International Journal of Science Education

International Journal of Science Education
This article was downloaded by: [Hong Kong Institute of Education]
On: 04 April 2013, At: 20:30
Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered
office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

                                 International Journal of Science
                                 Publication details, including instructions for authors and
                                 subscription information:

                                 Engaging Primary Students in Learning
                                 about New Zealand Birds: A socially
                                 relevant context
                                              a                   a
                                 Junjun Chen & Bronwen Cowie
                                  Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New
                                 Version of record first published: 11 Feb 2013.

To cite this article: Junjun Chen & Bronwen Cowie (2013): Engaging Primary Students in Learning
about New Zealand Birds: A socially relevant context, International Journal of Science Education,

To link to this article:


Full terms and conditions of use:

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any
substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,
systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.

The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation
that the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any
instructions, formulae, and drug doses should be independently verified with primary
sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings,
demand, or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or
indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
International Journal of Science Education
International Journal of Science Education, 2013

                                                                          Engaging Primary Students in
                                                                          Learning about New Zealand Birds:
                                                                          A socially relevant context
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          Junjun Chen∗ and Bronwen Cowie
                                                                          Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

                                                                          This article reports on a classroom study of a unit on New Zealand birds that focused on adaptation
                                                                          and conservation in a Year 7 class. The unit used a ‘context as social circumstances’ model. The
                                                                          researchers observed the nine lessons and interviewed students, the classroom teacher, and three
                                                                          other teachers who had taught the same unit. The students completed a pre-test and a post-test
                                                                          for the unit. Findings indicate that the students enjoyed and were interested in the unit, and had
                                                                          learnt more than usual. The students investigated predators using the tracking tunnel in their
                                                                          school gully and, of their own volition, in their home gardens. Some students pursued this
                                                                          interest into the wider community after the completion of the unit. The ‘context as social
                                                                          circumstances’ unit teachers helped students see the relevance of learning science for their lives,
                                                                          personally and socially, which opens up the possibility of action outside the classroom. The role
                                                                          of context, content and activity selection in the design of a unit that has social relevance is discussed.

                                                                          Keywords: Context-based; Biology; Primary science; Coherence; Pedagogy

                                                                          Internationally, there is abundant evidence of a decline over time of student interest
                                                                          and engagement in school science in general and in the further study of science sub-
                                                                          jects in particular (Osborne & Dillon, 2008; Tytler, Symington, & Smith, 2011). Indi-
                                                                          cations are that science education in New Zealand is experiencing the same challenges
                                                                          (Bull, Gilbert, Barwick, Hipkins, & Baker, 2010). The programme for International
                                                                          Student Assessment results from 2006 show that New Zealand students were less
                                                                          likely than their counterparts from other Organisation for Economic Co-operation
                                                                          and Development (OECD) countries to believe they are good at science even

                                                                           Corresponding author: Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton
                                                                          3240, New Zealand. Email:

                                                                          # 2013 Taylor & Francis
2 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          though they reported high or medium interest in science topics, similar to those in
                                                                          other OECD countries (OECD, 2007). The National Education Monitoring
                                                                          Project 2007 findings reveal that there is a noticeable cooling in Year 8 students’
                                                                          liking for science (Crooks, Smith, & Flockton, 2008).
                                                                             In thinking about how to increase student engagement in science, Wieringa,
                                                                          Janssen, and Van Driel (2011) propose that the central question is probably not
                                                                          whether students should do more science but how teachers can make school
                                                                          science relevant and coherent so that students have tangible reasons for engaging
                                                                          in, and then continuing with, lifelong science learning (Jenkins, 2011). Context-
                                                                          based education is currently a point of interest and innovation for achieving these
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                             This article provides an empirical evidence-based description of how a ‘context as
                                                                          social circumstances’ unit (Gilbert, Bulte, & Pilot, 2011) can be designed using web-
                                                                          based resources, specifically those from the ‘Conserving Native Birds’ story from the
                                                                          Science Learning Hub (SLH) website.1 Data came from a Year 7 classroom (students
                                                                          aged 11 years) and from the three other teachers in the same New Zealand primary
                                                                          school. This study is part of a large ongoing project into New Zealand science
                                                                          teacher use of the Hub’s materials. The Hub was developed to make the work of
                                                                          New Zealand scientists accessible to teachers, as part of an initiative to support
                                                                          New Zealand teachers to make science more relevant and interesting for their stu-
                                                                          dents. The Hub provides teachers with teaching and learning materials to develop
                                                                          their own teaching units. The research programme seeks to inform ongoing content
                                                                          development and to provide examples of how the material might be used.

                                                                          Context-based Teaching and Learning
                                                                          Context-based science education has been promulgated since the early 1980s as a
                                                                          means to address the many challenges facing science education (Aikenhead, 2007;
                                                                          Gilbert, 2006; Wieringa et al., 2011). Examples include Salters’ Science in the UK,
                                                                          ChemCom in the USA, PLON in the Netherlands, and Biology in Context in
                                                                          Germany. The Salters’ material was developed over two decades to contextualise
                                                                          biology, chemistry, and physics for secondary school age students (11–18 years).
                                                                          The Salters’ material has been adapted for use in a number of countries across the
                                                                          world to introduce a context-based teaching approach into school curricula domi-
                                                                          nated by content-based approaches (Bennett & Lubben, 2006). Context-based
                                                                          approaches can help shift the emphasis from learning scientific facts to authentic
                                                                          learning that involves students in scientific activities (Krajcik, McNeill, & Reiser,
                                                                          2008). They aim to link school science with students’ personal and societal lives
                                                                          and to help them transfer their learning to other contexts, thereby supporting their
                                                                          use of, and interest in, science in their everyday lives (Fensham, 2009; Osborne &
                                                                          Collins, 2000). Research indicates this linkage can help students understand why
                                                                          they need to learn science in school (Jenkins, 2011). Jones, Cowie, and Buntting
                                                                          (2009) argued that context-based approaches have the potential to foster curiosity
                                                                          and intrinsic interest.
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 3

                                                                             Recommendations for the practice of context-based approaches include careful
                                                                          consideration of the contexts used (Gilbert, 2006; Wieringa et al., 2011). Fensham
                                                                          (2009) proposed that decisions about science curricula should use personal and
                                                                          societal interest as a reference point. Harlen (2010) argued that students’ understand-
                                                                          ing of science concepts is likely to be deepened if they learn them in relevant contexts.
                                                                          She suggested that this also contributes to an increase in students’ sense of confidence
                                                                          in and familiarity with the same ideas in everyday events. The selection of curriculum
                                                                          content to target within a context also needs to be considered. Harlen, along with
                                                                          Duschl, Schweingruber, and Shouse (2007), has advocated that for primary students,
                                                                          science teaching needs to focus on ‘big’ ideas. That is, it needs to focus on ideas that
                                                                          have broad explanatory power, help students to understand the distinctive value of
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          science, and prepare them for further learning in science. These authors suggest
                                                                          that ‘big’ ideas need to be constructed from inter-related ‘small’ ideas so that ‘a foun-
                                                                          dation of understanding can be laid, on which broader ideas are later built’ (Harlen,
                                                                          2008, p. 13). They have pointed out that ‘big’ ideas are complex, mostly abstract, and
                                                                          indeed meaningless if they do not evoke real situations. Hence, how to help students
                                                                          develop connected and coherent understanding of the ideas and tasks (Mercer, 2008;
                                                                          Millar & Osborne, 1998) embedded in a context needs to be carefully thought
                                                                          through. In this regard, Scott, Mortimer, and Ametller (2011) make a persuasive
                                                                          case for pedagogical link-making. They identified three overlapping forms of link-
                                                                          making actions: support for students making connections between different kinds
                                                                          of knowledge to promote deep understanding (knowledge building), support for con-
                                                                          tinuity across tasks and lessons, and encouraging a positive emotional engagement
                                                                          over time. All these aspects were of interest in this study.
                                                                             A number of models and criteria exist for the design of context-based units in
                                                                          science (Aikenhead, 2007; Elster, 2009). For example, Gilbert (2006) identified
                                                                          four ‘models’ of how ‘context’ can be understood and used: context as the direct
                                                                          application of concepts; context as reciprocity between concepts and applications;
                                                                          context as provided by personal mental activity; and ‘context as social circumstances’.
                                                                          Of the four, Gilbert et al. (2011) state that the ‘context as social circumstances’ model
                                                                          has the most potential to address the issues facing science education such as relevance,
                                                                          coherence and transfer of school knowledge to different but related situations, includ-
                                                                          ing out-of-school settings. Within this model, a context is ‘situated as a cultural entity
                                                                          in society’ (Gilbert, 2006, p. 969). It relates to topics and activities that are important
                                                                          to communities within a society such as, for example, matters to do with the global
                                                                          climate, ‘healthy’ food, and the ‘hydrogen economy’. Gilbert et al. (2011) proposed
                                                                          four criteria for attaining context-based learning: setting of focal events that link to
                                                                          an important, typical or topical event/issue and provide a framework for learning
                                                                          related/ inter-related explanatory concepts (Criterion A); a behavioural environment
                                                                          that supports discussion (Criterion B); the use of specific (scientific) language (Cri-
                                                                          terion C), and opportunities to link to and build on extra-situational background
                                                                          knowledge (Criterion D). They argue that a lesson that meets these criteria effectively
                                                                          exploits the learning potential of context-based units. In this article, we use the
                                                                          ‘context as social circumstances’ model together with these four criteria to frame
4 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          the description of a unit on New Zealand birds. The impacts on students of making
                                                                          science relevant and coherent are also explored. Two research questions were posed:
                                                                          (1) How did a ‘context as social circumstances’ science unit play out in a primary
                                                                          (2) What impacts did a unit of this kind have on student interest, learning gains,
                                                                              knowledge transfer, and future interest/actions?

                                                                          The Research Study
                                                                          The SLH research team is working with a number of teachers. This article describes
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          how one Year 7 teacher, Karen (note all names are pseudonyms) and her students
                                                                          learnt about native birds and also what the three other teachers who taught the
                                                                          same topic thought about the bird unit. Karen worked for 6 months as a Teacher
                                                                          Fellow on the SLH content development team and was interested to investigate the
                                                                          impact of the Hub material she had designed.

                                                                          The Teachers and Students
                                                                          Karen is a qualified primary school teacher with a Bachelor of Teaching in primary
                                                                          education. At the time of the data collection, she had five years’ teaching experience
                                                                          in primary schools in New Zealand. The study school is a big primary school with
                                                                          years 1 –8 (students aged 5 –12 years). Among the 29 students aged 10–11 years in
                                                                          Karen’s class, 18 were girls and 11 were boys. The majority of them were of European
                                                                          descent, six were of Asian descent, and one was of Māori descent (Māori are the indi-
                                                                          genous people of New Zealand). We obtained written informed consent from all
                                                                            Karen was particularly interested in New Zealand native birds and chose to focus
                                                                          on them during her fellowship. To develop the Hub story, she worked with New
                                                                          Zealand scientists, science educators, and the SLH team. She visited various conser-
                                                                          vation organisations throughout New Zealand and produced a series of articles, multi-
                                                                          media resources (e.g. PowerPoint, Video, and Animation), teaching activities, and a
                                                                          unit plan posted on the SLH website. Back at school, Karen introduced the bird
                                                                          unit to three other teachers and they taught it in the same time period. Interview
                                                                          data only were collected from these teachers. Classroom observations and student
                                                                          and teacher interviews were undertaken with Karen and her students.

                                                                          The Bird Unit
                                                                          Karen planned the unit using a planner developed by Moreland, Cowie, Otrel-Cass,
                                                                          and Jones (2010). The planner comprises a first page that prompts teachers to detail
                                                                          their intended science learning outcomes (conceptual, procedural, and nature of
                                                                          science). The second page requires teachers to develop a series of nested and
                                                                          connected tasks that instantiate these outcomes. Karen’s unit consisted of five
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 5

                                                                          interconnected parts or learning phases (Gilbert et al., 2011): brainstorming students’
                                                                          prior knowledge, a focus on adaptation and then on conservation with the threatened
                                                                          status of New Zealand birds acting as a bridge between adaptation and conservation,
                                                                          and the reading of the New Zealand story Old Blue. These phases are shown in
                                                                          Figure 1, which emphasises the linked nature of the various phases.
                                                                             Karen’s plan for the unit met the four criteria for the ‘context as social circum-
                                                                          stances’ model (Gilbert et al., 2011), with each criterion being represented in each
                                                                          of five parts in the unit. As noted earlier, the ‘context as social circumstances’
                                                                          model incorporates focal event(s) that relate to students’ social and personal lives
                                                                          and provides a framework to support concept development. New Zealand has a
                                                                          large number of native ground-dwelling birds, many of which are flightless and endan-
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          gered. New Zealand birds and their conservation are a strong focus of current research
                                                                          with the Department of Conservation and independent groups in New Zealand. The
                                                                          school where the study took place had a gully and was part of the New Zealand

                                                                                           Figure 1.   The ‘context as social circumstances’ bird unit
6 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          Enviro-school programme, which aims to foster student awareness of, interest in and
                                                                          action around environmental issues.
                                                                             The second criterion (Criterion B) for this model is the behavioural environment,
                                                                          which should include problems that exemplify important concepts and are designed
                                                                          to support discussion and the social construction of knowledge. The aim is that stu-
                                                                          dents develop a ‘coherent mental map’ that ties together concepts and activities so
                                                                          that they come together in a meaningful whole (Gilbert et al., 2011; Harlen, 2010).
                                                                          For the bird unit, Karen planned tasks that were connected and built on each
                                                                          other. These activities helped students learn and use the specific scientific language
                                                                          associated with adaptation and conservation. The development of ‘specific language’
                                                                          is the third criterion (Criterion C) listed by Gilbert et al. (2011). The last criterion
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          (Criterion D) is that students connect the focal event to relevant ‘extra-situational
                                                                          background knowledge’. To meet this criterion, students need to connect their new
                                                                          learning with prior knowledge and experiences. The unit also included opportunities
                                                                          for students to transfer their learning from one focal event to the next. For instance,
                                                                          students needed to use their knowledge of adaptation to understand the nature of the
                                                                          threats to native birds and how they might be protected.

                                                                          Multiple Data Sources
                                                                          The unit comprised nine lessons of 45–90 min over 5 weeks. We collected qualitative
                                                                          data in the form of videotapes, photographs, audiotapes, observations, field notes, and
                                                                          copies of teaching materials and student work to thoroughly capture events and
                                                                          produce rich descriptions of what had happened in the classroom (Fasse & Kolodner,
                                                                          2000). For the classroom observation, two video cameras, three iPods, and two digital
                                                                          cameras were used and field notes were made. Two researchers were present at all
                                                                          teaching sessions.
                                                                             Karen was invited to a full-day discussion of the unit with two researchers 2 weeks
                                                                          after the final lesson. This discussion was grounded in the video, audio, and student
                                                                          interview data. The three other teachers were interviewed as a group for 2 h focusing
                                                                          on the unit and the impacts of the bird unit on their students.
                                                                             Semi-structured student interviews were conducted for approximately 30 min the
                                                                          day after the first lesson (four students), the day following the final lesson (eight stu-
                                                                          dents), and again 6 months after the unit (six of the previous eight students). Students
                                                                          were asked by the teacher if they were prepared to be interviewed about their experience
                                                                          in the unit. Eight students volunteered. These students were characterised by their
                                                                          enthusiasm for talking about their learning. They spanned the range of achievement
                                                                          levels in the class. The students were interviewed in two groups of four. The interviews
                                                                          aimed to learn about students’ thinking, including their enjoyment of the unit and the
                                                                          extent to which they sustained an interest and took action related to conservation. With
                                                                          consent, we collected student work and a student end-of-unit evaluation that detailed
                                                                          what they had learnt, what they had enjoyed, and what they had wanted to learn.
                                                                             The students completed a pre- and a post-knowledge test about New Zealand birds.
                                                                          The test, which was designed by Karen, consisted of nine open conceptual questions
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 7

                                                                          on adaptation, conservation, and island bird sanctuaries, one multiple choice question
                                                                          on threats to birds, and one yes/no question on conservation. The test was scored out
                                                                          of 28 points. Pre- and post-means and standard deviations were calculated, and effect
                                                                          sizes were used to examine the mean difference.

                                                                          Data Analysis
                                                                          To address the first research question, data from classroom observations were treated
                                                                          as a primary data source and data from focus groups and interviews were treated as a
                                                                          secondary source. The analysis procedure comprised a number of steps. First, each
                                                                          lesson was summarised in terms of tasks, time, activity, sub-activity, and resources
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          used (Moreland et al., 2010). These summaries were made immediately after each
                                                                          lesson, based on researcher field notes and the video clips (please see an example
                                                                          lesson summary in Table 1). The lessons/events were then grouped into learning
                                                                          phases that comprised activities with the same learning content (Kelly & Chen,
                                                                          1999). These phases were: brainstorming student prior ideas, adaptation, transition
                                                                          activity, conservation, and the Old Blue story. Using the four criteria of the context-
                                                                          based model by Gilbert et al. (2011), a deductive content analysis (Patton, 2002)
                                                                          was conducted of the video data from each learning phase. Deductive content analysis
                                                                          is based on a theory or model and moves from the general to the specific. In this case,
                                                                          the analysis as based on Gilbert et al.’s (2011) ‘context as social circumstances’ model.
                                                                          The research team identified and discussed which video sequences were reflective of
                                                                          each of these criteria along with any sub-categories or themes for the criteria. The
                                                                          video sequences were then organised into a video log and the researchers selected
                                                                          representative sequences for verbatim transcription. Other sources of data were also
                                                                          examined for evidence of Gilbert et al.’s criteria and this was integrated with that
                                                                          derived from the videos. Searching for convergence among multiple and different
                                                                          sources of information to form categories enhances the validity of data analysis (Cres-
                                                                          well & Miller, 2000). Video sequence categorisation was member checked (Guba &
                                                                          Lincoln, 1985) with Karen to ensure she agreed that the selected video sequences
                                                                          did, in her view, represent the identified criteria/themes. Representative classroom
                                                                          episodes along with comments from teachers and students are used to illustrate the
                                                                          criteria/themes in the article.
                                                                             To address the second research question, the videos along with the other sources of
                                                                          data including interviews, student evaluation notes, and student unit test results were
                                                                          analysed for evidence of the impacts of the unit on student interest, learning gains,
                                                                          knowledge transfer, and any proposed future actions. This procedure was guided
                                                                          by deductive content analysis (Patton, 2002).

                                                                          The findings comprise two main sections that answer the two research questions for
                                                                          the study. The first section describes the enactment of the bird unit over five learning
                                                                          phases, and the second details the unit impacts on student learning.
8 J. Chen and B. Cowie
                                                                                                                            Table 1. An example: lesson summary

                                                                          Meso task            Micro task       Time       Planned interactions          Criteria by Gilbert et al. (2011)              Resources
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          Understand the      (1)              00:02:20   (1) Questioning: can you   (1) Setting of focal events: knowledge      (1) Non-fiction
                                                                          definition of       Brainstorm                  tell me what you knew      about native birds;                         books
                                                                          adaptation and      what they                   about native birds?        (2) Behavioural environment: activities     (2) Internet
                                                                          adaptation occurs   already know                Anything you knew          such as brainstorm, reports, and            access
                                                                          over many                                                                  discussions are embedded in an
                                                                          generations. This                                                          environment focusing on native birds;
                                                                          can take hundreds                                                          (3) Specific language: native,
                                                                          of years and has                                                           introduced, extinct, offshore island, and
                                                                          an impact on the                                                           adapted;
                                                                          organism                                                                   (4) Extra-situational background
                                                                                                                                                     knowledge: all activities are built on
                                                                                                                                                     students’ background knowledge about
                                                                                                                                                     birds and native birds
                                                                                              (2) Adaptation   00:26:03   (2) Encourage students     (1) Setting of focal events: knowledge      (1) Internet
                                                                                                                          to work in groups and to   about adaption of native birds;             access
                                                                                                                          locate information on
                                                                                                                          bird and animal
                                                                                                                          adaptations in response
                                                                                                                          to the questions below:
                                                                                                                          † What is adaptation?      (2) Behavioural environment: activities     (2) Native bird
                                                                                                                                                     group work, reading, and discussion are     adaptations article:
                                                                                                                                                     allocated in an environment focusing on     http://www.sciencelearn.
                                                                                                                          † How long does it take    (3) Specific language: adaptation,          Conserving-Native-
                                                                                                                          for adaptation to occur?   habitat, generation, organism;              Birds/Native-bird-
                                                                                                                          † How does adaptation      (4) Extra-situational background            adaptations
                                                                                                                          benefit the organism?      knowledge: activate student knowledge
                                                                                                                                                     about their own family history to
                                                                                                                                                     understand better about adaptation
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 9

                                                                          The Coherent Bird Unit
                                                                          Part A: brainstorming students’ prior knowledge. To begin Lesson 1, Karen surveyed
                                                                          students’ prior knowledge about native birds and conservation using whole class
                                                                          brainstorming in conjunction with discussion in pairs. She recorded student responses
                                                                          about native birds by constructing a web of student contributions on the white board.
                                                                          Student comments indicated what they already knew about the features, threatened
                                                                          status, and habitats of native birds. For example, students knew that tūi have a
                                                                          ‘white tuft on the throat’, that kākāpō, kiwi, and albatross are nearly extinct. If stu-
                                                                          dents could not elaborate on the meaning of an idea or a word, Karen left a question
                                                                          mark beside it and signalled that they would explore this during the unit.
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                             Karen making a visual record of student contributions appeared to support students
                                                                          to search for additional, related ideas, thereby encouraging them to think more deeply as
                                                                          they were obviously keen to contribute ideas/examples, quietly discussing possibilities
                                                                          amongst themselves. For example, when a student said that they knew of some native
                                                                          birds such as the kākāpō, takahē, kiwi, and albatross and then moved on to discuss
                                                                          which were nearly extinct Karen asked, ‘What could we do to help these birds?’ One
                                                                          student replied that he had read that establishing an offshore island was one way to
                                                                          protect native birds. Karen probed, ‘How did the birds get to be there?’ and the students
                                                                          answered, ‘By ships’, ‘planes’, ‘people could take them there’, and so on. Karen took
                                                                          advantage of this discussion to ask how some of the introduced birds and animals had
                                                                          entered New Zealand. This led into a discussion about mice coming by way of ships
                                                                          and the need to ‘pay attention that other predators come through this way’.
                                                                             After the unit, Karen commented of the brainstorming activity:
                                                                              As you can see, when they heard my questions, they thought [by themselves], talked with
                                                                              their neighbours, and reported to the class. Some kids could reflect on other kids’ answers
                                                                              and extend the discussions. I like doing this in my class. They thought deeply, and did not
                                                                              just simply answer my questions. They built on each other, and contributed new ideas.
                                                                              (Video Data, T-Karen, October)

                                                                            By tapping into what students already knew, Karen established a baseline on which
                                                                          to build future learning. When a student suggested that native birds were special
                                                                          because they were ‘adapted to our country’ Karen responded, ‘I’m really glad that
                                                                          Andy pulled out the term “adapt” with native birds, cause we’re going to learn
                                                                          about adaptation today’ (Field Notes, October). Through this action, Karen used
                                                                          the student’s contribution strategically to introduce the first ‘big’ idea of the unit.
                                                                          Karen explained in an interview,
                                                                              The reasons I used brainstorming was that I can understand what my kids know about the
                                                                              birds and native birds, and what they did not know so that I can arrange my teaching to fit
                                                                              my kids . . . I like doing this in my class, it can activate students’ prior knowledge and link
                                                                              this to new knowledge. (Video Data, T-Karen, October)

                                                                          Part B: adaptation. Karen introduced and exampled the idea of adaption in Lessons 1, 2,
                                                                          and 3, which provided students with multiple opportunities to use the language that they
                                                                          were learning in a number of different but familiar contexts as detailed next. In Lesson 1,
10 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          Karen first introduced the ‘big’ idea of adaptation using the article Native bird adaptations
                                                                          online. In small groups, the students clustered around wireless laptops to read the article.
                                                                          Each group was allocated one question to consider. Karen signalled that she expected stu-
                                                                          dents to synthesise the reading and answer their question using their own words. The ques-
                                                                          tions focused on the definition of adaptation, the types of adaptation, the process of
                                                                          adaptation, and its effect on an organism. Once each group had an agreed answer, they
                                                                          shared this with a neighbouring group, and then with the whole class. Evidence that the
                                                                          students were able to summarise the ideas in their own words came from their written
                                                                          notes and whole class contributions as is illustrated by the following statements:
                                                                              They [adaptation] occur over many generations. It is definitely not a quick process. (Field
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                              Notes, S18, October)
                                                                              Behavioural adaptation is getting used to a habitat. (Video Data, S13, October)

                                                                             This sequence provided students with opportunities and the incentive to explain
                                                                          and use the science terms they were learning. This kind of purposeful use of
                                                                          science language was a feature of the unit.
                                                                             In Lesson 2, Karen revisited the ‘small’ ideas to do with the three types of adap-
                                                                          tation (behavioural adaptation, physiological adaptation, and structural adaptation),
                                                                          asking for explanations and examples of each type. The class brainstormed examples
                                                                          of the different types of adaptations for cats (see Figure 2). Karen’s choice of cats was
                                                                          deliberate and based on her knowledge that many of her students had cats as pets. For
                                                                          structural adaptation, the students suggested cats’ eyes can see in the dark and cats use
                                                                          their tails to keep their balance when jumping. As for behavioural adaptation, the stu-
                                                                          dents stated that a cat’s fur and tail ‘spring up’ when it is scared and that it purrs when

                                                                          Figure 2. A map for brainstormed examples of the different adaptations using a cat (photograph by
                                                                                                                  the author)
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 11

                                                                          it is happy. For physiological adaptation, the example given was that cats suckle their
                                                                          young. These examples indicated that the students understood the different types of
                                                                          adaptation and could apply the ideas to a familiar mammal.
                                                                             In Lesson 2, Karen created a further opportunity for students to use the science
                                                                          language and apply their knowledge of the different types of adaptation, this time
                                                                          to the features of native birds as part of a card sorting activity, Classifying bird adap-
                                                                          tations. The statements on the cards related to the characteristics of a number of
                                                                          native birds including the takahē, kererū, tūi, and kiwi. In this activity, students in
                                                                          small groups set up three labelled columns, one for each type of adaptation, and
                                                                          then sorted and classified the statements as representing a particular adaptation. In
                                                                          some instances, the groups quickly came to an agreement about the nature of the
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          adaptation. In other cases, there was considerable debate. For example, the statement
                                                                          that ‘Tūi have hollow bones and no teeth, which makes their body light for flight’
                                                                          proved problematic. Physiological adaptation is a particularly challenging phenom-
                                                                          enon for children to understand. Karen initiated a conversation to clarify this idea
                                                                          by linking it to students’ personal experience:
                                                                              If we were outside, it was very cold. You just stood there in shorts and a T-shirt, what thing
                                                                              would start to happen to your body? (Students: start shivering, teeth chattering, fingers
                                                                              became blue and purple. . .). So all these are things that are happening to your body,
                                                                              they are physiological adaptations. That’s your body defenses. That’s your body’s way
                                                                              to help you. (Video Data, T-Karen, October)

                                                                            Across Lessons 2 and 3, these different activities provided the students with ample
                                                                          opportunities to use the language of adaptation and to apply the ideas in a range of
                                                                          contexts. The sustained focus on the rich diversity of New Zealand birds not only
                                                                          served to deepen students’ appreciation and knowledge of these birds but also
                                                                          required them to carefully consider and apply their ideas to a range of sophisticated
                                                                          examples of adaptation, thereby moving beyond discussion of commonplace
                                                                          examples such as giraffes and zebras.

                                                                          Part C: transition section—understanding the threats to native birds. Lesson 4, which
                                                                          focused on the threats to native birds in New Zealand, acted as a transition session
                                                                          between the ‘big’ idea of adaptation to the to-be-learnt ‘big’ idea of conservation.
                                                                          Through their reading of the article Predation of native birds and Internet searching,
                                                                          the students completed the worksheets: What factors have caused birds to lose their
                                                                          native habitat and Threats to New Zealand native birds. These activities drew students’
                                                                          attention to the endangered status of native birds, and why it is important to make an
                                                                          effort to conserve native birds. The students read and were shocked that dogs caused
                                                                          70% of kiwis’ deaths from 1990 to 1995 and that one dog killed 500 of the 900 kiwis in
                                                                          Waitangi. These worksheet activities, coupled with data from students’ own research,
                                                                          alerted them to the extent of the problems faced by native birds. They evoked a strong
                                                                          emotional response that contributed to students’ desire to learn what they could do to
                                                                          help. As a student said in the post-unit interview, ‘I did not know before this that my
                                                                          dog, even my cat, could kill kiwis. That really surprised me. They are so cute!’
12 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          Part D: conservation. In the second half of the unit, Karen orchestrated four activities
                                                                          over five lessons to do with the ‘big’ idea of conservation: learning about native bird
                                                                          conservation terminologies and methods, constructing and placing a predator track-
                                                                          ing tunnel in the school gully, and encouraging students to transfer the investigation to
                                                                          predators into their home gardens. She introduced and focused on the ‘big’ idea of
                                                                          conservation as a problem that is situated in the wider New Zealand context in the
                                                                          main but she also made links with the school and student home contexts in a
                                                                          manner that supported knowledge transfer between the two situations.
                                                                             In Lesson 5, to introduce the methods used to protect native birds Karen used an
                                                                          article called Protecting native birds and a PowerPoint called Methods of predator control.
                                                                          The students read and talked about the different types of predators and techniques
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          used in New Zealand to protect native birds. In Lesson 6, she guided her students
                                                                          to read the article Birds’ role in ecosystem and then promoted discussion on the
                                                                          impact of bird habitat loss. Next, the students worked in small group to draw a
                                                                          food web of the New Zealand bush ecosystem (see Figure 3). For this, they used
                                                                          the knowledge they had learnt. These activities were an important precursor to stu-
                                                                          dents making tracking tunnels2 to check the presence of predators in their school
                                                                          gully. They used the information to analyse where they should locate their tracking
                                                                          tunnels (see Figure 4). When the students checked their tunnels the next morning,
                                                                          not many tracking paper strips had footprints on them. The students concluded
                                                                          that this was the evidence that their area was reasonably safe for native birds.
                                                                             After placing the tracking tunnels in the school gully, some students asked to take
                                                                          them home to place in the gullies near their homes. Some students brought tracking
                                                                          strips of predators from home back to class. As one girl said, ‘I put the tracking tunnel
                                                                          in the bush, added milk and things from home, put butter in, and then checked it.
                                                                          There were footprints, I think it was a hedgehog’ (Follow-up Interview, S6, June).

                                                                                Figure 3. A food web of New Zealand bush ecosystem (photograph by the author)
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 13
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                                Figure 4. Placing a tracking tunnel in the school gully (photograph by the author)

                                                                             The other three teachers reported that their students took similar actions in using
                                                                          the tracking tunnels at home.
                                                                             The sequencing of these activities was important in building a foundation for student
                                                                          knowledge and interest in the tracking tunnel activity. The tunnel activity required the
                                                                          students to apply and make connections with what they had learnt, and to think ahead
                                                                          and beyond their classroom learning. As a hands-on activity, it nurtured students’ sense
                                                                          of personal worth through a ‘being there’ experience. The teachers did not just tell the
                                                                          students how the ideas connected with the real world, but provided them with oppor-
                                                                          tunities to experience these connections in a local context that was familiar and impor-
                                                                          tant to them (Cook, 2004). The tracking tunnel activity provided a tool for students to
                                                                          learn more about their surroundings and what threats native birds are facing so that stu-
                                                                          dents would understand the need to make an effort to manage predators. The activities
                                                                          helped students to see the personal and social relevance of school science, and provided
                                                                          students with a stimulus to think about further actions and engage with learning science
                                                                          lifelong (Elster, 2009; Jenkins, 2011).

                                                                          Part E: Old Blue story telling. To conclude the unit, Karen used the Old Blue story to
                                                                          strategically help her students to create a coherent mental image of the unit as a whole
                                                                          in Lesson 9. Old Blue, by Mary Taylor (1993), is a true story about how New Zealand
                                                                          Chatham Island black robins were brought back from the edge of extinction through a
                                                                          breeding programme based on one bird, Old Blue. As she read the book aloud, Karen
                                                                          asked a number of questions to prompt the students to predict or think about the story
                                                                          and to recall and make connections with what they had learnt in the previous lessons.
                                                                          The ideas she focused on were to do with adaptation, the impact of predation, and
                                                                          methods for conserving native birds.
14 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                            Karen’s reading of Old Blue evoked a strong emotional response and obviously
                                                                          brought the ideas of the unit to life for the students (Scott et al., 2011). As one
                                                                          student explained,
                                                                              The true story of Old Blue happened on an island in New Zealand. It’s close to me. It’s
                                                                              different from those [stories] of other places. So we know we may also try to protect
                                                                              our native birds like what was done in Old Blue. (Interview Data, S5, December)

                                                                             Another student who obviously enjoyed and empathised with Old Blue, noted in
                                                                             I was very interested in the story—how we create more robins and how we grow
                                                                          more of the kinds of plants they like (Interview Data, S7, December).
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                             Two students from the focus group commented that if Karen had read Old
                                                                          Blue before they had learnt about adaptation and conservation it may not
                                                                          have had the same impact. One student explained: ‘If Ms Orange [Karen]
                                                                          read that book in the very beginning, we might not understand what was
                                                                          going on. Cause we had learnt about adaptation and conservation, we could
                                                                          understand’ (Follow-up Interview, S8, June). These comments suggest that
                                                                          Old Blue not only played an important role in helping students develop a coher-
                                                                          ent overview of the ideas of the bird unit, but also made the ideas of the unit
                                                                          relevant to their lives out of school, thereby fostering their interest and emotion-
                                                                          al engagement in school science.
                                                                             To conclude, the five learning phases of the unit, in different but cumulative ways,
                                                                          addressed the challenges of lack of relevance (personal and social life and experience),
                                                                          lack of coherence (coherent unit map and connective instructional strategies), and
                                                                          lack of transfer (applying and transferring knowledge to new focal events/contexts)
                                                                          posed at the beginning of the article.

                                                                          Impacts on Students
                                                                          Student interest. Three sources of data, student end-of-unit evaluations, and student
                                                                          and teacher interviews, indicated that students enjoyed the bird unit. These com-
                                                                          ments signalled that their interest in and knowledge of science had been increased.
                                                                          The students in the end-of-unit focus group identified that learning about native
                                                                          birds had been interesting for them because now they better understood the
                                                                          reasons for the birds’ predicament.
                                                                              S10: When the people say like. ‘Oh, protect native birds, protect our environment’, but
                                                                              we actually do not know what and why, cause we don’t know much about them. Now
                                                                              we know about native things, their habitat, adaptation and so on.
                                                                              S12: It’s a lot of easier to protect them when you know what you’re going to protect and
                                                                              how you can protect them.
                                                                              S7: We always respect our environment, but knowing more about it, you get to respect it
                                                                              more. (Follow-up Interview, June)

                                                                            In their end-of-unit evaluation notes, 23 of the 26 students reported that they had
                                                                          been interested in and enjoyed the unit and the remaining three class members did not
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 15

                                                                          comment on these aspects. The following statements are representative of student
                                                                              I really enjoyed the unit and I liked doing the tracking tunnels. I didn’t know much about
                                                                              native birds before, but now I want to do my bit to help. I am worried about the native
                                                                              birds, because it’s so important. (Evaluation Notes, S9, December)
                                                                              Bird unit was great fun! My favourite part was the tracking tunnel. (Interview Data, S4,

                                                                            All four teachers reported that their students had enjoyed and learnt from the track-
                                                                          ing tunnel activity. Ellen, one of these teachers, reported that after her students had
                                                                          completed the tracking tunnel activity they had gone on to produce a plan for how
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          they could keep native birds safe in the school grounds, ‘They looked at the school
                                                                          grounds and the gully for our area and thought about what they could do. They got
                                                                          into different groups to make their plans and learnt a lot from that’ (Interview
                                                                          Data, T-Ellen, March).

                                                                          Student learning gains. If students enjoy a unit does it mean they have learnt any-
                                                                          thing? Comparison of the pre- and post-unit tests results showed that students’ under-
                                                                          standing had increased, with a mean difference of 3.1, up from 13 to 16. The strength
                                                                          of mean difference between the pre- and post-tests was checked using effect size. This
                                                                          was medium (d ¼ 0.676; p , 0.05) indicating the unit contributed a student outcome
                                                                          gain of medium effect, (Borenstein, Rothstein, & Cohen, 2001). In other words, the
                                                                          increase in student knowledge of native birds as a result of the unit was statistically
                                                                             All four teachers and the focus group students were of the view that the students
                                                                          had learnt much more than usual from the bird unit. For example, Ellen agreed the
                                                                          unit had led to learning gains, ‘Their knowledge grew with the unit. It’s not just
                                                                          doing experiments, discussion, and writing a report. It’s more specific. They learnt
                                                                          more about the birds. It was great’ (Interview Data, T-Ellen, March).
                                                                             In their end-of-unit evaluations, all 26 students reported that they had learnt a lot
                                                                          about New Zealand birds, 23 stated that they learnt facts relating to native birds, five
                                                                          stated that their understanding had increased, six stated that the unit had been inter-
                                                                          esting, and 12 stated that they felt more confident in their knowledge of native birds
                                                                          and the threats they face. One student commented,
                                                                              I have improved so much on this subject. I knew almost nothing and now I know a lot! I
                                                                              will continue to grow in my knowledge of birds. I enjoyed this unit a lot because it made
                                                                              me understand why birds are so important. (Evaluation Notes, S13, December)

                                                                            Another student said that she learnt about more than native birds: ‘With this [unit],
                                                                          you don’t only learn about the birds, but you learn about the environment’ (Interview
                                                                          Data, S5, December).

                                                                          Student transfer. Over the course of the unit students transferred their learning in a
                                                                          number of ways. As Gilbert et al. (2011) defined it, transfer is considered to have
16 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          taken place when learners use concepts or part of concepts ‘derived in relation to one
                                                                          focal event, meaningfully in another focal event’ (p. 830). The students in the case
                                                                          study class used their knowledge of bird adaption to discern and explain the adaptive
                                                                          features of other animals. They used what they had learnt about adaptation to under-
                                                                          stand the threats to native birds, where to best place tracking tunnels in the school
                                                                          gully, and to consider potentially productive conservation methods. All four teachers
                                                                          commented that some students had, at their own initiative, used the tracking tunnels
                                                                          at home, thereby providing evidence that they had transferred their school experience
                                                                          into a more distant new context. Nola identified this action as knowledge transfer into
                                                                          the ‘big picture’ of conservation: ‘They can transfer knowledge and an experience into
                                                                          a sort of big picture, and think about it in a different way. Why we need do this? Are we
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          trying to create a conservation area?’ (Interview Data, T-Nola, March).
                                                                             Students taking responsibility for the environment in this way was a school goal, as
                                                                          Nancy, explained: ‘We were trying to make the kids really aware of how they need look
                                                                          after their environment, and how important it is to take care of our gully. We want
                                                                          them to take ownership of that’ (Interview Data, T-Nancy, March).
                                                                             The teachers viewed student use of the tracking tunnels in their home gardens and
                                                                          local environment as indicative of student ownership of the unit ideas. Evidence of
                                                                          knowledge transfer in this way goes well beyond what the unit test could assess and
                                                                          lends support to the value of the ‘context as social circumstances’ model when the
                                                                          goal is knowledge that travels beyond the classroom.

                                                                          Sustained student interest and/or action. The six focus group students who agreed to be
                                                                          interviewed 6 months after the bird unit reported that they and their families had fol-
                                                                          lowed up on the unit ideas. One student had been to Mount Te Aroha for a bush walk
                                                                          to look for native birds with her mother. Another had been to the park beside his house
                                                                          to observe wildlife. Yet another student had discussed native birds and environmental
                                                                          matters with her family. She told us that her father communicated with the owner of a
                                                                          private property adjacent to a reserve to fix the fence in order to keep predators away
                                                                          from native birds. One student had visited Tiritiri Matangi, a bird sanctuary, with her
                                                                          family as a follow-up to the unit. She had researched the birds on the Internet prior to
                                                                          the visit and used this information to identify them when she was on site:
                                                                              We went to Tiritiri Matangi, which is like an offshore island with lots of native birds and pen-
                                                                              guins, and stuff. What I did was I searched what sort of birds lived there before I went. I
                                                                              could see which one was which when I was there. It’s fun. (Follow-up Interview, S10, June)

                                                                            In terms of further actions for native birds and conservation, the focus group stu-
                                                                          dents reported they were more aware of and concerned about these matters as a
                                                                          result of the unit,
                                                                              S10: I really like animals and I respected them (before). But the bird unit gave me even
                                                                              bigger respect for them and our environment.
                                                                              S11: The bird unit seems more cool now. Everything is so much more interesting since
                                                                              you know more about it.
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 17

                                                                              S12: Yes, I do know more about native birds and trees, I definitely know a lot of more
                                                                              about birds, trees and the environment. (Follow-up Interview, June)

                                                                             When talking about the difference that they might make in conservation, two girls
                                                                          talked about action in and by the community,
                                                                              S8: In the future, probably the biggest difference is in my area, and my surroundings. If
                                                                              everyone around you does something, that’s a big group.
                                                                              S4: And it can get bigger and bigger. A big group of people works together. (Follow-up
                                                                              Interview, June)

                                                                             These comments clearly signal the wider value of a context-based unit that supports
                                                                          student to link-making and transfer of their learning into their lives beyond the
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013


                                                                          Discussion and implications
                                                                          We have set out how a ‘context as social circumstances’ science unit played out in a
                                                                          primary classroom and documented its positive impact on student interest and learn-
                                                                          ing in the short and longer term. The students and teachers in the study reported that
                                                                          students had enjoyed the bird unit. Both groups considered that the students had
                                                                          learnt more than usual. The 6-month follow-up interview provided evidence that
                                                                          for some students their learning in the initial context had been substantive and com-
                                                                          pelling enough for them to transfer this knowledge to a new but related context
                                                                          (Engle, 2006); some students had continued to explore the ideas with their families
                                                                          and in the community. Student interest in the ideas of the unit had been sustained,
                                                                          at least in part, due to the unit’s relevance to students’ personal lives and the local
                                                                          environment. Thus, the unit met the demands of being interesting, relevant and enga-
                                                                          ging in the short and longer term. It is not our contention, however, that any unit
                                                                          based on New Zealand birds would have the same ‘context as social circumstances’
                                                                          outcomes. Teacher selection of a context, associated content (concepts, skills and atti-
                                                                          tudes) along with their design and orchestration of activities, each has a role to play in
                                                                          student engagement and success. Contexts, content and pedagogy need to provide
                                                                          opportunities and incentives for students to share and develop their ideas and to
                                                                          take action themselves as they engage in the challenge of science learning.

                                                                          Designing an Effective Context-based Unit—Selecting a Relevant Context
                                                                          Context-based units are recommended as one of the ways teachers can provide learn-
                                                                          ing experiences that stimulate student interest and curiosity, and have relevance
                                                                          beyond the classroom. However, context selection requires careful consideration of
                                                                          the opportunities and incentives the context has for students to transfer their learning
                                                                          and to make connections with their lives out of school (Gilbert et al., 2011; Harlen,
                                                                          2008). Moreover, these opportunities have to be considered right from the start for
                                                                          the likelihood of transfer to be optimised (Engle, 2006). In this study, the focus on
                                                                          native birds—their particular characteristics and the challenges they face—provided
18 J. Chen and B. Cowie

                                                                          a context that was of current societal interest in the local region and in New Zealand
                                                                          more widely (see also Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes, 2005). It provided a fra-
                                                                          mework within which the ‘big’ ideas of adaptation and conservation could be exem-
                                                                          plified, were naturally inter-related and could be connected to students’ personal
                                                                          and social lives. Students were able to understand why native birds might face
                                                                          threats from predators, to assess the presence of predators that might threaten
                                                                          them, and to use this assessment activity in their home gardens and community.
                                                                          Moreover, there were a number of sites they could easily visit with their families
                                                                          to follow up their learning. The unit opened up space and opportunities for
                                                                          students to engage with others to pursue an interest in birds, thereby increasing the
                                                                          possibility they might sustain their learning into the future at least in part because
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          they had come to understand they were part of a wider community of interest (Brans-
                                                                          ford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Engle, 2006; Gilbert, 2006; Nordine, Krajcik, &
                                                                          Fortus, 2011).

                                                                          Designing an Effective Context-based Unit—Focusing on ‘Big’ Ideas
                                                                          Teachers cannot include the full range of possible topics and activities in their class-
                                                                          room curriculum, so they need to make decision about what content to focus on.
                                                                          Harlen (2010) and Duschl et al. (2007) argue for a focus on ‘big’ or unifying ideas
                                                                          that students need to understand to make informed decisions about scientific
                                                                          aspects of the world around them. Karen’s bird unit was structured around the
                                                                          ‘big’ ideas of adaption and conservation, which are biological understandings that stu-
                                                                          dents need if they are to be critical, informed, and responsible citizens (Harlen, 2010).
                                                                          Karen developed and linked these ideas by starting from and interrelating a series of
                                                                          ‘small’ ideas embedded in activities that drew in, built on and extended students’
                                                                          knowledge of native birds and familiar animals. It is significant that New Zealand
                                                                          has a large number of endangered native bird species with distinctive adaptive fea-
                                                                          tures. This diversity provided a rich context for students to engage in an in-depth
                                                                          examination of the concept of adaptation and to consider implications for conserva-
                                                                          tion. It is quite possible that in the absence of a clear focus on the ‘big’ ideas of adap-
                                                                          tation and conservation, Karen’s students would simply have learnt a set of interesting
                                                                          facts about New Zealand native birds, and missed an opportunity to develop an ela-
                                                                          borated understanding of adaptation and its with wider applications. Overall, the find-
                                                                          ings suggest there is merit in teachers beginning their planning by identifying the ‘big’
                                                                          ideas in a context and working back to identify the ‘small’ ideas, attitudes, and skills
                                                                          that need to be developed and connected to help students understand and operatio-
                                                                          nalise these ‘big’ ideas.

                                                                          Designing an Effective Context-based Unit—Orchestrating Activities
                                                                          The activities that teachers use shape and frame their students’ opportunities to learn.
                                                                          The way teachers orchestrate and link these activities shapes student experiences of
                                                                          school science and their understandings of what science is about. There is, for
Engaging Primary Students in Learning About New Zealand Birds 19

                                                                          example, ample evidence that students do not always experience their (science)
                                                                          lessons as connected or coherent (Mercer, 2008). In this regard, Gilbert et al.
                                                                          (2011) note that it is important, within the ‘context as social circumstances’ model
                                                                          that students develop a coherent mental map of what they are learning. Karen sup-
                                                                          ported her students to do this through her focus on two ‘big’ ideas and her articulation
                                                                          of the links between ideas, tasks and lessons. The ‘big’ ideas provided an anchor-point
                                                                          that she revisited over time to connect activities and ‘small’ ideas together. Her explicit
                                                                          pedagogical link-making (Scott et al., 2011) contributed to her students’ experience
                                                                          of their science learning as connected and cumulative, and helped maintain student
                                                                          interest and momentum in learning over days and weeks.
                                                                             Throughout the lessons, Karen explained scientific terms using examples that con-
Downloaded by [Hong Kong Institute of Education] at 20:30 04 April 2013

                                                                          nected to students’ life experience to encourage them to transfer or connect what they
                                                                          were learning to other contexts. Gilbert and colleagues advocate this approach as a
                                                                          way of enabling mental maps to be invoked and extended whilst encouraging students
                                                                          to perceive the relevance of the current learning. This strategy has been shown to
                                                                          increase the chances students will develop coherence and depth of understanding
                                                                          (Mercer, Dawes, & Staarman, 2009). By applying scientific concepts to familiar
                                                                          real-life scenarios, teachers can stimulate student interest and also help ensure they
                                                                          come to appreciate the personal and social relevance of school science (Jenkins,
                                                                          2011; Nordine et al., 2011).
                                                                             Karen provided students with multiple opportunities to learn and use the language
                                                                          associated with both ‘small’ and ‘big’ ideas in a manner that supported student experi-
                                                                          ence of language development and learning as a social process supported by discus-
                                                                          sion (Gilbert et al., 2011). The students engaged in lively discussions as they
                                                                          sought to understand and to make personal sense of new terminology and ideas.
                                                                          Karen used a range of reading strategies, based on her knowledge of teaching
                                                                          reading per se, to ensure that reading tasks promoted students’ active engagement
                                                                          with science ideas. As Bulman (1985) explains it, ‘if we wish to give our pupils a
                                                                          taste of being a real scientist then reading should play an important part in our
                                                                          science lessons’ (p. 19). Knowledge application and transfer happened explicitly
                                                                          during the reading/discussion process as students applied their new ideas and ter-
                                                                          minologies about adaptation to different animals.
                                                                             Throughout the unit, students were captivated by the large coloured images of New
                                                                          Zealand native birds that Karen projected on the interactive whiteboard. From
                                                                          student post-unit interviews, it seemed that the aesthetic appeal of New Zealand
                                                                          birds added to the charm of the unit. Old Blue served to bring the ideas of the unit
                                                                          to life through the depiction of a conservation success story. The reading was a mem-
                                                                          orable event that provoked an emotional and intellectual response from the students.
                                                                          The story was made more compelling by the scale of the challenge to be overcome and
                                                                          by evidence of the collective commitment of those involved in the conservation effort.
                                                                          Karen’s reading of Old Blue as a focal activity fostered student emotional engagement
                                                                          with the substantive content of a unit, which is an important aspect of pedagogical
                                                                          link-making (Scott et al., 2011). Pappas and Varelas (2009) found that non-fiction
                                                                          narratives written as engaging stories help to make ideas coherent, memorable, and
You can also read