Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 3, Issue 1, Article 1(June, 2002)
Winnie Wing-Mui SO
Constructivist Teaching in Primary Science
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Method of Study


The participants in this study were pre-service teachers of the Certificate in Primary Education (Chinese) (Two-year Full-time) Course. A class of 25 student teachers taking the Science Curriculum Studies module was invited to be the subjects of the present study, and was followed through their two years of study and in their first year of beginning teaching.

There were two reasons for inviting all student teachers in a class to participate in the full study. The first reason was to capture a general picture of teachers at different stages of their study and thus to have a stronger basis for generalizing the pattern of development. The second reason was to allow for the possibility of the loss of some participants from the research due to unforeseeable factors such as arrangements during school teaching experience and beginning teaching. There was a likelihood that some of the student teachers would have no science lessons during school teaching experience. As well some student teachers would be likely to further their studies after graduation or be assigned no General Studies teaching in their beginning year of teaching.

It turned out that twenty of the twenty-five participants in the first stage of study were actually involved in teaching science topics during their school teaching experience period at the second stage of the study. Only nine of the original participants were teaching General Studies in their first year of teaching in local primary schools at the third stage of this study. Possible bias due to unrepresentative dropout was analysed by comparing the first stage responses of this group with those who continued in the study.

Lesson observation

Student teachers were observed once every year throughout the three-years of the study to capture the extent of their constructivist teaching. For micro-teaching, owing to the tight schedule in teaching the method studies module, each student teacher was required to teach for about twenty minutes. For both the school teaching experience and beginning teaching year, the lesson observations were conducted in normal classroom settings, which normally lasts for thirty to thirty-five minutes. The topics chosen for lesson observations were science topics in the subject General Studies.

The lesson observation utilized an interpretative approach which is described by Erickson (1986) as focusing on "the immediate and local meanings of actions, as defined from the actors' points of views." (p.119) "Snapshots" of teachers' teaching of science topics were obtained. Data was recorded in different ways that included the researcher's observational field notes, video and tape recordings of teachers' talks with the class and discussions amongst pupils. The reason for studying teachers' teaching of primary science lesson was to find out if they were implementing a constructivist approach to learning and the extent of their constructivist teaching.

Analysis of constructivist teaching

The following researchers' work which advocated constructivist learning were studied and referred to for a more systematic and objective observation:

  1. the five characteristics of constructivist teaching outlined by Appleton and Asoko (1996) to infer the use of constructivist views of learning by teachers to inform teaching;

  2. Kober's (1993) picture of an emerging consensus about the knowledge and skills that science teachers should possess when enacting a constructivist approach;

  3. Novodvorsky's (1997) nine components which describe the teacher's role in guiding the students construction of knowledge;

  4. Yager's (1991) Constructivist Learning Model (CLM); and,

  5. Novak's (1998) comparison of teaching practices under the traditional paradigm with those under contemporary constructivist views.

To avoid overlap among the features of constructivist teaching described by the above researchers, and to make the evaluation of lesson more comprehensive, a set of characteristics of constructivist teaching was developed. This list describes a teaching approach that advocates science learning as an active process which focuses on pupils' understanding and use of scientific ideas and inquiry processes. The construction of the set of characteristics that describe constructivist teaching itself can be considered objective in the sense as argued by Galton (1995) that the criteria used to describe classroom life are clearly defined, thus, when the system is used correctly it is unaffected by the personal biases of the observer. The features of constructivist teaching were grouped into six domains with altogether 22 items (in Figure 1) utilized as a guide to evaluating and categorizing classroom teaching. Teachers' teaching performance in their three observed lessons, once a year, were rated according to the 22 features that describe constructivist teaching, with a 4-point rating ranging from strongly agree (3), agree (2), slightly agree (1) to not observed (0).

The teaching of each student teacher was rated towards the end of lesson observation to the extent to which it reflected constructivist teaching. For example, a teacher who started the lesson by involving pupils in talking about the knowledge/content/concept learned in previous lesson/year was considered as exhibiting awareness of pupils' existing ideas. However, the rating of this practice of teaching with either "strongly agree" or "agree" and "slightly agree" depended on the breadth and depth of treatment. Another example was on the rating of the category "pupils explain phenomenon". Sometimes teachers were not found to involve pupils in explaining phenomenon throughout the whole lesson, the rating would then be 0 - "not observed". If this practice of teaching was rarely found, the rating would then be 1 - "slight agree", so on and so forth. The ratings of the teaching were clarified and confirmed by studying the video recordings of lessons and cross-checking with the observational field notes. This was to ensure the ratings were really describing teachers' performance with each particular item.

1. Use pupils' existing knowledge to guide teaching
  1.1 teacher's awareness of pupils' existing ideas
  1.2 elicit pupils' ideas before presenting teachers' own idea or before studying ideas from textbook or other sources
  1.3 challenge pupils' initial ideas
  1.4 make new ideas accessible to pupils
2. Guide pupils to generate explanations and alternative interpretations
  2.1 pupils observe phenomenon
  2.2 pupils describe phenomenon
  2.3 pupils generate explanations and interpretations
  2.4 probe pupils' responses for clarification and justification
  2.5 pupils explain contradictions and misconceptions
3. Devise incisive questions
  3.1 a question-rich learning environment
  3.2 questions based on pupils' responses
  3.3 pupils expand on their questions and justify their responses
  3.4 accept and value pupils' answers and suggestions
4. Choose materials and activities for pupils to test ideas
  4.1 pupils work with materials and activities
  4.2 pupils engage in scientific inquiry
  4.3 pupils work independently with minimal help from the teacher
  4.4 pupils put their ideas to test (disprove or prove what they think)
  4.5 pupils' suggestion about the direction of the activity/experiment
5. Provide a classroom atmosphere conducive to discussion
  5.1 pupils put forward and discuss ideas with the teacher
  5.2 pupils put forward and discuss ideas with peers
6. Provide opportunities for pupils to utilise new ideas
  6.1 relate current teaching points to previous knowledge
  6.2 pupils apply knowledge to new situations or real-life problems

* Teacher's performance in teaching is rated according to the above features, and is accompanied by a four-point rating ranging from "strongly agree" (3), "agree" (2), "slightly agree" (1) to "not observed" (0)

Figure 1. Components that describe constructivist teaching

Copyright (C) 2002 HKIEd APFSLT. Volume 3, Issue 1, Article 1(June, 2002). All Rights Reserved.