A case study of intermediate phase learner's success with science problem-solving tasks.
This is an evaluative case study to determine what science problem-solving skills learners have developed at the end of the Intermediate Phase. Grade six learners were used in this study as they represented the last grade within the Intermediate Phase. The main question that framed this study: How successful are learners with science problem-solving tasks at the end of the Intermediate Phase? An attempt has also been made to answer the key research questions relating to learners' success at solving problems, the types of problem tasks they can solve, any relationship between their ability at solving problems and their normal science achievement, any differences between groups such as male and female or across different classes, and the opportunities that enabled them to develop problem-solving skills? Operating in a post-positivist/realist paradigm, qualitative as well as quantitative data were gathered through participant observation. The quantitative data was obtained by administering "paper and pencil" and group problem tasks to 116 learners in grade six. Learners' responses to the problem tasks provided the answers to questions relating to their success with science problems as well as the problem-solving skills used. The qualitative data was obtained from questionnaires based on the task and from semi-structured and focus group interviews with learners to attain a deeper understanding on how they responded to the problem tasks and thus determining their success. Documents were analysed from grades four, five and six in an attempt to view the type of problem-solving skills learners had experienced in their science lessons within the Intermediate Phase. An interrogation of the documents provided answers to the research questions dealing with the opportunities learners were given to develop these problem-solving skills. The grade six learner's final Natural Science marks as well as the problem-solving tasks were analysed quantitatively as well as qualitatively to see if there was a relationship between the two. From this study, it was found that in general learners' success was uneven. Learners had more success when problems were closed, inside type requiring one step simple reasoning and were presented as tables rather than as diagrams. They also seemed to have more success when answering the multiple-choice component of the question but had little success explaining their choice of answers. There was not a strong relationship between learners doing well at their normal school tests and being able to solve problems. Learners appeared to be unable to use reasoning to explain their answers. They were unable to work with more than one variable simultaneously. Group differences within the case revealed that Black and Coloured learners had different levels of success with the problem tasks. There was no difference in the marks for boys and girls scores for the problem tasks but there was a difference in their scores for the Natural Science test. In general, learners within the 11 year age group had greater success with the problem tasks. The findings of this study indicate that learners at the Intermediate Phase level are not taught to solve problems and therefore have very limited success with solving problem tasks. However, learners' uneven success also implies that although some learners were unable to solve problems there are others that do have the ability to use problem-solving skills even if they were not formally taught these skills within their science lessons. Learner's inherent ability to solve problems by constructing their own knowledge from their experiences forms the core of this study. Teachers need to build on these in the science classroom, which will result in learners becoming expert problem solvers. This study suggests that providing learners with experiences relating to solving science problems can only assist in developing learners' problem-solving ability and thus benefiting society. The intention of this study is to open up the possibility of a more detailed research into science problem-solving in the primary school within the new reforms of our South African education system.