The 'Science as a whole' methodology in more detail
The Go-Lab project - The Big Ideas of Science
The foundations of the 'Science as a whole' methodology presented in the POLAR STAR project were laid eight years ago during the Go-Lab project. At the time, the aim was to develop an interdisciplinary set of core science concepts that would help teachers approach science disciplines in a more interdisciplinary way. During the Go-Lab project our team developed a set of eight interdisciplinary core concepts which is called the Big Ideas of Science. That set was designed by reviewing other similar sets of idea from the bibliography. Our Big Ideas of Science were validated and revised by 352 teachers from different European countries (find more information here). The Big Ideas of Science are a set of cross-cutting scientific concepts that describe the world around us and allow us to conceive the connection between different concepts and natural phenomena. They act as the knowledge structure which teachers and students can use as a reference point to establish underlying connections between facts and phenomena coming from different science disciplines (whose connection may not be necessarily apparent to students at first). During our validation workshops, it became evident that teachers wanted to use the Big Ideas of Science in their class and that the concept of having such a reference system was appealing to them. Thus, our team designed the PLATON project to continue working on this methodology for interdisciplinary learning that had been born during the Go-Lab project.
The PLATON project - The 3D Interdisciplinary map of science ideas
During the PLATON project, our team made two significant developments. The first had to do with ensuring that students can be presented with the Big Ideas of Science from a young age. The original set of ideas is aimed for older students. It is the set of core ideas students are expected to know about by the time they complete their school education. However, to ensure that students truly understand the Big Ideas of Science, it is imperative that they use them as a reference system from a younger age. To that end, during the PLATON project, we designed two additional versions for each Big Idea for students of younger ages (for ages 9-12 and 12-15).
The second development was related to bringing the Big Ideas of Science in class not as an arbitrary reference system but closely related to science curricula. Through our work with teachers we found that a bridge was missing between these broad and relatively abstract core concepts and the smaller concepts students learn in detail during science classes. To that end, our team designed what we teasingly call a 'curriculum-proof curriculum'. We call it that because as it encompasses all the basic science ideas students are taught over their school year organized in an interdisciplinary way. It is 'immune' to curriculum changes, it can be used with students of all ages and in schools of countries with different approaches to science education. Our curriculum-proof curriculum was the second major upgrade of our methodology at the time, and it is the 3D ‘Interdisciplinary map of Science Ideas’. This 3D Map essentially breaks down the eight Big Ideas of Science to 21 smaller ideas, which we call Intermediate Ideas and these Intermediate Ideas are then broken into 86 smaller ones which we then called "Small Ideas of Science" and we now call "Basic Ideas of Science". These Intermediate and Basic Ideas were produced by reviewing the curricula of six European countries (Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and United Kingdom) and were heavily based on the Next Generation Science Standards used in the United States. The 3D ‘Interdisciplinary map of Science Ideas’ is based on the concept of the Big Ideas of Science and aims to act as an organization scheme for concepts and principles that goes beyond traditional curriculum organization and allows students to identify the connections between what they learn in different disciplines as well as to everyday life. This map can help teachers introduce any given stand-alone subject using an interdisciplinary approach as well as make connections to subjects that are also discussed in other disciplines in collaboration with other teachers. It is our experience so far that teachers tend to find many more connections between topics than those suggested, as these are just a starting point to each teacher's discovery.
The POLAR STAR project - Science as a whole
In POLAR STAR we continue the development of this methodology and we take it one more step further. By the end of the PLATON project, the 3D map produced gave to teachers the meaningful structure they needed to help their students learn science concepts within a concrete framework and through meaningful pathways of knowledge as well as help them focus on the more fundamental core concepts of science. But still, our map only gave to students the basic information about each concept and the connections to the Big Ideas of Science (the bigger Picture). During the PLATON implementation, we discovered that what was still missing was an additional part to our methodology that would facilitate deeper learning processes, help increase students' knowledge retention and help them picture concepts within different contexts. In POLAR STAR we address these needs by adding to our methodology components that allow teachers to tackle these issues using a very simple process.
Overall, all the work done by our team over the years is now presented to you as the 'Science as a whole' methodology and it is a methodology that helps teachers address effectively, and with simple tools, two very important questions which are discussed below.
Students often feel overwhelmed with the number of things they have to learn during science classes at school, and they can't seem to be able to find any added value to what they are learning. As a teacher, surely, you'd agree that it is not very unusual to spend a long time teaching your students certain concepts and principles only to find out that soon after they have completely forgotten what you had been talking to them about. Questions like 'Who cares?' or 'Why do I have to learn this?' are often found on the lips of students, causing disappointment and frustration to their teachers. These circumstances and students' resentment towards science classes have multiple implications not only in the short term but also in the long term. Students' failing interest in science classes leads to less youngsters following scientific careers and less scientifically literate young citizens. This failing interest, stems from the fact that students don't find meaning in what they learn during science classes, they don't feel inspired or intrigued and they can't seem to be able to find connections between what they learn in school and the world out there. All this sullen situation, leads to two important questions: What is really important to teach? | How do we increase students' knowledge retention?
Both these questions are closely related to a problem many teachers around the world face: Overloaded curricula. The number of concepts to teach is so great, that inevitably leads us to wonder what is really important for students to learn and what could potentially be left out. In addition, it looks inevitable that students will likely forget most of what they learn, as they are asked to learn (memorise) a great deal of information in a relatively short time.
What is really important to teach?
So, when thinking about the science curricula of different grades, how do we distil what is really important? Among all the concepts students are taught over their school life, which are the core concepts that constitute the foundations of how the world works (isn't that one of the main reasons why we teach science in schools)? Do these core principles receive the attention they deserve? Is there enough time allocated to their communication? To what depth are they taught and in how much detail should the students know them? Even if students are taught these concepts, would they be able to understand that these are the core concepts and why they are so important?
The POLAR STAR team has been working for many years on these very same questions aiming to give concrete answers. From our research, it is evident that what teachers could really use, is a set of core ideas of science which to their total describe how the world works in a nutshell. The fundamental nature of these core concepts is such that they naturally appear in science curricula, regardless the possible changes in school curricula over the years, or the different curricula of different grades. Thus, they can be used as a reference system by teachers, one they can always use in class, no matter what they teach their students, to make connections and give them the bigger picture.
A small reflection activity for teachers: Think about science education and all the concepts and principles students learn throughout their school life. Which are the core concepts students should definitely know about upon finishing their school education? What are the core science concepts every educated person should be aware of? If you as a teacher could choose those core science concepts what would you choose? (Tip1: Don't focus on your discipline, think about all science disciplines. Tip2: Here we are focusing on curriculum. So think about core concepts of science and not about science (like the added value of science in our life or the ethical extensions of science research).
How do we increase students' knowledge retention?
Retention is all about being able to remember things. Knowledge retention involves the process of being able to recall knowledge and use it within different contexts. It is closely linked to processes for deepening students' learning. Let's start by focusing on the simplest part of the question: How can we increase someone’s ability to remember things? How can we help our students move what they learn from their working memory to their long-term memory? Are there any ‘tricks’ we can deploy to help our students do this?
Now let's think about the main problem: How can we use these 'memory tricks' in a meaningful educational context? Again, before offering our ideas to you, let’s do a second reflection activity!
Do you have any tricks to help you remember certain things you find important? Think about your most vivid childhood memories. What is it that made those memories stick around? Think about the last piece of new scientific knowledge that you acquired and still remember, why did that stick to your memory? Based on the answers you gave in these three questions; do you have any ideas about how to increase your students' knowledge retention?
The two questions discussed above, What is really important to teach? and How do we increase students' knowledge retention? are closely linked. When it comes to curriculum content, it is imperative for a teacher to be able to prioritize and identify the gravity of each concept taught and where it fits in the bigger picture (our world). Teachers need to be able to discern between the fundamental concepts that require more attention and others that could be viewed as secondary. In other words, a teacher needs to be able to tell what is really important for students to learn and what 'they could live without'. Knowing what is really important to teach will also indicate when a teacher should focus more on increasing students' knowledge retention. If every single piece of knowledge is addressed with equal priority than 'what is really important' will no longer stand out or be treated with the attention it requires. In POLAR STAR, our answer to the question 'What is really important to teach' (as far as science education is concerned) is what we call 'The Big Ideas of Science'. 'The Big Ideas of Science' is the set of core concepts discussed above. It is a set of cross-cutting science ideas that go beyond science disciplines and to their total, describe our world in a nutshell (see more below). Our answer to the question 'How do we increase students' knowledge retention?' is by giving multiple meanings to each concept, both related to natural phenomena and related to students lives. Thus, to address the two questions discussed above and improve the way science is taught in class, POLAR STAR offers three methods that are meant to be used jointly:
1. Keeping the bigger picture in mind
In POLAR STAR we view all science concepts taught to students not as standalone entities but as a part of a bigger meaningful knowledge structure, in which every concept has a certain place. That structure allows students to connect each concept taught to other related ones and most importantly connect it to bigger and wider concepts that encompass it. Through this knowledge structure, students are able to start from small standalone concepts and follow a knowledge path to bigger and more abstract concepts that always lead them to the core fundamental concept behind the starting concept. Every time students learn something new, before moving on to learn the next concept they can take some time to reflect on the concept at hand and try to find its place within that knowledge structure and identify the core concepts behind it. If that process is done systematically, and students keep going back to the same knowledge structure again and again, then surely in the end, the chances of them being able to recall the core concepts are much higher. Overall, this technique of always linking each concept to core concepts that encompass it, aims to increase the knowledge retention of students as far as core concepts are concerned through a systematic revision.
2. Present each concept within different contexts
Think about actors/actresses starring in movies. If we watch an actor starring only in comedy movies then we only know a bit about his/her talents. We are most likely to also consider that actor to be a bit 'one-dimensional' since we think comedies is all he/she can do. But we can't really tell how good that actor really is. If, however, we see the same actor in different movies; dramas, sci-fi, action movies etc. only then are we able to get a more complete idea of how talented that actor/actress is and begin to appreciate his/her work.
Following that analogy, each concept is not a standalone entity; it plays a role in multiple phenomena and it is related to other concepts taught in the same discipline or in other science disciplines. If students learn about a concept isolated from the related phenomena and other related concepts then students miss on the opportunity to truly understand the power of that concept. Thus, in POLAR STAR we give a lot of emphasis in linking each concept taught to a) other science concepts; b) related natural phenomena; c) Technology and Engineering achievements (contemporary and older) that this concept is related to. That way, students are offered with plenty of opportunities to understand the true role of each concept not only in the natural world but also in addressing the needs of societies throughout the eras. This way we aim to give the students a meaningful way of assessing the importance of each new concept they learn, give meaning and increase their appreciation of what they learn and ultimately increase their appreciation of science.
3. Personalized learning
Emotion is an important factor when it comes to storing memories. This is why students' memories and experiences are of great importance when it comes to effective learning. Linking what students learn to personal experiences and memories adds an emotional aspect to the learning process which could increase knowledge retention. With this in mind, we strongly believe that designing student-centred activities and assigning roles to students that are tailored to their personal learning styles and preferences is essential to increase students' ability to learn through experience and happy memories. However, such projects usually can be caried out only a handful of times throughout a school year. Thus, on top of school projects, links to memories and experiences also need to be done during every day lessons. Linking what is taught to personal experience can happen during different phases of the learning process. For example, it can be done during the part of introducing that concept to anchor the new subject to something already familiar to students or during the reflection phase.
Linking what is taught to personal experiences, many times also has another significant role. That of identifying misconceptions based on the misinterpretation of phenomena and experiences. By discussing students' personal experience connected to the subject at hand, teachers are in position to spot underlying misconceptions and correct them.
Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning can be done in many different ways. It can be done both during everyday classes and with hands-on project-based activities. For project-based activities, our team has developed the STEAM education methodology which can help you design effective projects. For everyday teaching our Science as Whole methodology offers you the rationale and tools to make your lessons more interdisciplinary. Even though the Science as a Whole methodology can be quite extensive and detailed, its application in class can be summed up into two simple activities: The knowledge hive and The knowledge map. These two activities can be done at the end of each chapter. They can be assigned as homework activities or in-class activities depending on time availability. Visit the Tools for students section to find out more about these activities.
Getting all the science teachers of a school on the same page and helping them synchronize their classes is also a very important aspect for successful interdisciplinary learning. Students can use the knowledge hive and the knowledge map for all science classes at the same time, provided that the teachers of the school are collaborating. Visit the Tools for teachers section to find out more about how you can work collaboratively with our colleagues in your school.
Science as a Whole Toolkit
We would like to give special thanks to our wonderful team of advisor teachers who helped us in the design of our methodology! The POLAR STAR would particularly like to thank Panagiota Argyri, Aikaterini Athanasoula, Panagiotis Kanychis, Sandra Lobo, Alessandro Martins, Marina Molla, Vasiliki Psaridou and Anita Simac for their feedback and valuable help.