Upper primary school students’ scientific and socio-scientific thinking: a case study investigating epistemic challenges in year-six inquiry science lessons

David Ashe

PhD thesis, conferred 2015

Science education in schools has moved from the learning of scientific facts to investigating the impact that science has on students’ lives; providing students with an understanding of how they relate to, and affect, their environment. This shift is evident in many countries’ curricula (e.g. Australian National Curriculum). One example of this is the requirement for students to consider issues related to ‘sustainability’; to consider scientific facts and to consider themselves as both part of the problem and part of the solution. Socio-scientific issues are ill-structured; that is, they may have many viable alternative solutions and it can be difficult to know when a satisfactory solution has been reached. Solving socio-scientific problems involves the use of knowledge learnt in different contexts, including scientific knowledge and experiential knowledge.

This study seeks to gain a better understanding of how and when year 6 primary school students (aged 10 to 12 years) activate prior knowledge while considering sustainability issues. The study sought to vary the context in which students were set sustainability problems. Using a ‘knowledge in pieces’ theoretical framework, which attunes to changes in context, the study investigates conditions that may promote appropriate knowledge activations. Based on a case study methodology, the research employs epistemic interviewing techniques coupled with close participant observations to gain a better, more nuanced understanding of the processes involved when year-six primary school students consider issues about sustainability. The thesis reports on three empirical episodes during which different aspects of context were varied; the problem context, the knowledge context and the physical context. Data was analysed using inductive thematic analysis and the results were considered alongside existing pedagogical approaches.

The results showed that the variation of all three contextual elements led to variations in the manner in which the students solved the sustainability problems. It was observed that epistemic prompts helped the participants to make progress towards viable solutions. These epistemic prompts came from the facilitator of learning, from other students, and from the activities in which the students were engaged. When embarking on a learning program that involves socio-scientific issues, facilitators of learning can benefit from recognising that the nature of these issues will require students to integrate both taught knowledge and everyday experiences. Students may activate conflicting knowledge resources that lead to confusing results. It is at these points that epistemic challenges (challenging the students to consider their knowledge and to justify that knowledge) can prove beneficial in helping the students sort out their own solutions to these complex issues.

Supervisor: Associate Professor Lina Markauskaite