Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 2, Issue 2, Article 2 (Dec., 2001)
Describing and supporting effective science teaching and learning in Australian schools - validation issues
Discussion: Issues of methodology
In a large and complex project such as this, the methodological approach is inevitably eclectic. In a sense, the project has moved beyond the 'methodology wars', utilising qualitative methodologies for developmental and for evaluative purposes, and quantitative measures based on interpretive criteria or on test scores. The project as a whole is situated within an action research design. Hence, the approach and research methods are a state of continual refinement, and the research findings could be seen as perpetually provisional.
The use of the component map as both a developmental and a monitoring instrument is one example of the tension created by the dual intervention/research nature of the project. As the paper has described, this led to complexities in validation that may have been circumvented in a more controlled, small scale research environment. There are other tensions inherent in conducting research in an environment where there is continual pressure on time, and where procedures are varied as greater insight is gained, greater resources made available, and the model extended to an increasing number of schools. Scale is a major determinant of both the change model, and the evaluation methods. Further complexities relate to the political nature of the project, and the need to balance the requirements of the funding agency against our own requirement to take a critical and complex stance in relation to purposes and outcomes. What do these issues mean for description of effective science teaching and learning?
The provisional, political nature of the components
It is not possible, in any account of science classrooms, to capture reality. The classroom must be conceived of as a site that affords multiple interpretations (see, for example, Clarke, 2001). Any attempt to describe effective teaching and learning must involve decisions about the level of description, what aspect of practice are to be focused on, and where the emphasis is to be put. The validity of the SiS Components, described thus far, must therefore be regarded as partial and provisional. That is why the question of purpose is central.
The SiS Components, looked at coldly, contain nothing that a careful reading of the literature may not have uncovered. Their strength lies, however, in the way they have harnessed significant themes to a particular purpose:
- their explicitness that both clarifies practice and enables monitoring and hence empirical validation;
- their recognition of a broad range of science education literatures, beyond the purely conceptual;
- their embedding in recognisable and demonstrable effective practice;
- their explicit challenge to transmissive teaching approaches; and
- their framing in terms of classroom and learner, rather than teacher characteristics.
The strength of the SiS Components lies, therefore, in their political nature rather than in their representation of any fundamental new truths about teaching and learning. It could be argued that the SiS Components to some extent represent a status quo view of teaching and learning, being derived from current practice and consistent with the literature. However, the extent to which they have challenged teachers in the project to shift their practice attests to their power in supporting change. What is status quo for a reader of the literature is very different from the status quo in schools. For a project such as this, the challenge is not so much to uncover fundamental learning principles, but to find an expression of these which serves the particular purpose. The tension, however, between the need to provide a proven framework, and the need to encourage innovation, has been a constant planning issue.
The level of description
A choice we had to make within the project concerned the level at which effective teaching and learning is described. The SiS Components, with their interpretive documentation, are pitched at a variety of levels, to try to cater for the twin demands of explicitness and lattitude for individual variation. There are two concerns with this level of description. Firstly, there may be some deep seated beliefs that underlie the components that should be made more explicit, and we have been attempting to address this through a more careful alignment with the research literature, and by a reanalysis of the original interviews to uncover broader themes.
Secondly, there is a concern that even carefully structured teacher self reporting may either misrepresent actual practice, or may miss something more fundamental that underlies the Components. Our plans for 2002 include finer grained analysis of classroom teaching and learning, to align the Component Map results with observations of classrooms, interviews with students and teachers, and student achievement results from a wider range of assessment instruments.
Practicalities and politics
Both the time frame within which the project has worked, and the political background to the project, has created issues with the framing and validation of the SiS Components. For instance:
In a large scale public project such as this, it is difficult to achieve the coherence between aims and research design that would be expected of smaller scale, more deliberately planned research projects. The research aspects of the project are in a continual state of working towards coherence, and this includes the need to work with teachers, researchers, and government to develop an agreed, and a more refined understanding of the real issues.
- The need to act often requires decisions to be made, advice given to schools, or documents and monitoring instruments produced before we can carry out the full analysis which would normally be expected of such research.
- The speed with which instrumentation is required, and the scale on which testing is carried out, has impacted considerably on the nature of the tests and the method of delivery. The type of testing we are carrying out is also influenced by the concerns about TIMSS results that led to the project, and prevailing public views of knowledge and learning that are not necessarily completely aligned with the project vision. Thus, there is an acknowledged tension between the breadth of vision represented by the SiS Components, and the rather narrower view of 'effectiveness' represented by the tests.
Intersecting audiences and interests
There is inevitably some sensitivity in projects such as this, that project reports should not expose either Government or schools and teachers to negative publicity. Under these circumstances, what place do socially critical perspectives have? In fact, because this project has been concerned with school and teacher change, it has been possible to openly air findings without being seen to be criticising "from the outside". Some of the negative perceptions of teachers and schools which surface in the literature (eg. DEET, 1989; Goodrum, Cousins & Kinnear, 1992) have been also the experience of the SiS project. However, because we have been working with teachers within an essentially collegial and supportive framework, we are in a position to take a critical perspective but also acknowledge the factors that lead to these problems. Our political stance thus tends to be sympathetic to the nuances of the daily lives of teachers and schools.
Copyright (C) 2001 HKIEd APFSLT. Volume 2, Issue 2, Article 2 (Dec., 2001)