Exploring the new EEF science guidance report

15 November 2018

Author: Dr Caroline Creaby, Research School Director

On 12th November we hosted a science event at Sandringham Research School exploring the new science guidance report from the EEF.  It was a packed event with over 50 enthusiastic delegates and we were lucky to welcome Sir John Holman, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at York University, who was one of the report’s authors. In this blog, I outline some of the event highlights.

Sir John offered a fascinating overview of how the science guidance report was compiled including the trade-off between identifying recommendations that had a strong evidence base and those that were particularly relevant to science teachers.  He also shared how researchers and teachers worked together to identify and then articulate and exemplify the recommendations set out in the report.  It reminded me of the critical role that teachers and researchers play when working together to bridge the gap between research and practice.

Sir John then introduced one of the seven recommendations: preconceptions.  This is the first recommendation in the report and was made up of additional sub-recommendations:

  • 1a: Understand the preconceptions that pupils bring to science lessons
  • 1b: Develop pupils’ thinking through cognitive conflict and discussion
  • 1c: Allow enough time to challenge misconceptions and change thinking

Having asked our delegates about the preconceptions their students’ possess (with answers ranging from the moon being bigger than the earth and that there is air between gas particles), Sir John powerfully illustrated just how prevalent preconceptions can be.  Showing us this video from the Harvard Smithsonian, we learned how graduates from MIT, a leading US university, believed a tree’s growth came from resources in the soil and struggled to comprehend that carbon dioxide was in fact a critical factor through photosynthesis.

John’s example served to illustrate just how prevalent preconceptions can be and how they can serve as a barrier to learning.  Thus the recommendation for science teachers is that revealing these within our students is important in order for new concepts to take hold accurately.

We then explored a further three of the seven recommendations: modelling, memory and feedback.  Kate Mouncey and Laura Maberly took delegates through the role models can play in science and how they help students to understand often unobservable or theoretical concepts.  Selecting models isn’t a straightforward task however and the guidance report’s inclusion of the FAR model was particularly helpful.

This model can be used to help teachers carefully plan which models to use but also how to introduce them to students so that their strengths and limitations are explicitly explored by students. This level is thinking is key to helping students understand that models aren’t the same as reality and so that they can become more ‘expert’ users of models:

  • Beginner: I think that models are a direct copy of reality and don’t see how they differ from reality
  • Intermediate: I understand that models are not direct copies of reality and I understand that models are used to help me develop my scientific understanding
  • Expert: I know that several different models can be used to explain different aspects of an idea; I understand that models have strengths and weaknesses and that existing models can be used to test ideas and are created for specific purposes.

Kate and Laura went on to explore the importance of memory to students’ success in science.  Through exploring the implications of cognitive load theory, delegates were able to reflect on the load that explanations or tasks were imposing on their students.  The diagram from the report replicated below illustrates how labelling parts of the heart in their actual location reduces the cognitive load whereas positioning labels further aware may exhaust their capacity of working memory.

The guidance report also emphasised the importance of retrieval practice and elaboration in helping students develop their long term memory in science.  This video from Wellcome showcases how Dr Niki Kaiser uses these principles in her chemistry lessons.

The final recommendation we explored at the event was feedback.  Laura Maberly and I discussed the report’s recommendations covering issues from the level of feedback given (e.g. about the specific task or the subject) to type of feedback given – from marks to comments – whether feedback was understood by students through to whether students took responsibility and were given time to respond to their teacher’s feedback.  This gave rise to interesting discussions with one focusing on the workload implications of moving from marks to comments.

We had a fascinating evening delving into the report.  It is an excellent read, clearly rooted in the research and presented in an accessible way including helpful exemplification.  If you haven’t already, you must read it here.

Posted on 15 November 2018
Posted in: Blog

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