Author: Joan Fontanella & Adrià Besalú
Science teaching over the years has been inseparably linked to a world of test tubes, microscopes, mixing chemicals and carrying out instructions in the sterile environment of the school laboratory. It is a subject which has been taught along very conservative lines, alternating between studying textbooks and taking pupils to the lab. Certainly there is a place for absorbing and testing theories, but for teachers who are willing to motivate their pupils through a more dynamic approach, we have found an alternative method that not only requires pupils to be more actively involved in their learning, but also favours the possibility of learning about the subject through a foreign language.
The pyramid method
Our idea is to encourage pupils to build their own scale models related to the topics they are studying in the syllabus and, in doing so, we can build in some language work at the same time. This is a method we first implemented in our school three years ago with our Year 5 pupils as an extra-curricular activity designed to motivate them and help them consolidate some essential science concepts. It is based on the pyramid show in the image. In order for the project to work well, this method requires a close relationship between the teacher, the pupils and their families. Pupils interact with other pupils (P-P), they interact at the same time with the teacher (P-T) and then at home with the family (P-F).
Pupils interact with the teacher (P-T)
This is the all-important input stage where the teacher sets up the activity and introduces the language. For example, when we were working on the circulatory system, we suggested that our pupils build a scale model of the heart. Here we should emphasise that we never told them to make the scale model following a specific method. Our objectives were to develop their imagination by giving them freedom over materials, size and complexity. We handed out pictures of the different parts of the heart and explained these in English, also suggesting materials they could use and giving them advice we thought might be useful.
Pupils interact with other pupils (P-P)
Pupils love sharing their ideas with their friends, which helps to develop their communicative skills. Thanks to the novelty value of the project, some even try to do this in English. When they have finished their models, each group gives a short presentation in English showing how they built their model, what materials they used and the help they received from parents and others. Our pupils were really enthusiastic about this. When we asked them to make a model of the central nervous system, they had already shown each other their projects and compared them before the lesson started. They had labelled their work in English and some even noticed little spelling mistakes which they were eager to correct.
Pupils interact with their family (P-F)
Many parents enjoy taking part in this type of activity. As well as the obvious practical help and expertise they can offer, such projects create a common focus for the whole family to participate in something together, which is rare in this day and age, with TV, the Internet, computer games and other largely solitary pursuits. Teachers should therefore try to persuade their pupils to involve their parents as much as possible, thus establishing a healthy family environment of help and cooperation.
Success in science
After many years of teaching science, we have found that pupils who learn in this way end up with a much firmer grasp of the concepts as well as the advantages gained from the extra language practice. While they are building their scale models they indirectly learn the vocabulary related to the topic, and the model itself provides a meaningful context which helps them to remember it. Being a voluntary assignment, we initially thought that many of our pupils might be reluctant to get involved, but we have been amazed at the amount of enthusiasm they have shown and the impressive work our pupils have produced. Our scale models are just a grain of sand in the vast desert called science, but hopefully they help teachers and pupils alike to approach the subject dynamically and imaginatively. Joan Fontanella and Adrià Besalú teach at Col.legi Bell-lloc del Pla, Girona.