Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland

Note: This is the second post by Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. In his first post, which you can read here, Dr. Stål gave us an overview of the Finnish educational system, which provides a basic education to all Finnish citizens ages 7 to 16, as well as a higher education.  In the first post, Dr. Stål helped us understand the overall structure of the Finnish educational system, beginning with basic education, grades 1 – 6, followed by lower secondary, grades 7 – 10, and upper secondary, 11 and 12.

Dr. Stål teaches at Botby School, Helsinki, Finland.  He conducts teacher training courses in science at Turku ( 92,6 miles or 149,02 km from Helsinki), School Resources.  He is also doing research in Science Education for his second doctorate at Interdisciplinary Science Education, Technologies and Learning (ISETL), School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK ( 1098,8 miles or 1768,3 km from Helsinki) under supervision of Professor Vic Lally.

In this post, Dr. Stål writes about the methods that science teachers use in Finnish classrooms by comparing the behavioristic teaching of school physics, which is teacher-centered (TCM) to the humanistic science inquiry oriented (HSIO) method, which student-centered (SCM).  This post is based on a research paper by Dr. Stål which you can read in full here.

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

In class, regardless of the country there is always a central figure – the teacher. The teacher knows how to work with students, in order to involve them in teaching process. The teacher is responsible for the organization of curriculum content for the students.  Therefore, the teacher must have appropriate education for this activity.

Finnish Science Teachers and Teaching

Dr. Ingvar Stål, science teacher and researcher, Botby School, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright © | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

In the Finnish comprehensive school, teachers still have a respectable position in society. The education of physics teachers takes about 5 years and is carried out by local universities, and as additional training to obligatory specialization.

After this training teachers receive a Mastes Degree in a subject and a Teaching Certificate. For example, a teacher may have a Masters Degree in Physics and Certificate of Teaching in Physics at Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools. In order to receive this certificate candidates must have at least 60 credits in Pedagogy Studies and Practice.

In recent years in the Finnish comprehensive schools there has been a shortage of Physics teachers. In the Finland-Swedish comprehensive school year 2008 only 57,1 % physics teachers had a Teaching Certificate [1]. There are several reasons for the physics teacher shortage: lack of candidates, preference to work as a physics teacher at upper secondary school due to problems with discipline and low level of curriculum content, low salary compared to the amount of work and responsibilities.

The common responsibilities of science teachers are as follows : teaching, preparation of lab work and demonstrations, ordering of material and instruments, design of assessment tests for students, maintain contact with students’ parents.

The teaching process in school physics is a teacher-centered activity. It means that the teacher is the presenter of physics content and students are the recipients.  In the Finnish comprehensive schools, the teaching of school physics and others school sciences is a variation of the three stage model of teaching: Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE [2]), and is described as the Teacher-Centered Model TCM [3, 4].
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High Hopes for Science Inquiry: Fewer Opportunities

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The No Child Left Behind Act is linked to data that shows schools in California are teaching less science because teachers are pressured to prepare students for the required math and English high-stakes tests.

Valerie Strauss writes that Virginia is moving to require that students would only be required to take tests in math and English.  Students would not take tests in science and social studies.  On the one hand, this is a great idea because I believe high-stakes tests should be banned.  But on the other hand, there will be collateral effects on science and social studies because Virginia will put its emphasis on teaching math and English.  That is a bad idea.

Lori Welsh, a science educator in Ohio, has challenged the Dublin School District’s decision to reduce the amount of time devoted to science teaching in grades 6 and 7.  This 17-year veteran science educator has gathered data that shows how the decision reduces science and social studies time by 33%.  Science will reduce from 126 minutes of science every 2 days (63 minute daily periods now) to 86 minutes every two days (one 86 minute block every other day proposed for next year).

Science teachers would argue that reducing the time spent learning science would take it toll on the teaching of science as inquiry.  And simply adding more time to reading will not result in improvement in science inquiry.
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Standards-Based and High-Stakes Science Education: Frivolous, Capricious & Unreasonable?

Science educators, especially during the past 50 years, have been instrumental in developing curriculum and teaching methods that are intelligent, prudent, reflective, and thoughtful.  Underlying science education has been the well-advised and deliberate attempt to encourage inquiry- and problem-based teaching.  Not only has this been on solid ground in the U.S., but in most nations of the world.

Working Out How Students Learn

During this time, researchers in science education, and in the newly established field of the learning sciences began to work out some of the principles that help us understand how people learn.  Much of this work is described in several publications, including How People Learn (National Academy Press, 2000) by Bransford, Brown and Cocking.

The term that has recently emerged to help us understand how people is the learning sciences, which is an interdisciplinary field including cognitive science, educational psychology, computer science, anthropology, sociology, information sciences, neurosciences, education, design studies, instructional design and other fields.

The research in the learning sciences has led to several findings about how people learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works.  If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. 

If you have 30 students in your biology class, you know that not all of the students come into your course with the same preconceptions.  Do we think that it is possible for all of them to leave the class with the same level of “knowing?”

2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. 

This principle, which comes from research comparing experts and novices in a field of study, does not mean that students should be fed a diet of factual information.  The principle worked out here means that students must be engaged in active learning and given many opportunities to learn with understanding, to use inquiry to explore ideas, and be engaged with other students in solving problems.

By the way, the test questions that constitute the high-stakes tests are random questions that require memory and guesswork.  Instead of helping students develop conceptual frameworks within science (or any other subject), the high-stakes testing syndrome reinforces the notion that we are testing nothing more than factual knowledge, completely out of context.  How can this process possibly measure the kind of deep understanding that ought to characterize schooling in a democracy.

3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

Many science teachers know that metacognitive tools really help their students understand science.  However, because we are shooting for an end of the year test that requires bubbling an answer form, helping students be reflective and try and take responsibility for their learning goes by the wayside.  Metacognition requires “internal conversation” and teachers who encourage this in their students are pushing hard to overcome the day-to-day pressure to teach to the test.  Helping students be reflective thinker takes time.  Reflective activities such as journal keeping, reflective postings on the Internet, and small group discussions might not fit into a teacher’s schedule if the real premium is on well the students do on “the test.”

The model of teaching that seems to capture these three principles is constructivism.

Constructivism explains learning as a meaning-making process dependent on prior knowledge and individual interpretation. Thus, constructivism is the theoretical framework that supports the enduring push for teaching science by inquiry methods. If teaching were merely the process of communicating a message, then we could simply tell students key ideas (such as the definition of scientific theory) and achieve the instructional objective.

Is What We Are Doing Frivolous, Capricious, and Unreasonable?

So, why is it that science education in K-12 schools has accepted and acceded to standards-based and high-stakes testing that characterizes teaching and learning in today’s schools?

Why has education accepted the notion that one set of learning standards can be used with all students, regardless of where they live?  Why do we continue to administer high-stakes achievement tests to determine whether or not a student has learned?  Why do we assume that these tests measure student learning and that the one responsible for student progress is the teacher when we know that about 70% of the effect on learning is from outside the classroom? Why?

The Next Generation Science Standards, which the developers claim is state led, are far from the realities of classrooms and teachers, and represent a collection of performance objectives that are expected to be learned by all students, regardless of where they live.  The evidence is that where you live has a profound effect on learning, more so than the effectiveness of teachers.  Creating one set of science standards for nation of 15,000 school districts simply does not make sense.

If we want professional societies to develop science standards, all well and good.  But, the selection and implementation of standards should be a local decision made by teachers who have the knowledge and understanding of their students.

Research in the learning sciences would argue against using high-stakes tests.  These high-stakes tests are  frivolous, capricious and unreasonable. The tests are not a measure of what students learn.  They are a collection of discrete test items, written by strangers, that are used in disparate classrooms around the country. State department officials have convinced themselves that their tests are measuring not only student learning, but can be used to compare student scores from one year to the next, and make assertions about learning progress.  I don’t think so.

Community Based Education

The learning sciences can be used as the rationale for more local control over teaching and curriculum development.  Teachers are the ones who know how to implement the findings of the learning sciences to make science learning active and inquiry-based focused on helping students understand science and know how to use science to solve problems.  We need to get out the way and let professional teachers do their work.

The preposterous continuation of holding students and teachers hostage by making them follow someone else’s standards, and someone else’s high-stakes tests makes no sense, except to the officials at state and federal departments of education, and the core group of corporate meddlers.

What do think about standards-based science education?  Do you think high-stakes, end of the year tests should be used?  Do they measure student achievement in your courses?  

Standards-Based and High-Stakes Science Education: Frivolous, Capricious & Unreasonable?  Tell us what you think. 



On the Practice of Science Inquiry

Science As Inquiry, a construct developed in a recent publication, weaves together ideas about science teaching and inquiry that were developed over many years of work with practicing science teachers in the context of seminars conducted around the U.S.A, in school district staff development seminars, and courses that I taught at Georgia State University.

A Webly Map of Science as Inquiry

Science As Inquiry provides the practical tools, based on theory and research, that science teachers use in their classrooms to involve their students in inquiry learning, including hands-on investigations, project-based activities, Internet- based learning experiences, and science activities in which students are guided to construct meaning and develop ideas about science and how it relates to them and their community.

Humanistic Quest

Inquiry science teaching by its very nature is a humanistic quest. It puts at the center of learning not only the students, but also how science relates to their lived experiences, and issues and concepts that connect to their lives. Doing science in the classroom that is inquiry- based relies on teachers and administrators who are willing to confront the current trend that advocates a standards-based and high stakes testing paradigm.

The dominant reason for teaching science is embedded in an “economic” argument that is rooted in the nation’s perception of how it compares to other nations in science, technology, and engineering. This led to the development of new science curricula, but it also led to the wide scale use of student achievement scores in measuring learning. Student achievement, as measured on “bubble tests,” has become the method to measure effectiveness of school systems, schools, and teachers, not to mention the students.

Disconnect with Standards & High-Stakes Testing

Although the organizations that have developed the science standards (National Research Council) advocate science teaching as an active process, and suggest that students should be involved in scientific inquiry, there is a disconnect between the standards approach and the implementation of an inquiry-based approach to science teaching.

We need to pull back on the drive to create a single set of standards and complementary set of assessments, and move instead toward a system of education that is rooted locally, driven by professional teachers who view learning as more personalized, and conducted in accord with democratic principles, constructivist and inquiry learning, and cultural principles that relate the curriculum to the nature and needs of the students.

Effects of Inquiry

Science education researchers have reported that inquiry-based instructional practices are more likely to increase conceptual understanding than are strategies that rely on more passive techniques, and in the current environment emphasizing a standardized-assessment approach, teachers will tend to rely on more traditional and passive teaching techniques.

Inquiry-based teaching is often characterized as actively engaging students in hands-on and minds-on learning experiences.

Inquiry-based teaching also is seen as giving students more responsibility for learning. Given that the evidence is somewhat supportive of inquiry-based science, our current scheme of national science standards emphasizing a broad array of concepts to be tested would tend to undermine an inquiry approach.

Teachers who advocate and implement an inquiry philosophy of learning do so because they want to inspire and encourage a love of learning among their students. They see the purpose of schooling as inspiring students, by engaging them in creative and innovative activities and projects.

Science As Inquiry embraces 21st century teaching in which inquiry becomes the center and heart of learning. Science As Inquiry provides a pathway to make your current approach to teaching more inquiry-oriented, and to embrace the digital world that is ubiquitous to our students.