Science, representation, and literacy

I’m thinking about Science teaching in Primary and about literacy today…

What is Junior Science?

If the curriculum is not being met in a majority of primary schools, the best place to start addressing the problem is with what learning is desired, by whom, and for what reason… What is the purpose of Primary Science? (clearly not just to prepare them for Senior science – that’s too narrow a view)… but, that said… What is it that Senior school science teachers want their students to enter the classroom with? Probably not a whole lot of content knowledge (since that can involve complexities that teachers with expertise in Science can develop better in a senior class), but perhaps an excellent vocabulary to draw on? (words like…?) … the requisite skills to learn in a Science classroom (an understanding of enquiry, a willingness to fail, the ability to ask questions and communicate ideas)? … excitement about learning and a belief that Science can be fun? Surely a lot of this can be achieved without intense PD for Primary teachers in Scientific content knowledge… it seems to come back to literacy… and learning dispositions.

How important is literacy (for the 21st century) to Science?

This connection between Science teaching and literacy came up today when I read firstCope and Kalantzis’ article on how publishing has shaped and is now changing knowledge systems, then: an old article that looks at modes of representation (and how these might differ between/be shared by the Arts and the Sciences).

Cope and Kalantzis draw our attention to the influence publishing rituals, habits, and expectations have had on how we actually perceive knowledge. Their interest is in how the communication of Scientific knowledge (and other academic research) will change with the internet. Nelson and Chandler, meanwhile, ask us to consider how different modes of representation invite us to interpret information differently… and how Art and Science make use of the same/different tools and modes of representation.

Nelson and Chandler write: “Acts of representing are the ways people share and react to each other and work through problems. In art and science education, teachers and students make representations to: express their thoughts, feelings and perceptions; show relationships and changes; and make explanations and predictions.” (41) Their article is about them “find[ing] out more about what potential sharing representations provides.” (42)

METHOD: The authors got 8 art teachers and 2 science teachers to participate in a 3-week seminar. “During the first week, participants explored images from photography, art, and statistics. The discussion revealed some of their perceptions [about the difference between the nature of art and science for one thing]. During the subsequent weeks, participants worked in three different habitats to construct representations. [the participants also kept journals…]” (42)

Styles of thinking and the classroom

The authors found that “Participants’ struggles in part revealed symbolic, affective and imagic thinking (Martino & Cook, 1994). Symbolic thinking,” they explain, “uses words and numerics, activity commonly encouraged in classrooms. Perhaps less common to classrooms, affective thinking uses emotion as the impetus [-p.42] directive of one’s inquiry. Imagic thinking shows how one perceives their experiences.” (41-42) [These different modes of thinking provide an interesting lens to view Science and Art classrooms through… it got me wondering about teaching styles and learning habits that might be more typical of one than the other… and how Primary school experiences might influence students’ thinking.]

“During the seminar,” Nelson and Chandler write, “art and science were not emphasized as declarative knowledge. The strategy was to use representing and dialog to illuminate tools of perception and representation, processes common to art and science. One of the more confusing issues that emerged during conversations about representing in art and science focused on participants’ beliefs about abstract and concrete. These teachers engaged in questions about what makes us think that abstract and concrete exist. Interestingly, our teachers thought some representations in science were very concrete. … Initially, participants reciprocally maintained rigid ideas about each others’ teaching areas. One said, ‘I never questioned science. I always felt facts were proven by scientists… A friend says art is more spiritual than science because you are relying on feeling more than fact. Art is inherently more creative because you make something out of nothing.” (45) [I found this last attitude toward science and art really interesting!]

The importance of dialog in developing ideas and perceptions

An important part of their research involved discussion among the participants, which the authors explain: “Dialog is the social act that reveals one’s commitment to perception, an activity through which individuals sort and negotiate information and make meaning. Freire (1993) described the importance that dialog had on the development of his educational beliefs and theories. Committing his beliefs to words was a way to move his thoughts from the inactivity of silence; it was a method to ‘marinate’ his thoughts with reality (Freire, 1993). Dialog provides an opportunity for participants to relate their actions with their beliefs and perceptions.” (45)

How one views a task; how one perceives information

During their study, the authors write, “One participant raised the question – ‘How do we connect perceptions in our life?’ Because perception is a thought process, and thought, albeit quite complex, is also practiced through how one views a task (Greeno, 1989), students should have the opportunity to share and clarify their perceptions to realize the potential they offer (Greeno & Hall, 1997). Participants talked with each other about the representations they constructed.” (44) One of the participants noted: “It was interesting to see the narratives by the two science people. In both, the information was not familiar. I had seen/perceived the same stuff, but our personal cultures so affect the narratives. Their charts and graphs were such a different approach. Maybe it is more like I noticed some of the same information, but I can’t say I followed that path of thought to seek out a way to organize and interpret it.” (45) [I put this last quote in a different colour again, because I thought it pretty succinct and full of meaning!]

Representational objectives

Citing No More Second Hand Art (London, 1989), one of the participants in the study wrote: “The object of the mind’s interest is not only objects, sunsets, apples, naked bodies; sometimes its interest turns to other items of attention, such as truth, beauty, meaning, value, hope, sadness, doubt, peace. Very real things that give people and civilizations their particular spin and texture. These very real ‘things’ have no single physical embodiment; rather they impart to physical objects the qualities of meaning, value, utility, and feeling. Such elements manifest their presence on the physical plane by how they make physical things move and how they make people move intellectually and emotionally. Hence the representational objective of art is not to represent things; it is to represent what happens to humans when they confront things.” (46)

One participant used a Venn diagram to represent what she considered common to art and science (46). I have to say, I thought the idea of using a Venn diagram to think these connections out was interesting in itself… what other representative tools could you use to explore similarities and differences between Science and Art?

Representations possess a point of view, and understanding point of view as a mechanism has the potential of ‘strengthening students’ real-world perspective taking tools‘ (Messaris, 1997, p.50).” (47)

We need to provide a ‘multiplicity of symbol systems’ in classrooms

According to Nelson and Chandler, “Fowler (1994 [p.5]) suggested that in order to construct a more complete image of how people come to know, we need to provide a ‘multiplicity of symbol systems’ in classrooms” (46)… Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking back to Cope and Kalantzis’ discussion about ‘the role of the internet in changing knowledge ecologies’. Would providing Junior school students with a ‘multiplicity of symbol systems’ (through deeper engagement with modes of representation/literacy), as well as the ability to discuss these systems, mean that they could enter a Senior school Science classroom with all they need? (And also enter that classroom without having had instilled in them Science-boredom, Science-nervousness, or Scientific misinformation through a lack of expertise/confidence on the part of the non-expert-Science-teacher)… there’s a connection and a solution there, I’m sure…

I guess I’m asking, is the problem in the focus on content (as Anna Traianou suggests)… I shall review the Primary school Science curriculum…

Ref: Mike Nelson and William Chandler (1999) Some tools common to Art and Science’ Art Education 52(3), pp. 41-47    [Note: Reference is made to: Fowler (1994) Strong arts, strong schools. Educational Leadership 52(3), 4-9    Freire (1993) Pedagogy of hope. New York: Continuum Publishing.    Greeno, 1989 A perspective on thinking. American Psychologist, 44(2), 134-141    Greeno & Hall, 1997 Practicing representation: Learning with and about representational forms. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(6), 361-367    Martino & Cook, 1994, Interdisciplinary inquiry in teaching and learning. New York: Macmillan College Publishing.    Messaris, 1997, Visual intelligence and analogical thinking. In J. Flood, SB Heath & D Lapp (Eds), Handbook of research on the teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts (pp.40-47). New York: Simon & Schuster, Macmillan.

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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