Students' perceptions about science: The impact of transition from primary to secondary school

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<ul><li><p>Research in Science Education, 1996, 26(3), 283-298 </p><p>Students' Perceptions about Science: The Impact of Transition from Primary to Secondary School </p><p>Wendy Speering and l_Aonie Rermie Curtin University of Technology </p><p>Abstract </p><p>As students move through school, attitudes to school in general, and science in particular, become less positive. This paper reports on a longitudinal study which mapped, from the students' point of view, the transition between primary and secondary school in Western Australia. The study focused on the subject of science, and used both quantitative and qualitative methods. During the transition, there is a considerable change in the organisation of the school, the curriculum and the teacher- student relationship. Students in this study, especially the girls, were generally disenchanted with the teaching strategies used in their secondary science classrooms, and regretted the loss of the close teacher-student relationship of their primary school years. Their perceptions were that science in secondary school was not what they had expected, and this experience may have long term implications for their subject and career choices. </p><p>In Western Australia, students move from primary school to secondary school at the end of year 7, when most students are 12 years old. This study has been designed to map the transition between primary and secondary school from the students' point of view, focusing on the subject of science. The purpose is to illuminate the way this transition impacts on the way students think about, learn and enjoy science at school. The paper begins by establishing the importance of the transition pcriod and describes the changes in school organisation, curriculum and teacher-student relationships that occur at this time. </p><p>Attitudes to School </p><p>The findings of several Government and other reports into the education of young adolescents in Australia (Eyers, 1992a, 1992b; National Board of Employment, Education and Training [NBEET], 1992, 1993a, 1993b) indicate that as students move through school, their attitudes to school in general become less positive. One of the most influential reports focused on South Australian government schools. The students in the middle years [of schooling], of approximate ages 10-15 and typically in school Years 6 to 9, make up a definite developmental group, where rapid physical, social, emotional and intellectual changes occur .... There are clear signs of social alienation and lack of educational success among these students to the extent that their education and positive development is of real concern in a number of countries, including Australia (Eyers, 1992a, p. 16). </p><p>In response to findings such as these, a Project of National Significance was initiated by the Commonwealth government in 1994 entitled Student Alienation During the Middle Years of Schooling. There have been other large Australian studies which confirm that there is reason for concern. For example, in a study of nearly 16,000 students in Queensland, Victoria and New South Watds, Ainley (1995) found that students in secondary schools had less favourable attitudes to school than primary school students. This was particularly the case for curriculum-related aspects, such as the students' perceptions of the relevance of schooling and confidence in their ability to be successful at school. Students' general satisfaction with school and their interaction with teachers dipped markedly in the early and middle secondary years. Social attitudes changed the least from primary to </p></li><li><p>284 SPEERINGANDRENNIE </p><p>secondary school. Rosier and Banks (1990) also found that over 9,000 Australian students participating in the Second International Science Study (SISS), enjoyed school less at the lower secondary level (school Years 8 to 10) than at the upper primary level (school Years 4 to 6). </p><p>Concern for the decline in positive attitudes of students to schooling as they move through the grades is not confined to Australia. Baumert (1995) used a longitudinal study of 9,400 year 7 students in Germany to confirm his assumption that interest in all school subjects declines as adolescents become more involved in developing a social identity. Midgely, Feldlaufer and Eccles (1989) accept that there is a general negative trend in attitudes towards school among young adolescents in the USA. Anderman and Maehr (1994) undertook a review of major research findings in the USA which showed that students' altitudes toward school in general decrease as they get older, with all academic domains affected. The decline can have devastating effects. "For some children, the early adolescent ~ars mark the beginning of a downward spiral in school-related behaviours and motivation that often lead to academic failure and school dropout" (Eccles, Lord, &amp; Midgely, 1991, p. 521). There is evidence of both a gradual decline in academic motivation, such as lower school attendance and less attention paid in class (Eccles et al., 1993), and more specific deterioration in learning areas such as mathematics and English (Wigfield, Eccles, MacIver, Reuman, &amp; Midgely, 1991). </p><p>Attitudes to Science </p><p>It is not surprising, then, that many studies on the specific subject of science have found that attitudes generally become less positive as students progress through the schooling system. In Australia, various studies have concluded that students' interest in, and enjoyment of, science decline sharply during the secondary school years (Baird, Gunstone, Penna, Fensham, &amp; White, 1990; Baird &amp; Penna, 1992; Baird, 1994; Rosier &amp; Banks, 1990; Schibeci, 1984). Similar results have been reported in the USA (James &amp; Smith, 1985; Kahle &amp; Rennie, 1993; Mullis &amp; Jenkins, 1988; Simpson &amp; Oliver, 1990; Yager &amp; Yager, 1985). In addition to the general trend of declining attitudes to science among students as they progress through school, there is much evidence that the decline is greater among girls, especially in the so-called 'hard' sciences, such as physics (Keeves, 1992; Linn &amp; Hyde, 1989; Weinburgh, 1995). However, girls show more positive attitudes towards school in general than do boys (Kotte, 1992). </p><p>Attitudes During Transition </p><p>Studies in the US and Australia show that positive attitudes towards science decrease throughout the school years, with the most dramatic change occurring during the transition from the primary to the secondary system (Baird &amp; Penna, 1992; Eccles, 1989; James &amp; Smith, 1985; Linn &amp; Hyde, 1989; NBEET, 1993c; Parker, 1984; Yager &amp; Yager, 1985). At the end of their primary school years, students have a great deal of enthusiasm for science and its activities (Baird et al., 1990; NBEET, 1993c), but far fewer students express the same enthusiasm for secondary science (Rosier &amp; Banks, 1990). </p><p>So it seems that the transition between primary and secondary school in Australia, perhaps more than at any other period of schooling, is a time when positive attitudes to science decrease sharply. The decline in motivation towards science during the early years of secondary school is particularly disturbing as it is likely to have enduring effects for the students' futures. It appears that it is in the first andsecond year of secondary school that attitudes to the pursuit of science subjects and careers are formed (Anderman &amp; Maehr, 1994; Department of Industry, Science and Technology [DIST], 1995). The implications for girls may be even more important, as fewer girls than boys enrol in the physical sciences in the latter years of secondary school (Dekkers, DeLaeter, &amp; Malone, 1991). </p></li><li><p>STUDENTS' PERCEPTION ABOUT SCIENCE 285 </p><p>Changing Schools </p><p>Why is it that the enthusiasm for science with which students leave primary school is dampened so quickly in the early secondary school years? The transition from primary to secondary school is marked by major changes in school organisation, the curriculum and its implementation. Primary school students typically stay in one room with the same teacher for most of the school day. In contrast, at the secondary level, students move from room to room and usually have a different specialist teacher for each subject, often as many as six in a day. The rigid timetable of the secondary school discourages integration across curriculum areas, and allows little flexibility to follow students' interests. As the classroom teacher is usually responsible for most of the educational and social development of all students in the class (Prouse &amp; Smith, 1995), these organisational differences have clear implications for the teacher-student relationship. In terms of the science curriculum and its implementation, the changes between primary and secondary school are especially striking, because science in Western Australian primary schools is usually activity-based and student-centred, providing a strong contrast with daily science lessons which are teacher-centred and content-driven in secondary school. </p><p>Teacher-student Relationships </p><p>As a consequence of the different organisational structure, it is generally agreed that the cooperative and caring culture of the primary school has little in common with the more academically oriented, fragmented and competitive climate of the secondary school (Eyers, 1992a; Eye,s, 1992b; N'BEET, 1992). Similar problems are reported in Canada and the USA by Hargreaves and Earl (1994), Eccles et al. (1993) and Harter, Whitesell and Kowalsld (1992). These researchers described primary schools as having more personal and positive teacher-student relationships and more student involvement in decision making than secondary schools. They suggested that alienation from the schooling process can occur when students move to the more subject-fragmented orientation of the high school (Hargreaves and Earl (1994) use the metaphorical term "Balkanization" for this fragmentation) where there is less collaborative and cooperative work between students, and between students and teachers. Gallagher (1994), Houtz (1995), and Midgely, Feldlaufer and Eccles (1989) draw attention to the importance of teacher-student relationships, concluding that these deteriorated after the transition from primary school to high school, with a detrimental effect on students' motivation. </p><p>Curriculum </p><p>There is considerable evidence that the science curriculum in Australian secondary schools is driven by the perceived need to impart knowledge to students. According to a recent study in Western Australia (Chadbourne, 1995), the high school curriculum is dominated by university entrance requirements. Secondary students work from text books and cover the prescribed content of science units which have a long list of very specific objectives explicitly linked to student assessment (Rennie &amp; Parker, 1993). In contrast, the primary syllabus contains four pages of general concepts to be covered during the eight years of pre-primary and primary school and exhorts the teacher to be flexible as "specific content is not specified for primary science" (Education Department of Western Australia, 1984, p. 5 I). Generally, primary classes participate in science activities for approximately an laour each week, although integration with other subjects could extend this time. Secondary students would normally be timetabled for more than three hours a week of science lessons. </p><p>These differences are reflected in teachers' ideas about teaching science. Rennie (1984) found that primary teachers considered students' attitudes to science to be more important than knowledge, </p></li><li><p>286 SPEERINGANDRENNIE </p><p>and Ferguson (1991) found that the reverse was true for secondary teachers. Primary teachers made curricular decisions based on subject integration and the needs of the students, whereas secondary teachers were content-driven, and saw themselves as information givers (Gallagher, 1993). While most primary school students liked doing schoolwork and thought that the curriculum was interesting, the implementation of the science curriculum was seen as uninteresting and irrelevant by students in Australian secondary schools (Cumming, 1994; Department of Employment, Education and Training ['DEE-T], 1992; DIST, 1995). Both girls and boys can be deterred from taking science classes by the decontextualised approach to science used by many teachers (Klein &amp; Ortman, 1994). </p><p>Teaching Strategies </p><p>Primary science is typically hands-on and aims to "give practice in problem-solving skills" (Rennie, 1984, p. 49). In Western Auswalia, "for primary school children science is a way of learning about themselves and their environment through first hand experiences, inquiry and problem solving" (emphasis in original) (Education Department of Western Australia, 1984, p. 3). One of the most recent and popular programs for primary science in Australia has, as some of its major features, an emphasis on hands-on activities, cooperative learning in small groups and a constructivist instructional model (Australian Academy of Science, 1994). </p><p>At the end of primary school, students believe that science will become more exciting at secondary school because of the specialised knowledge of the teachers, the sophisticated resources available, and the prospect of a more challenging curriculum. Victorian students expect it to be "active, interesting and fun" and especially look forward to "doing experiments, dissections, investigations and projects" (Baird et al., 1990, pp. 12-13). However, the reality of secondary school science appears not to meet these expectations. Baird et al. (1990) noted the disappointment of students beginning secondary school. They felt as if they just copied notes or watched demonstrations, and were not given any "real work." The students expressed their disappointment at the lack of activities, the amount of notetaking, listening to lectures, and the irrelevant topics (Baird, 1994; Baird et al., 1990). Students in Tasmania believed that "deterioration in the relationship between student and teacher, stemming from classroom management, lesson presentation and disciplinary measures" and too much emphasis on "chalk and taltd' resulted in poor behaviour due to boredom (DEET, 1992, p. 8). Western Australian high school principals maintain that the tertiary selection requirements influence even the early years of secondary school, so that teaching "tends to be a headlong rush through the crowded curriculum with little time for higher order thinking skills" and "suffers from excessive content, bookishness, individualism, competitiveness, didacticism, force feeding, conformity and traditionalism" (Chadbourne, 1995, p. 4). </p><p>In a study of grade 10 students in British Columbia, Ebenezer and Zoller (1993) found that the kind of science teaching which students experienced was the most important factor in forming their attitudes towards science. The students liked student-directed explorations and studying science issues which related to their everyday life. They particularly disliked notetaking, work...</p></li></ul>

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