaching.

Appendix 6 uses a few examples from the science continuum to illustrate how big ideas are constructed to achieve pedagogical purposes.

The skills associated with in constructing good big ideas can be developed in more than one way. Appendix 7 lists some ways of constructing big ideas about content. Ideally one should construct one’s own big ideas, but there is no doubt that this is much harder if your content knowledge is not strong. Once again the science continuum can be very helpful here.

Big ideas evolve as you think about and discuss a topic. Some questions that can be useful to think about:

·         What is traditionally taught here? Why?

·         What do we think is important here? Why?

·         Does the content involve major abstractions that are remote from the students' experiences and thinking? (e.g., the nature of energy, the length of geological time). This can lead to big ideas that help with this abstraction e.g. The concept of energy was invented over a long period of time as a concept to explain a wide range of changes, and Geological processes are extremely slow. However, because of the immense lengths of time involved, huge physical changes do occur

·         How consistent are the students' existing conceptions with accepted science and (if not) how strongly held are they? Once again this can help frame a big idea that tackles know prior view, Not all bacteria are harmful is one example An electric current in a circuit transfers energy from the battery to the circuit components. No current is ‘used up’ in this process is another.

·         Does the topic offer opportunities to open up aspects of the nature of science, this question means more than just science in society aspects, but getting more into issue of how science operates. Differently there could be aspects of the nature of scientific debate, the nature of developing rich theory or the process of doing science. As discussed, Dom’s vignette raised a big idea about NOS; Scientific explanations are always provisional and may change in the light of new evidence.


Big ideas are not identical to focus questions, both have value, but behind good focus questions there are usually one or more big ideas; it is worth making these explicit.

Big ideas are more than just big ideas about content; as just illustrated there are big ideas about NOS. Appendix 8 lists some issues of NOS which can help construct big ideas in this area. The internet is now a rich and readily accessible resource for stories in this area.

Big ideas are intended to provide teachers with ideas and angles for teaching. They are also intended to be framed in ways that can be used with students: Which big idea was this activity focusing on. How was this activity relevant to big ideas x. What have you learnt about big idea? These questions are ways of enacting PEEL principle 10 Develop students' awareness of the big picture: how the various activities fit together and link to the big ideas.

Interrogating topics for quality learning and quality learners

A number of issues here have already been mentioned:

·         the importance of cognitive, not just behavioural and affective engagement

·         looking for opportunities where students can discover or work out part of the content for themselves

·         looking for opportunities for choice and decision making

·         looking for opportunities for authentic investigations

·         promoting student reflection on practical activities – Why did we do this? What did we learn? How does it link to theory/ big ideas?

·         eliciting and working from students’ existing conceptions

·         thinking about the purpose of activities in terms of big ideas

The fact that these have come up under other focal concepts reflects how interconnected these focal concepts are and hence the pinball nature of the reasoning. An important issue for leadership is to recognise that several of the above aspects of quality learning can be seen as risky by many teachers. These teacher concerns are quite reasonable and relate to values 2, 3, and 5 (p. 3-4) in the list at the start of this document. Much experience has shown that these concerns ease as teachers take what they perceive to be manageable risks in their teaching – trusting their students not to take advantage of more intellectual space.

Linking is an important aspect of quality learning; students often see different lessons as isolated and unconnected and good unit design will build in clear linking of different ideas and lessons. As discussed, this is one important role of giving explicit prominence to big ideas. Processing information is another aspect of quality learning. If you ask students to read something in a text it is often done very superficially, if you ask them to turn it into a role play or a piece of creative writing you stimulate much deeper processing. Appendix 9 summarizes a list of aspects of quality learning that was developed during the EPL days.

The third value in the list of values early in this document referred to the reciprocal relationships between the quality of learning, the nature of classroom discourse and the nature of teacher-student and student-student relationships. It is impossible, for example, to get students restructuring strongly held beliefs such as that a moving body has a forward force on it by just telling them Newton’s first law. The students need to identify and articulate their views and, over time, reflect on whether and how these are different to the views of others and consistent with (say) what just happened in a POE such as trying to push a puck on an air table at a steady speed. This needs classroom discourse that is open, tentative, exploratory and sometime hypothetical (see PEEL principle 5). Students need to believe that they can learn from others students’ comments and ideas and that these should be listened to and respected (PEEL principle 6). Achieving this sort of classroom is one aspect of developing quality learners who understand and support the teacher not just telling them answers as well as what their roles can be in a good lesson.

This represents a fundamental change from transmissive teaching. There is always a place for good teacher explanation, but often this should be responsive to what has happened in the classroom – the teacher recognise a need for some explanation as well as what this will be as a response to what students have said/asked. Learning can occur in many ways, sometimes useful learning can occur by listening to the teacher, but it is useful to think about whether students can learn by researching, inducing, deducing, discovering, experiencing, reading and processing or developing understandings from discussion,

Working with contextual constraints and opportunities

One aspect of this is using local resources such as a nearby beach in ways that involve quality learning not just an enjoyable excursion.

A common constraint is time, typically there is less time than ideal to teach a topic so serious decisions need to be made about what is the most important things to deal with. Authentic investigations require more time as students have the opportunity to explore and try things in different ways. This time has to be found from elsewhere.

Finally as already mentioned, the features of the particular content provide both constraints and opportunities that should significantly influence teaching.

As discussed, the nature of the content is an important aspect of context that provides both opportunities and potential difficulties. Appendix 10 contains some thinking by Ian of 29 different topics against 7 of the questions discussed above for interrogating topics.