Porirua College (TLIF1-071) - Making connections: teacher inquiry into targeted learning strategies in science Publications
This project arose from the recognition that students found it difficult to express scientific ideas using appropriate scientific language. Student achievement was impacted by generally low rates of literacy, and students struggled to learn and understand the science vocabulary they needed to communicate their ideas.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Brendan Cooney
Date Published: March 2019
The inquiry question was: “How do specific learning strategies influence teaching and learning, with a focus on students developing scientific language and using it to covey understanding both orally and in writing?” The new strategies introduced by the teachers were the use of Sparkler booklets with Year 9 classes, and concept maps with Year 12 classes.
We saw a huge, drastic change and that was within two periods, not over a longer time. So, that was the biggest impact on their learning … students could see the change.
Through the intervention, the Year 9 cohort showed improved student engagement, improved vocabulary, and an increased use of scientific language both orally and in writing. The Year 12 cohort showed improved paragraph writing (in particular, the construction of explanatory paragraphs) and improved NCEA external results.
Teachers reported a change in emphasis from teaching for assessment towards teaching for understanding. The results have encouraged the science teachers to further investigate and continue using concept maps with their senior classes.
Project lead — Brendan Cooney, Porirua College
The project involved five teachers, 104 Year 9 and 36 Year 12 students.
The science teachers wanted their students to be able to write paragraphs but knew they did not have the science vocabulary to do so. The teachers decided to focus on learning strategies that would support students to develop vocabulary in the context of the topics they were studying and to make connections between science ideas. The research questions were:
- In what ways does focused teaching inquiry improve teachers’ practice?
- How do targeted teaching and practice of learning strategies influence Year 9 and 12 students’ achievement in science?
The teachers used the Teaching as Inquiry cycle to inquire into their teaching and its impact on student learning. Five teachers in the science department went through three cycles of inquiry from mid-2015 to late 2016 to support students to learn strategies that would help improve their learning of science ideas. They also wanted to improve their teaching practice by making evidence-based decisions through systematically gathering, analysing, and critiquing information about student learning.
Initiatives trialled in the inquiry
Teachers focused on two learning strategies. The first, Sparklers, was used with four Year 9 science classes, one of which was an English as a second language (ESOL) class with high literacy needs. The Sparklers offer brief activities designed to reinforce what students are learning within a topic. The activities include simple tasks to support vocabulary development, through to more challenging tasks that require analysis, synthesis and application of what they are learning. Three of the four teachers started their lessons with 10 minutes work on the Sparkler booklets, while one integrated them into the body of each lesson.
The second strategy was to get Year 12 students of physics, chemistry and biology to develop concept maps to help them think about and link concepts learned within a topic. Students would develop an initial concept map at the start of each topic and link new ideas into their original concept map as they progressed. The three Year 12 science teachers also fostered other learning strategies and literacy skills, such as revision, constructing sentences to clearly and concisely communicate science ideas, and writing paragraphs in the formal style of a scientist.
The inquiry was assessed through:
- NCEA results for Year 12 students,
- scores in the NZCER Science Thinking with Evidence (SWeT) test for Year 9 students,
- comparison of science ideas in student group mind maps at the start and end of a unit,
- student self-evaluation and teacher feedback forms, and
- “cogenerative dialogue” between students and teachers in small groups (cogens).
Initially, teachers ran the cogens with the students, but they found that it was not a culturally appropriate tool for data collection, as their predominantly Pacific students did not communicate freely with teachers in small group sessions. The project engaged a former student who was capable and well-liked by the students, and he interviewed the students using the cogen approach. Transcripts of the interviews were used for teacher reflection.
Impacts on students
Year 9 students using Sparklers
Teachers believed that using the Sparkler booklets did improve the students’ science vocabulary, providing them with the necessary words for the topic and the ability to use them correctly in the context. It made a noticeable difference for the students who were English language learners, who built up their vocabulary to the point where they could take part in discussions, formulating simple sentences using the appropriate words.
Making the use of the Sparklers resource routine in each class helped engage students and gave many of them a sense of achievement. Some students with lower English levels initially found even the simpler exercises too difficult, but by the end were attempting them, sometimes with help from other students. The exercises helped motivate the students and teachers noticed students were more willing to participate in discussions because they had the science words to confidently communicate.
Group mind maps created at the start and end of each unit of learning showed students presenting significantly more science ideas and keywords at the end of each unit than at the beginning.
In student interviews conducted throughout the project, sparklers ranked as the most commonly mentioned learning strategy.
All teachers found students’ ability to communicate orally and in writing improved. Even students who had initially struggled to write now had the vocabulary to do so. They progressed from struggling to write a few lines to writing coherent paragraphs.
Year 9 students sat the NZCER Science Thinking with Evidence test in February and November 2016, with more than three-quarters of students improving their scores over the year. The average scale score increased from 42.1 in February to 46.3 in November, an average improvement of 4.2 points over an eight-month period. Previous Year 9 results from Porirua College indicate an increase of approximately three points could be expected over a 12-month period.
Year 12 students using concept maps
Initially, students had to be trained in using the concept maps, and shown how they were different to mind maps. They found the concept maps supported their learning, particularly as they became more experienced in their use.
- Students could use concept maps to identify gaps in their knowledge by showing them where they could not make the connections between concepts.
- Concept maps could both break a topic down into small pieces, and give an overview of a topic, which made it easier for some students to grasp.
- Some students found the concept maps provided an opportunity for feedback and improvement by highlighting misunderstandings or weak linkages.
- Many of the students identified that the concept maps help them construct sentences and paragraphs by joining concepts and information in ways that make sense.
- Some students found concept maps useful for recapping their ideas and exam revision.
- In two classes, students used concept maps effectively to construct coherent paragraphs, but in the third class they needed extra scaffolding to write paragraphs.
A powerful learning experience for one class (and their teacher) was when the class did a mock exam question and struggled to write coherent answers for it. They then worked in groups to develop concept maps for the question and found it much easier to answer the question a second time.
NCEA results show an increase in the proportion of students gaining an Achieved grade or better in 2016, compared to earlier years. There was also an increase in the number of students gaining Merit and Excellence grades.
Impacts on teachers
The teachers found the focused inquiry into their practice useful for themselves and for their students’ learning. They are now inquiring into their teaching practice using the teaching as inquiry model in a robust and evidence-informed manner.
Other changes to their practice include:
- using new and more relevant evidence to inform their planning. For example, Year 9 teachers use online activities such as quizzes and surveys to inform planning to build students’ science vocabulary.
- having more discussions with students about science.
- handing learning leadership over to students, particularly through the use of concept maps in Year 12. This has allowed teachers to stand back, observe, support and encourage students.
- focusing on using concept maps to support paragraph writing. Building paragraph writing skills had a direct correlation with increased Year 12 student examination success.
- using student-teacher discussions around the concept maps to gather powerful evidence of how well students understand concepts and where there are misunderstandings.
- focusing less on assessment and becoming more focused on students’ specific learning needs and their understanding and use of concepts to build explanations.
- working more collegially as they share their thoughts and reflections on their practice.
These initiatives had previously been successful in a high decile school, and the project team has successfully implemented these initiatives in a low-decile school with a high proportion of Māori and Pacific students. Being able to write coherently had been a challenge for these students for many years. The project has found strategies that take their students from knowing science ideas to connecting those ideas and being able to communicate them.
As students’ vocabulary and understanding of the science concepts improves, they become more engaged and their achievement increases. Learning success creates a culture of wanting to learn.
When introducing new strategies like concept maps, teachers have to spend time at the beginning modelling the process. Students can take some time to develop their skills in order to gain the most benefit from the strategy.
Data gathering methods have to be culturally appropriate. If they are not, it can be necessary to modify them so they still generate useful insights to student learning.
Sharing the Findings
Project teachers intend to disseminate their finding through science teacher networks and hope to speak at national or international conferences.
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For further information
If you would like to learn more about this project, please contact the project leader Brendan Cooney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Developed by Wellington High School teacher, Shelley Monds.
- See ESOL Online for an introduction to concept maps: http://esolonline.tki.org.nz/ESOL-Online/Planning-for-my-students-needs/Resources-for-planning/ESOL-teaching-strategies/Thinking-and-metacognition/Concept-map
- Activities in which a small number of students and the coteachers review evidence from a recent class and “cogenerate” collective resolutions regarding new rules for the class, changes in teacher and student roles, and responsibility for accomplishing changes. See https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10476210600680358
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