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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Pupils’ prior beliefs about bacteria and science processes : their interplay in school science laboratory work Maxted, Margaret Anne


School science laboratory tasks involve the use of conceptual frameworks and scientific processes. Shayer (1978) has criticized Nuffield science curricula for their alleged mis-match with the average pupil's cognitive ability to perform laboratory tasks involving scientific processes such as controlling variables. Researchers interested in pupils' conceptual frameworks view the context of the experiment as a significant influence on the pupils' understanding of the experiment and it is thought that prior beliefs may interfere with the pupils' ability to control variables. This study examines qualitatively the interplay between the pupils' substantive beliefs about bacteria, prior to instruction, and their influence on understanding of the scientific processes in a laboratory experiment about bacteria. Thirty-one pupils in the second year (12/13 year olds) of a secondary school in England were interviewed in order to elicit their substantive beliefs about bacteria. These pupils then followed a series of two experiments taken from Nuffield Combined Science coursework. Nine pupils were interviewed after each experiment to ascertain their understanding of the task they had undertaken. Two groups of pupils for each experiment were audio-taped while they set up the experiment and their discussion of the questions about the task were recorded. Written work was also examined to cross validate views held by other members of the class. It was found that pupils whose prior beliefs included concepts of bacterial life connected with reproduction were able to understand the role of the control in the experiment. Pupils' concepts of the growth of bacteria were found to be varied. Pupils who held less scientifically based concepts of bacterial growth were unable to explain the use of the control plate. Some pupils who had more sophisticated prior conceptions of growth failed to use them in explanations about the control plate and showed signs that their beliefs concerning the design of the equipment interfered with their ability to understand the role of the control plate. Prior beliefs were found to be a major influence on the pupils' understanding of the experiment. Teachers are recommended to investigate pupils' prior beliefs of the concepts being taught and encourage pupils to reflect upon the activity engaged in by the pupil during school science laboratory tasks.

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