Assessment for Learning techniques and the teaching of Science

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The purpose of this literature review is to research recent literature and research conducted into Assessment for Learning (AfL) techniques and relating directly to the teaching of Science as a subject within Primary Education. This literature review is predominantly designed to address the following research questions:

Which are the most commonly used techniques of AfL in science?

How is constructivism linked to AfL in Science?

Do other subjects use different AfL techniques than are used in science?

How common is the use of AfL in science?

What is the impact of the use of AfL on pupils' understanding of scientific concepts?

How does AfL impact on the application of scientific skills at KS2?

To research these questions, searches were made using 'Athens', searching the British Education Index (BEI) and The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) and Australian Education Index (AEI) research systems for articles and books relating to Assessment for Learning (AfL), formative assessment and science education which had been published since 1990. Hand searches were also made through Primary Science Review, Science Education and School Science Review.

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Assessment for Learning (AfL) has been defined as:

"the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there."

(Assessment Reform Group, 2002)

The application of scientific skills at KS2 has been encapsulated by the Welsh Assembly Government in their new Welsh Curriculum documents introduced in 2008 as:

"Learners should be taught to relate their scientific skills, knowledge and understanding to applications of science in everyday life, including current issues. They should be taught to recognise that scientific ideas can be evaluated by means of information gathered from observations and measurements."

(Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, 2008)

Research into AfL (e.g. Black & William, 1998 and Osborne & Freyberg, 1985) has indicated that whilst it is evident that all children benefit, it is 'not something added to teaching, but is integral to it' (Harlen, 2006b, p. 176). In essence, AfL cannot be an addition to the pedagogical process; conversely it must be inherently encompassed within all teaching and learning practices.

Harrison and Black (2004) develop the ideology behind Black and William's work (1998) relating to AfL techniques and research directly to the subject of Science. Whilst predominantly focussed towards secondary science teaching, this work is still relevant to Primary Education. In this work, they develop the reasoning behind the advantages of the use of AfL within Science lessons.

"Science provides the means by which learners can interact with the world

around them and develop ideas about the phenomena they experience. So,

when they attempt activities such as germinating seeds, their studies in science equip them with ways to observe and question what is happening. Through experiments they can begin to work out and predict what might happen if conditions for the growing plant change. To be able to learn science in this way, student needs help in developing process skills to investigate, and communication skills to question and discuss findings. Formative assessment fits well into this learning scenario, since its purpose is for teachers to sift the rich data that arise in classroom discussion and activity, so that professional judgements can be made about the next steps in learning."

(Black & Harrison, 2004, p. 3)

In her paper presented to the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Moody (2009) highlights the generally accepted techniques of AfL used within the classroom, which many articles are generally in agreement with, which are:

Peer and self-assessment

Sharing learning goals and success criteria

Effective questioning and dialogue

Effective teacher feedback

In addition, the importance to an effective classroom climate where children are encouraged to share their thoughts and unconstrained by the correction of wrong answers and the feeling that being wrong is a negative rather than the opportunity to share initial ideas, is essential.

When researching methods into AfL and its introduction into the primary classroom, history determines that the Plowden Report (1967) must be mentioned and discussed regarding her research and finding that showed, according to Bell (2008) 'in hindsight, amazing vision' when it indicated that a successful education should include:

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'child-centred' approached to teaching

a topic based curriculum

discovery learning

The core principles and values that directly relate to modern AfL techniques and philosophies require that:

children's views are highly valued and actively sought out

that their learning engages them in a way that they can actively relate them to other aspects of their lives

the learning of skills across the curriculum enables children to be equipped to deal with a variety of situations rather than a single subject discipline.

Critics of these ideals as Gillard (2004) describes are the 'writers of the 'Black Papers' and their followers' who 'criticised much of what the primary schools were doing and blamed the Plowden Report at least in part for what they saw as undesirable trends' during the 1970s and 1980s. Driver (1983), however agrees with the underlying philosophy behind the Plowden report findings, stating that 'It is, after all, the coherence as perceived by the pupil that matters in learning.' Driver was also part of the Children's Learning in Science Project (CLISP) which researched the area that

"it is as important in teaching and curriculum development to consider and understand children's own ideas as it is to give a clear presentation of the conventional scientific theories"

(Driver, 1983)

In their article, Lindsay and Clark (2001) describe ways in which AfL strategies (and specifically self- and peer-assessment) can be used to develop a 'constructivist classroom' where children participate in 'creating and reflecting on their learning' (p. 15). They also identify advantages to these techniques specifically develop scientific skills stating that 'children become more scientific in their enquiries…encourages children to be constantly involved in the scientific process and their role within it (p. 18).

Black and Harrison (2004) also discuss the importance of discussion within the science classroom where 'students feel they can reveal current understanding and be helped to further understanding' and feel that this is 'an essential ingredient to making formative assessment function in the classroom' (p. 9).

With regards to talk within the classroom, many writers have defined three different kinds: Triadic dialogue (three stages - usually teacher initiation, pupil response and teacher evaluation), Authorative discourse (teacher conveying information to the pupils) and Interactive or non-interactive talk. Chin (2006) suggests that the triadic dialogue method is 'often perceived to have restrictive effects on pupil thinking' (p. 1316), that ideas conveyed by the teacher using authorative discourse tend to be ignored and that interactive talk is described as dialogue. Generally in agreement are Asoko and Scott (2006) who propose that 'effective teaching involves all these approaches' (p. 163).

Hodgson (2010) describes the sharing of success criteria with the children in a Primary classroom as a 'key AfL strategy' and is linked directly with feedback. Black and Harrison agree with this point in their summary of what they believe are the essential factors of effective feedback:

"should motivate the child 'to discuss his or her thoughts with the teacher or a peer' (p. 12) in order to initiate the self-development of the child

encourages instantaneous action

'relates back to the success criteria' (p. 13)

Allows learners to compare their own ideas of achievement against that of the teacher or peer

Indicates to the child 'where to go for help and what they can do to improve' (p. 13)"

(Black & Harrison, 2004)

Leakey (2001) carried out a study where she reported on her own experiences with experimenting with sharing learning objectives and success criteria with children of a range of ages and believes it to be a successful AfL strategy because it 'gives children ownership of their own learning' (p. 68). Leakey also suggests that it is only with the insight of what it is that they are trying to achieve can children are able to make connections with any feedback that they subsequently receive.

Koegh and Naylor (1996) delivered a lecture at Manchester Metropolitan University sharing their ideas that:

"Constructivist views of learning in science suggest that learners can only make sense of new situations in terms of their existing understanding. Prior knowledge is used by learners to interpret observations; meaning is constructed by individuals in a process of adding to or modifying their existing ideas."

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(Keogh & Naylor, 1996)

and cited the works of others who share the same view (Driver (1983); Osbourne & Freyberg (1985) and Scott (1987)).

The inferences behind the constructivist theory relating to education are that the teacher is required to find out children's ideas (elicitation) in order to take them into consideration when planning their teaching to provide teaching and learning experiences which will develop the children's ideas and challenge their understanding of a specific area. Within science education, there has been a great deal of research into the benefits of using constructivism as a method of AfL with many teachers appreciating the concept of constructivism within the science classroom. Curriculum resources have been developed along with specific research including the (Science Processes and Concept Exploration (SPACE) project (1990-92) and as a result research by Nuffield Primary Science who have used this research to develop many pedagogical aids and teaching resources for teachers within the classroom.

However, Bentley and Watts (1991) discussed their concerns that there is a distinction between what they define as the 'strong' characteristics of theoretical constructivism and the ability of teachers to apply it to their teaching resulting in a 'weak' version of constructivism that is delivered in the classroom. Leeds (1992) describes that although teachers find it easier to plan activities following an elicitation session where learners' preconceived ideas have been identified, the practicalities of tailoring an inclusive education where all children's learning issues relating to a specific area is near impossible when faced with a class of 30 differing ideas. In relation to the difference between the amount of research into the benefits of a constructivist approach to teaching and the teaching resources and pedagogical guidance available, Claxton (1986) described the 'mountain of examples of children's alternative conceptions' (p. 126) which were available at that time and noted that the guidance for teachers on how to restructure the learners' ideas was less prominent in the literature. More recent research also focuses more closely on the elicitation of ideas, but much less is written about methods and techniques which allow teachers to restructure these ideas as a whole class exercise. The aim of the SPACE project was to:

"'start where the children are', building on the ideas children bring with them to lessons and helping them to develop their understanding of scientific concepts."

(Nuffield Foundation)

Nuffield Primary Science developed a series of books covering the Science Curriculum, which included many misconceptions of children in each area along with examples of concept cartoons and examples of activities that could be used in order to restructure the highlighted misconceptions and develop children's thinking, in order to aid teachers within the classroom to enable children to test out their own ideas through 'practical hands-on activities and investigations'. These publications are now unfortunately out of print; however the reports relating to the SPACE project continue to be available from the Nuffield website (Nuffield Primary Science).

The use of specific strategies such as concept cartoons (Keogh & Naylor, 2000) and mind mapping (Stow, 1997) introduce researched methods of elicitation within the science classroom and offer an effective way of concluding any project where children can revisit the original idea and discuss how and why they have developed throughout the study period.

However, teachers require the flexibility and space within the curriculum in order to effectively put these theories into practice in order that the benefits can be maximised. AfL will only be successful when both teachers and children are committed to its process and where both use it as a method for developing current learning and developing and expanding their skills and knowledge base. This idea is supported by the following:

"Assessment for learning only works if pupils and teachers take action on learning needs."

(Ward, Roden, Hewlett, & Foreman, 2005)

Black and William best summarise the use of AfL within the classroom as follows:

"There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential feature of classroom work and that development of it can raise standards. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made on the basis of evidence of such large learning gains."

(Black & William, 1998)