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The importance of scientific thinking

Thinking like a scientist, sound tough? What about being curious? That’s where Te Toi Tupu science facilitators believe it all starts. Harnessing natural curiosity and applying it to life is the first step towards thinking like a scientist.

The primary science professional learning and development contract places a clear focus on the learning of science through the Nature of Science (NoS) strand. "The core strand, Nature of Science, is required learning for all students up to Year 10." (p 29, New Zealand Curriculum, 2007). We want to help develop students' understanding about science, learn about investigating in science, develop their ability to communicate in scientific ways and bring a scientific perspective to decisions and actions as appropriate. In doing this, we use the newly developed Science Capability Framework and support resources. 

Student data from 2014 shows: 

  • an average of 62% of students are now reporting that they are doing lots of science.
  • an average of 84% of students report that teachers are now asking them to justify  their science thinking.

Leadership and teacher data shows:

  • 66% point increase in leaders being highly effective or effective at achieving substantial and valuable shifts in school level outcomes and sustain on-going improvement.
  • 63% point increase in teachers having an ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ (using Ministry of Education domain matrix) capability in science teaching and learning analysis.

For more information and impact see the 2014 infographic data.

When Te Toi Tupu science facilitators work with teachers, they help to clarify the Nature of Science (NoS) and model, 'what science teaching looks like when the Nature of Science is the driver'. The goal is to grow scientific thinking. Science facilitator Anne Barker elaborates, "You can't get into in-depth science without content, but teachers need to be explicit about what they're trying to do and why. We need to ask, How are science lessons going to produce scientifically literate citizens of our future." In the sound recording on the left, Anne Barker explains more about the intention for a growth in scientific thinking, rather than a focus on scientific content alone. 

One school's story so far

I see I think I wonder

Te Rerenga, a small school on the Coromandel Peninsula received science PLD in 2014 and 2015 through the Ministry allocation process. Whole-school professional learning was primarily targeted at changing existing views around content-driven science to more of an explicit focus on teaching the Nature of Science.

Through a series of staff meetings and workshops, and using the Nature of Science as the lever, Anne Barker encouraged the teachers to develop and use their skills of observation, beyond inferencing. Resources like Science Talk, Thinking and talking like scientists and Science Capabilities for Citizenship help develop probing questioning skills. Teachers have been encouraged to use simple language like, "I see...therefore I think... and...I wonder if that happened because..." Further questioning techniques help to tease out more details by asking, where's the evidence? Anne says this is an important process because, "The older we get, the more inferences we make, to make sense of our world."  

Through facilitated modeling and co-teaching, this strategy has helped to encourage students of all ages to look more carefully at things; to make rich observations, beyond guessing or making instant inferences. This is a natural pathway to developing scientific thinking and wondering. Ultimately, if students start to think more about the 'science of things' and try to make sense of it all - then that's the next steps for developing a scientific mindset. 

The results

Science studentsReal-world, authentic issues provide the contexts for developing scientific capabilities. Genuine inquiry grows out of rich scientific learning opportunities, and when students are offered multiple opportunities to develop scientific discourse, they can make conscious choices about how they will make sense of the world. This may be through engaging with a scientific lens or a cultural lens or an artistic lens. The key is for them to make a deliberate and conscious choice as to what is informing their decision-making process.

As a result of these shifts in practice, teachers at Te Rerenga School are amazed at the depth of students' observation. When students are videoed talking about their learning, teachers can clearly see how they are thinking about their observations through the 'quality of talk'. Teachers are now keen to build on further lessons, to enrich the learning conversations in science.  

Shifts for students

The level of discussions has deepened and students can explain their thinking in science more explicitly. The Student Engagement survey is a powerful tool to help show these shifts. In the sound recording on the left, Anne shares one example of the power of 'student talk' in shared learning conversations.

Students are no longer engaging in research projects alone for their science learning, but are engaging with the skills and processes of science. They are developing understanding of the tentative nature of science, the role of data, using evidence to support their ideas, critiquing the evidence, developing representations of their thinking and generally engaging with science.. There is the potential to be a part of knowledge building in the wider community with this sort of active engagement. 


Shifts for teachers

The move away from the acquisition of content knowledge to, 'why do you think this way' is a big shift for teachers. There is an explicit focus on the role of talk in science. Teachers are now aware of what they are planning for and why. For example, using science capabilities like, 'Gather and Interpret Data' enable students to use data, make sense of it and critique it. 

Teachers now have a different lens on observing the world for themselves and are more confident to teach the Nature of Science. They also know what they are looking for from student learning conversations, and understand the power of 'student talk' to show and negotiate understandings in science. Some teachers are starting to collect evidence of science capabilities to indicate progress and growth in scientific thinking.

Where to from here

Anne says, "Ultimately, if teachers and students know exactly what is driving their scientific decisions, then we're going to have a community, a country that is cognizant of what is driving their thinking." 

For more information on the Science professional learning and development programme, visit the Science in Primary Schools page or contact Anne Barker.