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The future of Science Literacy: link it or lose it! November 21, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education.
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from Colin Webb

In this post Colin Webb argues that science education is insufficiently valued in primary (elementary) schools, and that the most effective forms of science learning combine both science and literacy learning strategies.

I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently with some sadness. The headline read: ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards’ (SMH 21/09/2010). I have long held the belief that a focus on state and national testing of literacy and numeracy would not only lead to a narrowing of the curriculum but also to a decline in literacy standards. Professor Barry McGaw, the chairman of the Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has analysed Australia’s decline in reading performance and described this fall as statistically significant, and has suggested that it is mostly the result of a decline in student performance at the highest level.

So, what has this to do with the future of science education? There have been sad but consistent indications that primary schools are increasingly partitioning the curriculum, with the result that science education is perceived as not as important as the results obtained in NAPLAN tests. In combination, the emphasis on literacy and numeracy, as defined by NAPLAN results, together with the quarantining of science education, has resulted in science being relegated to a lower position in the curriculum hierarchy. McGaw suggests that the decline in reading performance is “… due to schools focusing more on basic achievement levels and not so much on the development of sophisticated reading of complex text.” It is now common for primary schools to have specific times in the day that are allocated purely to teaching literacy and numeracy. The future for science education in primary schools is one that must be linked with literacy (and numeracy) rather than one where science education is considered of little importance under the regime of national testing. The focus on basic achievement levels rather than the sophistication and complexities of factual texts encountered in scientific content essentially implies a ‘dumbing’ down of science itself. Not only is science rarely taught in the primary school curriculum, but when it is the opportunities for literacy development are overlooked because science and literacy are not integrated.

Norris and Phillips (2003) argue that western science would not be possible without text, and that because of the dependence of western science upon text, a person who cannot read and write is severely limited in the depth of scientific knowledge, learning, and education he or she can acquire. To be truly scientifically literate, students must acquire a fundamental sense of scientific literacy that involves reading and writing when the content is science. Being knowledgeable, learned and educated in science is a derived sense of scientific literacy. The two senses are related. Most conceptions or definitions of scientific literacy focus more on the derived sense of literacy and not to the fundamental sense. Reading and writing are essential elements of learning in science and are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of science, and, by extension, to learning science.

Using learning experiences that focus on science (and technology) as the starting point provides an authentic context for teachers to develop both a fundamental sense of literacy and a derived sense of science literacy; in other words, the foundations of meaningful scientific literacy. They can integrate fundamental literacy skills and also develop the derived sense of scientific literacy. It would seem to me that creating authentic and integrated science and literacy programs may have the advantage of increasing the literacy levels of students as well as their general scientific literacy.

References: McGaw.B. (2010) ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards (SMH. 21/09/2010)’. Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87, 224-240.

Colin Webb is a Lecturer in science education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He particularly specialises in and promotes engaging science pedagogies for young people aged 3-12 years.

Writing, collaboration and learning – where there’s a will there’s the wiki way November 7, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr Katina Zammit

In this post Katina Zammit points to the motivational and learning outcomes gained through having students undertake collaborative writing using a wiki.


Do your students lack interest in writing? Looking to encourage collaboration between your students in an authentic manner? Then using a Wiki may be the answer.

For many years, students in primary schools have been asked to construct both written and multimodal texts for assessment purposes. However, these texts have been created on paper usually as an individual project.  Many students copy and paste great slabs of information from an Internet site and paste it into their information report, adding some images – either hand drawn or copied from the Internet.

So… what is a ‘Wiki’?

The word ‘wiki’ comes from the Hawaiian wiki wiki, which translates as ‘to hurry’ and wikis certainly make it quick and easy authoring direct to the Web including text, images and hyperlinks; to edit existing content; track changes; and to return to previous versions (Parker & Chao, 2007). A wiki enables students to collaboratively construct knowledge beyond just information gathering and sharing (Lamb & Johnson, 2009; Wheeler, Yeomans, & Wheeler, 2008)

So … what are the benefits of incorporating wikis into the classroom?

The use of a wiki:

  • ‘stimulates writing (‘fun’ and ‘wiki’ are often associated);
  • provides a low-cost but effective communication and collaboration tool (with an emphasis on text rather than software);
  • promotes the close reading, revision, and tracking of preliminary work;
  • discourages ‘product oriented writing’ while facilitating ‘writing as a process’; and
  • eases students into writing for a wider audience’ (Lamb, 2004, cited in Parker and Chao, 2007, p. 61)

So… how does it work in a classroom?

The outcomes of a research project entitled Teaching the texts of the 21st Century conducted in 2009 with a year 5 and year 4/5 class confirmed the benefits for students as well as for the teacher of incorporating the construction of a class wiki on Antarctica. Students worked in pairs, with the ESL students in small groups so the ESL teacher could work with them, to construct a page about an aspect of Antarctica. The teachers decided upon the topics and each page had a set of guiding questions, to scaffold the students’ information seeking process. Students were assessed on the process, not just the final product using a rubric that the teachers developed in consultation with me.

As a result of their involvement in creating a wiki, students shifted from being ‘consumers of the Internet to creators’(Lamb & Johnson, 2009, p. 48). A community of practice developed, with students and teachers providing ongoing feedback, suggestions to improve students’ individual pages and information they might like to include, for example a good website on their topic. It provided an avenue for students who were less interested in writing to create a text and for a few students it was the first time they had completed a ‘written’ task. They were more engaged with the process of writing.

Students found the experience very rewarding, rating the change to the process of learning, the content and the use of technology as the best aspects. The students rated the process the highest. Students believed that being able to contribute anywhere – at home and at school, and learning how to take notes electronically were important aspects of their involvement. They also believed they learnt more about the content (Antarctica and their own topic) than when they made a paper-based multimodal information report.

So … what?

Working with wikis provided the opportunity for students to engage with 21st century literacy practices. It also provided a space in the classroom to trial changes to a conventional pedagogy, curriculum and assessment practices.

References:  Lamb, A., & Johnson, L. (2009). Wikis and collaborative inquiry. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 8(April), 48-51.   Parker, K. R., & Chao, J. T. (2007). Wiki as a teaching tool. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 57-72.   Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P., & Wheeler, D. (2008). The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student generated content for collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 987-995.

Dr Katina Zammit is a Lecturer in literacy education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She is particularly interested in the application of information and communication technologies in children’s literacy learning.

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