Long-term results of primary science instruction

Schoolchildren and teacher in science classResults of a 12-year study indicate that science instruction in the primary grades has a positive and lasting effect on students’ understanding of science. Using a program of science lessons developed at Cornell University by Joseph D. Novak and Dismas Musonda, 191 first and second graders in four public schools in Ithaca, New York, were taught science concepts using audio tapes. The researchers then followed these students throughout their school careers, interviewing them in grades 2, 7, 10 and 12 to monitor the development of their understanding of scientific concepts.

A smaller group of 48 students in the same schools who did not receive instruction in the experimental program served as a control group and were interviewed at the same times. At each grade level, students who had used the taped science lessons showed a substantially higher percentage of scientific concepts and fewer invalid concepts than uninstructed students. Wide variations in knowledge were apparent within both groups, but overall the instructed group demonstrated significantly better understanding.

Science-learning capabilities of students underestimated

In the past, conventional wisdom among science educators and curriculum planners (based in part upon their interpretation of Piaget’s work) was that abstract science concepts could not be taught until at least the upper elementary grades. But, in working with elementary students, Novak came to believe that the learning capabilities of primary students were being significantly underestimated.

He suspected, as well, that since elementary teachers generally receive little science training, science instruction at these grade levels may be inhibited. Therefore, an alternative approach to primary-level science instruction was developed to test whether primary students were, in fact, capable of developing important conceptual understanding.

Over a period of four years, Novak worked with graduate students to develop and test a series of taped lessons. These lessons, based on the assimilation learning theory of David Ausubel, were revised as many as eight times before they were judged to be workable as well as engaging enough for children to use individually.

These lessons guided students through hands-on activities which illustrated basic science concepts. Each lesson required fifteen to twenty-five minutes for a child to complete, depending on how long he or she interacted with the hands-on materials and how often the tape was backed up to repeat portions of the lesson.

Use of taped lessons

Lessons were designed to build on common knowledge possessed by first- and second-graders, with subsequent lessons building on knowledge introduced in earlier lessons. Every lesson came with a kit of pictures and other materials to look at and manipulate. Some lessons included worksheets, and a few had short 8mm film loops.

These taped lessons were installed in carrels in a corner of each first and second grade classroom. Most children had no difficulty using the equipment and proceeding through the lesson without assistance. A new lesson was provided about every two weeks after all the children had had at least one opportunity to interact with the materials.

The children were exposed to 16 lessons during first grade and 12 during the second grade. Throughout, two basic concepts were developed: (1) that matter is made up of particles, and (2) that energy is needed to change things or is released when things change.

In interviews conducted during grades 2, 7, 10 and 12, the researchers evaluated changes in students’ understanding of concepts dealing with the particulate nature and behavior of solids, liquids and gases. Concept maps (which diagram a students’ understanding of ideas and the relationships between ideas) were prepared from interview transcripts. Next, a system for numerically scoring the concept maps was developed and tested.

Remarkably, even only a few hours of high-quality science instruction enabled the instructed students to retain a significantly larger number of valid ideas about science and fewer invalid ones. Novak concludes that this was due in part to the very carefully developed and tested lessons to which the instructed children were exposed. Novak’s data suggest that contrary to what has been previously believed, primary age children are capable of learning science concepts and that early concept formation acts as a kind of advance organizer, enabling students to take better advantage of later instruction. These capabilities should be exploited.

“A Twelve-Year Longitudinal Study of Science Concept Learning” American Educational Research Journal Spring 1991, Volume 28, Number 1, pp. 117-153.

Published in ERN November/December 1991 Volume 4 Number 5

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