Recently I was invited to speak to a group of student-teachers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) about ‘advanced’ research informed socio-scientific (STSE) action projects. This group of insightful and talented student-teachers is taking the ‘EDU5517: Science and Technology in Context’ course taught by Dr.L.Benzce, who organizes the course around the ‘STEPWISE’ curriculum and instructional framework.
After sharing my beliefs about the 21st century Science education and showing the student-teachers sample videos of my Grade 10 Science students reflecting on their research-informed action (RiA) projects, the student-teachers were invited to look at two samples of Grade 11 RiA reports, evaluate them in terms of some strengths and weaknesses and consider these two questions:
i) what makes an ‘advanced’ RiA project; and
ii) how do we help students get to that stage of RiA?
I must say that I appreciated the talent and the rigorousness of student-teachers’ thinking. There were a lot of great questions throughout the two hours that I was there, especially during the last thirty minutes when I invited the group to push back if they did not agree with some of my claims/beliefs. Several questions/comments/concerns from a few students stood out as most academically critical and insightful. After reflecting on what was said, one of the student-teachers made a very good point about the clarity and validity of information presented by students’ actions. This is something to pay attention to in the future – it may be important to review all students’ ready-to-use action materials before they disseminate it into the public, especially during the apprenticeship stage of their RiA. In my recent communication with Prof. Benzce, he argues that: “we have every right – and responsibility – to vett students’ work prior to letting them go public during apprenticeships activities, but maybe not so much when they get to the student-directed/open-ended stage.” The rational is that we want students to experience autonomy from those in power (ie. the teachers). As teachers, we want to provide the right kind of guidance during the apprenticeship activities, ensuring that effective secondary and primary research are conducted. Prof. Benzce suggests that: “we can do more to enlighten students about ways in which claims are made by adults that are not always adequately justified (see Merchants of Doubt book)…exposing students to such aspects of NoST/STSE may motivate them to due diligence regarding research and actions.”
As for the primary research (e.g. correlational studies), my students have recognized that their studies may not be valid due to a number of factors such as small sample size, biased sample, misleading survey questions, etc. Although some have used their primary results to motivate their actions, many have erred on the side of secondary research findings. This suggests that fine-tuning apprenticeship activities is important so that students feel more confident in carrying out valid primary research. Prof. Bencze suggests that maybe student-directed, open-ended RiA projects should not happen until the teacher is pretty sure kids will do credible independent work.
Furthermore, one of the student-teachers gave me insight into another approach to STEPWISE specifically with regards to technology. Would it be possible to have the actions (which we argue in one of the papers is a form of technology) be the motivating factor for scientific inquiry (primary research)? This could be worthwhile exploring further and it would be a bit of a flip approach (i.e. having kids conduct secondary research first, then design something to address some specific STSE issues (a form of action), then test it to collect data and use the data to evaluate the effectiveness of the design). On that note, students should be conducting research into the efficacy of all forms of actions, including posters, videos, web pages, etc. I have not been able to get to this stage with my students.
The last point to reflect on is the issue raised around content/concepts education and sacrificing it for STSE education. Something that I mentioned to the student-teachers, but didn’t’ really stress too much, is that as teachers become more skilled over the years, they also become more efficient at teaching concepts. And efficiency is all about getting the most with the least effort (and in less time). In the context of concepts education, efficiency means teaching the concepts well the first time around (i.e. having a high success rate the first time without having to re-teach it because you felt that kids didn’t get it). This obviously requires a rich repertoire of teaching tactics and strategies for all sorts of concepts, which takes time to develop. So the argument is that it takes (as research suggests) about 7 years for teachers to feel that they are at the stage in their career when they can experiment with innovations. But during those 7 years teachers need to intentionally develop their pedagogical content knowledge, so that they become more efficient and more efficacious, giving them the time to implement innovations (i.e. STEPWISE), while still having students score at or above the average on tests/exams compared to other students taking the same class.
The last (and a very important) point to make is that it is possible for teachers to place greater focus on STSE education through STEPWISE framework while still covering the important content. In our research, Prof. Benzce and I have found that my Grade 10 students scored at, or above, average on unit tests and final common exams compared to other Grade 10 classes. This important finding may suggest that even content learning (concepts education) may be improved when the course is contextualized in real, meaningful and relevant STSE issues.
I thank Prof. Bencze and his student-teachers for the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with them – I learn best through these social interactions and deep reflections. Best of luck to all the student-teachers in their future endeavors!