On a mission to improve science teaching and learning

| By Anna Crowe, Enviroschools Marlborough

As well as being the Witherlea School  science lead, Matt Robertson leads Enviroschools alongside his role as a classroom teacher. Following an in-depth internal review, the school’s leadership team and teachers made a commitment to re-energise and refresh science teaching at Witherlea. Matt was supported to participate in the Royal Society | Te Apārangi Science Teaching Leadership Programme in 2017.

He returned to school recharged  and enthusiastic, and undertook an extensive review of existing strengths and weaknesses, perspectives of students, parents and teachers, and the impact that science teaching was or was not having on students.  He used release time funded by the Royal Society | Te Apārangi to analyse the data and create a school Science Development Plan, which, following discussion, was adopted as part of the school’s strategic plan.

With the plan in place, Matt’s role moved to one of facilitating, promoting and modelling good science teaching practice at Witherlea.  His aim was to shift the focus of science teaching from content delivery to developing the science capabilities, to increase teachers’ confidence with teaching science, and to develop students’ ability to ‘think like a scientist’.

Students use their local ngahere/ bush for developing science capabilities. The fence mural represents aspects of their living world and what is important to Witherlea School.

Matt identified areas for targeted professional development with staff, created school ‘science resource kits’ and modelled activities using the kits.  He worked with teachers in the classroom, encouraging teachers to try new activities and ask the students lots of questions, allowing them plenty of thinking and talking time.  He introduced the concept of ‘science tables’ in each classroom, which were designed to encourage students to notice and observe the natural world, have discussions and ask questions.  He helped teachers identify ways to integrate science into other subject areas, and established a Science Club and Envirogroup to extend students with an interest in these areas.

Students are helped with identification of stream invertebrates after collecting samples.

Matt and Witherlea School have had support from Enviroschools Facilitator Anna Crowe (who has a strong science background) and  the Enviroschools Marlborough team. They have provided local opportunities for meaningful science learning, most notably through promotion of student-led school ‘bioblitzes’.  They ran a regional bioblitz at a local river reserve in March 2019, which was attended by 15 schools and a number of local and national experts.  As well as modelling how a bioblitz works, the event focused on upskilling and empowering students to take their new knowledge back to their schools, and run their own school ‘mini-bioblitz’ events.  A number of schools took up the challenge, and at Witherlea School bioblitzes became a regular feature of school life.

Anna supported Matt and students to become conversant with the iNaturalist app and Matt regularly works with the students on how to enter a rigorous ‘observation’ into iNaturalist and the eBird app , both of which are used extensively by citizen scientists through to academic researchers.  While the process of taking part in a bioblitz clearly links with the Enviroschools Living Landscapes theme area, when paired with some skill development and use of technologies like the iNaturalist and eBird apps, it also ticks all of the boxes involved in the five science capabilities.  Most importantly, it’s a fun and engaging way for ākonga of all ages to observe and engage with the living world, while learning how to think like a scientist.

Other opportunities for science learning that were provided or supported by the Enviroschools team included support for students in the Science Club and/or Envirogroup that wanted to extend themselves and care for their living world through predator trapping and taking climate action.  Logistical support was given for both of these activities after the students identified them as areas of interest.  The Kids’ Edible Gardens programme provides ongoing opportunities for everyday science learning through regular hands on gardening activities plus a recent revamp of the school compost system.  Anna works with students each year to help them ‘think like freshwater scientists’, with stream studies and wider learning about stream health included in Year 4 and Year 6 camp activities.

Students are encouraged to be observant. Spending time in the local stream has empowering students to develop and share their science knowledge.

The Marlborough Enviroschools team have also developed regional resource kits based on the Enviroschools Living Landscapes, Zero Waste and Water of Life Theme Area activities.  All of these kits have been used by Witherlea School, but the Living Landscapes kit has been used most frequently, supporting tamariki to explore and investigate biodiversity in the school forest area.  This kit contains identification guides for plants, insects, birds and more, as well as the tools to help students find them: white trays, magnifying glasses and bug-viewers. There are also activity ideas such as plant bingo.  The team facilitated sessions for teachers on the Living Landscapes theme area activities, and gave them practical ideas and examples for incorporating Māori perspectives and mātauranga Māori into environmental education and science of the living world.

“Our kits have really helped make activities from the Theme Areas more accessible to teachers.  They reduce time spent printing, photocopying and cutting out resources, and the need to hunt for equipment and props. The arrival of a kit in the classroom creates a bit of a buzz: the students want to know what is inside and what they will be doing!” – Anna Crowe, Enviroschools Facilitator

Ongoing monitoring suggests that the changes made via the Science Development Plan have led to some amazing outcomes at the school.  Particularly rewarding is that teachers now recognise that they don’t have to know all of the theory before initiating a science lesson; rather, they have learnt to rely more on the students’ own wonderings, ideas and research.  This has resulted in science being taught more often, and being more regularly integrated into literacy learning.

“In a science class, the focus is now directed to facilitating students’ curiosity and their desire to explore the world around them.  What has helped with recent changes is that science can be a one-off lesson, a teachable moment, a walk around our school or local area.  Delving into the Enviroschools online resources is accessible and easy and science as a topic now doesn’t always have to be related to a theme or 6-week unit. Teachers are more confident and less fearful when teaching Science.  Drawing on local expertise; coming into school or joining us on trips and camps heightens levels of engagement of both students and teachers alike. These have been motivating factors for teachers to become more engaged.” – Matt Robertson

Students gather to ask for climate justice.

It has been satisfying for the Enviroschools Marlborough team to walk alongside Matt and Witherlea School as they have planned, developed and reflected in this area.  Seeing how a focused event, such as the  2019 Marlborough regional bioblitz, can empower students and teachers to run with the concept at schools across the region was hugely inspiring.  Although perhaps less dramatic, it has also been gratifying to see the impact that longer-term programmes like the Kids’ Edible Gardens and Freshwater Education programmes have had over time, as they provide relevant local science opportunities to a new cohort of students each year.

“I think the most powerful benefit of the bioblitz event came in the following months as the students took the concept and their new skills back to their schools and planned and ran their own mini-bioblitz events.  The students were empowered: they organised rosters, planned which parts of the school grounds would be sampled by different groups, ran staff-meetings for their teachers so that they could prepare students, connected with experts and organised equipment.  Our Living Landscapes kit was in hot demand!” – Anna Crowe, Enviroschools Facilitator

Matt’s Royal Society funded work with Witherlea has been showcased along with other selected case studies. This ERO report: Growing Curiosity Teaching Strategies to Engage Year 5 to 11 Students in Science concludes that, in primary schools, key influences that contributed to improved outcomes in science were:

  • A planned approach to strengthen students’ engagement in science
  • Targeting external and in-school professional learning and development
  • Increasing the breadth of science experiences offered
  • Collecting and using a variety of information for planning and evaluation