More from Jerry Wellington and Jonathan Osborne on language in science:
“More than anything else, learning science means learning to talk the language of science. Ideas in science are communicated through words, charts, diagrams, symbols, pictures and mathematics. Just as acquiring competency in a foreign language requires the opportunity to practise its use, so does acquiring competency and familiarity in using the language of science. But how often do children get an opportunity to talk and discuss science in the classroom?
Various pieces of evidence suggest that such opportunities are rare […]. Yes, talk does go on in the classroom, but research shows that, predominantly, it is initiated by teachers, who begin by asking a question such as ‘can anyone remember what we were doing last lesson?’ or ‘what is the symbol for calcium?’, await a response by a pupil and then provide evaluative feedback as to whether it is true or false. This kind of sequence, which is known as initiation-response-feedback (IRF), is typical of much of the dialogue that goes on in the classroom […]. This type of dialogue suffers from a number of problems. First, there is the problem that far too many students are unwilling to contribute an answer for fear of having their ignorance cruelly exposed. The majority prefer to maintain a low profile, hoping that the teacher’s questioning gaze will not seek them out. Second, there is the evidence that far too many teachers allow only a minimal time of a few seconds before seeking a reasonable, searching question, few of us can compose a half-decent answer in under 15 seconds. Finally, there is the irony that most of the talk in the science classroom is conducted by the teacher – and that it is the teacher, who knows the answers, who asks the questions, rather [-p.83] than the student who does not. Science classrooms are often characterized by a dearth of student questions and a deluge of teacher questions.” (pp.82-83)
“Other research conducted at King’s College London,” they continue “has shown that in the observations of 39 lessons, less than 5 per cent of the time was devoted to group discussions and less than 2 per cent of the teacher-pupil interactions were genuine discussions with an exchange of differing views.
The problem is twofold. First, too often, as teachers, we are so obsessed with communicating an idea – getting students to understand our explanations – that we forget that understanding a new idea requires an opportunity to talk about it, to use the appropriate words and think about their meaning. Second, and this is possibly more of an obstacle, using discussion is not a well established feature of science classrooms. How do you do it and, more importantly, why do it?” (p.83)
“…if ‘the rationality of science is secured by its commitment to evidence’, and being a critical thinker is being someone who is ‘appropriately moved by reasons’, then the opportunity to engage in reasoned discussion with others is central to any education devoted to fostering rationality and critical thinking.” (p.84)
“…if learning science is as much about learning the language of science as it is about learning its substantive content, then students must have an opportunity to practise its use through structured activities that require them to talk about science, to use scientific words and to share and construct their own meanings of these words. Such activities need structure because children work more effectively when they are engaged in activities which have a sense of purpose, a well defined form and a clearly defined product. Fortunately, one of the valuable products of much of the research on children’s alternative conceptions has been a number of strategies which encourage children to talk about science in small group discussion.” (p.84)
Ref: Jerry Wellington and Jonathan Osborne (2001) Language and Literacy in Science Education. Open University Press: Buckingham, Philadelphia.