WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor (Emeritus), Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto

Procedural Education
Skills Education
Developing Expertise for Science Inquiry, Technology Design & Related Communications

Welcome! This page provides perspectives, general practices and links to resources for helping students to develop expertise such as how they might design effective experiments and studies that they could use for generating knowledge in particular problem solving contexts relating to science and technology. Developing such expertise is part of students' 'procedural' education,' which is one of two major domains addressed by my overall pedagogical framework. It also is an essential part of STEPWISE. Note that there are many pages linked to this one and each has downloadable resources. If you have comments, questions, suggestions, resource ideas, etc. about anything here, please write to me about them. Thanks.
Web Links.

Rationale for Developing

Inquiry/Design Expertise
From a young age, people use methods similar to those used by scientists and engineers. Children often ask questions, develop ideas ('hypothesize'), test ideas against experience ('experiment'), draw conclusions and debate ideas. Although learners tend to develop some skills, they generally can benefit from broadening their repertoires. The greater the skill set that an individual possesses, the less dependent he/she is on others for building and evaluating knowledge. This is particularly important in societies that have highly developed science and engineering operations, which tend to be controlled by for-profit companies. Generally, companies benefit when consumers are dependent on their products and services. Since every product and service has inherent to it a set of instructions for thought and action, each use represents an element of control of people by those financing the manufacturing of the products/services. Related to this, the more individuals develop their own (idiosyncratic) expertise, developed in situations decided by them, the less others can define such expertise. Currently, there tends to be an emphasis on excessive pre-specification and management of student learning. This has important implications for the democratic nature of education. The more we allow governments and others to define what is appropriate expertise (and knowledge), the less autonomous we are as individuals and, therefore, the more subject we may be to manipulation by those who would benefit from controlling our thoughts and actions. This is reminiscent of an ancient Chinese proverb:

Give a man [sic] a fish and you feed him for a day;
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

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Curriculum - Skills to Teach?
Before considering how to help students to develop expertise for science inquiry and technology design, we need to ask, 'What is the nature of this expertise?' What skills should students be taught, and to what use(s) might these be put? There are some widely-referenced attempts at defining this in official curricula and elsewhere, including:
Although there are many useful ideas in these sources, educators should - in my view - be cautious when using them. In short, it seems clear that scientists and engineers do not always use such skills, they may use them in ways that are dependent on their personalities and particular situations of their use, and their use(s) may be influenced by powerful people outside of science fields. Educators should not, therefore, think of these skills in strictly 'cognitive' (e.g., problem-solving) ways, as if they could be conducted by robots. Practices in science and technology are, clearly, subject to human conditions. This implies, in other words, that skills education needs to be integrated with NoST and STSE Education (and, indeed, WISE Activism).
I often show people the flow-chart at SciTech Strategies, which depicts thinking skills that might be used in science and technology. This is a highly stereotypical depiction of such processes. Although two cycles are depicted, the flow-charts are far too linear. In practice, methods may not work out as planned - and, so, scientists and technologists may change directions at any step along the way. Also, it is quite common for scientists to develop hypotheses after obtaining results of inquiries, rather than beforehand. At the same, it is apparent that some aspects of these skills and processes are considered tacit; that is, sub-conscious and difficult to express - which, of course, means that we cannot fully know what skills they are using! Apart from such cognitive and methodological considerations, however, their are important psycho-social factors. Scientists and engineers, for example, have certain biases - such as those based on favoured theories - which can lead them to desire certain topics, methods, and results, etc. Their biases, however, may arise from strong external influences. There is much evidence, for instance, that scientists have compromised the integrity of their work because of pressure from business sponsors. Given the complexity, unpredictability, idiosyncrasy and situatedness of science & technology practices, any single representation cannot accurately capture them. Consequently, educators, policy makers, administrators, etc. need to exercise flexibility  in terms of instruction and assessment and evaluation of students' expertise for science inquiry & technology design. Refer below for some ideas.
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General Skills Pedagogy
Instructors' approaches to helping students develop expertise for science inquiry & technology design and related communications depend on various factors, due to the idiosyncratic and situated nature of teaching & learning. Which learning perspective(s) influences an instructor, for example, is one factor. I have been heavily influenced by constructivist learning theories. Such principles form the basis for my overall pedagogical framework for science & technology education. Integrated in that framework are suggestions for assisting students with their procedural education. The model below magnifies the 'Procedural Thinking Cycles' of my pedagogical model, in which skills (procedural) education occurs in syncrony with 'conceptual' (i.e., 'content,' such as laws & theories) education. Although the 'procedural apprenticeship' model below is not, necessarily, to be followed in order, teachers might:
  • first, in the context of a topic (e.g., 'heat') under study, students should be encouraged to demonstrate their current skills; e.g., by being asked to design their own experiments.
  • then, in a different context, use demonstrations, multimedia aids, drawings, etc. to teach skills, such as variable control (e.g. by testing the behaviour of balloons).
  • immediately after this teaching of skills, assist  students with activities, in which they practise the skill(s) that was/were taught; e.g., by designing an experiment, with teacher guidance, to investigate ball bouncing.
  • when they feel students have developed intended skills, encourage students to conduct science investigations &/or invention projects of their design in which they may use some of the new skills, in idiosyncratic ways and in ways dependent on the context.
Note: For phases #2&3, use of WISE Issues as the context of lessons/activities may promote concern about such issues - leading students to choose to focus their inquiry and design project on them.
A downloadable version of this model is @ Apprenticeship Overview. Specific examples for use of this model are below.
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Specific Teaching Suggestions
To assist teachers with using the above 'procedural apprenticeship,' I have prepared a series of web pages (linked at right) containing ideas, suggestions, downloadable resources and links to other websites for helping students to develop various skills. Although, as I have said above, the skills depicted at SciTech Strategies are stereotypical and not, necessarily, representative of actual practices in science and technology, I have found them to be useful as a starting point for teaching of skills. Indeed, I have divided them up into groups that correspond with each of the three main phases of my constructivism-informed teaching & learning framework. This breakdown is summarized at right, along with links to web pages that provide relevant resources.
  • Expressing Ideas: Students develop such skills as: asking questions, noting problems, and developing hypotheses. Such skills may be useful when students are asked to express their ideas about a topic (e.g., how static electricity works).
  • Learning Ideas: Students develop such skills as: making notes and working in cooperative groups. Such skills may assist them when they are learning from others.
  • Judging Ideas: Students develop such skills as: designing experiments and correlational studies, developing and analyzing tables and graphs, developing written reports, making arguments in discussions. Such skills may be useful when they are asked to evaluate claims.
Note that this skills apprenticeship could/should be tied into STSE-NoST/WISE issues education. For example, when teaching students to design experiments, teachers can select variables for students to test that likely have an STSE-NoST/WISE issue implication. Students could, for example, test effects of the following sorts of variables on bean seedling growth: decreases in pH, due to increases in acid rain; increases in salt concentration, due to increases in road salt use; increases in gasoline concentration, due to increases in gasoline leaks from cars, boats, etc. Using such contexts would make this a 'WISE Skills Education,' and would fit within the STEPWISE framework.
Some resources for teaching several of these skills are available through the link at right. These were created several years ago. To bring them 'up-to-date,' they should be modified so that students develop skills in the context of STSE issues. For example, instead of learning to design studies by doing some involving more 'benign' relationships such as effects of age and a person's ability to speak quickly, students could develop such expertise by exploring relationships between use of personal audio devices (e.g., iPod™) and teenagers' hearing.
Skills Education Resources.
NOTE: A complete set of skills apprenticeship resources are available for 'field-testing.' Write to me to request a copy.

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Student Assessment & Evaluation
Assessment and evaluation of students' development of skills for science inquiry, technology design and related communications is complex - depending on such factors as the teacher's educational theories, students' readiness, government curriculum expectations, and parental desires. Among the first things teachers might do is to establish just what skills are worth teaching and - related to that - the level of flexibility about what these can be. They should then, likely, consider some general principles of assessment and evaluation (e.g., A&E). For teachers acknowledging constructivist learning principles and ideas explored above about relationships among skills, NoST & STSE, some specific suggestions for each of the phases of the skills apprenticeship framework above are given at right.
  • Expressing Skills: Given that the idea is to encourage students to become more aware of their own skill level, it is important that A&E at this stage does not demand that they demonstrate particular skills or do so in particular ways. The emphasis should be on A&E of the student's effort at demonstrating a skill.
  • Modelling Skills: Since the teacher is directing lessons here, the point is to ensure students are paying attention and understanding the skill(s) being illustrated. 'Skills' do have a knowledge component, such as that the reason for controlling variables is to try to ensure the cause of any changes in results is not due to the variables kept constant (controlled). Teachers can A&E students on the basis of such knowledge. A good example of this is at Concepts of Evidence.
  • Practising Skills: The point here is to ensure students are developing the skill(s) taught by using it/them. Teachers can use checklists as they observe students demonstrate such skills as: controlling variables, measuring with an electronic balance, and making reasoned arguments based on their data and theory.
  • Applying Skills: The main point here is to allow students to use their newly-developed skills in realistic situations and, as they do so, further develop such skills. This is a point at which students may develop skills in ways somewhat different from the ways in which they were taught in Modelling & Practice phases of the apprenticeship. For this reason, checklists may not be the best approach. Instead, teachers may have to use such more vague 'measures' as rating scales, including such terms as 'ineffective' and 'very effective.' Related to this, it is crucial that the form of assessment is authentic; that is, the skill(s) being demonstrated is/are part of a real problem or knowledge building process under the students' control - rather than having them carrying out an activity designed by the teacher, which likely will narrow the nature of the skills used.
© All Rights Reserved, J. L. Bencze, 2008
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