Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor (Emeritus),
Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto
Teaching & Learning Principles
Teaching and learning in school science and technology and in other subjects are highly complex, influenced by myriad simultaneously-changing, often interacting and unpredictable factors - including characteristics of: students, teachers, parents/guardians, learning environments, school administrative personnel, and government policy and guidelines (which, in turn, often are affected by socio-political factors). Consequently, the recommendations here should only be taken as a set of optional principles. Most recommendations are linked to one or more web pages that provide(s) more detailed descriptions and access to relevant resources. Many of them are based on a short article: Imagine ... - in which I explore ways of addressing several issues in school science. I also have provided a list of bi-polar constructs to consider when planning and evaluating teaching and learning. Clearly, there are other issues needing attention in school science, and it is important that all educators determine those most important to them. Please write to me about anything you find/don't find here.
Particularly because curricula often are highly standardized, it can be easy to forget that each student has a unique set of needs, abilities, resources, etc. Some students come to school with many advantages over others - in the sense, for example, that their food may be more nutritious and plentiful, their home lives more caring, and their access to physical resources (e.g., computers) more plentiful than other students. Abraham Maslow was a pioneer in recognizing that some students have needs, particularly biological ones, that must be addressed before meaningful learning can progress. Although teachers often cannot address all such needs, it is essential for them to always keep in mind that students' learning may be limited due to fundamental needs.
Arguably one of the most significant factors preventing teachers from providing all students with a high quality education is school systems' over-emphasis on 'products' (e.g., laws, theories & inventions) of science and technology. Although students need instruction in many such products, an over-emphasis on this learning domain can condition students into habits of consumption and limit the breadth and depth of their literacy. Among solutions to this ongoing problem is to encourage governments and school district boards to reduce the number of expectations for learning so that educators can promote deeper learning (long-lasting & functional) - involving more higher-order thinking - and development of more 'comprehensive' literacy; that is, an education that includes not only instruction about products of S&T but, as well, education about - for example - processes of knowledge development in fields of science and technology. More about such broad literacy is provided here.
Particularly in secondary schools, science education is separated from and, moreover, given priority over technology education. By 'technology,' I am not just referring to computers, etc. but to education about various inventions/innovations and techniques for developing them. For various reasons, science and technology education need to be more integrated in schooling. One reason is that fields of science and technology often are more integrated in practice. However, it also is important as a way of overcoming the tendency of school science to disempower many students because of its emphasis on abstract, decontextualized knowledge - such as laws of science that are intended to apply across all contexts. Such abstract thinking can be difficult for students with relatively low cultural capital - who also tend to be economically disadvantaged. Since technological design is a more contextual phenomenon, it can have more personal relevance for students. Accordingly, many educators (e.g., Roth) are encouraging students to become more involved in technological design regarding personally meaningful problems. An important book dealing with this is: Technology's Challenge to Science Education. Students could, for example, attempt to develop approaches for improving plant growth and, through that, come to a better understanding of factors affecting plant growth.
A perpetual and long-term problem associated with school science is its frequent excessive orientation towards identification and education of small fractions of student populations who may become scientists and engineers. This often is accomplished through an excessive orientation towards abstractions. Such an approach tends to favour students from rich cultural and economic backgrounds. Most other students tend to struggle with school science and often leave school lacking literacy in science and technology - and, as a consequence, may be dependent on people who control professional science and engineering. Nevertheless, because of the prevalence of products and services relating to science and technology and in personal decision-making, all citizens need literacy in these areas. People dealing with many personal matters, including nutrition and food preparation, athletic activities, waste management, etc. need to understand ideas and technologies from science and engineering - as do people working in various careers not commonly considered 'scientific' or 'technological.' Accordingly, school science systems need to organize curriculum and instruction towards educating all students to the best of their abilities. This may, for example, require more remediation. An emphasis, also, on practical, personally-meaningful contexts can be helpful. An excellent book about this is: Rethinking Scientific Literacy.
As I have stressed elsewhere on my website, school science systems tend to overly emphasize instruction about 'products' - e.g., laws, theories, inventions - of science and technology. This is limiting for students, in many ways - including that it tends to condition them into being 'receivers' of knowledge/instructions, rather than producers/critics of it. A focus on products also limits the 'breadth' of students' literacy. In addition to learning about 'products' of S&T, students could be: i) learning about the nature of S&T (NoST), ii) learning about relationships among fields of science and technology, societies and environments (STSE), iii) developing skills, strategies, etc. useful for conducting realistic science inquiry and/or technological design projects, iv) conducting realistic science inquiry and/or technological design projects, and v) developing expertise for and carrying out socio-political activism intended to improve the wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments. This site provides resources for each of these learning domains. In attending to each of these domains, though, teachers should keep in mind that overt attention to one domain (e.g., 'products' of S&T) can affect (often subliminally) student learning in one or more other domains. There are many possible positive and negative relationships among the learning domains in science and technology education, as depicted in the STEPWISE model.
Teachers need to base their instructional practices at least partly on theories of learning, several of which are summarized (with web links) at: Learning. One of these learning theories, constructivism, has great support from educationalists. A basic tenet of this theory is the idea that learners are 'active,' rather than passive, observers. In other words, they interpret (construct) ideas about their experiences that may be different from the way other people interpret them. Based on this theory, a group of high school teachers and I developed a general framework for creating curriculum in science and technology. I have, subsequently, revised this framework and have developed many instructional ideas and resources based on it. These are available at: Constructivist S&T Ed.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, is famous, in part, for his work in cognitive development - particularly in terms of his Stage Theory. Based on his studies of children as they aged and developed, he suggested that younger children are unable to think in the abstract (perhaps not until about age 11), requiring concrete materials to facilitate thinking. Although many educators continue to use his ideas about child development, there have been many criticisms of them. Among these criticisms is the idea that different learners normally develop at different rates. This suggests that older learners may still require interactions with concrete phenomena prior to dealing with abstract ideas/thinking (in the absence of relevant concrete phenomena). Further support for this comes from knowledge duality theory (related to semiotics), which suggests that deep learning requires an interplay between participation with phenomena and representations (abstractions) of them:
PHENOMENA <======> REPRESENTATIONS
There is a rights/empowerment issue in this, as well. Learners only presented with representations (abstractions), without opportunities to develop their own representations through their own participation in phenomena, will be dependent on the effectiveness and ethics of the developers of the representations presented to them.
A common question asked by students is: 'Why are we learning this?' Because adults who do not know the students often decide what they need to learn, prescribed learning often seems irrelevant to them - despite adults' best intentions for providing students with an education that they feel will be valuable to them in future. On the other hand, it could be that curriculum content is more valuable to what controllers (e.g., capitalists) of education want for a society than what might be best for each student. At any rate, the fact remains that students often find required curriculum content to be irrelevant to their lives. There may be many reasons for this. Their cultural backgrounds may, for example, not be congruent with the nature of the knowledge, skills, etc. that are found in the curriculum - which, in 'Western' societies, tends to neglect Aboriginal ways of knowing, for example. Another major factor is that scientific knowledge is, inherently, abstract and decontextualized - which means that it is said to be generalizable knowledge, not tied to any particular situation but, at the same time, possibly applying to all situations. Accordingly, students are less likely to identify with abstract ideas than with practical phenomena. For these and other reasons, therefore, it can be helpful to attempt to make required curriculum content seem relevant to the students and/or to choose curriculum content that students perceive to be relevant. One approach, which is based on constructivism-informed pedagogy, is to begin instruction by first encouraging learners' to express their pre-instructional conceptions. Such lessons should involve practical, likely personally meaningful phenomena. For example, when the teacher is to begin lessons about plant structure and function, students could be asked to express their ideas, skills, etc. relating to common plants that the students are likely to encounter, including those they bring to class. Ideas, skill, etc. that students express through such activities will, assuming they are largely student-directed and open-ended, be particular to them and, therefore, likely interesting to them. Teachers could examine students' ideas, skills, etc. and then tailor their instruction accordingly. As well, teachers could encourage students to pursue student-directed, open-ended science inquiry and/or technological design projects dealing with their pre-instructional ideas, skills, etc. Prior to such projects, when teachers are providing students with planned instruction, they could, as well, attempt to provide students with ideas, skills, etc. that represent diverse cultural perspectives. One such approach is provided, with curriculum units, here: Cross-cultural Science & Technology Units. An excellent book about this is: Science Education for Everyday Life.
Because of diversity of learners, because they have different learning 'styles' and 'intelligences,' it is important for teachers to vary their strategies. This also can help to overcome 'boredom' students might encounter because of the repetitive nature of instructional practices they experience. Related to this, it is important for teachers of science and technology to remember to draw from sets of teaching strategies used in many subject areas. Some of these are provided at: Teaching. Strategies often used in science teaching are provided here: Learning Science.
According to research relating to the Pymalion Effect, learners perform best if they and their teacher(s) believe they can do well. In various ways, therefore, teachers can encourage students learning by communicating to them that they have faith in them. In addition to telling students that they are quite capable of learning, positive reinforcement of actual performance that is, at first, not exceptional can help.
When people think about 'teaching,' they often imagine a teacher telling students about something or, at least, ensuring - in some way - that students come to understand or do something that was anticipated/expected by the teacher (or those who regulate teaching). In other words, teachers often attempt to control (benevolently) student learning. Planning to ensure that students come to understand pre-specified ideas, skills, attitudes, etc. is a good thing. Students need access to ideas developed by their society (and that of others). They should not be expected to 're-invent the wheel.' There are some problems with this assumption, however. First, because of constructivist learning theory, it is not always easy for teachers to 'transfer' ideas, skills, etc. into the heads of students. Aside from this practical/pedagogical problem, however, teacher-guided instruction can be problematic in terms of students' democratic right to self-determine their thoughts and actions. A key problem in this regard is that all knowledge is considered to be associated with power. According to Michel Foucault, a major theorist who enlightened us to the many ways that power and knowledge interact (as 'Power-Knowledge'), powerful people tend to control knowledge development and distribution and the more knowledge a person has available to him/her, the more powerful will be that person. In a perfect world, this may not be a problem, but powerful people tend to want to maintain their power and, therefore, the knowledge they control may not always serve interests/needs of others. For at least this reason, students should - as Michael Apple suggests in Democratic Schools - have opportunities to construct their own knowledge, as well as having opportunities to gain access to knowledge developed by others. A convenient way to plan for and analyze teaching that varies control of learning is through Roger Lock's control-of-learning framework. In science education, students can, for example, conduct student-directed, open-ended science inquiry and technological design projects, in addition to participating in lessons controlled by the teacher.
One of the deepest traditions, and yet one of the most problematic practices in school science, relates to the use of inductive ('discovery') inquiry activities as a vehicle for teaching 'content' ('products' of S&T). In such activities, students are asked to conduct an empirical inquiry activity and, eventually, arrive at a conclusion that matches the conclusion accepted by the scientific community. Commonly, students do not arrive at the desired conclusion. This frequently leads teachers to guide the activities and, particularly, the development of the conclusions. There are various problems with such practices. Since students often develop conclusions different from those of scientists, having the teacher guide or correct them can damage their self-esteem, 'saying' to them that their ideas are of little value. Also, having the teacher guide the students' inquiries can lead them (often subconsciously) to assume that science inquiries are relatively predictable, efficient and able to arrive at lasting truths. Studies of science in action suggest otherwise; that, for example, scientists often change their methods during protocols, sometimes change the very question(s) they are asking, and arrive at conclusions about which other scientists do not agree. Similarly, they often hold onto their theories, predictions, and general ideas, despite getting 'negative' results from their inquiries. Guided inductive inquiries can, in other words, lead students to develop unrealistic conceptions about the nature of science. For these and other reasons, I recommend that teachers use deductive empirical activities to support knowledge claims of science (also see here). It is widely-agreed that students need to have first-hand, practical experiences with abstract ideas. So, engaging them in some kind of empirical activities is important. In deductive activities, the teacher would ensure, prior to the activity, that the students are taught the abstract idea; e.g., a scientific law, such as Charles' Gas Law (At a fixed pressure, the volume of a gas is proportional to the temperature of the gas). To help students to more fully comprehend the law, the students would be encouraged to carry out activities with heated gases, in different contexts, to test the law. In doing so, teachers also should be careful to remind students that their conclusions from such inquiries - like those of scientists - would not, necessarily, be accepted as 'truths.' They should be reminded that 'truths' in science generally arise only after many tests and many debates among scientists.
School science systems tend to orient science education towards positive portrayals of the nature of science and technology (NoST). Positive portrayals of science and technology can help to attract students into science and engineering studies/careers and encourage the general public to accept products and practices of science and technology, fields that, more and more, tend to be controlled by business and industry. In that sense, school science often functions as an 'infomercial' for professional science and engineering. Although fields of science and technology have made great contributions to societies and environments, in association with large businesses, they also are associated with many of their problems. Many technologies, for example, have various negative side-effects - such as the pollution emitted from automobiles. Also, the integrity of methods used in some fields of science - including those associated with the pharmaceutical industry, for example - often have been compromised because of their association with profit-making. For these and other reasons, students need to be given realistic portrayals of NoST and STSE. My site has many ideas and resources in this regard, at: NoST Ed. and STSE Ed. A general teaching principle in this area is that a combination of inductive and deductive approaches is appropriate. In other words, teachers should present students with various claims about science and then let them test them through experience but, as well, should encourage students to 'discover' (develop) their own claims about science through their own experiences. Related to this, teachers should keep in mind that students are likely to induce ideas about NoS/STSE from instruction that is not, necessarily, intended to teach about NoST/STSE. This is an example of the so-called 'hidden curriculum.' Teachers who only use experimentation, for example, may subconsciously suggest to students that science always proceeds through experimentation and, indeed, always is data-dependent (rather than theory-dependent) - neither of which appear to be the case. Accordingly, teachers need to be careful as to what implicit messages about science they may be sending to students through their instructional practices.
Although professional scientists and engineers are, undoubtedly, highly skilled in their work, citizens could benefit from use of similar skills, strategies, etc. for their work and personal problem solving situations. Unfortunately, students of school science often do not develop significant expertise associated with practices in fields of science and technology. One of the more prominent reasons for this is that empirical inquiry activities in school science tend to be controlled by the teacher and/or textbook. Someone generally facilitates students' development of questions, predictions, test (e.g., experiment or study) design, graphing, data analysis, conclusions and methods of reporting. Such outside control of knowledge building processes can leave students relatively unskilled, always dependent on someone else to guide them in their uses. Accordingly, school science systems need to place much greater priority on helping students to develop expertise that they could use to conduct student-directed, open-ended science inquiry and/or technological design projects (refer here for ideas about the project themselves). In addition to developing expertise for such skills as test (e.g., experiments and studies) design and graph development/analysis, students could develop expertise for metacognition - strategies learners can use to monitor and manage their own learning. For a general framework, along with instructional resources, for helping students to develop expertise for SD/OE projects (and metacognition), refer to: Inquiry-Design Skills Ed.
Although providing students with skills apprenticeships activities is important, they also need opportunities to conduct student-directed, open-ended science inquiry and/or technological design projects. Without these, students will, generally, remain dependent on authorities for problem solving. Moreover, it is through independent problem solving that students can construct their explanations for phenomena and their own inventions - activities which enable them to self-determine their thoughts and actions, a basic democratic right. After apprenticeship activities, students could be encouraged to design inquiry and/or design projects, sometimes on topics of their choosing, and then conduct them without significant teacher intervention (other than, for example, to ensure safety).
Given the many personal, social and environmental harms associated with professional (especially business-funded) science and technology, school science students need to develop expertise for and participate in socio-political activism - in order to prepare them for future (and present) communitarian citizenship roles. This is the basis of my STEPWISE research and development project.
As Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." In other words, it always is important to review and evaluate one's actions. Accordingly, teachers need to assess (collect information about) their instructional practices and student learning and evaluate (judge) them. Ideas and resources relating to assessment and evaluation are at: A&E.