Research School Network: Using Dialogue to Secure Scientific Understanding How do we support pupils to learn complex scientific concepts


Using Dialogue to Secure Scientific Understanding

How do we support pupils to learn complex scientific concepts

by Bradford Research School
on the

Kate Walter is Strategic Director at Northern Star Foundation, Northern Star Academies Trust

When we teach science, we are often taking complex and abstract scientific models and attempting to render them understandable to our pupils. We must avoid building in misconceptions; we must address any preconceptions and we must maintain rigour and accuracy. 

This is not easy. For experts, it is often difficult to adapt from a complex understanding. If we are teaching out of our degree specialisms – as many KS3 science teachers and primary teachers have to do – the challenges are more obvious.

Capitalise on the power of dialogue

The EEF Improving Primary Science guidance report recommends that we, Encourage pupils to make their thinking explicit.” Well-structured dialogue can be an effective way of building a shared understanding.

Dialogue KW1

In order to facilitate effective dialogue, we teachers must also be explicit in our use of models so as to respond with clarity to our pupil’s dialogue, as they attempt to build their own models.

From expert to novice

One topic where this is particularly true is Electricity’. The teacher’s complex understanding means that they conceive of this in many different ways:
Electric charge? This is a fundamental property of matter and without an understanding of quantum physics not explainable in much more basic terms.

Electric current? This requires a concept of something (charge?) flowing in a circuit – it can’t be seen – it can’t be heard – we can only observe effects – the buzzer is louder – the lamp is brighter. 

Electric voltage? (formal name is potential difference) – what does it mean – some say it pushes the current – but its proper definition is not that of a force but an energy transferred per quantity of charge – another abstract concept. Large voltages drive larger currents (but only if everything else in the circuit remains the same).

Now compare to how pupils build their understanding of electricity. Year 6 learn about electricity and their key learning includes: the impact of adding more cells to a circuit; or of using a higher voltage battery; the impact of adding additional components; what happens if you include a switch in a circuit so that electricity cannot flow”. Pupils are asked to use the word volt’ and voltage’ but without an understanding of what voltage is. (ASE PLAN 2020)

As science teachers we want our students to be able to not only make observations (the motor turns more slowly) but also to think about why might this be happening? At a simple level this can be done very easily – the voltage is smaller the motor turns more slowly; if there are two motors in the circuit they turn more slowly. But scientific thinking is all about understanding why things are happening, so we would want to move beyond this. Pupils will need to consider a causal effect e.g., if the voltage is smaller, the motor has less energy to turn; or the lower voltage will cause a smaller current to flow so the motor turns more slowly. This requires us to consider exactly what model and vocabulary we will use and develop in our pupils.

Teachers will need to support their pupils. If these questions are to be used to clarify pupil thinking, and allow them to successfully build their knowledge and understanding, the teacher must have a very clear understanding/​interpretation of the model and the vocabulary that goes with it.

For electricity this might be:
More voltage means there is more energy for the things (components) in the circuit.
More voltage means there is a larger flow of electricity – and this is what makes the motor spin, the bulb light etc.

More components in the circuit means the energy must be shared so ….
More components will mean a smaller flow of electricity, so…

Without a clear and simple model– any discussions could become confused and muddled and students (and teacher) will flounder in a sea of competing models and concepts.

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