Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 5, Issue 3, Article 8 (Dec., 2004)
Yeung Chung LEE and Pun Hon NG
Hong Kong primary pupils' cognitive understanding and reasoning in conducting science investigation: A pilot study on the topic of "Keeping Warm"
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Research on pupils' cognitive understanding and reasoning in scientific investigation

Research data have accumulated on the progression of cognitive understanding and reasoning of children for solving problems in scientific investigation. Findings of the surveys conducted by the APU of the U.K. show that the performance of students aged 11, 13 and 15 tended to vary across tasks set in different contexts. Also, when children's performance in ages 12 and 14 was compared, it was found that many pupils did not make progress but rather going backwards (Strang et al 1991, cited in Kanari 2000, p.65). The National Curriculum Council project conducted after the APU survey found that there was overall progression in pupils' performance with age (from Year 7 to 9), but the change was small compared with the effect of different concept areas (Gott and Duggan 1995 p.58).

In studying pupils' scientific reasoning between 9 to 14 years of age (Year 4, 7 and 9), Millar et al (1994) identified four forms of understandings of the purpose of investigation by pupils. They were labeled as engagement, modeling, engineering and scientific frames. The engagement frame is characterized by engagement with the apparatus without obvious purpose. The modelling frame is employed to produce a desired appearance, an effect, or a phenomenon. The engineering frame refers to the optimization of the desired effect by seeking a combination of factors through trial and error. The scientific frame is the use of a scientific approach in clarifying the relationships between variables. The researchers found that in an investigation on heat transfer, many students chose frames other than the scientific frame. The shift in frame was not very obvious. In the Year 9 Group, fewer than half of the pupil groups used the scientific frame. In another task that deals with forces and motion, which requires the manipulation of two continuous variables, many Year 9 students failed to understand the continuous nature of the variables. Many of them used bar charts to represent data of continuous nature. Pupils of all three year groups did not have adequate understanding of the significance of quantitative data in relation to objective evidence.

Kanari (2000) reported a study on children aged 9, 11 and 13 of mixed abilities in six schools in Northern England. The pupils were presented with an investigation task involving a causal independent variable and a non-causal independent variable. The study focuses on four areas of pupils' performance including choice of initial hypotheses, investigative strategies, conclusions and reasoning from data to conclusion. The findings show that no significant age effect was found in pupils' choice of initial hypotheses, in the likelihood of children reaching the conclusion, and in children's understanding of error and variability of measurement. Nevertheless, older children were more able to spot and take advantage of the hint given about the need of a 'fair test'.

From a contructivist's perspective, the development of scientific reasoning in children is likely to be determined by their previous experiences including those obtained inside and outside school. These experiences are likely to vary across different countries or areas where science curricula are different. This implies that Hong Kong pupils may have a unique profile compared with their counterparts in, say, the U.K. where there is a long tradition of inquiry-oriented practical work. With the implementation of the new curriculum in primary schools which emphasizes the investigative approach, it is worthwhile and important at this particular juncture to study pupils' reasoning underpinning scientific inquiry and how it varies with age. Such findings could provide essential background data of primary pupils in different grades in order to inform the design of appropriate curricular strategies for enhancing pupils' understanding and performance in scientific investigation.


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