The context of problem tasks in school physical science.
The purpose of this study was to extend our current knowledge about what happens in physical science classrooms. The focus was the context of problem tasks. This involved the study of the situations, events and factors that relate to the solving of problem tasks at high school in order to understand their role and nature. e problem tasks that were central to this study were well defined, narrow in focus, and invariably involved the calculation of some quantity through the use of a formula and algebraic manipulation. The main questions that guided the study were as follows: What is happening in physical science classrooms? What is the nature and role of problem solving within this context? What are some of the consequences of organising teaching and learning in this manner? How do external forces influence what happens? The study aimed at describing the activities that the teachers and students were involved in and understanding how they understood their own actions. An interpretive research approach was chosen for this purpose, having as its basis a detailed descriptive foundation using classroom observation. Two high school science classrooms were studied in detail over a period of a year. The data gathered included field notes from over a hundred classroom visits, extensive video and audio records, questionnaires, classroom documents and formal an informal interviews with teachers, students and examiners. Through a process of careful and systematic analysis of the data, six assertions emerged. These assertions are supported by both particular evidence in the form of analytic narrative vignettes, quotes and extracts, and general evidence consisting of frequency data and summary tables. The analysis reveals that problem tasks occupied most of the teaching and learning time, and that the students found this experience of school science boring. Most of the problem tasks were routine in nature and of low conceptual demand. The majority of the students were unable to solve the more difficult tasks encountered in their tests and examinations. In addition, a significant number could not solve the routine problem tasks. This suggests that the predominant instructional strategies were ineffective. It was found that participants had an uncritical belief in the efficacy of teacher explanations and student practice on problem tasks. Further, the participants had different views of the role of problem tasks. A significant finding was that the examination exerted a powerful focusing influence on the classroom environment, the instructional activities and on the problem tasks used . It appeared that the ultimate goal of school physical science was to solve these types of problem task in preparation for the high stakes examination, rather than the learning of science. The study has implications both for practice and for research on the teaching and learning of school physical science. These implications are discussed in terms of instructional strategies aimed at promoting a deeper understanding of physical science. In order to improve practice it is advocated that the role of problem tasks in learning science be made explicit while at the same time new types of instructional task need to be designed to achieve our goals for school science.
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