Michaela Community School | Science – 27.02.2015 – Why children in England are not learning science, Pt 2
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Science – 27.02.2015 – Why children in England are not learning science, Pt 2

04 Apr 2015, Posted by admin in Michaela's Blog

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Olivia Dyer

The vocabulary overload

Ashley squints at the interactive whiteboard as the glare from the sun penetrates the window and dazzles him. “One difference between the structure of a general plant cell and a bacterial cell is that with a bacterial cell, instead of a nucleus, the DNA is held on a plasmid.” As Mr Thompson points at a squiggly line occupying the inside of the bacterial cell, Ashley recoils at the sweat patches developing in the underarm region of Mr Thompson’s grey polyester shirt. The post lunchtime slump takes hold of Ashley’s consciousness, and he begins to ponder the definition of ‘DNA’. Minutes later, having decreed that DNA is a suitable abbreviation for ‘dubstep not afrobeats’, Mr Thompson concludes his explanation by informing the class that they have “five minutes: off you go!”

Moments later, Ashley turns around and it dawns on him that he has no idea what to do next. Completely boggled, Ashley gets out of his seat and furtively glances at the pair of the bookish girls in the corner – the ones who always get the best results. They plump for some sort of petri dish and so, not wanting to question their scientific wisdom, Ashley leans over to grab one too, whilst scanning the room for clues as to what to do with it next.

Of course, Ashley should have been listening to Mr Thompson’s period five lesson on pathogens, and would not have been quite so confused if he had not begun to muse possible definitions of ‘DNA’. However, the classic mistake that Mr Thompson and almost every other science teacher in the nation has made at some point in their career was to convolute their explanation with superfluous vocabulary. We science teachers need to be mindful that our subject is a minefield of unchartered territory for children. DNA might be in our everyday vocabulary, but to the average 13 year old, the word is jargon. It might as well be a foreign language. If pupils don’t know the meaning of words that underpin new concepts, they probably should not be used without prior acknowledgement from the teacher. Why overload a pupil’s working memory with alien terminology? It is said that young people struggle to hold more than five items in their working memory at any one time. Therefore, using unfamiliar words is an unnecessary distraction, which subsequently makes learning more difficult.

What about the words that our pupils are used to using in everyday discourse? Take energy, for example. Most pupils in year seven will associate the word ‘energy’ with food, fuel and the ability to undertake activity. Science teachers, irrespective of their specialism, feel familiar with the concept of energy. It is an important idea in biology, chemistry and physics. However, ask a science teacher to define energy or explain clearly what is meant by the word. It is difficult to do. Many science teachers do not, themselves, have a clear understanding of the scientific conception of energy. They see energy as a fuzzy ‘thing’ – something that is measured in Joules. The reality in science, however, is far more complex: energy is a quantifiable property that can be converted to do ‘work’ – what happens when a force acts upon an object, resulting in a displacement of that object. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Quite frankly, the teaching of energy in secondary schools in England is a mess and improving the situation requires subject specific training. However, I will save that rant for another time! In order to communicate the scientific conception of energy, we need to simplify things. For those perplexed by the above definition, lets begin with a simplified definition: energy is the amount of work that can be performed by a force.

To understand this definition, teachers also need to explain the concepts ‘work’ and ‘force’. As with every academic discipline, explaining one thing requires the understanding of many others. But there are additional layers of complexity in science; take work and force, for example. These words have different meanings in the everyday discourse of a year seven pupil. From their point of view, ‘work’ is synonymous with ‘labor’, and ‘force’ is synonymous with ‘vigor’. I personally made the decision to teach Energy as the penultimate unit of my Key Stage Three curriculum in year nine. This is because, as I have outlined, it is such an enormous concept underpinned by many other concepts, which I want to make sure my pupils master first.

There is a huge gap between what is required to understand a concept and the reality of what many science teachers are actually doing in science labs around the country. ‘What are they doing?’ you ask. Throwing words around the science lab, I tell you! What this post elucidates is the tip of the iceberg. Energy is one concept in Key Stage Three out of hundreds, if not thousands. Imagine the breadth of knowledge we assume pupils have if we count the Key Stage Four and Five sciences. Currently, science teachers do not put this amount of thought into how they explain concepts. This is one of the reasons why children in England are not learning Science.

In conclusion, it is imperative that we acknowledge how huge a problem this ‘vocabulary overload’ is. Next, we need to identify the issues with using scientific vocabulary and systematically develop, sequence and share definitions. Here is a challenge for you science teachers out there. Over the next week, take one of these three words – particle, structure or weight. Pinpoint the issues that arise when using the word in Key Stage Three science, and then develop a comprehensive definition. Next, decide when it should be introduced in the curriculum sequence and thus, into pupil’s scientific vocabularies. After all, we are all in this together.

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