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Research - Virginia Kearton


Virginia Kearton
Head of Science at Court Moor School, Fleet, Hampshire

This article describes her route into science education research, following this pen-portrait.

I have a BSc. (Hons) degree in Physical Sciences and an MSc in Radiation and Environmental Protection, as well as a PGCE. I have taught science, particularly Chemistry and Physics, full-time and part-time in secondary schools in Hampshire, since 1976. I also taught Open University students for twelve years, teaching level one and two courses in science. I have been Head of Science at Court Moor School, Fleet, Hampshire since 2000. The school has 1100 students aged 11 to 16 years and we teach Triple Science, Double Science, Applied Science (Double Award) and Entry Level Science at KS4.

I have completed two Best Practice Research Scholarships for the DfES and contributed to sessions at many ASE annual and regional conferences. I am a member of the PALAVA group at the School of Education, Reading University and the History and Philosophy of Science International group, both under the chairmanship of Dr. John Oversby.

I have been a member of ASE since starting teaching and a member of the Research Committee for the last three years. As a result of my research work and the reporting of it, I applied and was made a Chartered Science teacher in September 2008. At present I am a member of the National Steering Group for the Science Diploma. By taking part in ASE conferences I have met many researchers who I had known of only from the books they have written and found that other opportunities have been presented to take a greater part in educational research eg as a member of the ESRC research commissioning group.

Science Education research - a personal view and my influences
Virginia Kearton - Head of Science at Court Moor School, Fleet, Hampshire 

1. The two communities that should have been supporting each other seemed to be in opposition.

Having taught Science in Secondary schools in Hampshire for ten years, my views on educational research used to be that it was removed from the real classroom and very few pieces of research were applicable to the ordinary teacher. The language of research papers seemed deliberately elitist and made the research findings more difficult to critique than needed. However, my only contact with current research and researchers, then, was via the Association for Science Education journals (Education in Science (EiS) and Secondary Science Review (SSR)), the DfES (now DCSF) website, Secondary Strategy documents delivered by county advisors and the Times Educational Supplement (TES).

In 1999 I responded to a flyer in the EiS and attended a Saturday conference at The School of Education, Reading University lead by Dr. John Oversby on Chemical Modelling. This was attended by several international science education researchers, lecturers from Reading University, PGCE students and a few teachers. The researchers presented their papers and were questioned on their research and then different aspects of the chemical models were discussed in smaller groups and I was surprised at the apparent feeling of inadequacy by researchers about how, and if, teachers would use their findings. The two communities that should have been supporting each other seemed to be in opposition.

2. Regular research meetings held at Reading University

From this conference, I heard about the regular meetings held at Reading on a Saturday morning by John Oversby and started attending them. I found that having time to discuss education issues with a mixture of researchers and practitioners was invigorating and both sides began to see the other's point of view. Teachers could talk about some of the barriers to good lessons that they experienced and the researchers could suggest some of the research outcomes they had read about that might reduce these barriers. The meetings also allowed everyone to discuss detailed science, which uncovered some misconceptions amongst students and teachers that researchers could investigate further. Researchers were able to argue their case for using specialized language - so that they could be precise about the meaning of their work, and teachers could become more familiar with the language, which perhaps we should be.

This link between H.E. researchers and teachers led to a group of us deciding to look at different aspects of teaching and learning about chemical equations; a topic that students always struggle with and which could give them so much information, if they could read an equation successfully. We applied to the DfES for funding under the Best Practice Research Scholarship scheme and carried out individual pieces of action research with our students and disseminated our findings at various ASE conferences. The audiences at the conference presentations were supportive and interested and we know some people tried the same work with their students. We felt that individually we had made little steps forward in understanding the problems of our students, but as a group we found many ways to alter our teaching in the future to increase the learning of the students. We took some time to learn how to research, although many of us had completed science research degrees. Science education research is a less definite form of research than pure science research. Opinions and qualitative factors are as important as quantitative data in coming to conclusions. How to write a good questionnaire and how to interview students in an unbiased way were techniques we learned by reading research papers and trial and error. The group would report progress and discuss and comment on findings. The education researchers offered advice and comment and could inform us of useful research to read. The partnership between HE and school teachers benefited both parties and was a real strength of the BPRS scheme. Some teachers have used this research as a lead into Master's degrees, but most of us have completed it to improve and inform our teaching of science.

3. PALAVA and ASE research committee

The meetings at Reading have continued and the group is now called PALAVA. We have looked at scientific diagrams in textbooks and how they help/hinder students' understanding. This led to work on animations of chemical reactions and recognising misconceptions of reaction mechanisms. We have also looked at what we mark in students' books and what we ask them to write in the books. As a Head of Department, I have looked at how to manage the changes I want the Department to make to ensure that the notebooks contain the original work I want them to. We have had reports on research from visiting international researchers in science education and all of us are much more aware of current research in science education. The group attending the sessions has changed over time, but is always a mix of teachers, students, tutors and researchers and the discussions are lively and thought provoking, which can only improve everyone's teaching/research.

From this work, I have become more involved with the work of ASE and was voted onto the Research Committee. The Committee includes lecturers in science education, education researchers, writers and now teachers. The committee is trying to bring science education research to a wider audience of teachers by producing research review articles in EiS and organizing a research conference with the British Educational Research Association's Special Interest Group for Science Education at the ASE annual conferences. The HE attendance at these conferences is varied as the ASE conference is still regarded by many as a lowly conference to present a paper at. However, it is the one conference that the researchers can present their findings directly to teachers who might use their work. Few teachers have funding to access research journals so the ASE and the TES are the main ways that research reaches the teaching population. County Advisors tend to concentrate on changes to teaching and learning that they have heard about, without passing on the research base for the changes, leaving teachers wondering how they know the suggested change is better. The Research Committee also collated information about the topics of science education research being carried out around the UK to try to encourage links between researchers and teachers interested in certain topics.

4. Action research in school 

The school I teach at, like many others, regards action research by teachers very highly and has made it part of the performance management structure. We are encouraged to carry out small scale research, concentrating on improving the performance of identified students, in small multi-subject groups. Each year the focus of the research changes, in line with the school's annual operational plan, and teachers can choose which focus they will apply to some of their classes. Initially these were just trials of ideas, but as staff become more familiar with research and able to coach others, this work is becoming more research based. This makes it more important that teachers can access original research, or contact researchers from higher education who can guide their work or work with them.

I have changed my view of science education research over the years and do now appreciate some of the factors that make some research better than others and it is not just language that makes the difference! However, I do feel that research must reach the audience that might use it. More educational researchers must disseminate their research to teachers directly so that their findings are not altered, by advisors and others, like Chinese whispers.

Published: 24 Jan 2009