Theorising in science education

What is the point of science education research? It appears to be generally underfunded and to command little respect among the majority of practitioners. The outcomes are often unclear or fuzzy, full of caveats and perhaps. In a group such as PALAVA, some defence of theorising should play a part.

Imagine I am uncomfortable about some part of science education, perhaps such as ways to explain ionic bonding in chemistry. How would I go about knowing whether I am just a maverick with strange ideas quite unrelated to the world of chemistry teaching? I could, of course, simply continue to expound my views to those who might listen, and hope they will be persuaded by my rhetoric. It is likely that my ideas will continue to be just my own, perhaps with a few followers who enjoy my rhetoric. There must be another way to test my ideas and to check their validity. I could aim to publish the outcomes of these tests in some research literature where they may be read by the small band of researchers that read this kind of literature. It would be better, though, if I could come up with an alternative that would give a more satisfying learning outcome. There is still the task of persuading the policy makers to accept the proposals, and that is not always easy.

My first step would be to test my subject knowledge on the topic against a critical friend who is also knowledgeable about the subject. It just may happen that my personal subject knowledge is suspect. Assuming that it is accurate, then I would test its difficulty for that particular group of learners by exploring examiners' reports, and then a group of critical friends, in the first instance. It would be helpful to examine the literature on learners' ideas, where there may be systematic, valid and reliable research on the topic of understanding that concept.

The next step is to subject a range of literature on teaching and learning about ionic bonding to a thorough analysis. This would include textbooks and other resources, and research literature on the effectiveness of different methods. If there is plenty of existence evidence available, then it may be enough to clarify whether to continue teaching that topic, and give guidance about alternatives.

If there is insufficient existing evidence, the next challenge is to collect evidence to investigate where difficulties might be, and then plan alternative interventions that can be tested. Wise researchers would take advice, again, from their group of critical friends, to ensure that the proposed data collection and analytical method is systematic, valid and reliable. Data collected may need to be transformed (graphs, tables) to aid analysis, and perhaps statistical tests applied. After this process, the researcher has a better idea of a more effective teaching method.

The last part includes of exposing the new claims to public scrutiny, such as a publication or conference presentation. After that, the hard part is gaining acceptance in the classroom or by policy makers, and syllabus designers. Meeting with examination boards can be successful, but much good research founders at the stage of being accepted. marketing skills may be more important than researching.

Constructing a robust and evidence-based theory is an essential part of the journey. The theory has to be tested against other theories, and other evidence. Theorising is about making justified generalisations that are broadly explanatory, and successfully predictive. This is better than maverick ideas that have not been tested.