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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > A different way of learning
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image image image Date published : 05/11/2001
  image A different way of learning
 
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  Holograms, the story of Newton, Cartesian divers, travelling exhibitions, web surfing… Teachers and educators are proposing new ways of teaching sciences, each with its own sensitivity, tools and cultural specificities. But they all place stress on the 'playful' or experimental approach in which pupils use their curiosity and intelligence to learn through practical experience.
   
     
   

There was a sense of excitement at a certain Portuguese secondary school. Pedro Pombo, the young physics researcher, had just arrived with his armoury of lasers, mirrors, lenses, photographic plate and anything else you might need to make a hologram. The material would remain available to the volunteers at the physics club throughout the year. After giving a brief talk, during which pupils received basic information and reference texts, Pedro was on his way, leaving behind the pupils, their teacher and the desire to make their own hologram - which is not easy. Throughout the year, these pupils, aged between 15 and 19, would have to conduct their own research. 'It is an open situation,' explains Pedro. 'They spend time thinking, obtaining results, making mistakes, and debating - essentially the activities of scientific research.'

Making a hologram

But such an approach is not a question of tinkering around until you manage to put something together. The constant interplay of practical experimentation, explanations and reference texts serves to progressively - and painlessly - instil an understanding of theoretical notions. 'It is a good way of teaching optics or geometry in a real context. The pupils realise that it is not so difficult to learn.' Tests carried out at the end of the year did indeed show that the pupils had acquired considerable theoretical knowledge in fields thought to be difficult. The project is now set to expand from the present seven participating schools to 24, with maths and art teachers also keen to participate. All aspects highlighted by the teachers are being studied: personal reflection, experimentation, the play angle, the link with the practical world - holograms are everywhere, on credit cards and on future euro notes. Even the social links are considered, as the pupils take their work home and discuss it with their parents.

Advocates of play

Thousands of kilometres away, in Slovakia, the young visitors to an exhibition are working with parallel tubes filled with coloured liquids containing natural elements. The surprise element is that the movements inside the tubes do not correspond to the way in which they are rotated. Indeed, they are surprising liquids and one of the most recent interactive demonstrations given by Scola Ludus (The School of Play). Based at the Department of Educational Sciences at Bratislava University, this foundation organises travelling exhibitions across the country aimed at all sections of the population, but which are proving very popular with secondary school pupils and teachers. Katarina Teplanova, director of the department and founder of the Scola Ludus, describes herself as a 'mother of two children, dissatisfied with secondary school, seeking something better for the pupils'. Visitors have access to experiments, objects, films and texts. They are helped by monitors - students at teacher training college - or by their own teacher, in the case of classes. 'In addition to the usual experiments proving physical laws, modern physics should include an introduction to concepts explaining the behaviour of complex systems,' explains Katarina. With her extensive experience of how play can be a useful approach to science, she has proved that such 'extra curricula' concepts are of interest to secondary school pupils and suitable for a classroom situation.

The physics of everyday life

Rafael Garcia Molina, physics teacher at the University of Murcia (Spain), prefers toys. Balls, toothpicks, straws, tin cans - just about anything can be used for physics. 'I became interested in the question of teaching when some secondary school teacher friends of mine told me that their pupils didn't like physics. So I gave seminars for the teachers, and then in schools, to show that the subject is not boring and that many articles in everyday use relate directly to it,' he explains. Most recently, he has been working with students aged 17 and 18, who were more than willing participants. Under his guidance, they built a kind of Cartesian diver controlled by pressure. The way to do it is to screw up a sheet of aluminium paper into a relatively compact ball and then place it in a bottle almost filled with water. If you press on the bottle sides the ball descends, then rises again when you release the pressure. 'When I asked them to explain how it works, they discussed it and very quickly arrived at the right answer, which involves the principles of Pascal and Archimedes.' Rafael also believes that pupils of all ages have a much better understanding of the underlying physical concepts of phenomena than one thinks, 'even if they do not express it using standard terminology.'

Experiments of the past…

But what can teachers do in class every day? School curricula include a number of notions which must be 'taught' whether or not play is involved. Nicolas Witkowski, professor of physics in Paris, chose to approach these subjects from the angle of the history of science. 'Whether it is XVIIth century society or recent history, Newton's inquiries, or front page news on GMOs, science must be seen in context. It is not something that just falls from the sky.'

In France, the movement of the planets is on the secondary school curriculum. At the age of 15 or 16 that can seem rather dry. 'What is the point of teaching Newton's law if you do not explain, by placing it in a historical perspective, how and why the phenomenon was studied?' asks Nicolas. This approach also avoids any jargon and premature modelling and can lead to some fascinating questions. 'Is it really irrelevant to know that Newton was an alchemist and that Kepler earned his living writing horoscopes. What motivated the thirst for knowledge at that time?'

And, rather than the usual classroom experiments, he suggests, why not repeat the major experiments of the past using the facilities available to the researchers at that time? For example, Franklin's experiment to measure the size of a molecule is suitable for a second-year class: a drop of oil is placed on water and it spreads, leaving only a layer of molecules. You must then measure the surface of the stain and calculate the actual length. But, to do that, you have to know the volume of the drop, which can be calibrated using a pipette. Then the stain is highlighted (by putting talcum powder on the water) and measured (using tracing paper). You have to be inventive. 'In the end, the pupil will have measured the molecule, and will know that it is not easy.'

… and the technologies of the future

No conference or report on science education can be complete without reference to information and communication technologies (ICT). Tools which Alain C., a maths teacher in a Paris secondary school, uses regularly: 'The internet is primarily a means of acquiring documentation and exchanging experiences with colleagues. I often visit the Café Pédagogique(1) for example where I find tools (support, software) for working on computers with pupils.' The main problem is actually selecting what to use and what not to use - which is also the case for the pupils, but with an additional risk: 'They also use it to find information for project work. But the problem with the internet is that you are often unfamiliar with the source of the information and you do not know how reliable it is. For many pupils, the very fact that it is on the web is enough to make them take it at face value.'

The revision and exercise software is particularly useful. But there is also the need to have a written record of what the pupil has studied, so that the teacher can check the progress made and correct any errors. John Leach, professor of education sciences at Leeds University, stresses the limitations of such aids. 'ICT are not a cure-all. They can boost the efficiency of certain methods of teaching, but cannot solve the fundamental problems of course content, pupil motivation and teacher recruitment,' he states. But the internet does allow teachers to find out about experimentation elsewhere and to take inspiration from them for their own work.

 

(1) Electronic newsletter reporting on the latest developments in teaching methods and a discussion forum which shows that many teachers build their own websites aimed at pupils, parents or other teachers, full of information, exercises, charts and software programmes.
www.cafepedagogique.net

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Science in the cradle…

'There's no doubt about it: young children like science. Just look at the success of museums, television programmes, experimentation programmes, for example. But they don't like school science.' Edgar Jenkins' views are echoed by experts and teachers. Interesting children in science is not a problem. Play, experimentation and discovery are the most natural things in the world for children, which is why it is so important not to inhibit their curiosity with an excessively formal approach. The Spanish physicist Rafael Garcia Molina, for example, introduced the notion of the centre of gravity to primary school pupils by showing them how to build an acrobatic bird able to balance on the tip of a finger placed under its beak. A few toothpicks, modelling clay for the ballast and coloured paper ('purely for decoration') are all it takes. The children quickly learned to discover the science present in many toys. 'I even noticed how my youngest daughter, who is three, develops a certain scientific intuition by playing with soap bubbles or a coloured spinning top,' he says.

But even in primary school there are exercises to be done, notions to be learned and tests to pass. This is why the BBC has launched an 'on-line school' offering children aged between four and 11 a whole variety of games and software to help them acquire these basic ideas. Ranging from matching the right 'house' to the right animal to discovering living conditions in Scotland during the Second World War (a spy game), it also includes a little maths revision to prepare them for the summer exams. Using the 'cartoon approach', the presentation has child appeal. There are also many associations which offer extra-curricular science activities based on experimentation, study or invention. It remains to be seen whether or not children introduced to science at an early age will retain that interest into adolescence.

 
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Science in the cradle…
On the web
Making holograms in a Portuguese secondary school.

Making holograms in a Portuguese secondary school.
An exercise in genuine scientific research which requires thought, experimentation, trial and error, and discussion.

 

The 'surprising liquids' presented by the Scola Ludus association (Slovakia).

The 'surprising liquids' presented by the Scola Ludus association (Slovakia).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rafael Garcia Molina

Rafael Garcia Molina, physics lecturer at the University of Murcia (Spain): balls, tin cans, simple toys… All kinds of things can be used in physics and to learn without getting bored.

 


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