Teaching skills, not facts
In this term’s CLIL Corner, Maria Toth suggests a four-stage model designed to help pupils acquire and develop important ‘process skills’ and provide them with the language to express themselves in English.
Teaching science is not about teaching facts but skills to help children discover the facts for themselves. The job of the CLIL science teacher teaching English is to set up a supportive learning environment in which the pupils feel confident about what they are doing and are motivated to explore topics despite the struggle some may have with the language itself.
Teaching science involves the acquisition of science concepts and the use of physical and mental skills, often known as process skills, to generate and test ideas through observation, prediction, hypothesis, contrast and interpretation. Providing multiple opportunities to experience process skills is key to guiding pupils to extrapolate general principles that can then be applied to new areas of knowledge.
Process skills cannot be taught. It is the learner who makes the ideas his or her own in order for understanding to occur. This is what can be called learning with understanding, as opposed to the simple memorisation of facts.
How can we integrate experiencing process skills in our science teaching? When pupils come to class, they arrive with lots of strongly formed ideas about how the world works. The task of the teacher is to activate pupils’ previous knowledge and use it as a starting point to help elaborate and organize new information, leading to meaningful and effective learning and teaching.
In the introduction to a topic or the elicitation stage, the pupils can be encouraged to express what they already know and help them make connections between this and the new ideas. For pupils who already read, this can be done by asking them to read sentences about the topic, deciding whether they are true or false and then placing the sentences in an appropriate True / False / I’m not sure circle on the board. For younger learners, you can give out speech bubbles with the words Yes / No / I don’t know. Read out short sentences about the topic area and ask them to hold up the speech bubble to show whether they think the information is correct, incorrect or they are not sure. Beginning a topic with a key question such as 'Why are bones important?' or 'What do plants need to grow?' also works well. Both approaches will help you assess how much they already know or allow for any misconceptions to come to light.
During the exploration stage, the pupils go on to explore the topic further through explanations using visuals such as posters, film and diagrams, during which the pupils analyse evidence for why certain things happen. You may then wish to pose further questions, eg 'What happens when plants don’t have water?' or you may even guide the pupils to asking further questions themselves. Getting pupils to predict ('I think this will happen if / when …') or make hypotheses ('I think this will happen because…') is a good way to lead into the experimental stage in which the pupils experience finding something out for themselves.
During the experimental stage, the pupils should develop their own explanations for why certain phenomena happen. This may involve collecting evidence through observing or measuring or testing ideas, such as drawing the growth of a plant at different time intervals or looking at the concept of evaporation in relation to the water cycle. If there is a shortage of appropriate equipment in your class to carry out a hands-on experimental phase, the Internet may provide useful sites for pupils to explore concepts in a more practical, hands-on way.
Observation is key at this stage. Pupils should be encouraged to use all the senses and ask themselves 'What can I see, feel, hear, smell, taste?' Magnifying glasses, feely boxes, listening boxes and guessing games are all good way to do this.
Once the pupils have observed, compared and tested something, they go on to an explanation stage by using their recorded findings to then re-explore or describe or negotiate common explanations for phenomena observed. They could ask themselves 'What have I found out?' or 'Was it what I expected?' The final stage is to summarise what the class have found and for the pupils to reflect on their own ideas and draw their own conclusions in order to lead to understanding. Pupils can also be encouraged to apply knowledge to new situations or real-life problems.
When teaching science, the aim should not be to teach facts but help children to find out the facts for themselves. In the CLIL classroom we need to scaffold the language to help them do this and make sure they have the opportunities to use it on a regular basis. Teachers should start by aiming to use a limited amount of classroom language such as 'Why are they different?' or 'What can you see?' and gradually increase the complexity as the pupils show confidence in understanding and responding. As in their regular language class, children readily become accustomed to this type of language as it is highly contextualised and therefore easier to understand. By providing language frameworks, a variety of hands-on activities and real opportunities for communicating ideas in a safe environment, we will hopefully equip our pupils with analytical skills they can work with comfortably in another language.
Maria Toth is the Head of Macmillan Teacher Training. She is also the co-author of Minibus, Bugs and Bugs World (all Macmillan ELT).