International Journal of Science Education
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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 Education Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tsed20 Engaging Primary Students in Learning about New Zealand Birds: A socially relevant context a a Junjun Chen & Bronwen Cowie a Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand 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, DOI:10.1080/09500693.2012.763194 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2012.763194 PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE Full terms and conditions of use: http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and- conditions 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, 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2012.763194 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 Introduction 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: firstname.lastname@example.org # 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 goals. 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 classroom? (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 students. 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). Results 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. adaptation; org.nz/Science-Stories/ † 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 interview, 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 comments. 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, December) 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 significant. 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 classroom. 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
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