Classroom teaching is branching beyond the classic "chalk and talk" approach. Meet three science teachers putting progressive educational theory into practice.
Secondary Teacher, Crusoe Secondary College
You’re teaching algebra to year nines. You write: 2x = 6 on the board. Now all you have to do is show that both sides need to be divided by 2 to work out that x = 3. But that tiny equation is not as simple to teach as you thought it’d be. Why? Because there are students who lack the prerequisite knowledge required to be able to divide, let alone grasp the abstract nature of a letter mixed in with numbers, and the almost foreign language required to impart the new concept. All of a sudden you’re faced with the realisation that you’re teaching a very diverse audience. So how do you target the level of each of your students?
Robert Sbaglia responded to this complex issue by developing a video-enabled math course that allows for individualised learning. Students can identify the concepts they know, what they need to know next, and choose learning tasks that match their needs. Students express their understanding by playing and creating games, constructing models, and other interactive activities. In this fashion, Rob is putting the student at the centre of their learning and assessment, giving them the opportunity to learn by doing — a pedagogy that has its roots in constructivism, a theory developed and influenced by Piaget, Vygotsy, Montessori, and Dewey. All the maths teachers at the college have now adopted his technology-based approach.
Rob’s real passion, however, lies in teaching science. Having worked in scientific research before completing his Diploma of Education, Rob realised that the traditional ways of teaching science were far removed from the reality of the science world. Rob thought it would be more valuable to teach the skill of working through a new concept, so he designed tasks where students could show their understanding of the essence of a topic without having to memorise easily accessible facts.
The school’s chemistry curriculum is now made up of creative tasks that require innovative thinking, such as a fictional scenario in which students are stuck on a desert island and must use chemistry concepts to overcome challenges. The physics curriculum now includes a unit based around constructing Rube Goldberg machines. The Biology and Earth Sciences curriculum requires students to predict the course of evolution in millions of years’ time by designing futuristic organisms.
“There are three contemporary teaching tools I use to personalise learning for my students,” says Rob: “Technology, team teaching, and a flexible learning space”. Students use technology to expand their learning beyond the classroom. They record their experiments on a blog, which is usually only visible to the school community but opened up when they want to obtain input from scientists around Australia. Students who wish to work on a different level to the rest of the class can access videos (created by Rob) via their mobile phones and QR codes.
To allow this much choice and freedom in student learning, team teaching is crucial. Each teacher in the group is assigned a task for which they become the go-to person, enabling teachers to provide the support and explicit instruction required by each student group.
Finally, the space needs to provide all the resources required for learning to occur — whether the students are conducting an experiment and need to be outdoors, or writing up a report and want to get nice and comfortable in a bean bag on the floor.
It’s a far cry from the dusty chalk and board classrooms of the early 90s. This is learning occurring through student choice and experience. But while Rob is all about innovation and inquiry-based learning, he believes that there is a place for more traditional academic learning too. Contemporary and traditional teaching methods are not mutually exclusive.
“I still cling to the belief that we have the tools to personalise the educational experience for every student. This should be our goal as educators, and it doesn’t require the abandonment of traditional aspects of teaching we know work or the sacrifice of academic rigour to achieve it.”
Head of Sustainable Practices, Bentleigh Secondary College
According to Bill Thomas, young people are aware that the world is facing serious issues and the future is looking dire. Students know we’re living well beyond our sustainable footprint, and are constantly exposed to the hype that surrounds topics like global warming, climate change, and species loss in the media. This negativity can weigh heavily on the younger generation.
To counter this, Bill wanted to create a culture of optimism for his students by educating and empowering them for responsible decision-making. He developed an urban forest and wetland, a large billabong home for endangered fish and animals, and 50,000L and 125,000L water tanks to harvest rainwater, among other projects. These serve as outdoor classrooms while simultaneously increasing the site’s biodiversity.
For his additions, Bill and the college have been on the receiving end of national and global recognition. Furthermore, Bill’s changes have seen the school receive a five-star accreditation and are often viewed as a model for other schools, making Bill a trailblazer in the sustainability education field. But it’s the unique opportunities for teaching and learning that these resources provide that make them truly invaluable.
Recently, a local primary school asked Bill to teach their prep students a program called What’s Essential for Life? Bill asked his year nines to plan and run the session, and they were each partnered up with a prep student to make a Big Learner, Little Learner team. It was the older student’s role to make responsible decisions around what their younger partner needed to know. They had the full range of the school’s resources at their disposal to teach their little learners. The program went so well that they brought a group of pre-schoolers through shortly afterwards, and have a year one class booked in next.
Bill has also put together a dedicated team of student sustainability leaders, aptly named The Green Machine. They lead many of the school’s programs and take responsibility for broadcasting the sustainability message to the wider community.
He believes it is the responsibility of his generation to ensure that young people are resourced and ready to effect change and solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.
“Sustainability is a journey, not a destination,” says Bill. “It’s always changing. As long as we keep abreast of those changes, are cognizant of future challenges, and change what we teach and the way we teach, then the next generation can make the contribution the world needs.”
Program Manager, Wonder of Science
When it comes to science and math, Australia’s schooling system consistently yields high average results by international standards. Its downfall is a significant lack of equity, with large achievement gaps between high socio-economic status (SES) and low SES students. Students living in remote and very remote areas are approximately 2½ years behind high SES students; while, on average, a 15 year old Indigenous student is an astounding 3½ years behind their high SES counterpart.
Although the reasons for this gap are varied and complex, one major issue is accessibility, with only 36% of students in rural areas having access to simple resources like libraries. If mere books are hard to come by, imagine what it would take to teach STEM subjects effectively.
Robyn Bull, program manager of Wonder of Science (WoS) has clearly given this issue some deep thought — if these children don’t have access to science, then science will come to them.
The WoS program is delivered to remote communities through enthusiastic Young Science Ambassadors (YSAs). YSAs visit remote schools twice a term and help to engage students, as well as teachers, in the excitement and wonder of science and technology. The student reactions are testament to the success of this program.
“Even though it’s a relatively brief window of time that we have with students, the impact is significant,” says Robyn. “Students in remote schools don’t have opportunities like this often — at one school a young student cried when their ambassador left!”
A regional student conference is held at the end of term, where children present their projects and the YSAs judge the presentations. This is where the students truly shine.
“Teachers are often surprised at the students’ ability to work scientifically and to think critically and creatively,” says Robyn. “Students also develop confidence and public speaking skills as they network with others, and realise that it’s normal to be nervous and rewarding to have a go — as that’s where the learning happens! That realisation could be one of the most important things that these students learn.”
It was during Robyn’s undergraduate degree that she developed a real thirst for studying the neuroscience behind learning. This passion eventually led her to develop a program for gifted students during her first year of teaching called Sciencebusters. This program started Robyn on her journey as an enthusiastic advocate for inquiry-based science education. And that’s exactly what students get when they undertake her WoS program.
Not only do the students engage with science more effectively through this style of learning, they come to realise that the YSAs are ordinary people. Yes, YSAs are conducting exciting and sometimes extraordinary scientific research, and may indeed be involved in the development of solutions to critical issues facing humanity today, but they are still just people. This realisation is precisely what transforms the way these students think about STEM. To Robyn, this is one of the most exciting aspects of WoS.
“We are literally helping to develop a STEM culture in many QLD schools — as students realise that STEM is not only fun, engaging and rewarding, but importantly, it is accessible to them.”
A second major issue with science education, according to Robyn, is teacher confidence. Put simply, many teachers don’t have formal training in science and feel they need to have all the answers. They don’t feel comfortable saying “I don’t know — but let’s find out.” Therein lies the real transformative power of WoS — it models good practice and points teachers to effective resources ensuring the program’s reach is beyond one classroom.
It’s Robyn’s strong belief that students who study STEM through inquiry-based learning, as opposed to conventional methods, are acquiring knowledge, skills, and capabilities for the 21st century and beyond.
“They are developing as scientifically, technologically and mathematically literate citizens capable of critical and creative thinking and making informed decisions about the world around them.”