Aims | The Child | Task of teaching | First steps to integration
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The task of teaching


2.  Designing the curriculum  


In general, it is governments that determine educational theoretical frameworks, school objectives and course contents. In this respect there are some fairly open curricular norms  (such as in Catalonia and Portugal), which merely lay down some general psychological and pedagogic guidelines and set out general objectives and contents. These systems let schools assume the responsibility of determining their curriculum more concretely. In other countries norms are more closed. Here the authorities determine in much greater detail both objectives and contents, but even in these cases the selection of activities in the classroom is still the responsibility of the team of teachers at the school.


So, should teachers choose contents and activities? There are currents of opinion that believe that nursery and primary teachers should neither adapt contents nor generate activities, but rather use the activities created by educational projects designed by specialists. 


However, there are also many studies which demonstrate that when teachers interpret didactic proposals they are influenced by their own ideas on contents and on the teaching and learning process. Thus they carry out activities in the classroom with purposes and approaches which are very different from those envisaged in the original project. Therefore, even though a teacher uses activities designed in projects, he/she must be able to understand them, assess them and adapt them to the specific context of his/her class. 


In our view, if we want child-centred education for autonomy, thus respecting the diversity of people and situations, the curriculum must always have a degree of openness that allows it to be adapted to the specific context, although its basic objectives are well defined. In fact, it seems that current trends in education authorities for establishing minimum skills (literacy) point in this direction. 


We believe that the teacher has to be able to evaluate and redesign activities suited to the concrete learning situations that might occur. This is on the clear understanding that this task is always the responsibility of the team of educators who work together at a school or in an area. 


2.1.   From the technology of the technologists to school technology 

The way that subject contents are introduced into a school so that they can be used by the students is not the way that the experts have worked them out. To adapt contents to teaching does not mean just simplifying them to eliminate the more difficult or abstract features, but is a much more complex process. The process by which scientific content becomes school content was called by Chevallard (1985) didactic transposition.  


As technology is an area with little tradition at the nursery and primary stages, we will refer to the similar area of the experimental sciences. Here it is clear that the science taught at school is a product constructed to be taught, with concepts, experiences and a language chosen specially with teaching in mind. In science teaching some didactic transpositions still in force today have been used for over a century (at the same time there are significant modern contents that are not included in the compulsory syllabus: yet another example of inertia in teaching!).  


Didactic transposition does not only mean the selection, adaptation and sequencing of contents to be taught, which implies remembering the characteristic models of the subject. It also involves other factors such as the cognitive structure of the child, gender and the context.  


To deal with how contents and activities taught are concretised, we rely on the report by Sanmartí in a recent (2002) book on science teaching. Here the author considers that, to concretise the science syllabus, the following points should be borne in mind:

-        The most significant models of the science concerned,

-        The possible teaching / learning contexts, 

-        The levels, interests and previous knowledge of the students,  

-        The possible sequence of the contents.  

We would add a fifth point: 

-        The interests of the students according to their gender.  


2.1.1.      The models of reference for didactic transposition 

Selection of contents cannot be separated from selection of the science and education model. The most traditional option in didactic transposition presupposes a spiralling science and education model, in which there are certain basic concepts that are constructed throughout the educational process. In this option, basic concepts (movement, forces, energy, chemical change, living things, ecosystem etc.) are derived from the analysis of the classic subject structures (Physics, Biology etc.) and are introduced into the learning process separately and in sequence.  


There are other options with different criteria for the sequential introduction of concepts. One example, which is an important reference for science teaching, is the SCIIS project (1978). This is based on the interdisciplinary concepts interaction, matter, energy, organism and ecosystem, which form a general science model. 


The classic option is an analytic option of didactic transposition: the basic concepts of a theory are determined and ordered as to, which of them come first and which come later, and they are dealt with in an orderly way throughout the teaching process, on the assumption that, for the ideal student, what has already been taught has already been learnt. Research, however, has shown us that this is not so: students do not learn in a linear way, their logic is not that of the teacher, and the general sense of the explanatory model that the teacher wants to impart often gets lost. 


At present, holistic options of didactic transposition are increasing. These are based on the idea that science is built socially around the facts and the theories that explain them, by means of a process in which diverse ideas and debate are fundamental. We believe that this model is closer to the educational reality that didactic research has shown us, and also that it suits children better. 


Holistic transpositions are not based on linear learning of concepts, but on the growth of the capacity for explanation and action in the given environment. It is not a question of creating a series of activities that will introduce all the concepts that make up a theory, from the most elementary to the most complex, following the logic of the theory. Rather, facts or interesting situations are posed -- for example, why do people wear glasses? --, which must be explained by building theories and explanatory models in a similar way to how stories are explained (Ogborn et al., 1996). These situations and stories can evolve in various ways and become steadily more complex. The concept character appears in different contexts; stories and characters are interwoven and given mutual meaning by becoming part of a long general story that remains open.  


The learning of science is then understood as the development of the ability to construct explanations of the facts that are congruent with the scientific models, and teaching consists in favouring the construction and development of the explanatory models.  


Can we transfer this option to the technology area? Indeed, we can, by shifting emphasis from the construction of “scientific explanations,” to the elaboration of “explanations of how it works or how it can be made” and to the construction of models of solutions. 


2.1.2.      The context of the activity  

Contents are taught in specific real situations. That these situations are influential in the environment of the child is one of the conventions of the main pedagogic theorists in the history of education (Pestalozzi, Dewey, Decroly, Freinet etc.). Nevertheless, the situations chosen for teaching continue to be, mostly, created in a school context. Probably this is because real problems are very complex and teaching usually simplifies the situation.  


But this problem is not so serious when one speaks of technology, since, as technology is intrinsically interdisciplinary, it is easy to find significant contexts in the child’s environment. In addition, nursery school teachers have the advantage of long experience with work projects and centres of interest in the children's environment. 


An important point that needs to be borne in mind is that, if we want technical education for girls as well as boys, we have to be sensitive to situations that interest both sexes and that encourage work in mixed groups. 



2.1.3.      The interests and previous knowledge of the students 

As we have already mentioned the need to bear in mind students’ cognitive capacities several times, we will not labour the point. However, we do want to discuss two important didactic variables that come from the student: previous knowledge and interest. 


Our project involves a wide age range (from 3 to 12 years). Thus, apart from the children’s growing cognitive maturity, there is also a progressive acquisition of conceptual, procedural and attitudinal knowledge. Therefore, when designing activities, the children’s acquired knowledge has to be remembered. Otherwise, we can fall into educational practices that are all too common in science teaching, in which teachers repeat the contents and activities of different years with very little variation “because the students have not memorized the contents well enough". Alternatively, which is the opposite extreme, new contents are introduced without being related to other contents worked on in previous years.   


Both these ways of proceeding have the consequence that activities lose meaning and students lose interest. This is the other major point to consider: children’s interest in the subject.  


All teachers are aware of the importance of interesting students in their didactic proposals. According to the theory of activity, the educational success of an activity requires that the reason which moves the student to do the activity is consistent with the educational purpose of the activity. 


Ogborn (1996) refers to interest when he discusses the concept of the “creation of differences.” This concept implies that the student feels involved in the activity, like someone searching for something. He/she is aware that there is a difference between what he/she knows before the activity and after it; and that this awareness motivates him/her to do the activity. 


Harlen (1993) refers to interest in a similar sense; according to her, what makes an activity interesting for a student is a quality of enigma, of puzzlement, which creates the urgent necessity to investigate. 


It is easy to interest children in new situations because their experience is limited, but it is also possible and necessary to interest them in habitual situations, if we have the ability to present these and to direct them in a stimulating way. In effect, apart from the choice of activities and contexts which involve students, the task of motivation is the responsibility of the teacher who has to introduce and direct the activity. Here we want to make special mention of the importance of encouraging girls and boys equally in technical education activities, and of concentrating especially on motivation when dealing directly with girls. 


An important aspect of motivation, which makes activities more meaningful, is that new proposals have to be related to preceding ones. Teachers can involve students by reminding them of previous activities and by explicitly pointing out some concrete relationships between the preceding activities and the present one. We also need to be explicit about why we are doing the activity: what it contributes to the students’ knowledge and what the next stage will be. 


2.1.4.      The sequence of contents  


In didactic transpositions that employ the analytic option, it is clear that the sequence is determined by the selection of contents and the structure of the subject. For example, it is typical to speak first of movement and then of forces, first of position and movement, and then of speed, etc. But we have already commented that our recommended option is a holistic didactic transposition that is not determined by the internal structure of the subject material, but rather by the context, skills, knowledge and interests of students and the relevance of the situation that we want them to study. 


This approach requires many syntheses and recapitulations that connect diverse activities and locate them in relation to the general curriculum. This is a special function of teachers, which Scott (1998) calls “maintaining the teaching and curriculum narrative” and which, as we have commented in the previous section, also has a motivational aspect. 


Context and social relevance serve as a criterion for selecting a particular problem or situation. For example, we cannot afford to waste the opportunity of an eclipse, since we can explore related topics (observation apparatus, formation of shadows, etc.); or it will probably be more interesting to talk of jam making in a rural school at the end of spring when we can go and pick strawberries. 


We also need to look at the student as a criterion for ordering sequences. A first well-known step is to match the activity to the student's cognitive level. This also suggests the need for proposing sequences of activities that go from more concrete and simple activities to more abstract and complex ones, for example, to begin with observation before doing design activities.


A second point to remember is the student's prior knowledge. At the moment there are already projects with approaches to the teaching of sciences that are based mainly on making explicit the student's previous knowledge. The Nuffield Primary Science SPACE project (1998) for example is such a case, in which students work on proposals based on their own ideas and chosen with their participation. The sequence of activities begins with a step called “Finding out children's ideas”, where students are asked to express their opinions -- in a team discussion, in an individual conversation, with a drawing or in writing -- about a situation that they want to explore. With this first activity the students become aware of their knowledge and the teacher develops an idea of what might be interesting to work on. The next step is “Helping children to develop their ideas”, where students are invited, in line with what they think, to make predictions, or to propose ideas or experiences that could help them to explain the situation they are exploring. After the proposals are agreed, the students carry them out and then interpret and evaluate the results. 


In our view, this sequence approach based on the students’ level of knowledge is perfectly compatible with technological work on projects or analysis of objects, in which we start from concrete situations in which the students can express their knowledge without hindrance. 


2.1.5.      Gender and curriculum  


In the previous chapter we outlined the evidence for differences in attitudes and results between boys and girls in science and technical education. Several studies have demonstrated these differences. The arguments used to explain them - biological, socio-cultural and educational, are still the subject of debate. Anyway, it seems clear that social structures and the cultural environment have a negative influence on the performance and attitude of girls in sciences (mainly physics) and technology. 


Certain educational experiments have sought to improve this situation, such as the GIST (Girls into Science and Technology) project which confirmed that social, cultural and educational factors were major influences (Reid 1989; Kelly 1984). In the conclusions of the GIST project the following recommendations for the design of a more interesting syllabus for girls were made: 

- To eliminate masculine bias in language, illustrations and examples.  

- To combine experimental activities with other types of activities that girls like more: debates, literary creation, etc. 

- To emphasize the application of sciences and technology in daily life.  

- To begin with topics that are familiar and interesting for girls. 


We believe that teachers must not forget these recommendations and other similar ones that research groups were able to make.  


However, the most important thing is to be sensitive to the problem and aware of it. New proposals need to be tried out. In the first chapter, we posed many questions about what to do with regard to gender. It is only through experimentation that we will find the answers to some of these questions. 


2.2.            Cultural and professional skills


The tasks of curricular design that we have just explained require certain competences that must be included in teachers' initial training and updated in in-service training schemes. These competences can be divided into cultural and professional skills.  


2.2.1.      Cultural skills 

This means a sufficient knowledge of the technological contents that the teacher has to teach, which allows him/her to distinguish objectives of technological content and to select and adapt technical education activities. When we recall the situation in the countries involved in this project (explained in chapter 1), it does not seem that this requirement is met in the field of technology. Technology training for nursery and primary teachers is needed. This is both an objective and a demand of our project. It is decisive for the success or failure of technical education. 


Two additional points need to be added here. First, technological culture requires major practical training in design, construction and experimentation skills. This training is at least as important as what is considered necessary for training in experimental sciences. Workshop and laboratory experience must, therefore, be central to the training of technology teachers. 


The second point is that, apart from ICT’s, girls have motivation problems with technology, yet most nursery and primary teachers are women. Special sensitivity is needed in order to dissolve this negative dynamic.


We also want to highlight an important characteristic of teachers’ cultural skills: they need to be able to train themselves in a world that is changing. The most important feature of teachers’ training should be their capacity to learn. 


This point leads into a further aspect related to attitude. Just as a positive attitude towards technology needs to be developed, especially among women, so also a positive view of the effort to learn must be acquired. Too often in our teacher-training careers, we have found students who are reluctant to learn new cultural contents, as if they believed that they already knew enough and were only interested in teaching what they know. It is no exaggeration to say that pleasure in learning should be a necessary pre-condition to becoming a teacher, for if we do not like learning, how will we communicate positive attitudes towards learning to children? 



2.2.2.      Professional skills

Teachers must also have some psychological, pedagogical and methodological knowledge. Obviously, they have to know the dimensions of the cognitive, affective and social development of children, in order to be able to adapt contents and activities to their capabilities and to understand the meaning of their performance. But teachers’ professional skill also has to enable them to go further in their search for more effective ways of teaching. This also implies a basic training in educational research, which is now usually given in initial teacher training. 


Knowledge of the psychological and pedagogic theoretical framework that guides the performance of teachers is significant. And when we say ‘significant’,  we mean operative because, as Formissano (1990) points out, “what is really important is to know how to refer, coherently, at the operative level to the theoretical model that the teacher has chosen as the cultural line of reference for his/her work". To use an example from the same author: if Vygotsky is a reference for a teacher, the teacher must know the importance that Vygotskian theory places on social-cognitive interactions as the basis for interiorisation of concepts, which are first constructed and exist in interactions with other children and adults before existing in individual thought. Therefore, it is to be expected that this teacher will choose activities which put discussion and team work first in any area of knowledge (including technology), and not only in expressive areas.