Conceptual demand of practical work in science curricula:
A methodological approacha
Sílvia Ferreirab
Ana Maria Morais
Ins...
1. Introduction
Since the beginning of XIX century, with the integration of science disciplines in the curricula
of severa...
investigative and, most importantly, on its level of conceptual demand. The study also
analyses the extent to which the ME...
2. Theoretical framework
Theoretically the study makes use of theories and concepts of the areas of psychology and
sociolo...
In a more recent development of his theory, Bernstein (1999) presents the distinction
between horizontal and vertical disc...
distinction between specific aspects of pedagogic social contexts, introducing a dimension of
great rigor into research.
2...
departs from this perspective to follow the perspective described above and in doing so goes
deeper in the analysis.
Consi...
All teaching and learning activities in the sciences in which the student is actively involved
and that allow the mobiliza...
Students are not only expected to learn scientific knowledge but also to mobilize
science process skills whenever they are...
subjects. The whole text was segmented into units of analysis (excerpts) – Table 1. A unit of
analysis was considered as a...
discipline, were selected. The analysis of intra-disciplinary relations was centered on the
strength of the boundary betwe...
evaluation of practical work, five instruments were constructed, piloted and applied6. The
instruments were validated by t...
wide variety of related phenomena (Hickman, Roberts & Larson, 1995). Considering that the
hierarchical structure of scient...
recognition or recall. “The process of comprehension within the cognitive system [second
level] is responsible for transla...
Declarative knowledge, also referred to as substantive knowledge, corresponds to the
terms, facts, concepts and theories o...
this analysis is to appreciate the extent to which the MES makes explicit to teachers the
message relative not only to the...
it implicates the control of variables (degree 3). With regard to the how of the OPD, this unit
of analysis involves a rel...
were either ambiguous with respect to the characteristics under study or did not refer any
scientific knowledge and/or cog...
When the parts of the curriculum which refer specifically to the 10th and 11th years of
schooling are considered, the data...
the scientific knowledge to be the object of learning and assessment in practical work. When
the curriculum is taken as a ...
curriculum is taken as a whole, most units contain complex cognitive skills (degrees 3 and/or
4), corresponding to analysi...
Figure 6. Relation between theory and practice of practical work in Biology and Geology high school
curriculum considered ...
learning that is learning that is supported by the understanding and applying of science
processes knowledge.
The graph of...
focused on the Portuguese curricula of Biology and Geology for high school, the instruments
constructed and the concepts i...
analysed separately, this picture changes: Biology is the curricular subject with a general
higher level of conceptual dem...
several studies (e.g. Abrahams & Millar, 2008) point out to the existence of a separation
between theory and practice when...
the level of conceptual demand of the general guidelines when compared with the specific
guidelines for practical work. On...
work (evaluation criteria) is considered, the results indicate that, at the level of general
guidelines for each one of th...
construct the curriculum for each curricular subject. Each team of authors seemed to value
different dimensions of the wha...
conceptual demand of practical work of several international curricula and even of other
educational texts.
Notes
1 The ES...
work as a teaching and learning method in school science. International Journal of Science Education,
30(14), 1945-1969.
A...
Ferreira, S. (2013). Trabalho prático em Biologia e Geologia do ensino secundário: Análise das orientações
oficiais e das ...
Morais, A. M., & Neves, I. P. (2011). Educational texts and contexts that work: Discussing the optimization of a
model of ...
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Conceptual demand of practical work in science curricula

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The article addresses the issue of the level of complexity of practical work in science curricula and is focused on the discipline of Biology and Geology for high school. The level of complexity is seen in terms of the emphasis and types of practical work and, most important, in terms of its level of conceptual demand as given by the complexity of scientific knowledge, the degree of inter-relation between knowledges and the complexity of cognitive skills. The study also analyzes recontextualizing processes that may occur within the official recontextualizing field. The study is psychologically and sociologically grounded, particularly on Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic discourse. It uses a mixed methodology.

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Conceptual demand of practical work in science curricula

  1. 1. Conceptual demand of practical work in science curricula: A methodological approacha Sílvia Ferreirab Ana Maria Morais Institute of Education, University of Lisbon Abstract The article addresses the issue of the level of complexity of practical work in science curricula and is focused on the discipline of Biology and Geology for high school. The level of complexity is seen in terms of the emphasis and types of practical work and, most important, in terms of its level of conceptual demand as given by the complexity of scientific knowledge, the degree of inter-relation between knowledges and the complexity of cognitive skills. The study also analyzes recontextualizing processes that may occur within the official recontextualizing field. The study is psychologically and sociologically grounded, particularly on Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic discourse. It uses a mixed methodology. The results show that practical work is poorly represented in the curriculum, particularly in the case of laboratory work. The level of conceptual demand of practical work varies according to the text under analysis, between the two subjects Biology and Geology and, within each one of them, between general and specific guidelines. Aspects studied are not clearly explicated to curriculum receivers (teachers and textbooks authors). The meaning of these findings is discussed in the article. In methodological terms, the study explores assumptions used in the analysis of the level of conceptual demand and presents innovative instruments constructed for developing this analysis. Keywords: science education; practical work; conceptual demand; science curriculum a Revised personal version of the article published in: Research in Science Education, 44(1), 2014, DOI: 10.1007/s11165-013-9377-7. b Corresponding author, silviacrferreira@gmail.com. 1
  2. 2. 1. Introduction Since the beginning of XIX century, with the integration of science disciplines in the curricula of several countries, practical work, namely laboratory work, has assumed a huge importance in science education. Throughout the 1960s, major science curriculum projects - for example, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in the United States and the Nuffield in the United Kingdom - include laboratory activities as a fundamental part of the science curriculum (Lunetta, Hofstein & Clough, 2007). At the beginning of the XXI century, science curricula of various countries reaffirm the conviction that practical work in science education is central to the development of scientific literacy (Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004; Hofstein & Naaman, 2007). However, many research studies have emphasized the need of rethinking the role and practice of practical work, since, for example, students’ performance when doing the respective activities is usually not assessed (Hofstein & Lunetta, 2004; Lunetta et al., 2007). From this, it derives the importance of further studying practical work in science curricula. The main aim of this article is to divulge methods and concepts that may be used to appreciate practical work in science curricula. With this purpose, an exemplary study made with a Portuguese science curriculum is described. In the case of Portugal (a country with a centralised educational system), the curricular plan for high school contains science disciplines for those students who want to follow science careers. Among them is the biannual discipline of Biology and Geology (ages 16- - 17+) which is the focus of this study. The curriculum of this discipline considers the importance of practical work to a point that, in the academic year of 2007/2008, it was determined that formal moments of assessment should take place with a weight of 30% in the overall students evaluation of the discipline. It should be noted that likewise many Latin countries Biology and Geology, although epistemologically distinct, have traditionally been part of a same discipline (often but not always called Natural Sciences). Teachers’ training is also directed to both subjects as a discipline. The study presented in this article follows former research developed by the ESSA Group1 (e.g., Morais & Neves, 2011). It is part of a broader study that investigates questions related to the directions the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) gives to teachers for the transmission and evaluation contexts of practical work in the discipline of Biology and Geology and to the recontextualizing processes followed by teachers, by studying their conceptions and practices (Ferreira, 2013). The present article is focused on the analysis of the curriculum to explore the extent to which the MES guidelines go in the direction of raising the level of science education through their emphasis on practical work namely laboratory 2
  3. 3. investigative and, most importantly, on its level of conceptual demand. The study also analyses the extent to which the MES makes these characteristics explicit to the direct receivers of the curriculum that is to teachers and textbooks authors. Theoretically, the study is multidisciplinary, including sociological knowledge, and, in doing so, it goes further when compared with Duschl’s perspective (Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004), when he says that science education researchers, policymakers and instructional designers “need to look across the three Ps (psychology, philosophy, and pedagogy) for the design of inquiry science approaches that support both student learning and reasoning and teachers’ assessments of students learning and reasoning” (pp.413-414). In the particular case of the Portuguese current Biology and Geology high school discipline, and contrarily to the common procedure, Biology and Geology subjects are strongly classified within the discipline, that is they are separated by strong boundaries, recognized by the absence of common general guidelines for the two subjects and instead by the presence of general guidelines specific to each subject. The problem of the study became the following: What are the messages transmitted by the official pedagogic discourse (OPD) of the two subjects Biology and Geology, within the Biology and Geology high school discipline, with regard to the emphasis given to practical work and to its level of conceptual demand, and what is the extent to which recontextualizing processes do occur? From this problem the following research questions were derived: (a) What is the emphasis given to practical work, namely laboratory work, in each one of the two subjects and of the discipline as a whole? (b) What is the level of conceptual demand of practical work of each one of the two subjects and of the discipline as a whole?; (c) What are the recontextualizing processes that may have occurred between the messages of the general and the specific guidelines in the cases of both Biology and Geology?; and d) What is the extent to which the messages of the OPD contained in the Biology and Geology subjects are made explicit to curriculum receivers? On the basis of data obtained in this study a reflection will be made with regard to the two following aspects: (i) reasons that may account for possible differences between the two messages of Biology and Geology and (ii) extent to which differences found in the level of conceptual demand of practical work can be made accountable for possible differential teachers’ pedagogic practices and students’ scientific development. As stated before, a fundamental objective of this article is to highlight methods and concepts that may be used to appreciate the level of conceptual demand of practical work in science curricula. 3
  4. 4. 2. Theoretical framework Theoretically the study makes use of theories and concepts of the areas of psychology and sociology, particularly Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic discourse (1990, 2000). Current conceptualizations of science education, namely with respect to the implementation and evaluation of practical work, are also considered. 2.1. Bernstein´s theory According to Bernstein´s model of pedagogic discourse (1990, 2000), the curricula of a given discipline embodies the official pedagogic discourse (OPD), produced in the official recontextualizing field (in Portugal, the Ministry of Education and Science). This official text carries messages containing the principles and norms which constitute the general regulative discourse (GRD). The GRD is generated in the State field as a result of the influence of the international field, the economy field (physical resources) and the field of symbolic control (discursive resources)2. Specific pedagogic social contexts, namely the curriculum and the classroom, are defined by specific power and control relations between subjects (MES-teacher, teacherstudent and student-student), discourses (between disciplines and within a discipline), and spaces (teacher-student space and student-student space). It is possible to say that any context of pedagogical interaction represents a particular transmission and acquisition context, between a transmitter and an acquirer, with specific power and control relations. In this way, different modalities of pedagogic code, and consequently different modalities of pedagogic practice, may occur either more acquirer or more transmitter centred, with the extreme cases of progressive and traditional practices. In order to analyze power and control relations, Bernstein (1990, 2000) used, respectively, the concepts of classification and framing. Classification refers to the degree of maintenance of boundaries between subjects, discourses or spaces. The more distinct is separation between categories the stronger classification will be. Framing refers to the social relations between subjects, that is, to the communication between them. Considering the relation between MES (the official agent) and teachers (the pedagogical agents), which is the focus of the study presented in this article, hierarchical boundaries are well established – it is the official agent that has higher status in the relation, which means that there is a strong classification between them. Framing is strong when the categories with higher status (e.g. MES) have the control in the relation and is weak when the categories with lower status (e.g. teachers) have also some control in the relation. 4
  5. 5. In a more recent development of his theory, Bernstein (1999) presents the distinction between horizontal and vertical discourses. The horizontal discourse corresponds to a form of knowledge which is segmentally organized and differentiated and usually understood as the everyday or common sense knowledge. The vertical discourse, mentioned as school or official knowledge, presents the form of a coherent, explicit, hierarchically organized structure, as in the case of natural sciences, or the form of a series of parallel languages where development is achieved by the construction of a new language strongly classified from other former languages, as in the cases of sociology and education. Thus, the what to be learned, in the case of the sciences, corresponds to a vertical discourse with a hierarchical structure. The how to be learned corresponds to a vertical discourse with a horizontal structure. Bernstein’s theory has provided to our research a conceptual structure that is diagnostic, predictive, descriptive, explanatory, and transferable, broadening the relations studied and permitting conceptualization at a higher level, without losing a dialectical relation between the empirical and the theoretical. It is also characterized by a language of description that allows us to analyse, describe, compare and contrast events in different contexts. At the level of the curricular analysis, a broader investigation, that was carried out in Portugal, involved the analysis of the pedagogic discourse contained in the Portuguese Natural Sciences curriculum for middle school (e.g. Calado, Neves & Morais, 2013) and its results show that there are recontextualization processes that have occurred within the curriculum, when passing from the general to the specific guidelines, and which refer to the intra-disciplinarity between scientific knowledges and to the complexity of this knowledge, in the direction of decreasing the level of these characteristics. As a consequence, science teachers will receive two contradictory messages and, if they follow the specific guidelines, they may be led to devalue intra-disciplinarity and complex scientific knowledge in their pedagogic practices. In fact the results of the study of Alves and Morais (2012) showed a decrease in the quality of the teaching-learning process when teachers recontextualize curriculum into pedagogic practices. At this level of pedagogic practices, the studies done so far suggest a mixed pedagogic practice to lead students to success at school (e.g. Morais, Neves & Pires, 2004; Morais & Neves, 2011) in which there is, among other characteristics, a clear explication of the legitimate text to be acquired in the context of the classroom (strong framing of the evaluation criteria) and an inter-relation between the various kinds of knowledge of a discipline (weak classification of intra-disciplinarity). This mixed pedagogic practice was suggested by the language of description derived from Bernstein’s theory and enables the 5
  6. 6. distinction between specific aspects of pedagogic social contexts, introducing a dimension of great rigor into research. 2.2. Conceptual demand The curriculum, regardless its degree of centrality, contains a sociological message that results from the interaction of several factors and represents students learning which, if it is considered socially necessary in a particular time and context, must be assured and organized. The level of complexity of a curriculum can be appreciated by its level of conceptual demand. In the context of the research that has been carried out within Bernstein’s theory, the concept of conceptual demand was introduced by Domingos (1989a; 1989b) and at that time the concept was related to the complexity of scientific skills. A lower level of conceptual demand was related to skills that require a low level of abstraction (memorization and comprehension at a simple level). A higher level of conceptual demand implied skills that require a high level of abstraction (comprehension at a high level, analysis and knowledge utilization). Further studies (e.g. Morais, Neves & Pires, 2004) considered the complexity of both scientific skills and knowledge to characterize the level of conceptual demand. These studies, which were focused on classroom pedagogic practices, showed that pedagogic practice can overcome students’ social background when promoting science learning, particularly when developing complex cognitive skills and scientific knowledge. For that reason, the common procedure of lowering the level of conceptual demand in order that all children can succeed at school will add disadvantage to the disadvantaged. The concept of conceptual demand evolved to include three dimensions, the complexity of scientific knowledge and skills and also the strength of intra-disciplinary relations, that is the strength of boundaries between distinct knowledges within a given discipline (e.g. Calado, Neves & Morais, 2013). The inclusion of intra-disciplinary relations was related to the importance of this dimension to raise the level of scientific learning (Morais, Neves & Pires, 2004). This is the concept of conceptual demand that is used in this study. Conceptual demand of science education is defined as the level of complexity of science education as given by the complexity of scientific knowledge and of the strength of intra-disciplinary relations between distinct knowledges and also by the complexity of cognitive skills (Morais & Neves, 2012). It is important to note that a concept of conceptual demand was used in several international studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s, where it was associated with Piagetian development stages (e.g. Shayer & Adey, 1981). The present study 6
  7. 7. departs from this perspective to follow the perspective described above and in doing so goes deeper in the analysis. Considering Bernstein’s model of pedagogic discourse (1990, 2000), the conceptual demand of science education, with its three dimensions, includes aspects related to the what (skills and knowledges) and to the how (intra-disciplinary relations) of the pedagogic discourse. Also following Bernstein, the hierarchical structure of science knowledge requires from the students high levels of complexity and abstraction so that they can attain a meaningful understanding of that knowledge. That is to say that conceptual demand of science education should be high, and should be high for all students. For this reason conceptual demand of science education can be seen as essentially sociological (Morais, Neves & Pires, 2004). 2.3. Practical work According to several authors (e.g. Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004; Hodson, 1993; Hofstein & Lunetta, 2004; Lunetta et al., 2007), practical work performs an important role in the teaching and learning process in the sciences. Hodson (1993) considers practical work as a broad concept which includes any activity that requires students to be active. Millar, Maréchal e Tiberghien (1999) limit the definition presented by Hodson (1993) to consider that practical work is ‘all those kinds of learning activities in science which involve students at some point handling or observing real objects or materials (or direct representations of these, in a simulation or video-recording)’ (p.36). Unlike Hodson, these authors exclude from this definition activities such as debates and information research. In the same way, Lunetta, Hofstein and Clough (2007) give the following definition of practical work: ‘learning experiences in which students interact with materials or with secondary sources of data to observe and understand the natural world’ (p.394), for example, the observation of aerial photographs to examine lunar and earth geographic features’. The meaning of practical work in the present study is close to Hodson’s (1993) and follows the concept presented in the Biology and Geology Portuguese curriculum3, although it is made more precise in that considers that it must mobilise science processes skills. These skills were considered as ways of thinking more directly involved in scientific research, such as observing, formulating problems and hypotheses, controlling variables and predicting (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007). Thus, practical work is defined as: 7
  8. 8. All teaching and learning activities in the sciences in which the student is actively involved and that allow the mobilization of science processes skills and scientific knowledge and that may be materialized by paper and pencil activities or observing and/or manipulating materials. Various modalities of practical work are therefore possible and options will be directed by the objectives to be attained. There is not a consensus with regard to the character and purpose of the activities to be part of practical work. In this study the following types of practical work were considered: laboratory activity, simulation, application of knowledge to new situations, bibliographical research, guided discussion activity and field trip. The practical work, as a broad category that includes activities of a wide range, has been analyzed in many texts and contexts by several international studies. BouJaoude (2002) developed and used an analytical framework to investigate the balance of scientific literacy themes in the Lebanese science curriculum, and more specifically, to assess whether and to what extent practical work was addressed in that text. Results showed that the curriculum emphasizes the knowledge of science, the investigative nature of science, and the interaction of science, technology, and society, but neglects science as a way of knowing. While this last aspect appears clearly in the general objectives of science education, the more detailed the curriculum becomes the less evident is the emphasis given to this aspect. Later on (Abd-ElKhalick et al., 2004), the investigative nature of science was the subject of deeper analyses which indicated that the science curriculum lacked a coherent perspective regarding practical work. For instance, only a few general ideas about science process skills were presented in the introductions and objectives for each educational level. In relation to practical work enactment, Abrahams and Millar’s research (2008) has explored the effectiveness of practical work by analysing a sample of 25 science lessons involving specific practical tasks in eight English secondary schools. They concluded that the teachers’ focus in these practical lessons was mainly on the teaching of substantive scientific knowledge rather than on the procedures of scientific inquiry. The results also showed that practical work was generally effective at getting students to do what was intended with physical objects but less effective in getting them to use the intended scientific ideas and to reflect on the data and this was a consequence of the little time devoted to supporting the students´ development of ideas. Recent research has been focused on students’ epistemological understanding and argumentation skills. Katchevich, Hofstein and Naaman (2013) found that inquiry laboratorial activities have the potential to serve as an effective platform for formulating arguments because of the unique features of the learning environment (working in small groups). The arguments were focused on the hypothesis-building stage, analysis of the results, and drawing appropriate conclusions. 8
  9. 9. Students are not only expected to learn scientific knowledge but also to mobilize science process skills whenever they are doing investigative practical activities. It is important to discuss the nature and the role of practical work in science curricula, since, even if recontextualizing processes do occur, these are aspects that broadly guide textbook authors and teachers’ practices. Bernstein’s theory provides an internal language of description which allows analysis and discussion by using the same concepts across both monologic texts (e.g. curricula and textbooks) and dialogic texts (e.g. classroom practices). 3. Methodology This study made use of a mixed methodology (Creswell, 2003; Creswell & Clark, 2011; Morais & Neves, 2010). On the one hand, the study has a rationalist basis (a characteristic of quantitative approaches) in that it contains a referential theoretical framework which directed the construction of instruments for collecting data. On the other hand, the study has a naturalistic basis (a characteristic of qualitative approaches) when, for example, some indicators and descriptors of the instruments were defined on the basis of empirical data. In this way the analysis of the Biology and Geology curriculum for the 10th and 11th schooling years was made through a constant dialectics between the theoretical and the empirical where research models and instruments represented the external language of description and the theory represented the internal language of description (Bernstein, 2000). Also at the level of data analysis, were used qualitative methods (interpretative content analysis) and quantitative methods (percentage descriptions). 3.1. General aspects The analysis of the curriculum for Biology and Geology high school was focused on two official documents which contained directions for the teacher: 10th Biology and Geology discipline (DES, 2001) and 11th Biology and Geology discipline (DES, 2003). Although part of the same discipline and of the same curriculum, Biology and Geology are presented in the curriculum as two distinct subjects4, with strong boundaries between them. A text with general guidelines for the discipline as a whole is not made available. For that reason the two curricular subjects were analysed separately. Thus, six parts of the curriculum were considered: general part of Biology, Biology 10th, Biology 11th, general part of Geology, Geology 10th and Geology 11th. The study also considered the general and specific guidelines of the curriculum of the discipline as a whole, by grouping the results of both curricular 9
  10. 10. subjects. The whole text was segmented into units of analysis (excerpts) – Table 1. A unit of analysis was considered as an excerpt of the text containing one or more periods which together have a given semantic meaning (Gall, Gall & Borg, 2007). Table 1. Units of analysis defined for the different parts of the curriculum. Parts of the curriculum Number of units of analysis General part of Biology (Bg) General part of Geology (Gg) 67 General guidelines (GGd) 152 Specific guidelines (SGd) Biology 10th (B10) Biology 11th (B11) Geology 10th (G10) Geology 11th (G11) 73 132 212 140 601 105 Each unit of analysis was analyzed by the main researcher of the study (first author). To estimate the reliability and validity of the analysis and of the method used, a 20% random sample of units of analysis was analyzed independently by two other researchers familiarized with the theoretical framework (second author and a third researcher). A preliminary discrepancy of 13,6% in relation to the initial analysis was found. The three researchers discussed both differences encountered in the classification of units of analysis and changes that should be introduced in instruments, in a dialectical relation between the theoretical and the empirical. In a third moment of analysis, the first author revised all the analyses. Finally, in a fourth moment, the three researchers agreed with the classification of all units and with the final version of the instruments. The analysis of the Biology and Geology curriculum was centered on the instructional dimension of both the transmission/ acquisition context (discourse to be transmitted/ acquired) and the evaluation context of practical work. Although the whole curriculum was analyzed, the object of the study presented in this article is practical work (when it requires the mobilization of science process skills) and for that reason the units of analysis with a specific reference to practical work were the only ones considered. The OPD analysis was centered on dimensions related to the what and the how of practical work (figure 1). In the first case, the type of practical work and the complexity of scientific knowledge and scientific skills were selected for analysis. In the second case, the intra-disciplinary relations, that are the relations between the various knowledges within a discipline, in this particular case, between distinct knowledges within a given science 10
  11. 11. discipline, were selected. The analysis of intra-disciplinary relations was centered on the strength of the boundary between theory and practice. These are power relations which were characterized by using the concept of classification. The form how the OPD is explicated to teachers in the MES-teacher relation was also part of the analysis of the OPD message. The intention was to understand the extent to which the MES makes explicit to teachers the type of practical work and the knowledge and skills that are to be the object of learning and assessment in practical work5. These are control relations that were characterized by using the concept of framing. Figure 1. Diagram of dimensions, related to the what and the how of practical work, analyzed in the high school Biology and Geology curriculum. The level of conceptual demand of the science curriculum with respect to practical work in high school Biology and Geology, was then appreciated through the analysis of some dimensions of the what and of the how (figure 1). The former corresponds to the type of practical work and the level of complexity of scientific knowledge and cognitive skills and the latter corresponds to the strength of intra-disciplinary relations between theory and practice. 3.2. Instruments construction and application In order to characterise the message underlying each one of the units of analysis, and consequently the OPD transmitted by the curriculum, with regard to the transmission and 11
  12. 12. evaluation of practical work, five instruments were constructed, piloted and applied6. The instruments were validated by two other researchers. They were based on models/ instruments constructed in former studies for the analysis of science curricula (e.g. Calado, Neves & Morais, 2013). For each one of the aspects under study, the instruments were organized to contain the four main sections usually present in any syllabus: (a) Knowledge; (b) Aims; (c) Methodological Guidelines; and (d) Evaluation. Each unit of analysis was associated with one of these four sections and analyzed by using the various instruments constructed. These four main sections were considered as the indicators of the analysis. The instruments refer to the what of practical work, namely to the complexity of scientific knowledge and to the complexity of cognitive skills, and to the how of practical work, specifically to the level of intra-disciplinary relations and to the explicitness of practical work. The analysis of the type of practical work, a dimension also related to the what, did not require the construction of a specific instrument. The text that follows contains a brief description of the instruments constructed and how they were used, and it gives some examples to show how the analysis was made. 3.2.1. The what of practical work The instrument for the analysis of the what with regard to the complexity of scientific knowledge considered the distinction between facts, simple concepts, complex concepts and unifying themes/theories. A fact is “the data which results from observation” (Brandwein, Watson & Blackwood, 1958, p.111) and corresponds to a very concrete situation resulting from several observations. A concept is a “mental construct; it is a grouping of the common elements or attitudes shared by certain objects and events” (Brandwein et al., 1980, p.12) and represents an idea that arises from the combination of several facts or other concepts. The categorization of concepts results from a hierarchy between levels of abstraction and complexity, where the most abstract and most complex concepts are the unifying themes and theories. The simple concepts correspond to concrete concepts proposed by Cantu and Herron (1978) and are those that have a low level of abstraction, defining attributes and examples that are observable. The complex concepts correspond to abstract concepts proposed by Cantu and Herron (1978) and “are those that do not have perceptible instances or have relevant or defining attributes that are not perceptible” (p.135). Unifying themes are structural ideas and correspond, in science, to generalizations about the world that are accepted by scholars in each subject area (Pella & Voelker, 1968). Scientific theories correspond to explanations of a 12
  13. 13. wide variety of related phenomena (Hickman, Roberts & Larson, 1995). Considering that the hierarchical structure of scientific knowledge is characterized by integrating propositions that operate at increasing levels of abstraction, theory development requires a new theory that is more general and more inclusive than the previous theory (Bernstein, 1999). This instrument includes the four sections of any curriculum (knowledge, aims, methodological guidelines and evaluation) and each section contains descriptors corresponding to four degrees of complexity of scientific knowledge, that were defined on the basis of the monologic character of the curricular documents. Degree 1 corresponds to facts; degree 2 corresponds to simple concepts; degree 3 corresponds to complex concepts; and degree 4 corresponds to unifying themes and theories. Thus, this dimension of the what is not related to the nature of scientific matters to be learned, but to the conceptual level of these matters. Table 2 presents an excerpt of this instrument, for the ‘methodological guidelines’ curriculum section, and examples of units of analysis which illustrate different degrees of complexity, where the last degree if reached may lead students to understand the hierarchical structure of scientific knowledge. Table 2. Excerpt of the instrument to characterize the complexity of scientific knowledge. Section Degree 1 Methodological Strategies/ guidelines methodologies that call for mobilizing scientific knowledge of low level of complexity, as facts. Degree 2 Degree 3 Degree 4 Strategies/ methodologies that call for mobilizing scientific knowledge of level of complexity greater than degree 1, as simple concepts. Strategies/ methodologies that call for mobilizing scientific knowledge of level of complexity greater than degree 2, as complex concepts. Strategies/ methodologies that call for mobilizing scientific knowledge of very high level of complexity, as unifying themes and theories. Units of analysis Degree 1: “Search for information on the internet, in newspapers and magazines about the consequences of such situations [human occupation of floodplains and coastal zones, and construction in slope zones] for populations.” (Geology, 11th, p.28). Degree 2: “Create models and simulate in the lab situations of landslides, and identify factors that lead to their occurrence. […]” (Geology 10th, p.48). Degree 3: “The research, discussion and systematization of data, relative to the processes of chemosynthesis, is recommended.” (Biology 10th, p.81). Degree 4: “The study of models that explain the emergence of unicellular eukaryotes organisms and the origin of multicellularity can be made through the interpretation of images, including also discussion activities, schematization and systematization of information. […]” (Biology 11th, p.12). The instrument to analyze the complexity of cognitive skills was based on the taxonomy created by Marzano and Kendall (2007, 2008) which considered four levels for the cognitive system. Retrieval, the first level of the cognitive system, involves the activation and transfer of knowledge from permanent memory to working memory and it is either a matter of 13
  14. 14. recognition or recall. “The process of comprehension within the cognitive system [second level] is responsible for translating knowledge into a form appropriate for storage in permanent memory” (2007, p.40). The third level, analysis, involves the production of new information that the individual can elaborate on the basis of the knowledge s/he has comprehended. The fourth and more complex level of the cognitive system implies the knowledge utilization in concrete situations. Table 3 presents an excerpt of this instrument, for the ‘aims’ curriculum section, and examples of units of analysis which illustrate different degrees of complexity. Table 3. Excerpt of the instrument to characterize the complexity of cognitive skills. Section Degree 1 Aims Cognitive skills of low level of complexity, involving cognitive processes of retrieval, are mentioned. Degree 2 Degree 3 Degree 4 Cognitive skills of level Cognitive skills of level Cognitive skills of very of complexity greater than of complexity greater than high level of complexity, degree 1, involving degree 2, involving involving cognitive cognitive processes of cognitive processes of processes of knowledge comprehension, are analysis, are mentioned. utilization, are mentioned. mentioned. Units of analysis Degree 1: No units of analysis were found. Degree 2: “Interpret, schematize and/or describe images of mitosis in animal and plant cells, identifying cellular events and reconstituting its sequence.” (Biology 11th, p.6). Degree 3: “Classify rocks on the basis of genetic and textural criteria.” (Geology 11th, p.17). Degree 4: “Use autonomously bibliographical resources – searching, organizing and processing information.” (Geology 10th, p.25). 3.2.2. The how of practical work With regard to the analysis of the how, at the level of intra-disciplinary relations (relations between knowledge of the same discipline), an instrument was constructed to analyse the relation between theory and practice. This instrument contained a four degree scale of classification (C- -, C-, C+, C+ +). The empirical definition of the scale was based on Bernstein’s concept of classification (1990, 2000), to indicate the strength of boundaries between various types of knowledge. The weakest classification (C---) corresponds to an integration of theory and practice, where both have equal status, and the highest classification (C++) corresponds to a separation between theory and practice. The descriptors to each section translate the relation between theory and practice that is the relation between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. 14
  15. 15. Declarative knowledge, also referred to as substantive knowledge, corresponds to the terms, facts, concepts and theories of a given subject matter (Anderson et al, 2001; Marzano & Kendall, 2007; Roberts, Gott & Glaesser, 2010). Procedural knowledge refers not only to the knowledge of how to do something, of techniques and specific methods of a discipline, but also to the knowledge of scientific processes. In the discipline of Biology and Geology, the procedural knowledge involves, for example, knowledge of how to formulate a hypothesis and knowledge of what a hypothesis is. In a larger research program concerned with the role of procedural knowledge in investigative work and its relation to declarative knowledge, “the term procedural understanding has been used to describe the understanding of ideas about evidence, which underpin an understanding of how to proceed” (Roberts et al., 2010, p.379). Table 4 presents an excerpt of this instrument, for the ‘methodological guidelines’ curriculum section. This is followed by examples of units of analysis which illustrate different levels of classification. Table 4. Excerpt of the instrument to characterize the relation between theory (declarative knowledge) and practice (procedural knowledge). Section C++ C+ C- C- - Methodological guidelines The suggested strategy/ methodology focus on declarative scientific knowledge only or on procedural scientific knowledge only. The suggested strategy/ methodology focus on declarative scientific knowledge and on procedural scientific knowledge, but do not make the relation between them. The suggested strategy/ methodology focus on the relation between declarative and procedural scientific knowledge, being given higher status to declarative scientific knowledge in the relation. The suggested strategy/ methodology focus on the relation between declarative and procedural scientific knowledge, being given equal status to these two types of knowledge in the relation. Units of analysis C++: “Use ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) to support search for information, data processing, construction of dynamic models and communication. […]” (Geology, general part, p.13). + C : No units of analysis were found. C- : “Carry out field observations at nearby locations, identifying geological risk situations, possible influence of human activities and preventive measures taken […]. Value the importance of preserving the natural environment.” (Geology 10th, p.48) C- -: “In order to solve the problem “What happens to the dynamics of an ecosystem when that ecosystem is subjected to change?”, a field trip in articulation with classroom/ laboratory activities, to be made before and after the field trip, is suggested. As object(s) of study, real environments are suggested, located, as far as possible, near to the school […].” (Biology 10th, p.79). In order to appreciate the extent to which the Ministry of Education and Science makes explicit to teachers (MES-teacher relation) the level of conceptual demand required by the curriculum, Bernstein’s concept of evaluation criteria was used in the analysis. The aim of 15
  16. 16. this analysis is to appreciate the extent to which the MES makes explicit to teachers the message relative not only to the type of practical work but also to the level of knowledge and skills to be involved in the teaching-learning and evaluation contexts of practical work. This is a control relation that is characterised by using Bernstein’s concept of framing (1990, 2000), in a four degree scale where the lowest framing (F- -) indicates a situation where the MES leaves criteria implicit and the highest framing (F++) indicates that the MES makes criteria very explicit. Table 5 presents an excerpt of this instrument, for the ‘aims’ curriculum section, and examples of units of analysis. Table 5. Excerpt of the instrument to characterize the explicitness of practical work Section F++ F+ F- Aims The type of practical work, the scientific knowledge and the cognitive skills to be explored in the practical activity are explicitly mentioned. The scientific knowledge and the cognitive skills to be explored in the practical activity are explicitly mentioned. The type of practical work is not mentioned. F- - The type of practical The scientific knowledge and/or work and the scientific the cognitive skills to be knowledge and/or the explored in the practical activity cognitive skills to be are generically mentioned. The explored in the practical type of practical work is not activity are generically mentioned. mentioned. Or The type of practical work is generically mentioned, but the scientific knowledge and/or the cognitive skills to be explored in the practical activity are not mentioned. Units of analysis F++: “Carry out field observations relative to the possible damage that may have been caused by geological phenomena in nearby areas.” (Geology 10th, p.38) + F : “Analyzing and interpreting data focused on replication, transcription and translation mechanisms and that may be presented under different forms (tables, schemas, etc.),.” (Biology 11th, p.5). F : “Identify living things on the basis of data obtained with the help of laboratory instruments and/or bibliographical research.” (Biology 10th, p.78). F- -: “Observing and interpreting data.” (Geology 11th, p.18). In order to clarify how the same unit of analysis was classified in the study in terms of the dimensions related to the what and the how of practical work, an illustrative example of the analysis that was made is presented. This example highlights the interpretative content analysis carried out when doing the curricular analysis. “Setting experimental devices with simple aerobic facultative living beings (e.g. Saccharomyces cerevisae) in nutritive media (e.g. “bread dough”, grape juice, aqueous solution of glucose…) with different degrees of aerobiosis. Identification with the students of the variables to be controled and the indicators of the process under study (e.g. presence/ absence of ethanol).” (Biology 10th, p.85) With regard to the what of the OPD, this unit is focused on a laboratory activity, which appeals to simple concepts, related to glucose degradation in the presence and in the absence of oxygen (degree 2), and to cognitive skills involving the cognitive process of analysis, since 16
  17. 17. it implicates the control of variables (degree 3). With regard to the how of the OPD, this unit of analysis involves a relation between declarative and procedural scientific knowledge, where equal status is given to these two types of knowledge (C- -). Through this unit the MES makes very explicit to teachers the type of practical work and the knowledge and skills that are to be the object of learning in a specific practical work (F++) – Table 6. Table 6. Illustrative example of the analysis made of each unit of analysis. Practical work in science curricula The what of practical work The how of practical work Conceptual demand Sections of the instruments (Indicators of analysis) Knowledge Aims Methodological guidelines Evaluation Complexity of scientific knowledge (based on several psychological concepts) Complexity of cognitive skills (based on Marzano and Kendall, 2007, 2008) Relation between theory and practice (based on Bernstein, 1990, 2000, and on Roberts, Gott and Glaesser, 2010) G1 G1 C++ G2 X G3 G4 G2 G3 G4 C- C- - F++ X X C+ Explicitness of practical work (based on Bernstein, 1990, 2000) F+ F- F- - X 4. Results The data presentation and analysis that follow are organized according to the general guidelines (GGd) and specific guidelines (SGd) of the curriculum of the discipline as a whole and the six parts of the curriculum that were considered: general part of Biology (Bg), Biology 10th (B10), Biology 11th (B11), general part of Geology (Gg), Geology 10th (G10) and Geology 11th (G11) – Table 1. The units of analysis whose text was ambiguous were not considered for computing relative frequencies7. The graph of figure 2 shows the relative frequency of the units of analysis that make reference to practical work in the Biology and Geology high school curriculum. In the graph, the results of the general guidelines (GGd) derived of grouping the results of both general parts (Bg and Gg) and the results of specific guidelines (SGd) derived of grouping the results of the four specific parts (B10, B11, G10 and G11). The general guidelines of the curriculum contain a higher percentage of units of analysis that make reference to practical work when compared to its specific guidelines. Despite having the highest percentages of units of analysis that make reference to practical work, the introductory texts provided little information about the transmission and evaluation contexts of practical work, as it would be expected. Most of the units of analysis of these parts could not be characterized because they 17
  18. 18. were either ambiguous with respect to the characteristics under study or did not refer any scientific knowledge and/or cognitive skills. Considering each part of the curriculum, the data of figure 2 shows that the Biology 11th and the Geology 10th are the parts that focus less on practical work. When the ‘methodological guidelines’ section of the curriculum is singled out in the analysis, the units with reference to practical work predominate over those which do not make that reference (from 51% to 77% depending on the part of the curriculum), as would be expected. Figure 2. Relative frequency of the units of analysis that make reference to practical work (with PW) in Biology and Geology high school curriculum considered as a whole and in each part of that curriculum (n - total number of units of analysis considered; GGd- general guidelines; SGd- specific guidelines; Bg- general part of Biology; B10- Biology 10th; B11- Biology 11th; Gg- general part of Geology; G10- Geology 10th; G11- Geology 11th). 4.1. The what of practical work The OPD analysis related to the what of practical work considered the type of practical work, the complexity of scientific knowledge and the complexity of cognitive skills. The graph of figure 3 shows the relative frequency of the various types of practical work – laboratory activity (LA), simulation (S), application of knowledge to new situations (AK), bibliographical research (BR), guided discussion activity (GD) and field trip (FT). Simulation is the only type of practical work that is not considered in the curriculum. When the curriculum is taken as a whole, general guidelines of the curriculum were more focused on laboratory activity and on field trip. Specific guidelines give more emphasis to laboratory activity and to bibliographical research. 18
  19. 19. When the parts of the curriculum which refer specifically to the 10th and 11th years of schooling are considered, the data of figure 3 shows that the two curricular subjects contain different types of practical work and with different weights. In the 10th curricular part, laboratory activity is present in most of the units of Biology whilst bibliographical research reaches the highest percentage in Geology. In the 11th curricular part, and contrarily to the 10th curricular part, laboratory activity gains greater expression in Geology when compared with Biology, yet this is the type of practical work that comes out with higher relative frequency in both curricular subjects. It should be noticed, however, that most laboratory activities do not have an investigative character; they instead are used to illustrate a particular kind of scientific knowledge. A large number of units of analysis with an ambiguous text, as to the type of practical work, is present and, for the reason mentioned before, these units were not considered for computing the relative frequencies shown in figure 3 (the relative frequency of ambiguous units ranges between 15% and 61%, depending on the six curricular parts). The excerpts that follow illustrate references to practical work that were considered ambiguous. In both examples the aims stated can be achieved through various types of practical work, for example, through a laboratory activity or a guided discussion activity. “Interpret, schematize and subtitle images about the main meiosis events.” (Biology 11th, p.8). “To question and to formulate hypotheses.” (Geology 10th, p.18). Figure 3. Types of practical work in Biology and Geology high school curriculum considered as a whole and in each part of that curriculum (n- total number of units of analysis considered; GGdgeneral guidelines; SGd- specific guidelines; Bg- general part of Biology; B10- Biology 10th; B11Biology 11th; Gg- general part of Geology; G10- Geology 10th; G11- Geology 11th). The graph of figure 4 shows the results of the analysis of the complexity of scientific knowledge. The data show that general guidelines of the curriculum do not make reference to 19
  20. 20. the scientific knowledge to be the object of learning and assessment in practical work. When the curriculum is taken as a whole, the results of specific guidelines of the curriculum show a balance between the four degrees of complexity of scientific knowledge, prevailing degrees 2 and 3. Figure 4. Complexity of scientific knowledge of practical work in Biology and Geology high school curriculum considered as a whole and in each part of that curriculum (n- total number of units of analysis considered; GGd- general guidelines; SGd- specific guidelines; Bg- general part of Biology; B10- Biology 10th; B11- Biology 11th; Gg- general part of Geology; G10- Geology 10th; G11- Geology 11th). Comparing Biology and Geology curricular subjects, it is clear that Biology scientific knowledge of practical work is more complex than Geology scientific knowledge for both years of schooling. The higher knowledge complexity in Biology practical work is specially given by the focus on cell theory and on evolution theory. In the case of Geology there are no units classified with degree 4 and there are units classified with degree 1. This absence of degree 4 (scientific knowledge of very high level of complexity, as unifying themes) puts at stake the understanding of the hierarchical structure of scientific knowledge by the students, whenever they are doing practical activities. The results of Biology 10th and 11th show a balance between simple concepts and complex concepts, whereas in Geology practical work simple concepts prevail. The graph of figure 5 shows the results of the analysis of the complexity of cognitive skills. Although the general guidelines contain a small number of units of analysis that can be analyzed in terms of practical work, the message they transmit is too important to be ignored either to characterize these parts of the curriculum or to make a comparative analysis with the message of specific guidelines. It is possible to observe that complex cognitive skills associated with practical work prevail. Considering the specific guidelines and when the 20
  21. 21. curriculum is taken as a whole, most units contain complex cognitive skills (degrees 3 and/or 4), corresponding to analysis and knowledge utilization. Degree 1, involving cognitive process of retrieval, is absent. Figure 5. Complexity of cognitive skills of practical work in Biology and Geology high school curriculum considered as a whole and in each part of that curriculum (n- total number of units of analysis considered; GGd- general guidelines; SGd- specific guidelines; Bg- general part of Biology; B10- Biology 10th; B11- Biology 11th; Gg- general part of Geology; G10- Geology 10th; G11- Geology 11th). Comparing the Biology and Geology curricular subjects, the graph of figure 5 shows that cognitive skills of the greatest degree of complexity prevail in Geology, as evidenced by the frequency of units that express degree 4: 57% in general part, 43% in 10th year and 26% in 11th year. The highest complexity of cognitive skills in Geology practical work is particularly related to the formulation of hypothesis, decision making, construction of models and research, organization and processing of information. 4.3. The how of practical work The OPD analysis related to the how of practical work considered the intra-disciplinary relations between theory and practice and the explicitness of practical work. Figure 6 shows the results of intra-disciplinary relations between theory and practice. When the curriculum is taken as a whole, the results show that the message of the general guidelines seems to value the relation between theory and practice (degrees C- and C- -). In the specific guidelines of the Biology and Geology curriculum the valorization of that relation is higher. 21
  22. 22. Figure 6. Relation between theory and practice of practical work in Biology and Geology high school curriculum considered as a whole and in each part of that curriculum (n- total number of units of analysis considered; GGd- general guidelines; SGd- specific guidelines; Bg- general part of Biology; B10- Biology 10th; B11- Biology 11th; Gg- general part of Geology; G10- Geology 10th; G11- Geology 11th). Comparing Biology and Geology curricular subjects (figure 6), there are units classified with C++, something that is more frequently in the general part of Biology. In these cases, the C+ + is related to the presence of procedural scientific knowledge (second part of the respective descriptor) only. The introductory text of both Biology and Geology (in the graph, Bg and Gg) contains general guidelines about science processes without relating them to declarative scientific knowledge. The excerpts that follow illustrate this situation: “Strengthening the skills of abstraction, experimentation, teamwork, reflection and sense of responsibility will allow the development of skills that characterize Biology as a Science.” (Biology general part, p.67). “Developing experimental skills in inquiry situations arising from everyday problems.” (Geology general part, p.8). The data of figure 6 also shows that C- - prevails in all parts of Geology which means that most units suggest a relation between declarative and procedural scientific knowledge, equal status being given to these two types of knowledge. In the case of Biology, namely in the 10th and 11th parts, most units were classified with C-, that is, the units reflect a relation between the two types of knowledge with a focus on declarative knowledge. The authors consider that the desirable situation with respect to the theory and practice relation is a situation in which relations between declarative and procedural knowledge predominate, with more status being given to declarative knowledge in the relation (C-). Biology 10th and 11th are closer to that situation. This is the situation that best represents an efficient scientific 22
  23. 23. learning that is learning that is supported by the understanding and applying of science processes knowledge. The graph of figure 7 shows the results of the explicitness of practical work with regard to the relation between the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) and the teacher. The message of the general guidelines and of the general parts of both subjects (in graph, GGd, Bg and Gg) is similar as they both show a weak concern with the explicitness of the type of practical work and with the scientific knowledge and cognitive skills that are supposed to be the subject of learning and assessment in the practical work. When the curriculum is taken as a whole, the results of specific guidelines show a balance between the four degrees of framing. About 47% of the units indicate a more MES centered control (F+ + and F+). In the cases of the 10th and 11th years, there are important differences between Biology and Geology. More emphasis is given to the explicitness of practical work in Biology when compared with Geology (that is, the MES control is stronger in the case of Biology). The data of figure 7 show that 54% and 85% of the units of Biology 10th and 11th, respectively, indicate a more MES centered control (F+ + and F+). In the case of Geology, this control is limited to 30% of the units. Figure 7. Explicitness of practical work in Biology and Geology high school curriculum considered as a whole and in each part of that curriculum (n- total number of units of analysis considered; GGdgeneral guidelines; SGd- specific guidelines; Bg- general part of Biology; B10- Biology 10th; B11Biology 11th; Gg- general part of Geology; G10- Geology 10th; G11- Geology 11th). 5. Discussion and conclusion The article intended to show a new approach for analyzing the level of complexity of practical work in science curricula by studying its level of conceptual demand. Although the analysis is 23
  24. 24. focused on the Portuguese curricula of Biology and Geology for high school, the instruments constructed and the concepts involved can be used to appreciate the level of conceptual demand of practical work of other international science curricula and to make comparisons between them. They can also be used to analyze additional educational texts, as are for example the external assessment tests. The analysis intended also to appreciate recontextualizing processes that may occur between the messages of the general and specific guidelines in the cases of both Biology and Geology. At another level, the study intended to explore empirically Bernstein’s model of pedagogic discourse (1990, 2000). The results showed that the curricular documents give low emphasis to practical work in Biology and Geology education for high school. The relative frequency of units of analysis with reference to practical work varied between 19% and 29% in terms of the total of units defined for each one of the parts of the 10th and the 11th years of both Biology and Geology. These results contradict the general curriculum guidelines for each one of the two subjects, where it is stated that in Geology education “practical activities, with an experimental character, investigative, or of any other type, should perform a particular important role in science education” (DES, 2001, p.7). Or also when it is stated that in Biology education “practical work should be valued as a fundamental part of the teaching and learning of the knowledge contained in every teaching unit” (DES, 2001, p.70). It should be remembered here that some units of analysis could not be characterized because they were either ambiguous with respect to the characteristics under study or did not refer any scientific knowledge and/or cognitive skills. Within practical work, laboratory activities are represented in all parts of the curriculum, having the highest status in the Biology 11th. However, on the whole, laboratory work is poorly represented. For example, again in the case of Biology 11th, where only 20% of the units consider practical work, less than a half of these respect to laboratory work. Furthermore, laboratory activities with an investigative character are poorly represented. Faced with the methodological suggestions given in the curriculum, the teacher is free to decide whether to organize an illustrative laboratory activity, through which the student verifies something s/he already knows, or to organize an activity with an investigative character, where the student does not know the results beforehand. According to the results of the study, Biology and Geology subjects evidence a somehow considerable level of conceptual demand with respect to the transmission context of practical work, if the discipline is taken as a whole. However, when these subjects are 24
  25. 25. analysed separately, this picture changes: Biology is the curricular subject with a general higher level of conceptual demand when compared with Geology. This conclusion is based on the analysis of some dimensions of the what (complexity of scientific knowledge and complexity of cognitive skills) and of the how (relations between theory and practice) of practical work. With regard to the complexity of scientific knowledge of practical work, it is Biology that contains more complex concepts/unifying themes (60% of the units of analysis in each schooling year) when compared with Geology (21% and 38% in Geology 10th and 11th, respectively). Unifying themes are absent in Geology practical activities and this absence of scientific knowledge of very high level of complexity puts at stake the understanding of the hierarchical structure of scientific knowledge (Bernstein, 1999) by students. The authors consider that the situation that better represents an efficient scientific learning, when practical work is implemented, is a situation nearer to Biology, where unifying themes are acquired by understanding complex and simple knowledge within a balanced degree of complexity of scientific knowledge. If science education is to reflect the structure of scientific knowledge it should lead to the understanding of concepts and big ideas, although that understanding requires a balance between knowledge of distinct levels of complexity (Morais & Neves, 2012). Bybee and Scotter (2007) also present this aspect as a principle for the development of an effective science curriculum. When the focus is the complexity of cognitive skills, it is Geology that gives more emphasis to complex cognitive skills of high level (cognitive process of knowledge utilization) when compared with Biology. In this case the situation that better represents an efficient learning, when practical work is implemented, is a situation nearer to Geology 11th, where there is a balance between complex and simple cognitive skills, although it fails the important skill of memorization. As has been evidenced by neuroscience research (e.g. Geake, 2009), the automation of mental tasks is necessary in order that a larger area of the brain is available to perform more complex tasks, involving the use of knowledge. Only when students develop simple skills, as memorization of specific facts and concepts, can they develop complex skills as the applying of these concepts to new situations. With regard to the third dimension that was used to analyze the level of conceptual demand – relation between theory and practice – Biology is closer to the desirable situation as it is in this subject that these relations predominate, with more status being given to theory in the relation. The presence of this relation in the curriculum is particularly important since 25
  26. 26. several studies (e.g. Abrahams & Millar, 2008) point out to the existence of a separation between theory and practice when teachers implement practical activities, particularly laboratory work. In order to appreciate the level of conceptual demand we also considered the types of practical work presented in the science curriculum. The virtually absence of excerpts that appeal to laboratory activities with an investigative character decreases the level of conceptual demand of practical work. This places into a different perspective the results that were obtained through the analysis of the three dimensions of conceptual demand. Conceptual demand of practical work is not as high as the analysis of those dimensions had indicated. As Lunetta, Hofstein and Clough (2007) state “science knowledge (conceptual and procedural) that is central in science literacy […] and difficult to understand without extensive hands-on and minds-on experience deserves in-depth laboratory investigation” (p.421). Among other aspects, the investigative laboratory activities also allow the development and the integration of complex cognitive skills of high level. The evaluation context of practical work is largely ignored in all parts of the curriculum. The curriculum is therefore inconsistent with current legislation that determines formal moments of assessment with a weight of 30% in the overall students’ evaluation of the Biology and Geology discipline (MES - Portaria n.º 1322/2007). Since curriculum guides teachers’ decisions, and particularly textbooks authors’ decisions, and given the regulatory role of evaluation on the learning process, this absence may compromise students’ scientific learning. According to Bernstein (1990), an official pedagogic discourse, as it is the case of a science curriculum, “is always a recontextualizing of texts […] from dominant positions within the economic field and the field of symbolic control” (p.196). The recontextualizing processes that were considered in the case of this specific study were those that took place in the transition from the messages of the general to the specific guidelines of both Biology and Geology. The extent to which these recontextualizing processes might have been present would give a measure of the ideological and pedagogical principles of respective authors. There is evidence that they go in different directions according to the dimensions analyzed, namely in the cases of cognitive skills and intra-disciplinary relations. Recontextualizing processes could not be analyzed in the case of scientific knowledge related to practical work since this knowledge is not mentioned in general guidelines. In terms of the complexity of cognitive skills of practical work, these recontextualizing processes represent a decreasing of 26
  27. 27. the level of conceptual demand of the general guidelines when compared with the specific guidelines for practical work. On the other hand, in terms of the relation between theory and practice, the specific guidelines of both Biology and Geology go deeper in making this relation when compared with their respective general guidelines. In this case, these recontextualizing processes represent an increase of the level of conceptual demand. It should be noted that although specific guidelines are, by nature, more detailed and contextualized than general guidelines, the two teams of authors (one for the Biology subject and another for the Geology subject) seemed to have been unable to link given concrete situations of practical work with the development of the complex skills they had defended in the general guidelines. This idea is supported by the results of a study made by Ferreira, Morais and Neves (2011), centered on the Natural Sciences curriculum for middle school, that showed that the recontextualizing processes may be a consequence of difficulties felt by curriculum authors when putting into practice, in the form of a monologic text, some dimensions of scientific learning. Unlike other studies that were focused on the analysis of science curricula (e.g. BouJaoude, 2002; Calado, Neves & Morais, 2013), the differences between the sociological message of the general and the specific guidelines of the discipline were not in general very marked in any of the both cases of Biology and Geology, with reference to practical work and to the characteristics studied. The relative continuity between the general and specific parts, within each one of the two curricular subjects, may be explained by the fact that the two parts of each subject were constructed by the same team of authors, something that do not always happen in the cases of other current studies. Although the MES seems to value practical work in the curriculum for high school Biology and Geology, this official agency does not make such intentions explicit at the level of both the general and the specific guidelines of the curriculum. On one hand, the great number of ambiguous units in some dimensions of the what and the how of the teachinglearning process evidences how the MES leaves implicit aspects of practical work to be implemented. The units of analysis which were considered as ambiguous transmit a dubious message which is open to several interpretations. The teachers when reading and interpreting the ambiguous text can recognize, or not, the concern with the implementation of practical work. If the teacher is aware of the importance of practical work to the quality of students’ scientific learning, s/he will interpret the text accordingly, but if not, s/he will probably interpret the message differently. On the other hand, when the explication of the practical 27
  28. 28. work (evaluation criteria) is considered, the results indicate that, at the level of general guidelines for each one of the two subjects and at the level of the specific guidelines of Geology, the MES leaves implicit not only the type of practical work but most importantly the scientific knowledge and the cognitive skills that are to be the object of practical work. In this way, the teacher has a high degree of control given by the MES when implementing the Biology and Geology curriculum, particularly in the case of Geology practical work. This great space of intervention may have disadvantages in terms of students’ scientific learning, particularly by allowing a greater recontextualization of the Official Pedagogic Discourse when it passes from the curriculum to the classroom. This is of particular importance if we consider that the absence of explicit criteria with respect to the practical work to be implemented in schools may lead teachers and textbook authors, especially those who have scientific and pedagogic deficiencies, to be unable to build on their own, a curriculum that takes into account research findings about the importance of practical work in scientific learning. Thus, the teacher, in the absence of an education that allows him/her to reflect on the significance of the sociological messages contained in the curriculum, may subvert the space of intervention that is given to him/her in a situation of greater control. In fact, several studies carried out at the level of the Portuguese high school (e.g. Marques, 2005) have shown that practical work is poorly represented in the activities performed by students and that the practical work that is done mobilizes simple cognitive skills only. In this situation, if teachers are to promote an efficient scientific learning with regard to the implementation and evaluation of practical work, the authors consider that evaluation criteria should be explicit, at least with regard to scientific knowledge, cognitive skills and the type of practical work. As suggested by Bernstein’s model of pedagogic discourse (1990), the production and reproduction of pedagogic discourse involves dynamic processes. For instance, there is a potential or real source of conflict, resistance and inertia between pedagogic and official recontextualizing fields. For that reason, the authors of this paper are now giving continuity to the present study by analyzing the relation between the message carried by the curriculum and teachers’ conceptions and practices, regarding practical work in Biology and Geology (Ferreira, 2013). On the basis of the data obtained, it is possible to make a reflection with regard to the reasons that may account for possible differences between the two practical work messages of Biology and Geology, considered as separate subjects of the same curriculum. A possible explanation for these discontinuities is the MES selection of different teams of authors to 28
  29. 29. construct the curriculum for each curricular subject. Each team of authors seemed to value different dimensions of the what and the how of practical work. Some of these differences (but by no means all of them) may also be related to the fact that Biology and Geology, although part of a same discipline, are epistemologically distinct subjects. However, this fact, by itself, would mostly likely have led for example to higher level skills of the Biology when compared with the Geology subject, which was not shown to be the case. This leaves differences in the science and the science education proficiency of the authors of the two teams of authors as the soundest explanatory hypothesis. The authors who constituted the particular Geology team should have possessed greater proficiency, with regard to science skills, than those of the Biology team. The variables studied are crucial for inferring the influence that the OPD, transmitted by a given curriculum, may have on the scientific learning of all students. In the case of this study, it is legitimate to think that the level of scientific proficiency that can be attained by students who receive a pedagogic practice based on the analysed curriculum will be low with respect to some dimensions of that proficiency. Unless teachers are able and motivated to recontextualize the curriculum in the right direction that is in the direction of increasing the amount of practical work, namely laboratory work with an investigative character and respective level of conceptual demand. The fact that teachers can change, and in fact do change, the message present in curricula, does not diminish the importance of making a detailed analysis of these science educational texts. Curricula constitute the official pedagogic discourse and as such they primarily direct not only teachers practice but also textbooks production and external assessment tests. The mode of analysis used in the study has the potential of highlighting the level of conceptual demand of a science curriculum, in terms of specific aspects of the what and the how of learning related to practical work. The strong conceptual and explanatory power of the theory in which the study was based, and the constant dialectics between the theoretical and the empirical, enabled the construction of instruments with descriptors that allowed detailed analysis of the various scientific learning characteristics used as dimensions of the level of conceptual demand of practical work. It should be noted that the conceptualization and procedures followed in the study constitute an innovative approach that accords to the study of science education texts greater rigor than that of other approaches found in literature. By using the same methodological approach, it may be possible to compare and discuss the 29
  30. 30. conceptual demand of practical work of several international curricula and even of other educational texts. Notes 1 The ESSA Group – Sociological Studies of the Classroom – is a research group of the Institute of Education of the University of Lisbon. 2 Bernstein’s model of pedagogic discourse is accessible at <http://essa.ie.ul.pt/researchmat_modelsofanalysis_ text.htm> and its characterization is available at <http://essa.ie.ul.pt/bernsteinstheory_text.htm>. 3 The concept of practical work presented in the Biology and Geology Portuguese curriculum is the following: ‘practical work must be considered as a broad concept that comprises various kinds of activities, ranging from paper and pencil activities to activities that require the lab use or field trips. Thus, students can develop skills as diverse as using a binocular dissecting microscope or an optical microscope, the graphical presentation of data, making reports of practical activities, autonomous information research in different supports, without neglecting and strengthening the capacities of written and oral expression’ (DES – High School Department, 2001, p.70). 4 The high school Biology and Geology curriculum for the 10th and 11th schooling years (DES, 2001; DES, 2003) was constructed by two different teams of authors. One team made the curriculum for Biology and another team made the curriculum for Geology. 5 At this level of analysis, we established a parallelism between the MES-teacher relation and the teacher-student relation. It was considered that, at the level of the MES-teacher relation, there is a text (the curriculum OPD) to be acquired by the teacher and that the more implicit are the evaluation criteria the more control the teacher will have of that text. 6 The instruments are available online on <http://essa.ie.ul.pt/researchmat_instruments_text.htm>. 7 Units of analysis were taken as ambiguous whenever they did not allow for a clear distinction either of the type of practical work, or the degree of complexity of scientific knowledge, or the degree of complexity of cognitive skills or the degree of intra-disciplinary relations, and as such classification was impossible to be made. Acknowledgments The authors acknowledge to Isabel Neves for her contribution in the analysis of the curriculum. This research was financed by the Foundation for Science and Technology. References Abd-El-Khalick, F., Boujaoude, S., Duschl, R., Lederman, N., Mamlok-Naaman, R., Hofstein, A., Niaz, M., Treagust, D., & Tuan, H. (2004). Inquiry in science education: International perspectives. Science Education, 88(3), 397-419. Abrahams, I, & Millar, R. (2008). Does practical work really work? A study of the effectiveness of practical 30
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