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].

Traditionally, the teaching of school physics in Finnish comprehensive schools is based on behaviorism and it is the reason why teachers choose TCM. This has become the main form of teaching science in Finnish schools.  Because of the curriculum content, teachers present only illustrative interdisciplinary connections in their own teaching activity. Teaching is a results-oriented process and this is the reason for using the teacher-centered model.  The teacher becomes a mentor.

Teacher Centered Model of Teaching of School Physics in Finnish Comprehensive Schools

As noted above, the teaching process of school physics in the Finnish comprehensive school is carried out according to TCM model.  The TCM model of teaching is a behaviorist approach.  According to the behaviorist theory teachers should create a teaching environment which brings in the positive feelings to the students. The teacher should avoid situations which are associated with unpleasantness [5] such as evaluation of lab-work reports, critical examinations of sources, positive or negative response to the students’ comments and ideas, response and comments to students’ different solving strategies, e t c.

As a result, the teacher presents the content of the teaching topic according to the content in the textbooks and students’ workbooks. Analysis of textbooks in school physics shows that training questions are directly connected to the texts. The teachers’ role is to train students to give the right answers. In order to eliminate unpleasant situations during lab-work all instructions for students are detailed and there is no place to form a false hypothesis. Since the content of the textbooks is a reflection of the curriculum content which is based on the IRE  sequence (1), the problem-based teaching is preferable.

Student Centered Model of Teaching in Finnish Schools

There is beginning to take hold a transition from the teacher-centered model of teaching to the student-centered model of teaching in some Finnish schools.  The student-centered model of teaching is based on the constructivist theory of learning.

Humanistic Science in Botby School: Michelle Riska and Alexandra Kuhlefelt talked about the fascinating world of organic chemistry and prepared labs for students about esters. Copyright © | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

We have conducted advanced staff development with physics teachers transitioning from the TCM to SCT.  The advanced staff development was organized through the School Resources program, which provides the structure for advanced staff development.

There were three stages to the Advanced Staff Development for physics teachers in our plan to help them implement the Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented model of teaching in their physics classes.  Stages one was to familiarize the physics teachers with the HSIO model of teaching through discussions, observations and reading.  Stage two is learning how to implement HSIO with students, and stage three is attainment, meaning that the physics teachers can integrate HSIO into their physics curriculum.

Three physics teachers were recruited for this staff development program.  In this case, all three teachers were experienced physics teachers and for the most part used the TCM.  The three teachers went through a transition process moving them away from the teacher centered model and toward the humanistic science inquiry-oriented model.

It is not enough to have only a positive attitude towards the HSIO method. Attitudes can change before the teachers will be able to let the intentions influence their own teaching process [11]. Teachers need to be acquainted with HSIO and therefore to have knowledge about it. Otherwise, recruited teachers are going to claim that the HSIO method is valuable way of teaching school physics, which students enjoyed. It means that teachers do not attain the HSIO method intentions and as result, the teachers “just smile politely” and keep their teaching practice according the TCM.

In order to acquaint the teachers with the HSIO method they observed the researcher’s lessons taught according to the HSIO method. Before the lessons the researcher and the teachers discussed the structure and goals of the lesson. Then the teachers observed the lesson and after they analyzed the progress of the lesson with emphasis on the teaching strategy and style. In order to explain the teaching strategy according to the HSIO method the teachers needed to complete their knowledge in didactic.

The reinforcement of knowledge about HSIO took place in two dimensions: familiarization with teaching of interdisciplinary content of school physics and familiarization with the collaboration process in scientce inquiry-based labs. In order to be acquainted with the collaboration process the students were made leaders of the scientific inquiry-based lab-works. During the familiarization of the teaching strategy among the recruited teachers they tested their knowledge about HSIO during the lessons in the researcher’s class and in their own schools. Hence, all three recruited teachers taught the experimental class during the all phases of educational experiment.

Changing One’s Teaching Practice from Teacher-Centered to Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented

The transition from TCM to HSIO based on the teachers’ attitudes and on “the recognition of conflict between what one wishes to do, or believes oneself to be doing, and the perceived reality of one’s teaching that can bring about change” [11, p. 234]. During the interview before the educational experiment the recruited teachers shows that they have something in common – an extincted self-esteem.

All three physics  teachers directly or indirectly described their own self-esteem. After finishing the compulsory studies at the universities, teachers accumulated a lot of knowledge in their area of specialization. With this luggage of knowledge they faced the TCM reality – there is no space to use that knowledge. These teachers experienced the extinction of their knowledge and as result extinction of their self-esteem. However, they recognized that something must be done in the classroom in order to encourage the students’ interest toward school physics. The conflict between the teachers’ personal goals and what they experienced in their classrooms made them ready for changes in their teaching practice.

Teacher A

In Dr. Stal's science class, Matias Miller and Oscar Olin talked about robots and showed three perfectly functioning robots, and presented their lesson to students in a lower secondary class. Students used science inquiry to investigate robots. Copyright © | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

As teacher A started to understand the teaching process of HSIO method, she was “shocked” about following concepts: “humanistic approach”, “not cool but interesting”, “interdisciplinary relations”, “create situations for the usage of modern technology”. She also felt slightly uncomfortable when the students found out that she had not the knowledge they sought, however then she recognized that her lack of knowledge was an important basis to organize a discussion.  Students accepted her as a companion.  She thinks that this experience improved her self- esteem. Preparing for the lessons was stimulating because she needed to look up new and interesting facts about the phenomena. She noticed that she spent more time now on the Internet than what she did before. She concluded that students must learn to use the computer as a working tool in the science class.

Teacher A was very afraid of organizing her first lab-work lesson. After the first lab activity  she was very “happy” because she saw that “the idea works!” She remembers how this u situation “changed her life as a teacher”.

Before the investigation of the phenomena acceleration, she prepared the necessary materials and apparatus, such as stopwatch and a videocamera. When the students started the lab activity, one girl noticed that it is uncomfortable to use a stopwatch and video-camera simultaneously, so she used her mobile-phone which could do both simultaneously. Teacher A was surprised how easy it was to allow her students to use the mobile-phone during this lab-work. She noticed that lab became interesting because of their interdisciplinary content. Teacher A noticed that it was very important to update her knowledge. She also learned that it was not a problem to ask her students for help. Teacher A found it remarkable how her students taught her how to use PowerPoint presentations and after that she tried out her Smart-board. Today teacher A can not imagine teaching without her Smart-board.

Teacher B

The teacher B claims that working with students in the Experimental class was a great experience. She realized that knowledge in didactics is important, but she agrees that the teaching process must be “targeted”. She now considers it to be very important for everybody to know what teaching and learning means.

Teacher B noticed that discussions and planning  increases the “creativity of students” because several students wanted to continue their investigations, although it was not possible to do so due to the lack of time. She considered that these students must have the possibility to immerse themselves in Physics. She also noticed that the students’ results in tests improved. What is more, she considered that interdisciplinary relations increases the creativity in lab-works and helps students to better understand Physics. Modern technology such as mobile-phones, data-loggers and sensors is an important part of the teaching process if teachers are going to teach according to the HSIO method. She considers that the teaching process must create opportunities for her students to use their knowledge in sciences. Teacher B considers to do research in the area of didactics and she revealed about her unfinished Master thesis. Teacher B also reassessed her role as a teacher – “to be a companion with her students means to keep her knowledge updated and understand the students’ subculture”.

Teacher C

Teacher C thought that the most difficult concepts to review were going from “entertaining teaching” toward “interesting teaching”, “didactics is a science” and “interdisciplinary relations”. He claims that the reviewing process aided him to understand the role of lab-works in teaching. He found that the amount of the laboratory work to be unimportant. What is important is the “depth” of the topic which can create opportunities for the students to use their knowledge from different sciences. He noticed improvements in tests and how active the students were participating in discussions. He also noticed that several students were willing to immerse themselves in the subject. He was surprised about the amount of students who choose his optional course. Teacher C considered that his failure to found the science club was due to his high regards for “entertaining teaching”. He also claims that the students’ practical skills are important and became more important for them if the students have opportunities to use their skills during lab-work.

Interdisciplinary content of lab-work activates the students’ skills. Interdisciplinary content demands the usage of modern technology and investigation process’ become easier and shorter. He also noticed that teachers can learn through the students; for example, to find new ways to use the mobile-phone during lessons. However, the changes in teachers’ attitudes after the educational experiment are noticeable because nowadays all recruited teachers use the HSIO in their teaching practice at their schools. What is more, today there are more physics teachers who have been trained according to HSIO and started to apply the HSIO in their teaching practice. The quality of school physics teaching and other school sciences as well, correlates with students’ learning experiences which includes increased interest toward school sciences [13, 14].

All Teachers

Finally, educators around the world cannot disagree with words that “good science teachers are knowledgeable about science and its nature; have some understanding of basic educational ideas; use a range of teaching strategies; have excellent communication skills; and last, but not least, hold a passion for science”

Next Steps

Dr. Stål described two methods of teaching that are used in teaching physics in Finland, the teacher-centered model (TCM) and the student-centered model (SCM) which he called the humanistic science inquiry-oriented model (HSIO).  Which method of teaching is the dominant model in your school?  How would you describe your approach to teaching? 



About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University