Improving scientific reasoning

Using CER in Junyuan Primary School

Abstract

Inquiry-based learning has long been an important emphasis in Singapore science education (Poon et al., 2012) and more so recently, thinking routines are gaining more traction as an effective framing tool and in inculcating patterns of thinking and inquiry in Science (Ritchhart, 2002).


A case study from Junyuan Primary School is used to illustrate the successful integration of thinking routines using CER (claims-evidence-reasons) framework and ICT-enabled practices to allow learners to engage in science inquiry and to improve their ability to construct explanations in Primary Science.

Introduction

In science lessons, students often struggle with constructing new knowledge from observations or results of classroom experiments. In many instances, students do not apply scientific concepts during problem-solving. Learners are instead very excited and ‘hands-on’ when conducting experiments but are not necessarily ‘minds-on’ when it comes to deep thinking about the phenomena or the construction of knowledge. Teachers also have difficulty tracking students’ thinking as these are often hard to notice as well as hard to document.


Data collected from 2014 Primary 4 semestral assessment results in Junyuan Primary School indicates that students did not make significant improvement between their mid-year and end-of-year exam performance. The overall percentage passes for Primary 4 cohort are 69.6% (SA1) and 70.7% (SA2) and achievement in quality passes (band 1 grade in subject-based banding) are 12.5% (SA1) and 12.6% (SA2). Data analysed indicated that pupils were weak in the open-ended section and had demonstrated little understanding of scientific concepts and their application. Teachers were also concerned as the exam data analysis showed that even High Progress students lacked complete understanding of the scientific concepts taught as their written answers were either irrelevant to the question context or incomplete in explanation. Despite P4 teachers’ interventions to impart answering techniques, students remained weak in answering open-ended questions that involve explanation and reasoning.


Given the importance of improving scientific reasoning skills among learners, the research team from Junyuan Primary decided to adopt a thinking or reasoning routine – the Claim, Evidence and Reasoning (CER) framework to strengthen thinking routines for the learning of science concepts. Our team made used of the affordances of ICT tools such as Linoit, Google docs/sites and social learning wall to capture students’ thinking. These tools further allowed peers to view and critique one another’s scientific reasoning.


Here, understanding of the science contents is reinforced when students think about the concepts and information they come across in the classroom. The integration of ICT-enabled practices not only strengthened the thinking routines, but also allowed thinking to be a social endeavour. Collaborative science inquiry and modelling activities framed by the thinking routine are easier to attain with ICT-enabled practices. Strengthening of the thinking routine therefore happens through the use of ICT to improve on clarity of students’ thinking. Certain thinking skills such as being able to understand another person’s viewpoint do not occur naturally to students and can be taught through this case study.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Students’ ability to reason from evidence and participate in scientific argumentation is considered a major objective of science education reform (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; National Research Council, 1996). According to Duschl and Gitomer (1997), this involves “the development of thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills to prepare students to participate in the generation and evaluation of scientific knowledge claims, explanations, models, and experimental designs” (p. 38).


Learning Science involves a different way of thinking about and explaining phenomena. The scientific endeavor is by nature based upon the collection and analysis of evidence, and arguments based on evidence form the foundation of scientific thinking (Kuhn, 1993). Bruner (1961) stated that learning through science inquiry is “in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence” (p. 22), and thus evidence should play a central role in developing students’ understanding of where scientific ideas come from.


The CER framework is used to support the development of explanations and guides the students in communicating their understandings of science through writing (ZembalSaul, McNeill, & Hershberger 2013). This framework supports students’ learning and writing through forming statements (claims) based on their observations (evidence) and then discussing these results with respect to the underlying scientific principles (reasoning) to build a deeper understanding of the content. (see the next 2 figures)

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The instructional framework for scientific explanation provides students with guidelines for what to include in their science writing, oral presentations, and classroom discussions. The framework can change students’ understanding of what it means to create an explanation in science and in their science classroom. By making the implicit rules of science explicit, the framework helps students see how to justify claims in science (McNeill & Krajcik, 2012)


Black & Wiliam (1998b) make the following recommendations about key components of formative assessment: opportunities for students to express their understandings should be designed into any piece of teaching, for this will initiate the interaction through which formative assessment aids learning. Assessment for Learning (AfL) focuses on the needs of the learner and the CER framework helps teachers provide scaffolding and support for students’ construction of meaning by carefully selecting learning experiences, activities, questions, and other elements of instruction.


AfL has been defined as ‘the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.’ (Assessment Reform Group, 2002). Black and Wiliam (1998a) has indicated that AfL can benefit all children and Harrison and Harlen (2006) identified that self-assessment in AfL helps children direct their activities towards their learning goals which in turn helps them state their own success criteria.


Central to our research is the use of ICT tools to facilitate thinking in our students. Meaningful use of ICT in the classroom requires the teachers to integrate technological affordances with pedagogical approaches for the specific subject matter to be taught (Jonassen et al., 2008; Mishra & Khoeler, 2006). This integrated form of contextualized knowledge has been recently referred to as the TPACK (Mishra & Khoeler, 2006; Thompson & Mishra, 2007) or other similar notion such as ICT related TPACK (Angeli & Valanides, 2005; 2009). A Science teacher who is capable of negotiating between these three forms of knowledge: Content (CK), Pedagogy (PK), and Technology (TK), would have infused the integration of content subject knowledge, pedagogical skills and ICT tool(s) in her lesson. (see diagram below)

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Research Question

How does the use of the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning framework improve students’ scientific explanations?

Methodology


The table below shows an overview of the case study.

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Two Primary Five teachers teaching the High Progress (HP) students of class size of 40 students each used the CER framework together with various ICT tools in the design of the lesson. The use of CER framework and the ICT platforms allowed teachers and students to become deeper reflective thinkers. With the use of students' learning logs and other application of AfL, teachers will be able to reflect on their lesson, allowing them to alter and/or address any misconception by the students through feedback. Through the use of the learning logs, the students were able to reflect on the lesson objectives taught and shared their learning with their peers and teachers. This allowed teachers to assess the students' understanding of the scientific concepts.


Lesson plans were designed using the 5E (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) instructional model on the topic of ‘Water’ and ‘Electricity’ incorporating the use of ICT tools. At the 'Explain' stage of the 5E instructional model, the teacher demonstrated the use of CER at the start of the lesson. The teacher presented the students with a scenario using an experimental set-up. She posed the students a question, getting them to brainstorm and stated a claim in Google Docs in groups, which may or may not be correct, before the experiment was conducted.


Then, students proceeded to use evidence (data from the results of their experiment) to reason for themselves if their claim remained valid or had to be refuted. The CER framework aimed to make students’ thinking visible to the teacher and peers through the crafting of explanations. Through the use of the CER framework, we hope that students will develop a habit of thinking and help them to be more competent when writing valid scientific explanations.


Lesson Design and Implementation


Introduction to ICT tools


Linoit


Linoit is a useful web-based post-it bulletin board that allows students to collaborate and share ideas or questions. To use the Linoit, students will just need to have the username and password to login and they can access the canvases created by the teachers. In groups, they can be assigned to post using different coloured notes.and this tool allows all students to see other students’ notes simultaneously in real time. Any changes made by one will appear instantly on each device used. It can be accessed and edited anywhere and an app version of the application tool is also made available in iPads which can be activated using the same account details. One advantage of using it on iPads is the use of the camera function to capture pictures which can be added to the sticky notes and this is great for evidence collection in investigations.


Google Docs


Google Docs is user-friendly collaboration tool that includes the use of most of the popular word processing features that most of the students are familiar with. This sharing and commenting platform provide students with opportunities to receive immediate feedback from both teachers and peers. In groups or individuals who are given the right to view the document, teachers can also control the access level to allow them to make revisions or comments along the way and these immediate updates can be viewed instantly. When using Google docs, it also helps to keep track of the changes and save a history of the different versions. If students were to delete part or all of a document, they can be reverted to the previous versions and for Google Docs, the updated version is always automatically saved.


Google Sites


Google Sites is a virtual tool that creates custom websites. It is integrated with other Google tools where videos, photos and link can be easily shared to anyone. In a classroom context, Google Sites can be used to create webpages on different topics. Activities of the various parts of a topic can be integrated and organised neatly in different tabs for easy access. Instructions, videos and rubrics can be uploaded by teachers for students to view at anywhere, even at home. Thus, it also serves as a platform where students can revisit what was taught as a form of revision and to avoid missing any important concept or sharing and discussion done in class when students are absent.



Lesson Overview


Water


http://linoit.com/users/junyuan2015/canvases/KWL-Water%205%20Excellence

http://linoit.com/users/junyuan2015/canvases/KWL-Water%205%20Respect%20

Before the start of the new topic, Linoit canvases (as shown in the links above) were used to gather information on what they knew about water based on three areas:


1) What they think they know about water?
2) What puzzle you about water?
3) What you would like to explore on the topic of water?


Students were then given a problem-based scenario as an introduction to the topic. An imaginary character, Mr Survivor was introduced and he was left on a deserted island. There was no source of fresh water on the island and it was the dry season during that time. A question ‘What will Mr Survivor need to survive?’ was posed. With this problem given, students were to constantly remind themselves to make use of what they were taught along the way to think of a solution to help Mr Survivor to solve his problem at the end.


A framework, CER, was introduced and students were taught how to make use of this framework to strengthen their answering skills when completing each task. Using Google Docs created in the Google Sites for this topic (shown in the links- http://tinyurl.com/5excellence-survivor and http://tinyurl.com/5respect-survivor), students were instructed to answer a set of questions relating to the scenario and they had to show their understanding of changes in state of water due to heat gain/loss. Upon completion of individual responses, within the group, they collaborated by getting the other members to give justification and suggestion to improve on their responses to derive to the best group’s answer. At the end of each lesson, a learning log in the Google Sites was used to assess and track students’ understanding of concepts taught. Each reflection log would link back to the scenario given to them initially and students had to recall the concepts that they had learnt, adapt and answer the questions pertaining to the scenario. This online platform allowed teachers to see the readiness of the students and to decide if a more detailed recap is required to address all the misconceptions.


In the final assessment of the topic, students were to think and design of an experiment to help ‘Mr Survivor to obtain water from sea water, so that he can drink water without any salt in it'. A list of materials was given such as a metal cup, a large plastic bowl, a clear plastic sheet, a rock and a roll of tape. After the design of the experiment was drawn, students were to make use of the CER framework and explain how the design helped Mr Survivor solve the problem with the concepts that they had learnt in this topic.




Electricity


Using Google Sites (as shown in the links- tinyurl.com/elect-5Ex and tinyurl.com/elect-5Respect) , the topic was introduced using the continuation of the story, Mr Survivor (from the topic, 'Water', ). Mr Survivor was lost in a dark cave and needed to escape. He found a torch but it was not working. Subsequently, the students were led into different parts of the topic using different scenarios which Mr Survivor encountered. Students had to brainstorm and discuss the various reasons which could cause the torch not to work. Students collected evidence to support the reasoning they had provided why the light bulb was not lighted.


Using a given scenario in each lesson, the students will attempt to solve the problem with the facilitation by the teacher. Using this inquiry-based approach, the students were able to discuss productively in their groups, coming up with interesting ideas to solve the problem. Through this approach, students were able to acquire the learning points required in the topic. After the students came up with a claim in their groups, they would always justify using an interactive stimulation to collect evidence.


The teachers assessed the students' learning using the learning logs in each lesson. It was a good use of the Google Docs platform as it helped to surface any misconception which the students had, so that the teacher could clarify them the next lesson. The Google Docs served as a good reflection for the students and teachers after each lesson.


In the final assessment, the students were provided with a scenario, which Mr Survivor was required to build two cave houses based on the listed requirements, such as the number of switches, the objects made from different materials, number of bulbs lighted when the switch was on etc.


Using the requirements, students drew out the circuit which the cave house would have. This allowed the students to be assessed whether they understood the concepts (e.g. conductors of electricity, type of circuit arrangement) taught in the topic. Finally, after the students have drawn the circuit, they will confirm whether what the circuit they had drawn would work using a stimulation software. This is to reinforce the use of the CER framework, where the stimulation served as an evidence in checking if their circuit is functioning.

FINDINGS

Figure 1 below shows an example of the students' work in the topic, 'Water'. It was the first performance task and it is truly commendable as it was the students' first time in attempting such a performance task. Also, the students were able to justify their answers well with illustrations as shown.
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In Figure 2 below, the students did a second performance task for the topic, 'Electricity'. It was evident that the students were able to connect and use the relevant scientific concepts to justify their choice. Furthermore, the students collected evidence using the interactive stimulation to support their claim.


From the two performance tasks shown above, it was evident that the students had progressed in their scientific explanations from the two iterations of using the CER framework.


Based on the assessments given to the students, it was clear that students were able to show a deep understanding of the scientific concepts of the topic. This was done through the inquiry-based approach and also group discussions which took place during the lessons.

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Using the student-centred learning logs as seen in Figures 3 and 4 below, students were able state their claims independently after a cycle of CER framework intervention. More students were also engaged to reflect productively in groups. Through their fruitful discussions, students were able to connect their scientific concepts and evidence that they have collected from the experiment to explain their answer thoroughly.


Furthermore, with the use of the ICT tools and platforms, greater collaborative discussion among the students was observed by the teachers in the two classes. More pupil engagement was noted in the lessons using the various Google Docs. Lastly, there was deeper reflective thinking for both teachers and students since teachers could alter the next lesson by including any misconception which arise from the previous lesson. For students, they are required to think about what they had learnt at the end of the lesson, keying their views into the learning logs assigned.

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Learning and Insights

Advantages

1. Teachers were able to assess the students' learning better as students were able to reflect on the lesson taught.


2. Students were able to recap on the resources used and discussed during and after lessons.


3. Students were able to grasp the scientific concepts well as they were able to collaborate more actively and productively in group discussions.


4. Students were more encouraged in learning independently, developing greater self- esteem and self-confidence.


5. The use of the ICT tools promoted collaborative learning as students were able to discuss one another's responses to clear any misconceptions etc.



Disadvantage

1. Technical issues which arose during the setting up of network and laptops may hinder lesson progression.

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