Tag Archives: science

Sphere of Influence: The role of Science and Technology consultants

We’ve come a long way since this view of the science educator. Photo: iStock.

Science teaching is a demanding and rapidly changing profession. Our many dedicated Science and Technology teachers work hard to prepare meaningful lessons and develop activities to promote student understanding of the scientific method and the ever-changing natural world. They understand that they have a responsibility to not only “cover” the curriculum content, but also to involve and motivate their students in meaningful learning about the world, especially amid growing concern for our fragile environment and widespread public misunderstanding of the influence that people have on it. Though the principal is the school leader, it is the science consultants who help the teachers change their instructional practices and content required by the new curriculum in science and the new trends in science learning.

In the 1990s as a Science and Mathematics consultant myself, I was always concerned with how to keep up with the latest developments in the field. I met frequently with my fellow consultants. We mulled over the latest curriculum developments, worked together to produce lesson ideas and evaluation instruments and tried to help teachers with meaningful teaching resources.

So how do the consultants do it? How do they encourage and jump-start change in science teaching? And are they effective in making science teaching better? In a recent article, Whitworth et al (2017) reported on the activities of a large and varied number of science consultants in the USA as they went about their work helping and advising science teachers. The respondents were from a variety of US states and school district situations: urban, rural, suburban, school sizes and ethnic backgrounds. There was also a variety of responsibilities. These included science-only (about half) to multiple subject areas – mostly in STEM. The researchers found that consultants indeed do play an important role and “are closely tied to a district’s effectiveness in improving teaching and learning”. Professional development (PD) is one of the principal functions of science consultants – and they are good at it.

There is a large body of research conducted over the past 30 years about what are the common characteristics of effective PD for science teachers.

Here are 3 commonly agreed-on issues that PD should address:

  1. Teaching and learning the curriculum – how teachers teach and evaluate the curriculum and how students learn it.
  2. Teacher professionalism – their own knowledge base and interactions within their professional community.
  3. Teachers as adult learners – keeping up with developing trends in pedagogy and new bodies of knowledge about the natural world.

Additionally, these are the types of activities that PD programs should incorporate:

  1. Opportunities for active learning
  2. Collective participation: teachers from different schools, same school to work together.
  3. Content focus: going deeply into the knowledge base of the curriculum
  4. Multiple opportunities for practice – over a year or semester at least.

It is widely accepted that PD seldom works if it is only comprised of “one-off” information sessions on professional development days. Hewson et al (2007) warn that

“The various case studies demonstrate that without continuing support during the critical phases of planning, implementing and reflecting on instruction, teachers are unlikely to make major changes in their teaching particularly if these changes require reconsideration of their core beliefs about science, teaching, learning, instruction and/or assessment.” Hewson (2007).

Since teachers themselves must make the changes necessary in their practice, voluntary buy-in is key to successful implementation of change.

Consultants recognize this and know that their ongoing relations with their teachers are very important to their success. Describing the work of science consultants in Quebec, my colleague and I wrote

“Science consultants recognize the importance of forming relationships with their teachers. It is clear to them that positive personal relationships enhance their ability to influence what goes on in the science classroom. They recognize that every teacher goes through ups and downs and they need encouragement to see that their efforts are helping their students learn better. By working with teachers to solve classroom problems, to provide classroom resources, to support with teaching ideas, consultants build trust. This trust allows them into the teacher’s confidence and permits them to become part of the teachers’ school lives. As one consultant points out, ‘You can’t lead from the office. You have to be present in the schools.’ Consultants often meet with science teachers in their schools. Typically this occurs in the teachers’ science workroom or lab during free time – a lunch hour, before school or on a professional development day for example. Usually the topic for discussion is a problem or situation which the science team faces and for which they need input from the trusted expert.” (Elliott & Asghar, 2014)

Teaching science in our schools is complex and difficult. Teachers are always looking for ways to improve student learning, increase student success and make science meaningful. Science consultants are important allies in this endeavour.



Elliott, K., & Asghar, A. (2014). Transformational leadership in science education – A Quebec perspective. In I. M. Saleh & M. S. Khine (Eds.), Reframing transformational leadership: New school culture and effectiveness. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Hewson, P. W. (2007). Teacher professional development in science. In S. K. Abell & N.G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education. London: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, Publishers.


Whitworth, B. A., Maeng, J. L., Wheeler, L. B. and Chiu, J. L. (2017), Investigating the role of a district science coordinator. J Res Sci Teach, 54: 914–936. doi:10.1002/tea.21391



Gaspé Makes: STEAM challenges at Eastern Shores School Board

In early April, a LEARN team composed of Chris Colley and Christine Truesdale visited three schools in the Gaspé to work with students and teachers on the Makerspace idea with our Open Creative Space model. The following is the post published by RECIT pedagogical consultant Craig Bullett on the ESSB blog. We are reposting it.

Eastern Shores School Board showcased our Makerspace initiative as the product of a Professional Development Innovation Grant (PDIG).  The project was a collaboration of Teachers from Gaspe Elementary, Belle Anse, and Shigawake Port Daniel Schools.  The project was coordinated by the ESSB local RECIT, and generously supported by LEARN Quebec’s Open Creative Spaces Team. LEARN loaded up a van with everything under the sun, and brought the Makerspace concept to the Eastern Shores School Board.

Makerspace Promo 3APr2017
The event took place from April 3rd to 6th, and involved…120 students from grades 3 to 8.

  • 11 Teachers (representing 8 different schools).
  • The Open Creative Spaces Team from LEARN Quebec.

Gaspe Elementary, Shigawake Port Daniel School, and the Anchor Adult Ed Center hosted their very own Makerspace concepts with students from their respective communities.


Day 1 April 3rd:

Shigawake Port Daniel School with grade 4-5-6 students from SPDS.

SPDS staff transformed the school’s lunch area and stage into an impressive open space to accommodate everyone.  Students could move freely through the various stations.  STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) applications were blended into each of the various stations including,…

  • Building motorized artbots which draw on their own.
  • Programming the Ollie and Sphero robots to navigate an obstacle course built by students.
  • Building a water dam with lego, to create energy.
  • Creating an homopolar motor, powered by magnets, batteries, and copper wire.
  • Creating a piano with keys made of play-doh, fruit and cups of water.
  • Programing turtle art to draw shapes.
  • Designing and Building a catapult to knock down a tower of cups.

IMG_6545Day 2 April 4th

Gaspe Elementary School with grade 5-6 students from Gaspe Elementary School.

On this day, we converted the entire Gaspe Elementary Gymnasium into the GES Makerspace.  The same Challenges and activities were replicated as done at SPDS.  It is interesting to note the different outcomes with a simple change of venue.  We could have brought the SPDS students to this location, and the experience would have been completely new!  GES students exposed new angles and perspectives not seen the previous day.

Day 3 April 5th

Gaspe Elementary School with grade 3-4 students from Gaspe Elementary and Belle Anse School.

We opened the gym once again to our newest student audience.  The mixture of students from 2 different schools created an interesting dynamic to start the day.  It was clear to see students sticking to their own school group initially. As the day progressed, it was impossible to tell what student was from which school.  They were all Scientists, Technologists, Engineers, Artists, and Mathematicians. The selection of stations and the duration to stay at each was left completely to student choice. It was amazing! No stations were ever empty and none were overcrowded.  Students moved freely between stations in no particular order and without time restrictions.  This phenomenon held true for all of our Makerspace days.  It simply worked!

IMG_6574Day 4 April 6th

The Anchor Adult Education Center with grade 7-8 students from New Carlisle High School.

We brought the Makerspace concept to The Anchor to share the concept with the Adult Ed Community.  On this day, we brought High school Students to experience the concept, while Adult Ed staff could also appreciate the phenomenon.  The concept of stations is making it’s way into Adult Ed Centers across Quebec, and there are similarities to the makerspace concept.  I think we planted some seeds for community Makerspace ideas to emerge from the event. Several Teachers commented on the lack of discipline problems and interventions needed to keep students engaged.  Students were proud of accomplishments, really stuck to the task, and got through some difficult challenges.

This makerspace event could not have succeeded without the proper framework guiding it.  It was important to start with the appropriate mindset.  We started each day by reading a story.  We chose The most Magnificent Thing, but any similar story could work.  It is important to talk about overcoming challenges and not giving up with a challenge.  It is also important to emphasize that mistakes are ‘okay’.  Finally, remember to have fun!

We concluded each day with reflections from students.  This allowed learners to consolidate their experience and identify what about the Makerspace concept, makes learning fun. Typically similar words came from each session.  Choice, empowerment, autonomy, creativity, cooperation, trial and error.

We can say without a doubt that we learned something new everyday.  We, being everyone involved!  Organizers, Teachers, Administrators, and  Students.

The most notable observations were the absence of conflict, the seamless cooperation, and the easy transitions between activities.

Here are some nuggets captured over the 4 days.

Makerspace moment Twitter

  • Full coverage of Tweets over the 4 days


  • NCHS Students explain their hydraulic lift.


  • NCHS Student demonstrates hydraulic design


  • GES Student playing piano with Play-Doh and Apples


And…My 2 favorites…

Grade 6 experts imparting their knowledge to younger students.

Makerspace Gr 6aMakerspace gr 6b

Getting Started with Makerspaces: LEARN’s STEAM challenges


At LEARN we’ve been reflecting on how best to increase student engagement in school, as it has been closely linked with academic achievement and students’ perceptions of their ability to succeed. One of our initiatives has been harnessing the power and appeal of the Maker Movement in the school context. To this end, we’ve been inviting teachers to Open Creative Space days at our offices and also working directly with teachers and their students in classrooms. We’ve also done whole-staff ped days at schools where there is interest in setting up a Makerspace or Open Creative Space. Working closely with teachers and students has been rewarding and has allowed us to refine our thinking about Making in schools. This post discusses one of the main ways we’ve been introducing Making to teachers and students – our STEAM Challenges – and explores how these challenges are just a pathway into a more holistic view of Makerspaces.

It needs to be said that our ideal scenario is one where each school has a dedicated Makerspace or Creative Space, equipped with a wide variety of materials and tools. Teachers would be able to book the space for projects, as well as have a time in their schedule dedicated to Making, Passion Projects or Genius Hour. Some of the schools we’ve worked with have a dedicated room that they have designated as their Makerspace, and some are looking at their libraries as multi-function spaces that include Making. Currently, many teachers are interested in the Maker Movement, but are looking for a pathway in, something familiar enough to allow them to feel secure with trying out a new risky and potentially time-intensive practice. Some of the concerns expressed by teachers are:

  • Students don’t have the practical skills needed to make the things they want to make
  • Teachers don’t have the practical skills needed to make the things students want to make

    (c) LEARN BY-NC-ND
  • Many students lack ideas about what they could make
  • Making something worthwhile takes too much time
  • A shared Makerspace is messy and disorganized
  • Do Makerspace activities fit into the QEP (Quebec curriculum)?

At LEARN, we have been addressing many of these concerns by working with teachers and students on a series of open-ended challenges. These STEAM challenges allow for many ways of proceeding and for many possible discoveries and end products. Typically, we plan nearly a full day with a class, starting just after recess and often going until the end of the day. In that time frame, we are able to have 3 challenges blocks of about 45 minutes each, with an intro and a debrief at the end. We work with teachers remotely to choose the challenges offered to students, and ideally students pre-select their top three challenge choices from the 6 or 7 options offered to them. Each challenge is set up on its own table or pod and comes with a laminated challenge card which gives students the goal of the challenge and a basic overview. We circulate and give students clues or ask questions to help them get started or help them over hurdles. Sometimes, students will need to have the goal of the challenge explained to them in more detail. All our challenges and the challenge cards can be found via our working blog ocs.learnquebec.ca.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.28.06

Let’s be clear about one thing. The challenges are hard. They involve skills the students don’t have for the most part. They involve concepts that students may or may not have been exposed to, and often very peripherally, such as the idea that batteries provide power to devices, and come in many different shapes. Teachers who see the challenges for the first time are often surprised. Students who see the challenges for the first time are often surprised – “But what do we have to DO?” they ask. But, in spite of this, there has not been a single group of kids who have been unable to complete the vast majority of challenges in the timeframe provided.


When the LEARN team came to Dorset, the experience was so enriching and fun we begged them to come back a second day…The students problem-solved, used their creativity, discovered, shared, learned, got frustrated, persisted, encouraged each other, discussed and had fun. The students and teachers got so much out of the LEARN visits. – Sylviane Martinis, Dorset Elementary, LBPSB

So far, the reactions to our LEARN Challenge days have been unequivocally positive. Teachers like the challenge model because we bring all the necessary materials with us and offer a wide range of challenges. Many teachers appreciate learning along with their students, and having us handle the immediate pedagogical aspects allows them to see how they might do it in the future. We also work in their own spaces: classrooms, Makerspaces or libraries. But if there were ever any doubts as to the success of the challenges, they would be dispelled upon witnessing the reactions from the students. From students spontaneously shouting out “This is the best day EVER!” as they get their ArtBot to draw, or their robot to follow the course they programmed for it, to clamouring for their teacher to take a video to send to their parents, to spontaneous hugs received in the hallways… Every day we spend with students, we are recommitted to growing the hands-on experiential Maker Movement in schools. Every time we see a student who struggles academically experience success, we are re-energized about our work.

Ultimately, though, the goal is not to have all students doing STEAM challenges ad nauseum. The challenges, after all, are just somewhat less structured activities, which, while making them an excellent first foray into the Making journey, do not stem from students’ own passions and ideas. The challenges give students exposure and above all, basic skills. When coupled with a growth mindset in the classroom, these three elements combine into a powerful cocktail of creative potential that can find free rein in an unstructured makerspace or open creative space, where there are no challenges, only materials, time and distributed expertise. Is Making a panacea for all the ills of education? Probably not. But the transformative power of creating has the potential to breathe new life into our system and ignite passion for learning. We’ll take it.


Read more:

Myth busting – Teaching to discriminate fake science from real science

Remixed by S. Bielec from photo by thierry hermann CC BY 2.0

When I was a teenager I remember my mother, herself a research scientist at the time, advising me that it was not how much science you knew that was important. Rather it was how to recognize whom to believe that was vital to becoming a scientifically literate citizen. Though that was some 60 years ago, it is even more important today. We are bombarded with so much science and technology information on a daily basis it’s hard to know what is real and what is fake.

Much of scientific theory is sound, evidence-based and solidly researched with universal acceptance among the scientific community and has stood the test of time. The theories of gravity, atomic structure and photosynthesis, for example, have few if any detractors. Others, though with solid research and wide scientific acceptance behind them, have groups which have their reasons not to embrace them. Darwin’s theory of evolution, the link between global warming and human actions, the causal relation between smoking and lung cancer are concepts which have skeptics among many outside the scientific community (and even among certain scientists).   More troubling however is the proliferation of fake or pseudo-science among unsuspecting members of society, as McGill’s Dr Joe Schwarcz has often pointed out. The “scientific” basis of homeopathy is one such widespread fraud. The fake and discredited link between vaccination and autism is another.

So how do we decide whom to believe? How do we get our students to learn to discriminate between accepted evidence-based science and fake science – hearsay, promotions from special interest groups and unsubstantiated fear mongering? Perhaps the solution to the problem begins in the science classroom. In order for students to accept science they need to DO real science. They need to participate in meaningful scientific inquiries – ask real questions, decide what to do to find the solution and carry it out, gather and analyze appropriate evidence and come to some conclusion about their original questions. Sometimes the process is clear and expected, but frequently it can be somewhat messy and inconclusive – often giving rise to doubts and further questions. That’s the way science is.

The solar furnace

In my visits researching science activities of some of our teachers, I had the pleasure of observing Christine Pouget, a teacher at Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School. As part of her Secondary 4 science curriculum, she challenged her students to answer the question, “Can solar energy be used to heat water for cooking?” The activity, based on the curriculum areas of energy conservation and heat transfer, was a meaningful real-world topic for students – especially useful in less advantaged world contexts. Students set about designing an experiment and creating a set-up to test their hypothesis. Other than giving them a rough sketch of a possible apparatus, Christine gave the design control over to the students – working in groups of 2 or 3.

Student-made solar furnace

After some classroom discussion of heat reflection, radiation and absorption, they got to work.   As shown in the photo, one group of students constructed their cooker and put in a beaker of water inside. They set it out in the sun with a control next to it and measured how much the temperature rose in each case. Comparing the temperature of the water in both the experimental and control situations, they were able to make a conclusion based on the data they collected. Though it was a simple experiment, they soon realized that there were many factors which had to be considered before coming to a clear conclusion. For how long should they collect data? Were the air temperature and wind factors? Did the time of day make a difference?   What if clouds obscured the sun? In other words what appeared to lead to a clear-cut answer was much more complicated than originally anticipated.


A key benefit for the students was an emerging understanding of the scientific process. An important result of going through the scientific process for students was that they learned how to base decisions about scientific “facts” on real observed evidence. More importantly, they began to learn how to evaluate whether or not the evidence was solid enough to draw a reasonable conclusion – a vital process for evaluating “truth” and “fact”.


Productive Failure in Science Learning

img_2352-768x576Has this ever happened to you? Some time ago I was putting together a bathroom cabinet kit following the Ikea instructions as carefully as I could. When I was close to completion, having struggled and cursed throughout the process, I realized that I had put one of the panels on backwards – requiring me to take apart and redo pretty much the entire process. Lo and behold, I found that this second attempt was much easier. My initial “failure” was, in fact, a great learning experience. I realized that now I really understood the process – that I had learned it much more deeply than if it had come to me more easily. This struggle, from initial failure to eventual success, was an important part of my learning and, as an added benefit, it helped me in future similar projects.

While schools pay lip service to the idea of failure as positive, students seem to be increasingly anxious about their school performance and afraid to “fail” at any level. In a recent post to Psychology Today, in discussing decreasing student resilience, Peter Gray (2015) argues that “Students are afraid to fail, they do not take risks, they need to be certain about things. Failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable”. How did we get here?

A Tale of Two Math Classes

We know that failure can lead to deeper understanding and more effective learning. In a study by M. Kapur in Instructional Science in 2010, two large grade 7 groups were given a complex mathematics problem involving speed and distance. One group was taught in a very structured traditional way directed by the teacher with all the supports necessary. The teacher worked them through and they solved the problem. The other group was given no instruction or support at all. Both had a few days to work. The unsupported group worked in teams and struggled through the week. They were mostly unsuccessful in their efforts. The teacher then helped them with the strategies they could not come up with themselves. What was interesting however was that in subsequent post-tests in which both groups were given other problems of varying degrees of difficulty to solve, the students in the initially unsupported groups performed significantly better than their well-supported peers – and this in problems of all degrees of difficulty. According to Kapur – and this part is important – students in the unstructured groups “develop structures—concepts, representations, and methods—for solving complex problems” while those given step-by-step procedures “may not understand why those concepts, representations, and methods are assembled or structured in the way that they are”.

Productive Failure

This “productive failure” method is very much in line with the constructivist approach in teaching science and technology. The implication of a constructivist-based pedagogy for science learning is that students need opportunities to think their own way through problems in order to be able to solve more. They need to explore relationships between variables, create models for scientific phenomena, and build technological objects fo
r example. They access prior knowledge, face cognitive dilemmas, cooperate with one another to struggle with real problems and construct their knowledge and understanding of the scientific world. They need to wrestle with different possible ways to come up with solutions both with each other and on their own. Following a set of detailed instructions from the teacher doesn’t necessarily give them this opportunity.

So what is a science teacher to do – faced with the task of completing a full curriculum in a limited time? Experienced teachers know that completely unguided activities are seldom productive and often leave their students frustrated and discouraged. In fact there is a lot of literature from cognitive psychologists which agrees. Kirschner (2006) for example disagrees with constructivist teaching methodology and claims that “Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.” However so many teachers I have worked with and observed have developed ways of providing opportunities for students to discover, construct and struggle with their learning and, at the appropriate time, provide the needed support to get their students on the right track.   Perhaps that’s the art of effective teaching!

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to observe a bridge construction project in Danielle Couture’s Secondary 4 Applied Science and Technology (AST) class at Heritage Regional Himg_2372-768x576igh School in Greenfield Park. Though the program calls for a rigorous design phase before the students embark on the hands-on construction, Danielle left this aspect until after the students had begun to manipulate their creation. She knew that her students were motivated by hands-on action-oriented activities and quickly got bored with theoretical discussions and lengthy pre-activity designs. That’s why they chose AST in the first place. Her approach was to have them get to work as quickly as possible. She had a brief full-class discussion with them about the problem at hand and had them begin work in their groups of two or three by drawing a rough sketch of what they intended to build. She knew that their designs would likely change frequently as they encountered unforeseen obstacles during the building process. She reasoned that a detailed drawing after the construction would be a much more accurate reflection of the reality of their project and still give them the engineering design experience required by the program. The discussions between students were often quite intense as they tried to solve the many problems that arose. Usually these discussions were about the design because they would not be working as originally expected. Students would take on different roles. Some emerged as the leaders, pushing their partners to agree with their vision and directing the construction work. Some passively accepted what the others suggested and did what they were told. This overcoming of the obstacles or “failures” they encountered continuously was an essential part of their development of a much deeper understanding of the engineering aspect of the program.   Danielle gave her students the opportunity to struggle and fail in order to redirect their thinking, deepen their understanding and ultimately experience success in a more significant way.


Gray, P. (2015). Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges. Psychology Today, September, 2015.

Kapur, M. (2010). Productive failure in mathematical problem solving. Instructional Science, 38 (6), 523-550.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

von Glasersfeld, E. (1996). Radical constructivism : a way of knowing and learning. London: Falmer.

Science Misconceptions: A new look on conceptual change

How does a homopolar motor work? It’s probably not what you think…

This is a guest post by Guillaume Malenfant-Robichaud and Patrice Potvin from the Équipe de recherche en éducation scientifique et technologique [ÉREST] at UQAM.

It is well known by science educators that students come to school riddled with scientific misconceptions that are hard to get rid of and often interfere with new learning. Here’s a common one: the idea that we experience seasons because of the earth’s changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter), rather than because of the tilt in the Earth’s axis. While all teachers sometimes struggle with students’ erroneous beliefs when teaching new ideas or concepts, science teachers win when it comes to the most firmly entrenched conceptual misunderstandings. While students’ misconceptions and how to overcome them have been widely studied, the research has produced no widely accepted teaching models to address these that are readily available to teachers (diSessa, 2006)[1]. Science teachers, it would appear, have been on their own with this one.

The issue with most of the existing models on how to overcome misconceptions is that they assume that conceptual change is hard to achieve because students must radically restructure their existing knowledge to understand new counter-intuitive information. According to this view, initial conceptions have to be modified or even replaced to denote a completed conceptual change. However, many experts (among them l’Équipe de Recherche en Éducation Scientifique et Technologique [ÉREST]), are challenging this vision. Instead, they believe that misconceptions are never completely erased and that they coexist in the brain. The following will briefly introduce the research carried out by ÉREST members and how our use of mental chronometry and functional neuroimaging allowed us to propose a new teaching method based on inhibiting misconceptions that may lead to more durable learning.

Two breakthrough studies[2] have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe different brain regions’ activity during a task on electricity (Masson, Potvin, Riopel, & Brault Foisy, 2014; Potvin, Turmel and Masson, 2014) and mechanics (Brault Foisy, Potvin, Riopel, & Masson, 2015). In both cases, experts showed a greater activation in regions associated with inhibition when correctly evaluating scientific stimuli (where a misconception needs to be neglected). Thus expertise is characterized by the ability to overcome mistakes commonly made by novices. Another study used a different methodology to test the persistence of a common misconception about buoyancy (heavy objects sink more than lighter ones) (Potvin, Masson, Lafortune, & Cyr, 2014). Analysis of reaction-time showed that intuitive stimuli (bigger object sinks more) took less time to be correctly identified compared to counter-intuitive stimuli (smaller object sinks more). Once again, inhibition seems to be necessary to “think like a scientist.”

These results inspired a new model of conceptual prevalence based on coexistence and inhibition (Potvin, 2013). This model proposed three steps to aim at long-term comprehension:

  1. Clarify the desired conception: Make sure the students learn and understand the desired conception before attacking its rivals.
  2. Install inhibitive “stop signs”: Make the students aware of the shortcomings of their misconceptions and when they usually make mistakes.
  3. Make it stick: Since misconceptions are never erased, teachers should never consider a good answer to be “the end” of learning. They should help students develop automaticity through questionning and various examples over time to ensure the durability of the scientific concepts.

These results might only be the tip of the iceberg. More research is needed to really grasp this new idea in which both correct and incorrect conceptions coexist in students’ brains. That is why we are currently also testing this hypothesis in chemistry learning. We are doing in-depth analysis of the relationship that exists between inhibition and conceptual change and also the relationship between inhibition and difficulty in science. All this work will hopefully lead us to better recommendations to help students learn science… for good.


[1] See Potvin, P. (2011). Manuel d’enseignement des sciences et de la technologie. Québec, Québec : Éditions MultiMondes. for a review of the most popular models and how to use them in a classroom (In French)

[2] See http://www.associationneuroeducation.org/ for more information about these studies and others using neuroimaging in education.

Brault Foisy, L.-M., Potvin, P., Riopel, M., & Masson, S. (2015). Is inhibition involved in overcoming a common physics misconception in mechanics? Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 4(1), 26-36.

diSessa, A. A. (2006). A history of conceptual change research: Threads and fault lines. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. (pp. 265-281). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Masson, S., Potvin, P., Riopel, M., & Brault Foisy, L. M. (2014). Differences in brain activation between novices and experts in science during a task involving a common misconception in electricity. Mind, Brain, and Education, 8(1), 44-55.

Potvin, P. (2013). Proposition for improving the classical models of conceptual change based on neuroeducational evidence: Conceptual prevalence. Neuroeducation, 2(1), 16-43.

Potvin, P., Masson, S., Lafortune, S., & Cyr, G. (2014). Persistence of the intuitive conception that heavier objects sink more: a reaction time study with different levels of interference. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 1-23.

Potvin, P., Turmel, É. & Masson, S. (2014). Linking neuroscientific research on decision making to the educational context of novice students assigned to a multiple-choice scientific task involving common misconceptions about electrical circuits. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8(14), 1-13

Wandersee, J. H., Mintzes, J. J., & Novak, J. D. (1994). Research on alternative conceptions in science. In D. L. Gabel (Ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp. 177-210). New York, NY: Macmillan.

Effective Science Teaching: A Tale of Two Teachers

scienceOver many years of teaching science myself and working with science teachers, I have come across many great teachers who guided their students to be successful learners and often inspired them to become scientists themselves. One thing has become clear to me – every one of these teachers developed their own pedagogy – their personal way of making their students science learners.

“Mr. Allen is a good teacher, but he doesn’t know much”

When I was a science consultant in the 1990s, I often visited John Allen, a Chemistry teacher at Riverdale High School. He was very effective at getting his students to learn successfully and enjoy Chemistry. He embraced cooperative learning, becoming popular in science classrooms at the time, and had his classes organized in structured learning groups for almost all of his classroom activities. When a student would approach him with a question, his first response was always to suggest they go back to their group and figure it out for themselves. He recounted to me that one day he was walking down the hall behind a couple of his students and overheard one say to the other, “Mr. Allen is a good teacher, but he doesn’t know much”! He smiled to himself, feeling confident in his belief that the teacher should be a facilitator and not the source of all knowledge and that students should play a major part in constructing their own knowledge and understanding.

The right amount of challenge and hands-on action

Sharon Lamb at Lindsay Place High School believed that real learning comes from building your own understanding from active classroom experimenting – and believed it was important for students to develop their own methods to conduct an experiment. She realized that this can be messy and time-consuming but that it is an effective way of ensuring deep understanding. I agree. I have always found that if students struggle with their understanding, and persist through it, they are more likely to really get it.

One activity I observed in her class was “the constant velocity car” “The company calls this a constant velocity vehicle”, said Sharon as she held up a small toy car for the class to see. “I want you to find out if this is honest advertising.” After questioning their understanding of speed of an object in motion and how to calculate it, Sharon pointed to a table with meter sticks, stop watches, masking tape and toy cars. She challenged them to figure out a way of not only measuring the speed of the car, but also finding out of the speed is constant over a certain distance. Soon, in groups of two or three, they were in the school hallway measuring set distances for their cars to travel and marking different lengths with masking tape. In hushed tones (most of the time) they discussed and argued with each other, conscious of not disturbing the other classes. “How can we get it to go straight?” “Will the battery hold up?” “How far should the car go?” “How do we calculate the speed?” “How do we make sure it’s constant?” were some of the questions overheard among the animated conversations going on.

Students measured distances, timed their trials and calculated speeds. They ran back and forth from group to group comparing their methods with the others and asked Sharon how to deal with obstacles as they arose. She encouraged them, but at the same time challenged their thinking. “That’s cool how you’re testing for speed using a 2-metre track. How are you going to record the time for the different distances?” she asked two girls. The mood of the groups varied from excitement to frustration to satisfaction and pride as they progressed through this activity. With Sharon’s guidance and a collective sharing of understanding among the students, they all came up with some form of conclusion about the honesty of the company’s claim.

Photo: The Constant Velocity Car
The Constant Velocity Car – photo by K.Elliott

As a two-day Applied Science and Technology activity, Sharon used it to reinforce and give personal meaning to the calculation of constant velocity. She gave them control over the procedure, all the while keeping a close eye on them to nudge them in the right direction when frustration set in or when she saw them going in an unproductive direction. All students were thoroughly engrossed in it. It had just the right amount of challenge and hands-on action.


In my blog posts, for instance, this one, I have been making a case for inquiry-based science education as the most effective way for students to learn science and technology. Visiting different classrooms and talking to many teachers, however, it is clear that there are many ways to approach the teaching of science – and that the different approaches are the result of the many situations that teachers face on a day-to-day basis. Some of the factors that influence their pedagogy are

  • demographics and special needs (who are the students?)
  • curriculum requirements and number of concepts to tackle
  • philosophical bent (I think students learn best when…)
  • exam requirements (teachers want students to succeed)
  • administrative considerations (scheduling, number of periods…)
  • how teachers were taught themselves.

Mixing the research findings supporting inquiry-based pedagogy with the reality of today’s classrooms and a teacher’s own path through their professional learning – that is the challenge of science teachers everywhere.

Applied Science and Technology – An idea whose time has come

Ken Elliot at work/play

A few years ago I had the pleasure of observing Secondary 4 (Grade 10) classes in the Montreal area as part of my PhD research into the implementation of a then new and different program called Applied Science and Technology (AST). What made it different from the “regular” program, Science and Technology (ST) was that its methodology required that students learn science concepts by studying their real-life applications. In other words, students learn the concepts in large part only after they have seen the concepts in action.

The Applied Science and Technology program was implemented in many English high schools in the fall of 2008. Currently, students can choose between equally-valued science courses – Science and Technology (ST) and Applied Science and Technology (AST) in Secondary 3 and again in Secondary 4. Although people have trouble remembering this, the name “Applied” does not mean that the course is lower academically. Rather it refers to a different orientation from that of ST.

So what’s the difference?

While technology, meaning engineering technology, has become an integral part of the content and activities of both programs, AST places a greater emphasis on it in both the course content and its assessment. AST also differs from ST in that it offers students a more practical approach to learning science. AST places particular emphasis on the applications of science and technology and explains the applications as “practical achievements (objects, systems, products or processes), which are characterized by their operation, the materials of which they are made, the associated scientific and technological principles and the way in which they are built or manufactured” (MELS, 2007, p. 22).

The writing of AST was influenced by the positions held by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC), and the Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) movement, trending across the world of science education (Bybee & Fuchs, 2006; Gengarelly & Abrams, 2009).

The STEM movement promotes inquiry-based learning, context-based learning, constructivism and problem based-learning with the inclusion of engineering design principles in the science curricula (Barma & Guilbert, 2006; Potvin & Dionne, 2007). In 1995, the CMEC adopted the Common Framework of Science Learning Outcomes K to 12. This influential document was designed as a blueprint for scientific literacy for all Canadian students.

Who takes AST?

Students from both ST and AST must write a final Ministry exam at the end of Secondary 4. Recent Quebec Ministry of Education documents show that, among the English school boards, in 2014, 27 schools had active AST classes. This represents about one-half of all English high schools and about 1/3 of all Secondary 4 science students. Its popularity varies widely from board to board. Some have very few AST classes while others have almost all students following the program. Since the passing of either ST or AST is a requirement for a high school diploma – and therefore entry to CEGEP – parents and students need to know that either program gives equal chances for this opportunity. In fact, according to Ministry results, pass rates and average marks are about the same overall, with AST students achieving better marks in some cases.

The Hydraulic Arm – Engineering Technology in Action

As I was doing my research into the implementation of AST, I visited a number of schools in the Montreal area to find out what activities were being used to develop the engineering technology aspect of the program.

One of my visits was to Laurentian Regional High School, a school serving a mostly rural student population. Here the applied approach to science learning was the preference of most students and AST was considered to be the “high level” program. For most boys and girls, using tools and doing hands-on projects were a natural part of their rural lifestyle and so the applied approach to science and technology fit naturally with their learning style.

Setting the Scene: The teacher Scott Morrill introduced the hydraulic arm activity by discussing the heavy machinery that they all see regularly on their farms and on the roads and construction sites. He led them to a discussion on the need for these machines to have hydraulic arms to do much of the heavy lifting and moving. As a lead–in to the activity he and the class did a lab investigation of a syringe, focusing on Pascal’s Principle, the basis for the theory and use of hydraulics. He then related the syringe and the pressure exerted by the liquid to hydraulic jacks that the students are all familiar with. The QEP specifies that, in Secondary 4, AST students must study the engineering aspects of motion transmission systems (MELS, 2011b, p. 33).

Ever the humourist, Scott quipped “It’s jack week at Laurentian Regional HS”. He had the class do a 15-minute analysis of two types of car jacks to remind them of the important technical aspects of jacks – the links, degrees of freedom, forces, and controls involved.

Designing and Building the Arm: Scott then introduced an activity whose aim was to construct a model of a hydraulic arm whose purpose was to scoop up a quantity of “kitty litter” and transfer it from one container to another. This was to simulate a steam shovel moving earth at a construction site. With a physical model which he displayed in the front of the class, the students went to work on their designs.

The activity took place in the Technology lab. It is a large room equipped with floor-mounted tools, a heavy duty dust collection and ventilation system, large working tables and ample cupboard space for storage of projects. In many schools the technology lab is the old woodworking shop – updated for the new Science and Technology programs.. The photo below gives an idea of the use of the tools.

Photo: Tech Lab

To construct their hydraulic arms students had a wide variety of tools available to them – band saw, drill press, sander, and miter saw, among others. They knew what to do and what equipment to use. Their expertise with the tools was remarkable. The girls were as comfortable with the use of floor-mounted tools as the boys. One girl explained, “We’re all confident using these tools. We can do it, no problem!”

As I have observed in other schools, these students did not place a lot of importance on the designing process before they constructed their project. They are more comfortable working from a rough sketch and designing the details as they go. I observed one group closely to see how this process would work. They progressed effectively by discussing and planning in their heads with scant reference to their written sketch. For example, while putting together the arm, as one held two pieces of wood, they discussed where to drill a hole to join the parts. One of them went to drill the hole while the other sanded the base. Both returned, discussed the hole placement and returned together to the drill press to make an adjustment. This “hands-on planning” was typical of the designing process in Scott’s classes. It was also very common in the other classes I observed during my research in AST classes.

Photo: Building the arm

Testing the Hydraulic Arm: Scott set up a testing area on the demonstration bench at the front of the room. He placed a large tray of kitty litter and, group-by-group, students brought their projects forward to test how much litter they could scoop up and place in a second tray. Before the testing, Scott reminded them of the need to hand in a written design and report of their work. Realizing that they are less enthusiastic about written work than they are on the hands-on aspects of science, he told them, “Nothing counts if a written report isn’t handed in. Like it or not, that’s what you’re judged on!”

As each group underwent the test, groups of five to 10 other students stood around the area to watch with interest. As groups ran into problems, other students offered suggestions for improvements. There was no sign of frustration when things didn’t work properly. They were in a mode of problem solving and eager to help each other. This was an impressive display of student engagement, motivation, cooperative relationships and learning of science applications – a compelling demonstration of the value of the applied approach to science learning.

References and further reading

American Association for the Advcancement of Science (AAAS). (1993). Science for All Americans: Project 2061. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bybee, R. W., & Fuchs, B. (2006). Preparing the 21st century workforce: A new reform in science and technology education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(4)

Council of Ministers of Education. (1997). Common framework of science learning outcomes K to 12 : pan-Canadian protocol for collaboration on school curriculum. [Toronto]: Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.

Gengarelly, L. M., & Abrams, E. D. (2009). Closing the Gap: Inquiry in Research and the Secondary Science Classroom. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(1), 74-84.

Ministère de l’Éducation du Loisir et du Sport du Québec (MELS). (2011). Quebec Education Program Progression of Learning in Secondary School Science and Technology Cycle One Applied Science and Technology Science and the Environment. Quebec.

National Research Council (NRC). (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: a guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Research Council

Potvin, P., & Dionne, E. (2007). Realities and Challenges of Educational Reform in the Province of Québec: Exploratory Research on Teaching Science and Technology. McGill Journal of Education Online, 42(3), 393-410.

Science Misconceptions – How Should Teachers Deal With Them?

arrowsWe’ve all heard or expressed the common teacher refrain or some variation of “I taught it to them so many times and in so many different ways and yet they still got it wrong on the exam!” It’s frustrating and hard to comprehend how something which may have been thoroughly and skillfully taught, and by all indications well understood by the students, just doesn’t take hold. Perhaps what is happening is that we are trying to teach something that contradicts the students’ existing erroneous conceptions on the subject. Unfortunately such existing misconceptions have more “sticking” power and often remain as the student’s dominant explanation.

For example, if you ask your Secondary 2 students to explain why summers are warmer than winters, you may often get the explanation that in summer the Sun is closer to the Earth than in winter. Many teachers have found that even if you take them through a teaching unit which explains the seasons as the result of the tilt of the earth’s axis, students will often remain faithful to their original misconception that seasons are a result of the earth’s relative proximity to (or of a possible variation of the intensity of) the sun.

Dr. Patrice Potvin, a science education professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), has done considerable research into student misconceptions in science (more correctly referred to as alternate conceptions!). He has studied the nature of these conceptions with an eye to helping teachers help their students deal with them and direct them to more acceptable scientific understandings. But he has discovered, as so many science teachers have too, that student misconceptions can be very tenacious. Dr Potvin notes that “a growing number of studies have argued that many frequent non-scientific conceptions (sometimes designated as “misconceptions”) will not vanish or be recycled during learning, but will on the contrary survive or persist in learners’ minds even though these learners eventually become able to produce scientifically correct answers.” Potvin et al. (2015).

What then can teachers do in the classroom to mitigate the learning obstacles presented by these misconceptions?   Dr. Potvin has recently done research in which he has exposed students in different science disciplines and of different ages to “treatments”. In all cases students were given a pre-test, then exposed to a “treatment” i.e. a teaching situation designed to teach the correct concept, and then a post-test to see if the initial misconception had changed for the better. In one study of Grade 5 and 6 students, for example, he tackled the factors which influence an object’s buoyancy in water – trying to steer them away from the erroneous idea that size or weight alone determine buoyancy. In another study of physics students he worked to correct incorrect notions of electric currents – that a single wire can light a bulb or that a bulb consumes current, for example. Both of these studies involved large numbers of students, rigorous experimental methodology and sophisticated statistical analysis to determine whether or not the results were significant. The results showed the tenacity of student misconceptions. They were written up in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Potvin’s research makes a couple of suggestions to teachers:

  • Be aware that initial misconceptions may persist and so teach with durability in mind.
  • Provoke “conceptual conflicts” by giving illustrations which dramatically illustrate the differences between the correct and the erroneous conceptions. For example when trying to dispel the idea that the weight of an object is the main factor in its buoyancy, he suggests “comparing the buoyancy of a giant tanker boat (that floats even though it weights thousands of tons) to that of a sewing needle would provoke a stronger conceptual conflict than, say, comparing a wooden ball with a slightly bigger lead ball” Potvin (2015)

This is just a brief glimpse of the research being carried out in this complex area of science education, both locally at UQAM as well as internationally and being reported in many academic journals of science education.

With this in mind, an interesting project is being undertaken at McGill University to help teachers tackle science misconceptions that their students bring to the class. As a joint bilingual undertaking of McGill and UQAM, its aim is to help teachers of Cycle 1 secondary Science and Technology (S&T) diagnose and hopefully correct their students’ alternate conceptions in as many of the 85 concepts of the MELS S&T program as possible. Teachers from 3 school boards (two English and one French) have been working hard to develop diagnostic questions for the concepts – questions whose incorrect answers help identify misconceptions their students have. Corrective measures are also being developed to help teachers guide their students. LEARN Quebec is a partner in the project and will be the online distributor to teachers across the province once the question bank has been completed. Hopefully, along with the current research being done, this will help advance our students’ understanding of the science concepts needed to make them scientifically literate members of society.


Some references

Potvin, P., Mercier, J., Charland, P., & Riopel, M. (2012). Does classroom explicitation of initial conceptions favour conceptual change or is it counter-productive. Research in Science Education, 42(3), 401–414.

Potvin, P., Sauriol, É. and Riopel, M. (2015), Experimental evidence of the superiority of the prevalence model of conceptual change over the classical models and repetition. J Res Sci Teach, 52: 1082–1108. doi:10.1002/tea.21235

Science Fairs: Yea or Nay?

science_fairThis post was co-written with Heather McPherson.

What has been your experience with science fairs? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.ca

Traditionally winter is science fair season and students here in Quebec and all across North America were busy putting the finishing touches on their projects – pasting their results on their display boards, rehearsing their presentations for the judges, and making sure that their design works properly or their experiment produces the required data. By mid-winter most schools have had their local fairs and the best projects are being honed for regional, national and international fairs.

We can’t imagine schools without their science fairs – they are a poster-board fixture on the school science scene. But are science fairs actually good for student learning of science? Do they motivate students to want to do inquiry-based science and pursue further studies in science? Are they worth the teacher, student and parent time and effort required? Is there research to back up the value of participation?

By its nature, science fairs require students to engage in the process of inquiry learning. Students choose a topic based on their interest. Throughout this process, the student is in complete control of the process with guidance from teachers and mentors. This is the basic precept of inquiry learning. According to Yeoman et al (2011), learning through inquiry is closely linked to high-quality practical work. Science fair projects demand inquiry skills, and they do produce high quality results from students. Every year newspapers report on the extraordinary scientific work done by young boys and girls as a direct result of the inquiry processes undertaken during their projects. Over lunch or coffee listening to the judges at the Montreal Regional Science and Technology Fair (MRSTF) or the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF), discussing the projects they have evaluated, one gets a sense not only of the high level of the inquiry work done but also of the palpable enthusiasm of the student scientists.

Frank LaBanca (2008) however reported that there was almost no published research on inquiry and problem learning associated with science fairs. So what do we know? Literature reports that student involvement in science fairs promotes positive attitudes about science. Laura Fisanick (2010) found that teachers believe science fairs promote students interest in science and provide opportunities for students to learn. Science fairs do have their critics however. According to a study by Abernathy and Vineyard (2001), detractors criticize:
• problems with subjective judging,
• an overemphasis on competition,
• lack of clarity with the rules,
• too much teacher control,
• too much parent control,
• mandated competition
Syer, Cassidy A. & Shore (2010) also point out that the pursuit of extrinsic rewards of marks and prizes and the often-compulsory nature of the participation can undermine any intrinsic motivation the student may have had at the outset.

Who participates in science fairs in Quebec? According to Hydro Quebec, in 2014, more than 15,000 young people took part in local, regional or in the pan-Quebec finals. Interestingly, Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that women were underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – that only 39% of STEM university graduates aged 25 to 34 were female. However in the 2013 MRSTF fully 66% of participants were female! So perhaps participation in science fair competitions can help address the gender gap in STEM disciplines in post-secondary studies. In fact some research does show that there is a positive correlation between science fair participation and future enrolment in STEM-related studies (Sahin, 2013).

Quebec has a very active science fair scene. The Educational Alliance for Science and Technology (EAST) has been organizing the MRSTF since 1983. In fact EAST also organizes robotics competitions at junior and senior levels in the Montreal area. In May 2016 EAST will be joining with the Ministry of Education and other Quebec-based groups to host the Canada Wide Science Fair at McGill University.
Science fairs require effort, time and dedication from students, teachers, mentors and organizers. They provide a real showcase for aspiring young scientists to demonstrate their inquiry skills.

Abernathy, Tammy V. and Vineyard, Richard N. (2001). Academic Competitions in Science; What Are the Rewards for Students? The Clearing House.

Czerniak, Charlene M., and Lumpe,Andrew T. (1996): Predictors of Science Fair Participation Using the Theory of Planned Behavior. School Science and Mathematics 96 (7) 355-61.

Fisanick, Laura. (2010). A Descriptive Study of the Middle School Science Teacher Behaviour for Required Student Participation in Science Fair Competitions. Thesis. Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

LaBanca, Frank. (2008). Impact of Problem Finding on the Quality of Authentic Open Inquiry Science Research Projects. Thesis. Western Connectiticut State University.

Yeoman, K. H., James, H. A., & Bowater, L. (2011). Development and Evaluation of an Undergraduate Science Communication Module. Bioscience Education, 17.

Sahin, Alpasian. (2013). STEM Clubs and Science Fair Competitions: Effects on Post-Secondary Matriculation. Journal of STEM Education Innovations and Research, 14 (1) 5-11.

Syer, Cassidy A. & Shore, Bruce M. (2010). Science Fairs: What Are the Sources of Help for Students and How Prevalent Is Cheating?, School Science and Mathematics, 101 (4) 206-220.