Why science education interventions flop for most pupils
Only top pupils from under-resourced schools benefit, say local researchers who are shining light on closing the gap
Our country is notoriously bad at teaching science, leaving our pupils in the dust even when compared with countries in a similar income bracket.
Now, a new study just published in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS) has shown that even the best-intended interventions might be missing the mark – relying on the same methods that flop in the classroom.
And what lies at the heart of this problem? Reading comprehension.
In the Global Competitiveness Report of 2018, compiled by the World Economic Forum, SA was ranked a dismal 128 out of 137 countries in physical science education. Most other countries in the Southern African Development Community fared better than us.
Science is also not very popular, probably because it seems so hard, and of those who choose to do it for matric, a pass mark is an elusive dream: in 2017, only 40% of those who wrote the science paper for matric passed it.
The study just published in the SAJS showed that it was only the top pupils from under-resourced schools who benefited from interventions intended to improve the marks of all science pupils. For the rest, the interventions were of no use. That’s because the top pupils had reading comprehension in English that was at a high enough skill level for them to benefit from the texts (used in the intervention) when they read on their own away from contact time with the teacher.
The remainder read at “frustration” level, and guessed many answers because they couldn’t understand what they were reading.
The significance of this finding, according to the researchers Angela Stott and Tanya Beelders from the University of the Free State, is that money pumped into after-school interventions for science would be better spent on interventions that improve reading comprehension.
The sample consisted of 65 Grade 8 and 9 pupils who attended two schools in Botshabelo, a township about 50km from Bloemfontein.
According to Stott and Beelders, “learners who read at the frustration level tend not to engage in self-regulated learning which extends beyond contact with the teacher. However, such self-study is vital for a township learner to be able to mitigate the poor class time usage, limited and low-quality teacher-learner contact time, limited and sporadic homework assignment and control and general dysfunctionality of the typical township school.”
This is a catch-22 for many township pupils as the study suggests “that good reading comprehension is most needed in the very environments which least foster it”.
The time, effort and expense invested in placing such pupils into such programmes “would be better spent, for example, in teaching those learners reading comprehension skills or offering their place to a learner whose reading comprehension skill enables them to benefit from the programme” say the researchers.