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Best Teaching Part 4: Jonathan Osborne, Argumentation and a Science Curriculum

Argument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education. Professor Jonathan Osborne, now at Stanford University, points out that opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning.  Amongst his most important papers are ‘Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of of Collaborative, Critical Discourse’ (Science 328, 463-466, 23 April 2010), a more extended treatment of which is given in Osborne’s chapter in the Second International Handbook of Science Education Part Two (‘The Role of Argument: Learning How to Learn in School Science’ in Barry J Fraser et al (editors), Springer, Dordrecht, 2012). Since critical, rational scepticism is essential in science, educational practice which does not give opportunities to develop the ability to reason and argue scientifically is a weakness: “knowing what is wrong matters as much as knowing what is right… Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas.” Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice.

Science education mostly lacks argument: “in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised”. Science therefore comes across as a monolith of facts. This is consistent with the deeply held view that education is a process of transmission of knowledge as a set of unequivocal and uncontested facts transferred from expert to novice. “However, in reality, education is a highly complex act where failure is the norm and success the exception… learning is often the product of the difference between the intuitive or old models we hold and new ideas we encounter”.

Research reveals some very interesting and important features of learning. For instance, groups holding differing ideas learn more than those who hold similar preconceptions. Improvements in conceptual learning occur when students engage in argumentation. Thus students asked to engage in small-group discussions significantly outperformed a group of control students in their use of extended utterances and verbal reasoning. Students studying genetics who engaged in discussion used biological knowledge appropriately significantly more often than a group that did not engage in discussion. And Osborne quotes a U.K classroom study over two years of 30 lessons in 11 schools dedicated to the teaching of reasoning. Students’ scores on test of conceptual knowledge in the intervention schools were significantly better than those of the control sample and two years later, these students significantly outperformed a control sample not only in science, but also in language arts and mathematics. That suggests this kind of program accelerates students’ general intellectual processing abilities. The finding has been replicated many times.

It is most important, Osborne points out, that students be taught the norms of social interaction, to understand that the function of their discussion is to persuade others of the validity of their arguments. Skills which can be developed include the ability to formulate explanatory hypotheses to model phenomena and discriminate between supporting and contradictory evidence using argumentation to seek validity where appropriate and the application of statistical techniques.

In summary Osborne concludes, teaching students to reason, argue, and think critically will enhance students’ conceptual learning. This will only happen, however, if students are provided structured opportunities to engage in deliberative exploration of ideas, evidence, and argument—in short, how we know what we know, why it matters, and how it came to be. Without such opportunity science seems hardly relevant, impenetrable.


Science education for what?

Enrolments in science are increasingly seen as a problem though the relationship with the declining opportunities for employment in science jobs is seldom explored. In that context we can recall U.S. President-elect Barrack Obama, announcing appointments of senior scientists to positions in his administration, saying, “It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology”. This needs emphasis: education in science is not just training for those students who intend to become scientists in adult life. This has been apparent for a very long time and is being strongly addressed within the European community.

At a global level UNESCO in 1993 launched measures to bring about a more thorough “infusion” of scientific and technological culture into society consistent with the World Declaration on Education for All. The need to do this is widely recognised and has been for decades but implementation is a quite different matter, an issue taken up at the World Conference on Science in Budapest, Hungary in July 1999. In many countries, including Australia, many politicians and policy makers give support to science only to the extent that it has instrumental relevance, that it contributes to economic growth. The personal experience of the Hon Barry Jones, sometime Minister for Science was one of continual frustration at the refusal of politicians and bureaucrats alike to grasp the fundamentals of the relevance of this to growth of society and individuals, as he recounts in his autobiography A Thinking Reed (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2006, especially pages 371-388).

Teaching of science in schools

Long time advocate for science teaching, Ruth Dircks, a former President of the Science Teachers Association in Australia (and winner of the 2002 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools) pointed out in a talk for the ABC RN program Ockham’s Razor in 2008 that “from time to time the scientific community asks the same question, namely what is wrong with school science? And as a result a report is asked for, often one is produced and then nothing significant happens.”

In report commissioned by the Australian Science Teachers Association in 1984 on the place of science in the curriculum drew attention to a lack of community awareness of the role of science, a shortage of trained science teachers and in-service support was inadequate; there was no national science curriculum outline and many teachers lacked a positive attitude to teaching science. Dircks concluded that what was needed was experts in pedagogy, not in science. “When the pedagogy has been sorted out we can finally turn to the scientists.”

Overwhelmingly, the attitude of students to the science curriculum as taught is that “science is often unfortunately seen as irrelevant to student’s lives…  Unfortunately however, currently, the curiosity and enthusiasm for science displayed by many students at the beginning of Year 7 has often become stifled by Years 9 or 10. Almost half the university students studying science, maths, technology and engineering do not think their course is relevant to Australian life, a study by Universities Australia late 2011 commissioned by Australia’s chief scientist found; students lacked appreciation of the relevance and role of those disciplines in their lives and communities, and of its potential for rewarding career opportunities as Jen Rosenberg reported January 20, 2012 (in ‘Students don’t see relevance in uni courses’, Sydney Morning Herald).

Students see a “disjunction between traditional images of science, particularly as represented in science education and the way contemporary science operates and the abilities required of those working in the field. Working scientists, science graduates working in other areas and year 11 science students interviewed by Russell Tytler and David Symington of Deakin University “argued for a science education less focused on knowledge structures and more on skills, thinking, preparing for lifelong learning and engagement with science” at the ACER Research Conference in 2006.

Peter Fensham, one of Australia’s most distinguished researchers in the field of science education has surveyed the situation in numerous publications, among them his presentation at the 2006 ACER Conference, ‘Student interest in science: The problem, possible solutions, and constraints’. He pointed to the finding in the “Relevance of Science Education” (ROSE) project of Svein Sjøberg in Oslo, which surveyed 15-16 year old students in more than 30 countries, that students in industrialised countries like Australia were more interested in topics that rarely occur in school science.

Whilst most students agree science and technology are important for society they are less likely to agree that science benefits outweigh possible harmful effects and most do not like science compared with other subjects or consider that school science has made them more critical and sceptical and more appreciative of nature. However, positively received approaches to science include presentation of science as a story involving persons, situations and action, real world situations that students can engage with, focal questions that they can engage with and contexts as the source and power of concepts. Moreover, positive responses also attend clearly presented science relating to issues of personal and social significance which are engaging and open problems for investigation.

Fensham refers to the ‘humanistic’ curriculum developed by Glen Aikenhead, Professor of Curriculum Studies at the University of Saskatchewan in his Science Education for Everyday Life (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2006). Fensham asserts, “Academic science in Australia has been reluctant to endorse changes in science curricula with humanistic characteristics. For academic science, the sciences in schooling were preparatory and prerequisite for science-based study at university. Academic science has exercised control to maintain this situation directly, or indirectly through well socialised disciples among the teaching force. Undergraduate studies [have thus left] graduates for other careers, such as school teaching, deficient in aspects other than foundational conceptual knowledge.”

As Jonathan Osborne says, “Science education wrestles with two competing priorities: the need to educate the future citizen about science; and the need to provide the basic knowledge necessary for future scientists. It is argued that the evidence would suggest that it is the latter goal that predominates – a goal which exists at least, in part, in conflict with the needs of the majority who will not continue with science post compulsory education… science’s dilemma is that it can only function effectively within a tradition where it is taught as received knowledge, knowledge that is unequivocal, uncontested and unquestioned. Presented to the young student in this manner, it is perceived as a body of authoritative knowledge which is to be accepted and believed… The fundamental flaw with this approach is that, while the unity and salience of such information is apparent to those who hold an overview of the domain, its significance is arcane for the young student. Only for those who finally enter the inner sanctum of the world of the practising scientist will any sense of coherence become apparent. As a consequence, only those that ever reach the end get to comprehend the wonder and beauty of the edifice that has been constructed.”

Attitudes toward science are not necessarily scientific attitudes and attitudes toward school science are not necessarily the same as attitudes toward science in general. Russell Tytler of Deakin University and Jonathan Osborne give an excellent summary of relevant research on the teaching of science in schools in their essay in the Second International Handbook of Science Education Volume 1, (‘Student Attitudes  and Aspirations Towards Science’, Barry J. Fraser et al (editors), p 597-625, Springer, Dordrecht, 2012).

University academics have substantial influence over the secondary school curriculum in science, as Aikenhead said. But they are often not familiar with, indeed may be antagonistic toward, current notions of effective learning such as constructivism. Laboratory work generates positive experiences but school science often fails to generate sufficient experiences of this nature. Tytler and Osborne point out, “Rote, recitation and expository teaching might provide teachers with a sense of security as they enable to the teacher to remain firmly in control, they make it less likely that the classroom will become a theatre for dealing with awkward, contingent questions which deal with issues of evidence and reasons for belief ..”

Further, instruments for reliably assessing the effectiveness of learning of science do not necessarily lead to an understanding of how knowledge and understanding are developed. The role of argumentation is often not appreciated, as pointed out above. Surveys which find that less than 50% of students have an interest in science cause alarm in some quarters about the future supply of scientists. However, a substantial proportion of respondents do show an interest and as Tytler and Osborne observe the concern may well be exaggerated.

In the teaching of science (and history) what is obvious is a lack of relevant context: students love to hear stories of scientific discovery and why we remember them but instead are presented with narrow specific experiments and observations devoid of human perspective, a dull and boring text-book based presentation and constant repetition of the same thing. These are points made by Fensham and Osborne.

Science Education in the European Union

The issues and tensions in the discussion about the science curriculum in Australia are mirrored in the experience of the European Union. Interestingly they are also found in the debate about curriculum reform in China in the last 10 years where the focus on student-centred learning and constructivist approach to curriculum reform involving the sciences has sparked opposition from prominent academic scientists claiming that the integrity of the discipline and the supply of needed scientists for the nation are threatened. The approach adopted by the countries of the European Union to the teaching of science (and technology) makes a very interesting comparison with what is being done in other countries. The European Commission, often criticised in non-European countries for all sorts of reasons is, perhaps surprisingly, able to develop strategies in a more coherent manner than is seen in other countries such as Australia and the U.S. which are federations of states, not distinct nation states.

A “High Level Group on Science Education” chaired by Michel Rocard, Prime Minister of France under Francois Mitterrand from 1988-1991 and a member of the European Parliament, was appointed by the Commission and reported in 2007 in Science Education Now: A Renewed Pedagogy for the Future of Europe”. It observed, in the light of declining interest in science by young people that “Unless more effective action is taken, Europe’s longer term capacity to innovate, and the quality of its research will also decline.”

The origins of the declining interest among young people for science studies were found largely in the way science is taught in schools. “.. whereas the science education community mostly agrees that pedagogical practices based on inquiry-based methods are more effective, the reality of classroom practice is that in the majority of European countries, these methods are simply not being implemented.” Current initiatives in Europe actively pursue renewal of science education through “inquiry based” methods.

The Group asserted that, inquiry-based science education (IBSE) had proved its efficacy at both primary and secondary levels in increasing children’s and students’ interest and attainments levels while at the same time stimulating teacher motivation. “… IBSE pedagogy … creates opportunities for involving firms, scientists, researchers, engineers, universities, local actors such as cities, associations, parents and other kinds of local resources.” Participation of cities and the local community in the renewal of science education was seen as important. Examples are Pollen and Sinus-Transfer. (Pollen is a project focused on the creation of 12 “Seed Cities”, educational territories that support primary science education through the commitment of the whole community, and is aimed at primary teachers in twelve European countries of the European Union with an emphasis on teaching through inquiry. “Sinus” and “Sinus-Transfer” provide secondary school teachers in Germany with tools to change their pedagogical approach to science teaching in secondary school. The focus of these projects has been primarily on pedagogy and not on transforming the content itself. Further details can be found on the web.)

Speaking at the conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) conference in Philadelphia in 2010, Doris Jorde from the University of Oslo and President of the European Science Education research Association, one of the members of the “Group” which presented the report on Science Education for the European Commission, spoke to the proposition that recruitment and interest in science and technology was a prime political concern for Europe and (most) OECD countries.