Experiências pessoais e escrita

Fica aqui um texto que fiz para introduzir um artigo sobre a minha visita de Setembro de 2007 aos EUA, especialmente à North Carolina State University com Robert Beichner e ao MIT com John Belcher. O artigo deve ser publicado em breve, pela UIED (espero!). A introdução acabou por não ficar no texto original por uma questão de tom geral, desvio do assunto e dimensão total do artigo. As imagens foram retiradas, e eram de laboratórios de escolas portuguesas. Foi uma primeira experiência de escrita usando experiências pessoais.

Some days ago I found myself recalling my experience as a student in science classes and my reasonably recent interest in science education. In a time that the curriculum still considered subjects such as laboratory techniques of Chemistry and Biology and when Biology involved the study of several Fila with great detail, my memories are somewhat blurred, but I still remember hydroponics, microscopy, and one class that I had to teach about plate tectonics that went, in my opinion at that time (with all the self-awareness I could have with 15 years old, in 1997 I believe), extremely well. I made some drawings in the blackboard, made some questions, talked a little about the subject and that was it, a purely instructional method with 2D visualization, the regular chalk and talk. But I found it “hard fun”, like Papert (2002) once called it.

Surprisingly, the main source of enthusiasm that I reckon to science at that time had less to do with my school experience and more to do with reading magazines on the subject for teenagers, watching documentaries about wild life, reading a book from Isaac Asimov (Guide to Earth and Space) or a visual encyclopedia that contained some chapters on life and geology. I also remember trying for some time to breed bonsais with a technique involving rooting hormones, which I regret to say with no success despite the numerous trials. Despite the fact that I was taught in school the scientific method several times, I do not seem to recall using it to solve that problem. My research was based on a book or two about the subject and well, the rest is just a bunch of never born bonsais.

What intrigues me in this perspective exercise is the fact that I cannot recall a great deal of enthusiasm from school science classes. The diversity of teaching approaches that I went through as a student was limited, with let us say a handful of classes that were different from the average. I have a terrible memory and maybe I am being unfair with some of the science teachers I had, but I just seem to recall one or two memorable classes: the first is the one in which I had the teacher role, “teaching” about plate tectonics. The second is a collection of snapshots from laboratory techniques of Biology, with lots of hands-on activities. I regret to say that I probably had a very arid school science learning experience.

My memories about working in a laboratory in school are even worse. Besides the laboratory techniques, what I most recall about science classes is a blackboard with aligned seats and my colleagues’ backs, a teacher in the front talking, and of course the textbooks. From these I vividly recall the colors, the pictures and surprisingly, the weight. The textbook was the majority of my sensorial experience in science in school, the close I could get to hands-on. The rest was really abstract, a regular teaching and learning taking place in regular classrooms.

A separation problem?
Apparently in Portugal, schools’ science learning places have been divided according to the main teaching method used, with more instruction oriented classes taking place in “regular” classrooms contrasting with mainly practical work classes confined to the laboratory.
I have been recently visiting several secondary schools or looking at some photos (of about 15 secondary schools in a total of 378 according to Parque Escolar, 2007) and what I have seen about the majority of the laboratories leads me to think that a non-functional, not well equipped laboratory can, in a certain way, work as a regular classroom. Adding the fact that schools do not have laboratory assistants, among others limitations, it is easy to understand why a study about Physics and Chemistry teaching in Portuguese schools concluded that the most commonly used practices in the classroom are solving exercises, followed by problem solving and teacher transmission and demonstrations accompanied by questions and correcting tests and homework (Martins, 2002, p.107). I guess I share more than I thought with the generation that was in secondary schools in the beginning of the 21st century.

This total separation between traditional classrooms where science is mainly abstract and laboratories where science is mainly practical seems to recall the ancient separation of the “pure ” sciences and the applied sciences, or of “natural philosophy” and technology (Aikenhead, 2006).

On one side, the existence of a room front, individual-oriented tables, even the fact of the majority of work being done while seated can reflect a view of the learning of science as an individual process, passive, abstract, demonstrative, non-practical and teacher centric. On the other side, laboratory classes are generally very much concerned with “doing”, where students follow a recipe-like protocol, obtaining data for writing a report. Ideas testing, dialogue and articulation with theoretical models and scientific conventions is generally not used in schools (Martins, 2002).

The gap
Ironically, these practices are very distinctive from the practice of science and engineering (Martins, 2002; Santos, 2002; Dourado & Leite 2005; GAAIRES, 2006). The vast majority of schools’ teachers have never been involved in scientific research and their contact with scientists is only done during courses in universities. Classroom activities are shaped by textbooks with recipe-like lab worksheets (Ambrósio et al., 1994; Moreira, 2003; Sequeira, 2004) and the weight and type of the final secondary examinations (GAAIRES, 2006) can influence pupils’ and teachers’ attitudes towards learning and, more particularly, what it means to them to learn science at school (Eurydice, 2006; Rocard et al., 2007).

Even in universities where much science is made, the teaching is quite different. And the problem starts with loneliness . Despite the fact that science is considered to be a social endeavour, or that learning has a social dimension, teaching does not. Due to organizational, curriculum, teacher training or assessment restraints (Fullan, 2007), teachers are isolated in classrooms, are not given time to reflect either individually or collectively on their practices, or sustained opportunities to try what works or does not work in their classrooms. The lack of contact with specialists and research, peer-reviewing of materials and practices or collaboration in producing teaching materials illustrates a lack of coherence, a gap between what is envisioned, researched and taught on the nature of science, learning and in the everyday life of teachers.

If my process of selection of memories of science classes is somewhat “regular”, I could say that what is happening is that science is not being memorable to young teenagers (to say the least).
The 2005 Eurobarometer survey “Europeans, Science and Technology” reveals that every second citizen (50%) believes that “Science classes at school are not sufficiently appealing" to students in the European Union 25 (EU25). Portugal has 60% of the respondents agreeing with this statement, ranking fifth in the EU25 after countries such as Sweden (in the top of the rank) and France (p. 102). The Rose study also confirms these results (Sjoberg & Schreiner, 2006). The usual low scores in the PISA studies by Portuguese students, where the tests assume school science practices based more on enquiry and discussion practices, instead of memorization and rhetoric can reflect the lack of enquiry, gather of evidence and discussion and test of ideas in science classes. Fortunately, we have Ciência Viva and other efforts to improve the image and familiarity of science and technology to the general public, particularly children, promoting it as a practical and investigative activity. But at least Ciência Viva only started in the late 1990’s and at that time me and my generation were already starting university.

From isolation to connectedness
If teachers want to promote active learning in their classrooms, they usually have two options: either use small classes settings for mainly hands-on activities that complement lectures; or interactive lecture activities for larger classes such as Peer Instruction, Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILDs) or other teaching methods, limiting In this way their interaction with students and the use of hands-on activities (Beichner et al., 2007). Articulating instructional and practical methods in the same class is rarely adopted.

Mainly in the USA, this separation problem has been addressed in a very straightforward way. For undergraduate courses, the lecture and laboratory happen in the same place, the so called Studio. This fusion is not only supported by a change in spaces, but also in organization, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. What is argued by Beichner et al. (2007) is that the “most effective instruction is where all components of the course work tightly together towards the same goal” (p. 3). In North Carolina State University (NCSU), which had an important developmental role of this studio concept, it is called Scale-Up, Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs. In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it is called TEAL, Technology-enabled Active Learning. In September 2007, with the support of UIED and the hospitality of both of the projects’ mentors, Robert Beichner and John Belcher, I had the opportunity to visit these studios and experience some Physics classes for undergraduates. This paper is a report of this memorable experience in my learning experience about science education.


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