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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Abstracts

A framework for re-thinking learning in science from recent cognitive science perspectives

Volume 32 Number 15, October 2010; Pages 2055–2078
Russell Tytler, Vaughan Prain

The article reports findings from a longitudinal study of primary students learning science. The research examined the students' learning against the background of recent debates about the nature of reasoning and meaning-making in the learning process. Cognitive scientists' beliefs about nature of thinking have diverged over the last 20 years. One group, sometimes described as 'first-generation cognitive scientists', understand knowledge as 'stored, stable mental constructs': thinking is essentially distinct from context, and primarily involves the logical manipulation of clearly defined symbols and data-sets. This approach to cognitive science understands language as essentially a 'by-product of thought'. By contrast, 'second-generation', cognitive scientists bring to the fore processes that were previously seen as subordinate: thinkers complete the patterns received from perceptual inputs, and make 'expressive personal links with past experiences and associated values'. Associative thinking plays an important role alongside formal reasoning. Thinkers are constantly responding and adapting to social context; concepts are provisional and individual rather than detached and invariant. Culturally-specific representations play a key role in thinking, and language is crucial in shaping thought. With these alternative approaches in mind, the longitudinal study tracked the group of students over the seven years of primary school. It commenced with 15 students, reduced to nine by the final year. Evidence was obtained through student interviews, collections of work samples, and classroom observations. The final two years of the study focused particularly on students' responses to class lessons on the topic of evaporation. Students were introduced to the molecular model as a scientific idea. However, care was taken not to present it as definitive, but simply as one way to understand the evaporation process. The children considered examples of condensation, evaporation of water and scented oil, and steam emerging from boiling water. During interviews, the children were seen to explain what they were experiencing in ways consistent with the more recent approaches to cognitive science. They drew on analogies from their own experience to make sense of their classroom observations, which meant that individual children's understandings of their observations remained embedded in different personal contexts, even when these understandings were essentially similar. Based on these findings, the authors recommend that teachers 'provide a representation-rich environment' with many opportunities for children to 'negotiate, integrate, refine and translate ideas across representations'.

Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Thought and thinking
Science teaching
Primary education

What is mathematics and why won't it go away?

Volume 21 Number 3, April 2011; Pages 211–224
Susan Jane Colley

Mathematics is widely seen as an 'inscrutable, inhuman tool useful only for quantitative tasks'. The article describes a university course designed to offer an alternative, humanistic approach to maths. The course was designed for first-year tertiary students whose mathematical knowledge had not yet moved far beyond secondary level. The emphasis of the course was not on the social, technical or scientific applications of maths, but on its internal qualities. The article lists 10 books on mathematics to which students were introduced in the course: they covered the broad nature of maths, and topics such as induction, topology, 'working with infinity', the place of maths in culture and society, and  female mathematicians. The course included puzzles involving mathematical arguments that differed from routine calculation and manipulation of formulas. It also presented basic propositional and truth tables, which prepared students to respond to discussion prompts such as the nature of proficiency in maths, and the relative benefits of solo and collaborative work. Students considered differences between mathematicians and other scientists, and the nature and impact of public portrayals of mathematicians. The students also discussed mathematics education, first by studying a children's book, The Number Devil, and later in more general terms by examining the book Two Cultures. Students completed assignments on general problem-solving, elementary number theory, mathematical induction, elementary group theory and problems from the book The Shape of Space. Students wrote essays in which they were free to cover any aspects of the topics 'reflections on mathematics and doing mathematics', images and representations in maths, and mathematical aesthetics. The lecturer addressed the uneven mathematical knowledge of students through a clear initial statement of the course's demands, by avoiding tests, and by allowing collaboration on homework. Students' uneven writing skills posed a more significant obstacle, dealt with by external supports available at the university. The course was conducted at the Mathematics Department of Oberlin College Ohio.

Key Learning Areas

Mathematics

Subject Headings

Mathematics teaching
Mathematics
Tertiary education

Science and mathematics achievement in Australia: the role of school socioeconomic composition in educational equity and effectiveness

Volume 8 Number 3,  2010; Pages 429–452
Andrew McConney, Laura Perry

The authors have analysed results from the PISA 2006 results for Australian students, to establish the extent to which performance in science and mathematics, and interest in science, are linked to the SES of individual students, or to the average SES of students at particular schools. The analysis found that students' individual SES correlates highly with their scientific and mathematical literacy. However, this academic gap between high and low-SES students in Australia has narrowed since the PISA 2003 test. The average student SES across a school is also strongly linked to scientific and mathematical performance; for example, the performance of a low-SES individual student is likely to be considerably higher when they attend a predominantly high-SES school. The alignment of whole-school performance with whole-school SES has widened substantially since PISA 2003. There appears to be 'something like a group SES threshold' around the third group quintile for schools: the link between academic performance and SES rises mildly up to this point, and rises more sharply above it. In the Australian context this result 'may reflect a transition from lower and middle SES public schools to private and/or more affluent public schools'. By contrast, the link between school SES and students' interest in science was inconsistent and insubstantial, and the link with individual student SES was only slightly stronger. The authors discuss equity implications. They point to the increasing segregation of Australian schools along SES lines, attributing it to 'marketisation and privatisation', and they argue for greater resourcing of low-SES schools.

Key Learning Areas

Science
Mathematics

Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Socially disadvantaged
Social classes
Educational planning
Primary education
Mathematics
Science literacy
Numeracy
Education policy
Science

Multilevel effects of student and classroom factors on elementary science achievement in five countries

Volume 32 Number 10,  2010; Pages 1337–1363
Sibel Kaya, Diana C Rice

A study has examined factors influencing fourth grade students' science learning in five countries, drawing in data from the 2003 TIMSS assessment. The countries were Australia, the USA, Japan, Scotland and Singapore. The study covered factors affecting both individual and class-wide performance, within and across each country. Some factors in students' background were found to be consistently related to science achievement. The level of resources available in the home environment had a consistently significant correlation with student performance in all countries at the individual student level, and in all countries except Japan at the class-wide level. Overall, variations between teachers and their instructional approaches contributed little to the students' science achievement. Performance was not linked to teachers' education levels in any of the countries. Teachers' experience level was linked only in Japan, where it was associated with stronger academic results. Students' perceptions of teachers' supportiveness was linked to stronger outcomes in the USA and Singapore, but was not significant elsewhere. The average level of students' self-confidence in a class was positively linked to student performance in the USA and Scotland but was not significant in the other countries. The inquiry-based approach to science learning was found to have a positive impact in Singapore, but a negative one in Australia and the USA. Variation in student performance within class was greater than variation between classes in all countries except Singapore. Gender was not a significant influence on student performance, except in Scotland and Singapore, where girls performed less well after other factors were controlled.

Key Learning Areas

Mathematics
Science

Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Science
Science literacy
Mathematics
Australia
United States of America (USA)
Japan
Singapore
Scotland

Instructional rounds: a great idea with potentially great outcomes

Number 206, July 2011
Thomas Fowler-Finn

'Instructional rounds' (IR) is a form of educational evaluation at classroom and school level, adapted from the practice of doctors' medical rounds. Based on the work of Richard Elmore, IR involves educators at school or regional level, forming a network and a learning community to evaluate members' educational practice. It offers the potential for systematic education improvement at scale. However, IR is sometimes misinterpreted as a device to monitor and correct individual teachers' practice. In fact, it is a form of collective professional learning, which positions educators not only to assist one another but also to begin to address large-scale obstacles to educational reform, beyond the power of individual teachers to deal with. For example, raising the level of cognitive demand on students within a particular classroom is a typical concern of educators. A narrow, individualised solution might be to call on the teacher to ask students more cognitively demanding questions. In practice, teachers who attempt to do so find that such questioning slows the lesson, which means in turn that teachers cannot cover the amount of content expected of them. This problem is aggravated by the fiction of 'a 180-day school year': in practice the school year is significantly eroded by special events, sick days and other interruptions. A second obstacle to higher level questioning is students' embedded cultural expectation of finding the 'one right answer' in place of free-ranging intellectual exploration: this tendency is exacerbated by the pressures of high-stakes tests. In contrast to focusing demands on individual teachers, IR is intended as 'a call to action for all network participants, every school in the network, and network-wide related policy'. Evidence of practice in individual classrooms is shared throughout the faculty. The next step forward for the class becomes the subject of 'candid, probing and respectful' discussion throughout the network.

KLA

Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Professional development
School leadership
School culture
Educational planning
Educational evaluation

Stemming the tide

June 2011; Pages 26–27
Christina Ho

Demographic data in Sydney indicates that school communities are becoming increasingly segregated by ethnicity and income. In metropolitan Sydney just over half the student population in public schools come from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE). By comparison, LBOTE students make up just over one fifth of the population at Independent school (this category covers Christian and non-denominational schools but not specialist schools or those catering to Coptic Christians or other religious groups). Catholic schools fall in between Independent and public schools in their ethnic composition. Schools in the low-SES, western suburbs are heavily dominated by LBOTE populations, but the proportion of LBOTE students in these suburbs' schools exceeds the proportion of LBOTE citizens in their general populations. In the high-SES northern suburbs there is an even greater alignment of Independent schools with Anglo-Australian students, with most LBOTE students in these areas attending public schools. Selective schools in the northern suburbs have an exceptionally high proportion of LBOTE students, many from East Asian backgrounds. The 'cultural polarisation' in the northern suburbs is sometimes attributed to the high fees of Independent schools, but these suburbs include many high-SES migrant families. It is difficult to attribute the imbalance to the religious affiliations of the Independent schools, since many of the migrant families are religious themselves, and many Catholic and Anglican children have parents born overseas. There is no clear explanation for the overall pattern of school attendance. It is likely, however, that imbalances in school populations are self-reinforcing: they probably deter enrolments of students from other backgrounds. Also, government policy support for a market-based view of schooling appears to have encouraged higher-SES parents to shift from comprehensive public schools. The current national review of school funding offers an opportunity to provide more support to public schools, and in doing so, counteract the tendency toward cultural segregation of schooling.

KLA

Subject Headings

Ethnic groups
State schools
Social classes
Private schools
Catholic schools
New South Wales (NSW)

Cracking the language code: NAPLAN numeracy tests in years 7 and 9

Volume 19 Number 1, February 2011; Pages 49–53
Lorna Quinell, Lyn Carter

The language used in NAPLAN numeracy tests demands significant levels of English language proficiency in students. Alongside everyday language, the questions contain mathematical language, including specific terminology symbols and other visual representations of mathematical ideas. The tests highlight the fact that while educators should not tailor teaching to tests, they do need to recognise, and explain to students, the importance of language and vocabulary within mathematics generally. In this context the authors examined the English language demands of the year 7 and year 9 tests, and offer a range of suggestions to teachers.  Teachers should expose students to common themes occurring in NAPLAN tests, such as sports scores and ratios in recipes. Students also need to be taken through potentially unfamiliar contexts that often appear in the tests, such as aeroplane seating. Teachers need to expose students to the type of word questions used in the tests. Mathematical language often gives words precise meanings distinct from everyday usage, such as mode or prime. Within maths itself, some words may have different meanings. For example, altogether often implies addition, but not always. In other cases several words may describe the same concept, such as minus and subtract. Similarly, different prefixes, such as bi and di, may have the same meaning. Teachers should draw students' attention to the meanings present in common roots of words, such as division and divisor. Mathematical language is concisely expressed, with a minimum of redundant words, offering few contextual clues. Teachers need to draw students' attention to this lexical density. Students need to understand that concepts may be represented by either words or symbols, or a combination of them.

Key Learning Areas

Mathematics

Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Assessment
Mathematics
Numeracy

'The Ozymandias Project': a digital anthology of creative writing

Volume 19 Number 1, February 2011; Pages Insert pp i–vi
Andraya Stapp-Gaunt

Digital fiction has been explored at Canberra High School through the Ozymandias Project, part of the school's Inspire Program for gifted or talented students. Digital fiction is a form of writing that follows the structures of the web environment, and opportunities it creates. Digital fiction is sometimes also referred to as hypertext fiction, digital writing or e-writing. Non-linear or multi-linear, it combines traditional text with other media such as audio, film, photography and graphics, and provides for the interactivity of writer and reader. Digital writers must allow for the fact that readers select from a variety of different pathways through a piece, and may not read all of the text. At Canberra High School nine students in the author's English class collaborated in the creation of a multi-media product, a CD-ROM, using Percy Shelley's poem Ozymandias as the 'trunk' from which their own creative work would emerge. Shelley's original poem depicts the fallen statue of an ancient king, its grand inscriptions about the eponymous monarch contrasting with the empty desert now surrounding it. Each student chose a word or phrase from the poem as point of departure for the construction of their own poetry or prose, exploring themes such as the irony evident in Shelley's poem, and the transient, frail quality of accomplishments in the online environment.

Key Learning Areas

English

Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Secondary education
English language teaching
Gifted and talented (GAT) children

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