Exceptional teaching: Science learning as conceptual change

mind map abstract on blackboardSister Gertrude teaches science to grades one through six in a parochial school in a middle-class community in the upper Midwest. Her classroom is unusual in that it is equipped like a high-school science lab. It has black slate lab stations with electrical outlets and gas jets. There is a network of computers with a terminal at each lab station. But it also contains a carpeted area used daily for group discussions, and the walls are covered with students’ posters showing their most recent ideas on topics such as the particulate nature of matter, heat and temperature, force and motion, density and human anatomy. It is clear that the principal activity of this class is the public sharing of ideas.

The depth of scientific understanding expressed by the elementary students in Sister Gertrude’s classes is recognized by many science educators as extraordinary. Sister Gertrude, who views learning as conceptual change, has written extensively on how students learn science. “From a constructivist perspective,” she states, “I perceive learners as actively constructing their own knowledge by using their existing knowledge to interpret new information in ways that make sense to them.

As a result, learners build their own conceptual structures, which subsequently foster the development of some conceptions and inhibit the development of others.” Misconceptions about science inhibit learning, yet they are pervasive among adults as well as children. Science educators have had limited success in promoting metacognitive reflection that leads to conceptual change.

For this reason, Michael E. Beeth, Ohio State University/Columbus, describes how Sister Gertrude establishes a view of learning as conceptual change through the instructional activities she presents to students. For an entire year, he studied the instruction in her fifth-grade class, none of whose members was either exceptionally gifted or in need of special academic services. Science instruction in this school is unique, since Sister Gertrude teaches all the science classes, students take science from her for six years. They become familiar with her expectations and methods.

Sister Gertrude’s Instruction

Sister Gertrude began the year by presenting a list of seven learning goals to her students:

· Can you state your own ideas?
· Can you talk about why you are attracted to your ideas?
· Are your ideas consistent?
· Do you realize the limitations of your ideas and the possibility that they might need to change?
· Can you try to explain your ideas using physical models?
· Can you explain the difference between understanding an idea and believing in an idea?
· Can you apply the words intelligible and plausible to your own ideas?

She typically begins class by asking students to state their ideas and offer some reasons why they like them. During one eight-week unit students focused on water to study the particulate nature of matter. They examined water samples collected from different sources and in different states of matter. They also built molecular models of the water samples and used these models to discuss the arrangement of water molecules in solid, liquid, and to a lesser extent, gaseous states.

Instructional activities included whole-group discussions, small-group discussions, hands-on experiences with water samples, the building of physical models of molecules, and writing activities. The class met five days a week for 45 minutes. Three periods were designated for science, one for health and one for computer instruction. This schedule was flexible, however, and Sister Gertrude sometimes used computer instruction to have students write up their current thoughts on science concepts.

Sister Gertrude’s teaching concentrated on developing the intellectual capabilities that enable students to examine their thoughts and those of others. Her learning goals stressed talking about ideas in certain ways and examining ideas through certain standards. Learning goals were taught in several ways.

Although stating your ideas was taken for granted by the time students reached fifth grade, Sister Gertrude frequently reminded students to talk about the reasons underlying their ideas. Determining if one’s idea was consistent, realizing the limitations of ideas and the possibility those ideas need to change, and explaining ideas using physical models were all taught explicitly in an ongoing manner as opportunities presented themselves. Sister Gertrude would ask a question when she recognized that applying one of the learning goals would advance a child’s thinking.

Instructional activities were based on students’ ideas and included helping them represent abstract ideas with physical models. The need for consistency was stressed continually. During the water unit, two ideas arose that could interfere with further learning. Students thought that water molecules differ at the molecular level depending on the source (faucet, pond) from which they come and some thought that water frozen in a particular shape — a cylinder, for example — must have molecules arranged in that same shape. These ideas and the reasons for them were elicited. Physical models were made and the consistency of the ideas was analyzed. Students were then able to recognize the limitations of some of their ideas.

Adapting learning as concept change

Beeth concludes that Sister’s Gertrude learning goals work in her setting, but probably can not be transferred directly to other classrooms. Her instructional environment is unique because understanding of the goals of learning is built up over the six years she has these students in her class. However, her example demonstrates that teachers seeking to facilitate learning as conceptual change must begin by exposing ideas that students have and addressing these ideas in their instruction.

Students’ ideas about how they learn science, as well as about science content, must be incorporated into the curriculum. In addition, teachers need to create opportunities for students to recognize the limitations of an idea if they are to give up misconceptions and begin building a new conceptual structure.

“Teaching Science in Fifth Grade: Instructional Goals That Support Conceptual Change” Journal of Research In Science Teaching Volume 35, Number 10, December 1998 pp. 1091-1101.

Published in ERN February 1999 Volume 12 Number 2

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