Direct Instruction in Science (2)

Faultless communication is one of the nine features of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. According to Engelmann, this principle underpins all curriculum delivery and explains how examples and non-examples can be used by teachers to convey new ideas. First I will briefly explore the principles of faultless communication and then show how we interpreted them for science teaching.

There are five principles that underpin faultless communication. First is the wording principle referring to the use of simple and structured phases to describe examples. This provides focus to the details of the idea and limits the possibility of misinterpreting the information that is being taught.

Next is the setup principle that refers to the use of examples and non-examples. It states that it is important to limit the differences between your example and non-examples to one change to reduce any ambiguity to that the point that is being illustrated is clear and can be replicated by the students.

The difference principle can be used in conjunction with this. This is where many examples and non-examples are used to show the limits of a concept. However, it is important that you show two examples which are very similar apart from the one significant difference you are trying to highlight. This is even more effective when the objects are juxtaposed so that the similarities and differences are most obvious.

Also referring to the use of examples and non-examples is the sameness principle. This states that when choosing the examples to illustrate a concept it is important to choose ones that illustrate the range of variation within the concept to limit the misconceptions that student can develop this then enables them to transfer their understanding to wider contexts.

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Examples following the sameness principle

Finally, the testing principle explores the need for frequent, randomized, testing. This strategy allows the teacher to analyze the understanding of the pupils and adjust the teaching accordingly to meet their needs. It is important that any tests developed be randomized so that students are not able to predict a pattern to their results, which would lead to the teacher having an inaccurate understanding of their students’ progress.

Here are some examples of how we interpreted these for our science curriculum. We were focusing on Year 7 and using these resources to introduce new ideas at the start of the Spring term.

Each of these examples adheres to the wording principle by making sure that the statements are as clear as possible and have similar wording. What we found difficult is that there are usually so many aspects to scientific examples that it was hard to pinpoint one of two differences. So for the terminal velocity example we tried to incorporate the difference principle and sameness principle. Students can have the misconception that only falling objects reach terminal velocity. This shows that this is not true by illustrating a wide range of examples of the theory in use, whilst also addressing the link between terminal velocity and how aerodynamic they are.

Another key part of our work around faultless communication was to make sure we found a really wide range of examples. This was easier for some topics than others. For example animal cells. Students commonly misunderstand that certain specialized cells are also animal cells because they do not look like the usual ‘textbook’ diagram of an animal cell. Here we have chosen a large range of examples to demonstrate the sameness principle whilst also addressing the misconception. When these were delivered in class they also provided great opportunity to develop metacognitive skills. Staff were able to delve deeper into the students understanding and get them to explain why each of the examples were animal cells or free body diagrams representing terminal velocity.

Of course science examples don’t just include images, so we took the lead of the English examples that I linked in my last blog to help with written examples.

These examples also acted as a bit of a script for the team to use with each of their classes. It was important that there was consistency of delivery between the test groups.

This whole process was our first stab at creating resources like this and I would love to hear any feedback on them. As well as creating more of these for the other topics, we are also going to move on to looking at how we can assess the impact of these resources. My next post will begin to explain how we are going about measuring their effectiveness and the direction we hope to head post COVID.

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