Authentic learning boosts girls’ performance and interest in physics

iStock_000016075406XSmallTo halt a decline in interest in science as students reach their teens, England and Wales have made radical changes in the national science curriculum.

The revised goal is not merely to impart scientific knowledge, but to develop scientific literacy so that students, as future citizens, will be able to meaningfully participate in  issues of importance to society.

The curriculum seeks to  expose students to broad scientific explanations “for making sense of the world.” It also seeks to teach them about practices that produce scientific knowledge and to make science instruction more relevant by placing it in the context of current scientific debates about social issues and dilemmas.

One of the Twenty First Century Science courses developed for the new curriculum to teach physics is Energy Foresight (EF). The course features three 20-minute television programs on DVD: Radiation and health, power production and radioactive waste. The differentiated science curriculum offers a selection of courses to appeal to different student interests.

In an article published in Curriculum Journal,  researchers Patricia Murphy, Stephen Lunn and Helen Jones of The Open University, UK.,  report that girls showed increased learning in physics and viewed the subject as more relevant to their lives as a result of EF.

“The  need to ‘rush’ through the science content placed students in a passive role as receivers, rather than constructors, of knowledge,” the researchers write about the previous model.

“This meant {the students}  experienced only a narrow range of pedagogic strategies, and rarely had their ideas, and even rarer, their values and concerns about science, considered. Furthermore, practical work, so valued by students, was typically a ritualistic instruction-led exercise rather than an agentive experience of problem-solving and decision-making.”

Appreciation of complexity

The researchers looked at the impact of EF by comparing interest and learning before and after implementation of the pilot for 53 students. They also surveyed 81 non-pilot students and interviewed several teachers. Students were also tested for impact on understanding on all three sections of EF.

The researchers found a dramatic effect on  girls’ learning and on their views of the relevance and interest of physics for those who participated in the pilot of EF. There was a more modest, but positive effect on boys. There was also a significant decline in their confidence about how well they knew the subjects, probably because of  their new appreciation for the complexity of the subject,  researchers write. The proportion of the pilot sample reporting they knew the subject well decreased from 91% to 57% for boys after EF; there was only a small decline reported by girls from 58% to 53%.

Girls and boys differed in their interest in the three parts of the EF course.  Boys were more interested in energy production and girls in radiation and health. Teachers may need to elicit students’ perceptions and feelings about the social situations in which their science learning is embedded, the researchers write.

“A major aim of the Twenty First Century Science course is to engage students in culturally authentic learning environments where they participate in science-based discourses around social issues involving a range of communities,” the researchers write.

Cultural authenticity also requires students to critically evaluate the knowledge claims of science–e.g. considering alternative approaches to treating cancer.

Exposure to science careers

One reason students lose interest in science, the researchers write, is possibly because of their lack of awareness of science-related careers. While the EF course did increase awareness of science careers among both girls and boys, girls did not report reconsidering plans for their future lives, reinforcing other research about the lack of impact of short-term changes in curriculum on girls’ future plans.

In England and Wales, under the new curriculum, a single exam will be used to assess students’ scientific literary (General Certificate of Secondary Education). At age 15, students can choose to discontinue the study of science or to pursue it on one of two tracks–vocational or traditional academic.

In another study, in the Journal of Science Education, researcher Avi Ornstein found that students had more confidence in their science abilities and greater interest in science in class and outside of school when instruction included hands-on experimentation and independent inquiry.

“How well students perform in academic science courses over the long run, is not as important as their understanding of broad science concepts and their attitudes toward science,” Ornstein writes. “As adults, these factors will influence their reaction to issues that affect them and society as well as whether they support or oppose proposed political decisions. It is therefore imperative that educational systems recognize the important role played by student attitudes and seek actions that will achieve a positive view.”

Independent inquiry improves attitudes

The researcher interviewed and surveyed teachers about their classroom practices and surveyed 786 students in paired classes (with or without experimentation or independent inquiry practices). He found that students had more confidence in their science abilities and greater interest in science in class and outside of school when instruction included experimentation and independent inquiry.

Ornstein asked questions that measured students’ attitudes towards science, focusing on three factors associated with student attitudes toward science. (Novodvorsky 1993).

Including hands-on activities will only be effective, Ornstein concludes, if they are quality activities that are interesting and relevant to students’ courses. Teachers should be trained in including these activities throughout the middle and secondary grades.

“The Impact of Authentic Learning on Students’ Engagement with Physics”, The Curriculum Journal September 2006, Volume 17, Number 3, Pps. 229-246.

“The Frequency of Hands-On Experimentation and Student Attitudes Toward Science: A Statistically Significant Relation”, Journal of Science Education and Technology, October 2006, Volume 15, Number 3 Pps. 285-297.

Published in ERN December 2006 Volume 19 Number 9

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