Yaron Schur (schurfa@netvision.net.il), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Nicos Valanides (nichri@ucy.ac.cy), University of Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus

 

Introduction: Observations and Science Learning and Teaching

In this article, we demonstrate new ways of constructivist science teaching based on the use of the observation process that enables to connect constructivist teaching with imagination and everyday language. Perception is a major factor in enabling students to learn science. Students do not see what teachers present or demonstrate to them, because seeing requires a different process than looking. In order to be able to see the world around them, students have to experience a whole process that is usually neglected in the science education classroom.

 

Students' drawings will be shown to demonstrate the way they perceive the environment before and after classroom intervention. An analysis of the drawings can show the connections between concepts and perceptions. This analysis relates to the process of perception that the students went through during a year's intervention. Students get excited when they perceive their environment in a new way after each stage of learning. Roth (2002) says that "to perceive is, in some ways, to encounter things and to give sense to the world by actively exploring and orienting within it. Perception is a changing process that continually constitutes new objects and events. Each time we perceive something new, we also reconstitute our worlds by taking what is salient and giving it meaning" (p. 33). Science learning becomes interesting and relevant when it enables students to relate what they have learnt to environments they already know. Putting an emphasis on perceptions can give teachers the opportunity to construct a regular science education lesson in a new way. Seeing new things is exciting, whether it is at the beginning of a learning session or at later stages. Dynamic Learning refers to a systematic connection between learning and observation where learning mainly focuses on the observation process. The process of Dynamic Learning can be schematically divided into three stages: initial observation, learning phase, and concluding observations at the end of a learning session.

 

The observation (perception) process

Roth (2002) described his own surprise when only after seven bicyclerides in the same forest, he suddenly noticed that two gigantic towers could be seen above the treetops. He had not seen them before. But once he realized their existence, he could not ignore them anymore. Even before getting to see them he was expecting them to appear. "Specific features only emerge into consciousness with extended experience. The world is not given once and for all.., but unfolds, continuously changing whole-part relations as ever more figures come to stand against the ground. Our world – that which is relevant to our thoughts and behavior – is brought forth through our experience of moving (eyes, hands, body)." (Roth, 2002, p. 10)

Roth (2002) relates to some important aspects of perception:

1.      Perception of a particular segment of the world is indeterminate.

2.      Perception is a historical, experimentally conditioned process. More and more figures are being seen through the experiences of the onlooker.

3.      We only see when something that we track becomes behaviorally relevant.

4.      Articulation of the perceptual field comes when there is a real need, like in moments of breakdown or in cases of arguments over contradictory observations.

5.      When a new feature emerges into awareness for the first time, it changes its nature and becomes an integral part of the scene, which can no longer be seen by this person without this new feature.

 

Seeing is not self evident

Feuerstein, Rand and Rynders (1988) and Feuerstein (1998) focus on the connections between the way children observe a phenomenon and their ability to understand it. They claim that observation is a basic process that is a necessary condition for learning. Feuerstein (1995) singles out two learning situations relating to difficulties in observation that are basic obstacles for students attempting to learn.

Roth (2002) describes the difficulties of himself and of his students to observe the filament of a special glow lamp. Even after the initial demonstration of the teacher, the students were not able to make the lamp glow. They were sure that the lamp was broken. In a prolonged process, they were able to discover the special and unexpected properties of the lamp and to see its details. "She (Brita, a student) saw the gap for a first time, although she had been looking at it repeatedly. The bulb was there, present to hand as something that glows or does not glow, but its internal structure was unavailable to her." (Roth, 20002, p. 21 )

Schur (2001) also described fourteen-years students who went out in the morning to observe the moon during an astronomy lesson. The sky was blue and the moon could be very clearly seen, but two students did not see the moon. Even with the teacher's intervention, they were reluctant to admit that they can see the moon in the morning. One said that she saw a cloud, and the other that she saw a reflection of the moon, but not the moon itself.

 

 

 

These examples simply indicate that:

  1. Seeing an environment, a picture, or a demonstration is not self-evident. In the previous examples, it came as a surprise that people did not see what was right in front of their eyes. They did not see the towers, the museum exhibits, the bulb’s properties, or the moon.
  2. If one wants to enable students to see specific features, one has to mediate these features explicitly to them. Making students see what the teacher would like them to see should be important parts of any lesson.

 

The process of mediation of seeing

In order to enable students to see complex or new phenomena, one has to go through a mediation process. For example, burning in front of students a banknote (i.e., $ 20), which was initially inserted in alcoholic solution, focuses their attention. Students are emotionally involved and try to find ways to stop the teacher from burning the banknote. Once students realize that the note was not affected by the burning, they start asking questions. This demonstration exemplifies a way to teach science where perceptions and scientific concepts are connected. Learning interactions focus on ways to enable students to observe phenomena and to use scientific concepts in order to perceive their environment in different new ways.

The mediated interaction focuses on the active participation of the students and the use of cognitive processes: they hypothesize, draw, solveproblemes, sese details, get a feedback on how close to relity are their assumptions. repeating such a process several times gives them cognitive tools for further investigation of visual stimuli (Feuerstein, rand ans Rynders, 1988).

 

Dynamic Learning

The whole process of Dynamic Learning can be either a 10-minutes interaction or a whole year program, but its three stages can be easily distinguished. But, it is quite hard to decide when one stage ends and another begins, because observations and learning are interconnected all the way. However, one can say that the first stage relates to the need to introduce the visual part of a learning subject. Drawing the quartz minerals of sand that could be seen through a microscope, drawing a sand dune, or relating to what can be seen in a picture – constitutes the first step for bringing students and the teacher to a common basic dialogue.

The first visual encounter with a new environment can be very exciting for students. “I see diamonds!” shouted several students in the class. The class was learning science. They had been observing sand through a microscope, and it was the grains of quartz they could see that caused their excitement. How can one prolong the excitement of the students? Usually, the teacher moves very quickly from the exciting demonstration to a long and difficult explanation. However, if one asked the students to draw what they had seen, one could realize that the seeing itself is interesting to discuss, because students see a variety of aspects, some of which are always unexpected, and they can share their excitement with the teacher and their friends. The teacher can also listen to students’ difficulties in understanding of the phenomenon they have just observed.

In conclusion, a teacher should ask herself when presenting a new subject: what do students see from my explanations? The first step of any dialogue between a teacher and students has some visual ingredients.

a.       A teacher should try and be aware of what the students actually see in a given environment.

b.      She should make it clear what she expects the students to see.

c.       The perceptual process is long and it takes some time before students really see what the teacher would like them to see. As Roth (2002) showed, it could take several lessons before they see a feature, such as the internal structure of a special bulb.

d.      There is an interconnection between knowledge and seeing. Sometimes only at the end of a learning session, students will be able to really ‘see.’

e.       Students usually recognize many features the teacher has not observed. When a whole class observes a picture or an environment the result is a much richer perception of it.

 

The second stage is the content learning. After discussing what the students saw, the teacher can go to the second stage, relating the scientific explanation to the interesting phenomenon that has been observed. This step is also possible when dealing with longer parts of teaching. One can relate a whole chapter or a whole curriculum to a natural environment using experiments, observations of reality, and relevant pictures of remote and near places.When the learning stage is disconnected from what students have seen, it makes learning difficult for the students.

Strang and Shayer (1993) relate to the process of teaching about chemical reactions. They emphasize the need to connect between what the students saw when the reaction took place in front of their eyes and what the teacher writes on the blackboard. They claim that many times students find it difficult to understand the chemical equations that are being written on the blackboard, because they don't connect them to the actual reaction. Mehl (1985, 1991) also describes the centrality of observation in the process of solving physics problems. His study was done with university students.

 

The third stage deals with the connections between scientific concepts that were taught in the classroom and the actual world images that students have. Students can use scientific understanding in order to see (observe) a given natural environment from a new perspective. Experiencing such a process can make students excited. This is evident in the excitement of the student who wrote in Figure 4: “How beautiful!” He made this drawing of the environment at the end of the learning sequence. Even the sun he drew was smiling. He went through a perceptual change, which was a structural change in his ability to observe the environment.

 

Learning and perceptions influence each other. One cannot see a complex phenomenon without knowing from which ingredients it consists. The more one knows about a phenomenon, the better one is equipped to see (observe) it. However, this connection is not done automatically in the mind. One can learn about the moon, without having the least effect on the ability to see its features. In order to make students see the moon, they have to get out and look at it after learning about it. They will need guidance in the process of better seeing the moon. The process of seeing such a phenomenon never ends. One can ameliorate it indefinitely. However, even a regular classroom interaction can improve the ability of students to see phenomena. The shear ability of students to identify new elements and to improve the quality of their observations in a meaningful way gives an important dimension to science learning.

 

Experiment

Several seventh-grade students from two middle schools in Israel participated in an experiment. They learnt science with an orientation on field trips and of observations in science teaching program called Thinking Science (Schur, Orion, & Ben- Menachem, 2001, Ben-Menachem, Orion, & Schur, 2001). The learning was connected to sand dunes, which the students visited and made active exercises several times during the year. The learning involved systematic analysis of each observation and materials found in the environment. The students did written exercises in each of the field trips. During the year, they had five field trips to different places. Four of them were to sand dunes. At the beginning of the year, as part of a learning activity, they went out to environments of sand dunes near their schools. They were asked to draw what they had seen. Near the end of the year the students went out again and drew the same environments.

Results

Initial observations

Figure 1 shows a highway with two cars, a water tower, a house, and a tree. The student has not included the sand dune in his picture. The whole idea of the field trip was to take the students to see and relate to the sand dunes. This student, however, like some others, did not draw the sand dune at all. He was focused on the highway, which could be seen in the distance, and on the neighboring town where he lived. The drawing is composed of two parts that are not really connected. One is the highway, which was to the west of the sand dune, and the other was the town at the north. The student connected both parts to one picture. He was concentrating on scenes that were far from the place on the sand dune where he sat. Those faraway places attracted his attention more than the nearby sand dune. The highway and his hometown, which he knew, blocked his perception of the new environment, the topic of the science class, the sand dunes. Sitting on a sand dune, this student did not relate to it at all in his drawing. His attention was diverted to places he knew, like the highway and his hometown.

Figure 1. Drawing at the beginning of the year of a 13 year-old student.

In Figure 2, the sand dunes occupied just a third of the whole drawing. They are drawn empty, without relating to any of their features. The student's attention was drawn to the sky, where he saw birds, clouds and the sun. Again the faraway and known stimuli attracted his attention more than the new and unknown sand dunes.

 

Figure 2. Drawing at the beginning of the year of a 13 year-old student.

These two drawings are just selected from all the drawings of the students. There were no drawings that related to the sand dunes as the main focus. One can see that the students were not occupied with relating to the features of the dunes that were the goal of the exercises they were doing in their field trip. The dunes did not occupy the major part also at the vast majority of the other students' drawings. In some of the drawings, they were completely missing. In their initial observations, the students represented the sand dunes in many different ways. The representations had little to do with the real dunes where they were located. Students' attention was focused on features they had been acquainted with, like the highway, their hometown, the sky, the sea, or their friends. The place that was of interest to the science class, the sand dunes, had minor importance in the students' eyes.

Concluding Observations

At the end of the learning process, a new and common language learnt during the year in the science lessons can be traced. One can see that students from different schools used this language. The language was used in a personal way and was connected to the students’ personal interpretation of the natural environment as expressed at the beginning of the year. It is interesting to note the excitement of the students, meeting an environment with which they could communicate.

Two drawings of students at the end of the year (Figures 3 and 4) are shown. The student who drew Figure 3 had not seen the sand dunes at all at the beginning of the year as it is shown in Figure 1, but at the end of the year, he could see not only a sand dune, but also a bush, and other features on it. The sand dune occupies in Figure 3 the central place of the drawing. Some of its details are shown. As he learnt about life in the sand dunes, he came to see the plants and the traces of animals and human beings. His interest in technological objects is still evident, as he has drawn electrical wires and he also included other features he drew at the beginning of the year, like the water tower and a house of the neighboring town.

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Figure 3. Drawing at the end of the year - student of Figure 1.

The student (from another school), who had drawn birds, clouds and sun at the beginning of the year (Figure 2) made Figure 4 at the end of the year. He drew the sand dune with motivation. One can see the sun smiling, students going in the dunes with one telling the others ‘How beautiful.’ The same features that were in Figure 2 are still present, the birds, the clouds and the sun. However, the sand dune is very prominent in here, compared to the featureless dune drawn at the beginning of the year. It occupies more than half of the page and is placed in the center of the drawing. The student could relate to a real dune at the end of the year, he could really see it. As he learnt about it, he could see interesting features in it. He shows his friends going on the dune, and expresses (in Hebrew) his feelings as well ( How beautiful).

Figure 4. Drawing at the end of the year – student of Figure 2.

Discussion

Seeing the environment at the beginning and the end of the year

Students’ drawings indicate that each student had a different representation of the environment at the beginning of the year. Different students were concerned with completely different aspects of the wider environment. They created their own personal way of representing the same environment. Each observer saw a different environment as it was constructed in his mind and had his personal story of it.  However, they could see little of the scientific content, which was the reason for organizing the field trips. In their drawings the dunes had strange features. Some were completely featureless; others were very minor compared to other subjects in the drawing. The initial observations indicate that students lacked some basic knowledge that prevented them from seeing the sand dunes and their details.

At the end of the year, students’ drawings included students’ personal understanding of the sand tunes and some ingredients of scientific understanding. Whereas the personal aspects were unique in each drawing, the scientific aspects indicate the use of a language shared by all of them, and connected to the environment. The language learned in the science classroom was connected to their personal way of constructing the environment, to form a new way of observing it. At the end of the year, the students had the knowledge that enabled them to see the environment in a different way. Only after learning about a complex environment, one can expect students to really see it. When the learning is connected to seeing, it puts the scientific content into the everyday world of the students, and this makes science learning interesting and relevant.

Systematic analysis of students’ drawings

The analysis of each picture relates to the following ingredients:

1.      The place of the main topic. In a science lesson, there is always a focused subject to the drawings of students. The first question that a teacher should ask when she analyzes drawings of students is where is the place of this subject in the students' pictures? Does the drawing show the main subject at all?Did he place the subject at the center of the drawing? What are the other elements that interest the students, and how they connect it with the main subject in their drawings? In order for the teacher to mediate to the students, she needs to understand their way of perceiving the environment.

2.      Its relative size. The bigger space the scientific subject of the drawing occupies, the more interesting is for the students. One can see that at the end of the year the sand dunes were represented much bigger than at the beginning. In both the drawings of the students that were brought in this article (Figures 3 and 4), the sand dunes occupied more than half of the page.

3.      The details that are shown. Size can sometimes be misleading because in some of the drawings at the beginning of the year huge and empty sand dunes were shown. So, it is also important to check the number of the details that are inserted into the picture. If the drawing is completely empty, then it is clear that the interest of the student was focused on other things. If the main subject is drawn with a lot of details, it means that the focus of the student was on the main scientific subject. When students put themselves in the picture or show features like the smile of the sun, they show general motivation that adds another dimension (an emotional one) to the scientific information they conveyed in the drawing.

 

Aspects of Perceptual Change

One can see a perceptual change in the way the students observed the environment at the beginning and at the end of the school year. They acquired scientific tools that enabled them to see the relevant environment, the sand dune. This perceptual change is the basis for any form of conceptual change. Without seeing the complex scientific phenomena, one cannot expect students to think differently about them. The observation process could not be neglected in the science class. This is the reason for the need of Dynamic Learning that puts the observation process in a central place in the process of science education.

A perceptual change process requires Knowledge, Orientation and Experience.

1. Knowledge - In order to see, one needs to know what to see. This is clear when one goes and visits an art museum. The ability to relate to pictures is dependent on knowledge. One has to know about Impressionism in order to be able to see the details of a drawing of Monet. The same holds for seeing sand or cells through a microscope, or the moon through a telescope, or a picture of a remote place. In all of them, one needs to know what to expect to see in the picture as a basic requirement.

2. Orientation – General knowledge is not enough. One has to know where in the specific picture, one can see the way Monet blended the colors and how did he represent the same scene in the morning compared with its representation in the afternoon. It is necessary to orient students to find the way the general knowledge is being applied to a specific picture or scene. One has to understand the structure of the specific cell that one sees in the microscope. The general knowledge should be translated to specific experiences. The knowledge could be given about the features of the moon, the orientation should relate to the specific moon one sees that night, and to the specific difficulties that are expected.

3. Experience – There is no alternative for experiencing perceptual change processes. Students have to experience the process themselves and to tackle their own difficulties of connecting the knowledge they acquired with the actual phenomenon that is in front of their eyes. Actual observation of pictures and phenomena raises a lot of questions, such as: Are the black patches there craters or big black planes of the moon? Where are the grains of quartz, I cannot see them? I know that the earth is a sphere, how can it be that in this picture its shape looks like an egg? The more experience one gains, the better observations can be made.

Conclusions

One can see a perceptual change in the way that two students changed their way of observing the same environment at the end of the school year compared with the way they observed it at the beginning of the year. Perceptual changes are always a good indication of conceptual changes, for the better or the worse. There are connections between observations and concepts, between the ability to observe phenomena and understand scientific explanations. Without seeing a phenomenon, one cannot understand relevant scientific concepts. After learning relevant concepts students are able to see complex phenomena. Thus, perceptions and the way conceptions are formed are closely interconnected.

Dynamic Learning focuses on the connections between a learnt topic and the way of seeing it. It can start with students’ initial observations. In that manner, teaching the actual scientific concepts is not done in an abstract manner, but it is linked to a natural context or relevant pictures. Even the most basic observation, the shear seeing of a phenomenon, the basic perception of a certain environment is not self-evident. In order to understand what students see, one can benefit from asking the students to draw what they see. The learning phase can focus on these drawings. At the end of the learning phase students should connect the scientific principles they learnt to their seeing of an environment or a phenomenon. They should take the scientific principles with them outside the classroom.

 

Teaching students the basic process of observing a specific environment can enable them to become independent learners, in the sense that when they come again to a similar environment, they will be able to see it and include scientific understanding as a tool to better observe it. Dynamic Learning should be applied in cases where there are clear phenomena that can be related to the given concepts. The Dynamic Learning approach can lead to constructing science education curriculums with an orientation on the connections between learning and observations. Several curriculums with such an approach have been developed, and their principles have been described in the relevant  papers (Schur, Skuy, Zietsman, & Fridjhon, 2002; Yair, Schur & Mintz, 2003; Schur, Lehavi & Rozenfeld, 2002).

 

References

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Feuerstein, R.  , Rand, Y.  , Hoffman, M.B.  and Miller, R.  (1980), Instrumental Enrichment: An Intervention Program for Cognitive Modifiability, Baltimore: University Park Press.

Feuerstein, R. , Rand, Y. and Rynders, J.E. (1988). Don’t Accept Me as I Am - Helping “Retarded” People to Excel. New York: Plenum.

  Feuerstein, R. (1995, 1996). Mediated Learning Experience in a scientific context. Three lectures delivered at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Weizman Institute of Science, Rehovot and the Bloomfield Science Museum, Jerusalem.

Feuerstein, R. (1998). The Theory of Mediated Learning Experience – About Human as a Modifiable Being. Tel aviv. Ministry of Defense.

Mehl, M.C. (1985). The  Cognitive Difficulties of first year physics students at the University of Western Cape and various compensatory programs. South Africa, University of Cape Town.

Mehl, M.C. (1991). Mediated Learning Experience at University level - a case study. In R. Feuerstein, P.S. Klein and A.J. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Mediated Learning Experience (MLE) : Theoretical, Psychological and Learning Implications, pp. 157-178, London: Freund.

Roth, W.M. (2002). From stimulus to science: The changing nature of visual perception. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Schur, Y. (1998). A Thinking Journey to the Moon. Tel-Aviv: Ma’alot.

Schur, Y. (1999). Constructivism and Mediated Learning Experience as a Basis for a Process of Conceptual Change in Students' Concepts of Earth. A Ph. D. thesis, supervised by M. Skuy and A. Zietsman. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. South Africa.

Schur, Y., Skuy, M., Zietsman, A.  and Fridjhon, P.  (2002). A Thinking Journey Based on Constructivism and Mediated  Learning Experience as a Vehicle for Teaching Science to Low Functioning Students and Enhancing their Cognitive Skills.  In School Psychology International, Vol.  23 (1): 36 - 67.

Schur, Y., Orion, N. And Ben Menachem, O. (2001). Thinking Science - Developing cognitive skills of low functioning middle schools students through the use of a science learning program. In N. Valanides (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1st IOSTE Symposium in Southern Europe. Paralimni, Cyprus.

Schur, Y, Lehavi, Y., and Rozenfeld, Shlomo (2002). Who is the fastest runner in the world? – “Seeing Motion” – Connecting kinematics teaching to sport events. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Science Education. Nicosia. Cyprus.

Schur, Y. (2001). Why can't Julie see the moon? Lecture at the ESERA conference in Saloniki.

Strang, J. and Shayer, M. (1993). Enhancing high school students’ achievement in chemistry through a thinking skills approach. International Journal of Science Education, Vol. 15, (3), 319-337.

Yair, Y., Schur Y., and Mintz., R. (2003).  A Thinking Journey to the Solar System Using Scientific Visualization Technologies. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 12 (1), 43 – 49.