Mrs Naomi Hennah (@MrsHennah) of Northampton School for Boys has created a clear and concise “visual summary of the complexity of chemical discourse” to boost oracy skills and language acquisition in chemistry. (Link at the end of the page).
Teachers from other subjects should not be put off, however. This post should hopefully make Mrs Hennah’s considerations relevant not only to other fields of science (which would not require a huge leap of the imagination) but to all subjects, as remote from Science as, say, Religious Studies.
The reason for this is found in the requirement for exact vocabulary in any subfield. Imagine grammar without the delineation provided by word classes; maths without numerator & denominator; English without active and passive voice. Even Religious Studies cannot be taught without the concepts of monotheism, ritual, and so forth. However, as all teachers know, the correct understanding and application of subject relevant language is not a given, even after laborious explanation.
“…to do so requires words.”
As Mrs Hennah says in her introduction: “Teachers are required to facilitate understanding [and] to do so requires words. Words are at the heart of knowledge and understanding, but it is unwise to assume we share their meaning.”
Unwise indeed. Because social constructivism is a fact of human existence, like breathing, meaning is continuously negotiated everywhere: in media, in politics, and even in families debating what constitutes “too much screen time.” Infuriating for its critics in right-wing think tanks, the moment one begins to even discuss social constructivism, one is engaging in social constructivism.
In fact, social constructivism factors as much into science as it does in, say, philosophy. If in doubt about this, just replace “scientific” with “philosophic” in the following quote. As Mrs Hennah points out, the national curriculum for science specifically refers to the need for “spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum — cognitively, socially and linguistically. The quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak are key factors in developing their scientific vocabulary and articulating scientific concepts clearly and precisely,” to clarify students’ thinking and use the discussion to probe and remedy their misconceptions.
So, social constructivism is just brilliant in education: through everyone explaining, recapping, challenging, questioning, discussing, and debating, vocabulary and its multivarious contexts are acquired and integrated on the fly into the minds of all the debating participants, each adding unique value as sounding boards for preconceptions, correlating information, renegotiating significance. Right?
Hey, let’s make pupils teachers! (What could possibly go wrong?)
So far so good. Except that, order to leverage social constructivism, you need to pass at least some of the learning process into the hands of the students. The potential for off-task behaviour, messy assessment, and especially peers teaching nonsense, is enough to unflip many a classroom.
Cooperative Learning handles these risks effectively. Because it micro-manages timing, subject specific language, materials, interaction, and tasks, Cooperative Learning facilitates accountability and monitoring and seamlessly interlaces the unique input of the teacher with student-centred activities. We have discussed in the last post on Stalham Academy how this is not experienced as a straitjacket, but the opposite. Teachers have full control, yet students are free to roam within this focus. As Matthew Vince puts it in this video: ” … you can teach specific knowledge, its just in a way that is engaging and active … There is just no room for anyone to go off task…” (Note that he can barely contain his laughter at this point).
But! Matthew is an Religious Studies teacher – not relevant to science at all! My point exactly: Matthew is referring to the exact same Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (CLIPs) which led Dr Lynn Hayes of INSPIRE STEM PGCEs at Imperial College to say:
“I just had to share with you how my Maths Student Teacher used CLIPs SO effectively as a revision starter to his lesson. It was only the second time that he used it with his top set Math Yr9 set. They have really bought into the process and learning was happening! The school that I visited yesterday is going to use CLIPs to investigate developing Literacy in Science Year 7.”
Bridging the Gap
The aim of Mrs Hennah’s project is to develop oracy in the classroom and measure the impact that this has on technical and semi-technical language acquisition and she is clear that to do so “will require a shift in classroom culture from a more traditional, passive environment to that of active collaborative enquiry.”
Cooperative Learning makes that shift easy to manage, for senior leadership, teachers and students – and might concievably help with the cross-curricular problems Ben Rogers describes in his recent article Haven’t We Got Enough To Do Already? How and Why Science Teachers Teach Vocabulary.
With Cooperative Learning, talking is not an end in itself. Various Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns cover all required aspects of the learning process, including traditional individual tasks such as reading and writing. (For science teachers, I highly recommend reading Ben Rogers’s recent article on how simple Cooperative Learning can improve reading comprehension of texts).
For example: the classic Sage-n-Scribe (Boss & Secretary) is an obvious choice for setting up a science experiment: one student reads out the step-by-step process using relevant language, demonstrated by teacher and scaffolded by relevant materials (but cannot touch the materials), the partner executes the orders, asking clarifying questions, but cannot act without instructions. (There are life skills for you, right in the science lesson).
Think-Pair-Share, on the other hand, is brilliant for guessing experiment outcomes and their whys, or, afterwards, for assessing why exactly the results didn’t come out as expected. (Just add in a written element in each of those three stages, and you will get the written evidence, as well as a track record of who won the argument and why).
Now open Mrs Henna’s visual and start in the box “Oracy: the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech” and as you work your way through, imagine in a practical way how you would stage Boss & Secretary and Think-Pair-Share to tick the other boxes.
For more on TPS, I refer to my previous repressing of Tom Sherrington’s post on Think-Pair-Share.