Before the classroom-based assessments: what skills are needed?
The new curriculum specification states:
Science is not just a tidy package of knowledge – nor is it a step by step approach to discovery.
The phrasing of this statement jumps out at me.
As a Scientist who is most comfortable learning about processes and the application of logic, I have developed into a teacher who likes to teach about processes and the application of logic. It is this style of learning that first attracted me to the sciences and it is what continues my love for the subject. Of course, creativity plays a part in the teaching of any subject, but creativity is not the first characteristic of Science that most people think of.
So where does that leave us when planning to teach the skills needed for the classroom-based assessments – an activity where students are asked to creatively think about testing the application of logical processes?
It is clear students need to apply the scientific method to their ideas to make a testable hypothesis. They are expected to research, question and observe patterns in their data, conclude and evaluate. These are key to achieving an exceptional standard in the hierarchical features of quality. The sheer quantity of the steps involved in the scientific method can be overwhelming for students. In my experiences weaker students get lost in the vastness of the task and high ability students have difficulty containing their ideas to the parameters of the task, wanting instead to use the seemingly openness of the titles to really get stuck into the subject matter. Often tangents are not credit worthy and although students feel their input effort was vast, they quickly find their work doesn’t fit the ideal of the features of quality and attainment doesn’t match ability.
In working and differentiating for different abilities, the key for me has always been knowing how to identify three main variables, independent, dependent and control. In spending time on this (usually in term 1 of year 1) students become ‘trained’ in looking for patterns showing the effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable.
For example, when teaching osmosis all will know their inquiry activities look at the effect of mass (movement of water) because of changing concentration of a solute. This takes approximately 2-3 lessons additional to the planned lessons but pays back more than that in time gained back in inquiry lessons. This basic understanding of variables and their importance also allows students to confidently construct their data tables and graphs, taking away the constant question of what labels go where and how to lay out the table. When it comes to analysing the data gathered all levels of pupils can look for the basic pattern of what happened to the dependent variable because of the independent changing. This gives the opening statement for the conclusion and allows pupils to then go on to link their research to explain the pattern. (I usually insist on key vocabulary here too such as plateau, increase, decrease, steep, directly proportional, indirectly proportional etc)
Although there are a lot of levels of learning applied in the classroom-based assessments, knowing how to identify and use variables throughout an inquiry means that as a teacher facilitating learning there is always a common point of reference throughout each stage. Pupils get used to thinking about their variables throughout each stage and the familiarity leads to more independence throughout the stages of the scientific method followed.