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Reflection on Teaching Essay

In order to challenge my theory of teaching I first need very briefly to define it. When I was taught science it was mostly through direct teaching. Any experiments performed were deductive in nature with very little input from me. When I got to college and I started performing experiments then I suddenly started having little epiphanies where facts I had learned off by heart were unexpectedly connected in ways I hadn’t understood before. So I came to think that this was what was lacking at secondary level, the experimental experience that allowed people to physically test the ‘how’ of the world around them. To put it simply people are innately curious and that exploiting this curiosity is the way to teach. From the moment they learn to talk, children constantly ask questions about everything, from “where eyebrows come from?” to “what do worms eat?” Asking questions is the way they find things out and this really is just one small step away from learning.

From personal experience of teaching I think that Arnstine (1967) was correct when he said “the arousal of curiosity can lead to learning…for learning to occur, curiosity must be guided”. Designing lessons in such a way as to tap into the natural curiosity of students and to connect the topics on the curriculum with their everyday experiences is surely the best way to teach science. I find enquiry / constructivism extremely interesting as it encapsulates the whole get their attention approach but I think it’s misused by an awful lot of people. I think that analogies and real world examples need to be reflective of the scientific concept yet simple enough that the student can grasp it. Also it requires that the student be actively involved, activities must provide the opportunity to demonstrate learning. “To instruct someone… is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach a subject not to produce little living libraries on that subject, but rather to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting.

Knowing is a process not a product.” (Bruner. J, The Process of Education: Towards a theory of instruction 1966: 72) So in approaching this assignment I realise that I am an ardent supporter of teaching through enquiry. I agree with Bruners theoretical framework of building on pre-existing knowledge by presenting new material in a logical manner at a level the student can understand, revisiting topic in stages and building layers of ever increasing complexity. I find the concept of a spiral curriculum to be a sensible one, but also to be at odds with the way in which individual schools plan the teaching of science. There is far too much relience on the text book, with strict adherence to the material inside. I prefer to leave the text book at home, for the student to be assigned reading and questions from it for homework so that it is new and different and provides a slightly different aspect to the same topic.

At the very least it will provide the same information as was covered in class in a slightly different manner and provoke recall instead of boredom. A consequence of supporting enquiry is an aversion to direct teaching. Those who support direct teaching say that it is a highly effective method of teaching. The basic components are careful content analysis, sequencing of information and use of appropriate examples, specific instructional formats where both teacher and student responses are scripted and testing to mastery. The part that receives the most criticism is the scripted responses. Here is an example I found at EXAMPLE

1. All: Teacher and students touch the answer to be learned.
2. Teacher: “The answer to this question is, 1492.”
3. Teacher: “When I signal I want you to answer, 1492.”
4. Teacher: “The answer is 1492.”
5. Teacher: “What year did Columbus discover America?”
6. Teacher: “Get ready.” Watch the students to make sure all participate.
7. Teacher: Signal by pointing or snapping fingers.
8. All: “1492.”
9. Teacher: “That’s right, Columbus discovered America in 1492.”
10. Teacher: Reward. “Good job saying 1492.” Make eye contact with individuals. Smile. 11. Teacher: Next answer, or repeat until everyone is participating and firm. If any student is unable to participate or answer correctly, start at the top of the sequence again.

Most teachers believe that this type of teaching is too restrictive and prevents the students from developing critical thinking skills. I have to say that on my first reading of this example of direct teaching I was horrified at the way the students were indoctrinated. I knew that this method of teaching was not for me and I continued to develop my lesson plans along the constructivist enquiry model. I researched guided discovery and found that discovery learning is described as an inquiry-based, constructivist learning theory that occurs in situations where the learner draws on their existing knowledge to discover facts and comprehend relationships. Students interact with the world by manipulating objects, wrestling with questions or performing experiments.

As a result, students are more likely to remember concepts and knowledge discovered on their own (in contrast to a transmission / direct teaching model). Proponents of discovery learning say it has many advantages, including encouraging active engagement, promoting motivation, autonomy, responsibility, independence, aiding the development of creativity and problem solving skills and is a tailored learning experience that helps minimize classroom management problems. Detractors point out the amount of time needed to teach a topic and that students do not always achieve the intended outcome of the lesson. That is they may draw erroneous conclusions about the investigation they are engaged in.

My action research

Now that I have explored my theories on teaching I need to test those theories by comparing the outcomes of direct versus enquiry teaching. Ideally in order to compare the two methods I should keep the conditions of the lessons the same and only change the method of instruction. Rigor would dictate that I teach two groups of students that have been randomly segregated. The students would be in the same year of secondary school and assumed to be at the same academic level. Ability within each group would be expected to mimic normal distribution with some students excelling and some struggling with the curriculum content. Unfortunately in my teaching practice placement I have one class of first years and one class of second years. I am also following a subject plan laid down by the science department in the placement school, which further restricts my research topic.

Hence rather than directly compare and contrast two sets of lesson plans that differ in instruction but not content, I shall attempt to make my methods of instruction the subject of the action research. My intention is to design a number of lesson plans along the guidelines of both approaches and to deliver these lessons as independent of personal bias as possible. I shall assess the success of each lesson plan as a measure of student value and under a number of points such as participation, motivation to learn, interest of students, as well as proficiency in summative tests. Bearing in mind my own learning, I will also be critically examining something about my ability to deliver a constructivist lesson; do I do as I say? In assessing participation of students I will make reference to number, frequency and relevance of questions asked.

Time spent on-task will be used to measure motivation and interest as will content of questions asked. In line with standard research methods I established a baseline of knowledge on the topic of energy by giving the students a questionnaire which was designed to probe existing conceptions. (more here on the results of the questionnaire) From my understanding of enquiry teaching there seems to be a number of activities that should feature in my lesson plans and I have tried to incorporate these in the enquiry based lesson plans. I have included a list of these activities here and have also identified them in the appropriate lesson plans.

Enquiry activities

• Think about scientifically orientated questions that are at an appropriate level and ask ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ (teacher provides questions at first) • Gather and consider evidence using the tools of science • Make explanations based on prior gain fact and ‘new’ knowledge gained through the process of enquiry / evidence gathering • Compare conclusions to currently scientific understanding and account for differences • Communicate and negotiate their findings and explanations with others

After the brainstorming session I jotted down as many of the words and phrases as I could during class. Light, wave, geothermal, heat, renewable, sun, plants, photosynthesis, comes from food, plants make it, atomic bombs, it keeps you moving, you are tired without it, it can change, there’s energy in batteries, joules, oil. Then I asked a series of questions designed to clarify facts that they needed to know (3A6 Energy, 3A7 Energy conversion: Junior Certificate Science Syllabus). From the answers it was clear to me that the students could not distinguish between forms of energy and sources of energy. Because the discussion section of the enquiry lesson plan is open-ended I was able to direct questions and highlight information on the board that students could use to ‘discover facts’.

I tried to give minimum guidance but I found that the students were floundering and unsure of what they were trying to accomplish. This was a recurring theme during the discovery lesson plans and it seems to me from my readings that this is the main detracting feature of enquiry instruction. Those who oppose constructivist / enquiry instruction such as Kisherner, Sweller and Clark (2006) argue that minimum guidance during instruction does not work and Clark (1989) goes further to suggest that his data shows that ‘lower aptitude students’ show a loss of learning on post instructional testing.

My Conclusion

It is essential that the teacher do research work, i.e., he should comb the subject of chemistry from end to end for facts and for methods of exposition that will make such facts live and real to his students. (Patrick, W. A. (1924) What kind of research is essential to good teaching? J. Chemical Education, Volume 1, Issue 1, p16.)

I have come to the conclusion that there is a need for direct teaching in the classroom in order to build up foundation of facts in long term memory to provide wellspring of knowledge which can be used to provide data when needed. Enquiry or discovery learning encourages the use of this knowledge
so that students can put facts together to think critically. Dewey supported inductive teaching as the way to improve scientific teaching for a better educated society and said science lessons should include learning the process of science not just the facts, (Dewey, 1903). By this I believe he meant that the two methods complement each other and need to be used in tandem. But direct teaching cannot be taken as an excuse for unimaginative lessons recycled every year with minimal input from the teacher needed in the delivery. If investigatory activities are designed deductively, ie have only one conclusion, need more here about factors to consider when designing lesson activities.

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