Idea – obstacle – solution
Jasmin: “For this lesson you could do a great experiment in the Science Lab!”
Khamsee: “I want to, and the students ask me to go almost every week, but I have almost 60 pupils in my class and they don’t fit in the laboratory.”
This conversation between Ms Khamsee Thanbounhueang and Jasmin kept us thinking “how can we fix this problem?” During our last team meeting with Johannes Zeck in October we discussed the option of splitting classes in science lessons to make use of the Science Lab more often.
Originally, there were 36 stools in the Science Lab so that eight pupils fit around one of the four large tables. But a few days after our meeting we got some more stools so that more pupils would be able to sit in the Science Lab and the Science Lab could be used more flexibly.
Even if this increases the attractiveness of the Science Lab for the teachers,1 there are some experiments which are not suitable or even dangerous if too many pupils are present, due to the fact that they would stand on each others’ feet in the small laboratory and the teacher would not be able to take care of so many pupils during those experiments. Therefore, splitting a class would be a good solution which would make it possible to provide an action-oriented and explorative learning environment for all pupils.
After we got permission from Madame Engel for the science teachers to split their classes, the next question was how this could be organised. As it holds new challenges for the teachers as well as for the pupils, careful preparation, planning in advance, finding a teacher who has time to keep an eye on the pupils in the classroom and finding appropriate tasks for both the Science Lab group and the classroom group need to be taken into consideration.
Of course, the group of the class that stays in the classroom cannot be left in the classroom unattended, but as teachers do not have lessons throughout an entire school day, the science teachers would kindly ask their colleagues if one of them has time to look after half of their class for a while. Depending on the task the group was given to do, it may also be possible for the teacher in the adjacent classroom to keep an eye on them. Obviously, for the “split classroom” teachers need a functioning system that assures that all pupils work and are not left unattended. For this, they have our support as well, of course, while we are here.
We decided to make this one of the topics for our upcoming science workshop.
As soon as we got the director’s signature on our announcement posters and invitation cards for the teachers, the date, place, and time for the workshop were set. During the preparation of our workshop we focused on three main aspects: Besides a revision of how to conduct an experiment in the Science Lab, we also wanted to show the teachers experiments they could do in their classrooms. Apart from that, we dealt with the question of how to coordinate a split classroom and which tasks would be appropriate for the group that stays in the classroom and who would take care of this group.
On the day of our workshop, a Wednesday, we prepared the equipment for the experiments, tested the presentation with the projector in the Science Lab, made some adjustments where necessary and bought some fruits and cookies.
At 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, after the school day had come to an end and the pupils had left the campus, we began our workshop with the three science teachers Ms Chanmany Thippachan (physics), Ms Khamsee Thanbounhueang (chemistry), and Mr Sackbong Boulapane (chemistry). Ms Saysamone Singhalath also participated as she had kindly offered – as always – to help our team with translating difficult parts from English into Lao.
Part 1: The day of the workshop
We started off with an agenda of what to expect from today’s workshop. At first we gave our tandem-teachers a short theoretical input about the structure of a lesson with a split class and then underlined the theory with some experiments and tasks to deepen their understanding.
The beginning of the lesson needs a short introduction of the topic in the classroom. It involves the distribution of tasks for the pupils in the classroom as well as splitting the class into two groups.
After that Marleen shortly revised how to do experiments in a lesson but as this had already been part of one of the last workshops conducted by Team V we did not go into detail. Then Jasmin asked “why…?”, emphasizing the importance of activating pupils by asking this question and waiting for their thoughts, speculations, and guesses
, when all of a sudden there was darkness and silence. Air condition, projector, and the lights had gone off.
A few seconds of shock and darkness passed until Marleen came up with the glorious idea to open the door and let daylight into the dark lab.
Then Jasmin could start with the main focus of our workshop: She listed possible activities that could be implemented to frame the experiment – like “Fill in the gap”, matching picture and sentence, the Memory game, and pupils’ experiments and tasks for the classroom – which do not require constant monitoring by the science teacher. For this half of the split class, the science teachers would kindly ask their colleagues or us volunteers if someone would have time to look after them.
In an ideal split classroom lesson, after half of the time the groups swap, meaning each group has worked in the science lab and in the classroom. The last part of the lesson takes place with the whole class meeting in the classroom. Now it is time to discuss what happened during the lesson (their tasks as well as the experiment), ask questions to check the pupils’ understanding and give them feedback about their behaviour.
Part 2: Model lesson about “air”
2.1. In the Science Lab
After the bits of revision, theoretical input about the organisation of the classroom and the experiment as well as the surprising electricity shut down, we decided that now it was time to do some practical work.
As the topic of our model lesson was “air”, all our Experiments scientifically revolved around this topic. The first experiment “Who is stronger – water or air?”2 needs to be conducted in the Science Lab because it involves water and therefore would not be suitable in the classroom. We distributed plastic bottles, drinking straws, and play dough and let our workshop participants follow the steps of the experiment.
Luckily, we did not have to rely on the projector as the teachers had the test record (see photo below) of the experiment in their handouts. The experiment worked well, and everybody produced a little fountain. The air pressure caused by blowing into the bottle through one drinking straw made the water flow out of the other straw. We encouraged the three teachers to talk about the experiment and find an explanation afterwards.
2.2. In the classroom
After tidying up a bit we moved on to our second experiment, which can be conducted in the classroom. “You against the paper ball”3 is very suitable for the classroom, as the pupils can do it without the help of a science teacher. Furthermore, this experiment is conducted quickly and easily and does not need any special guidance by a scientifically skilled person.
The teachers had great fun trying to blow the paper ball into the bottle. All of them participated in describing and explaining the phenomenon the air pressure causes. We used glass bottles for the experiment, but for the classroom plastic bottles are less dangerous and less likely to break.
The next phase once more encouraged the teachers to switch roles and do some tasks that the pupils would usually do in the classroom. The first task asks them to revise the steps of the experiment “Who is stronger – water or air?” by matching a sentence and a picture. They took turns in reading the sentences and together we found the matching pictures.
This task can be used as an activity in the classroom when the experiment has already been conducted. It can be easily adapted to other topics, to match the units in the Lao science books.
The next task was “Fill in the gap”. We had prepared a short text about air pressure in which certain words were left out. These could be found in a box under the text and had to be put in the right place in the text.
To finish our example lesson, we also wanted to show the science teachers an experiment that they can conduct in the classroom, if they are not able to use the Science Lab. Our chosen experiment “Air has weight” (cf. Christoph Biemann 2003, 52) is suitable because it does not contain fire or water and can be done with less material. Moreover, it is not dangerous, as no chemicals are involved. The experiment is also related to the topic “air”, dealing with the question whether air has weight or not.
For the experiment you need a ruler with a length of 30 centimetres, two balloons and three pieces of thread. First of all, the ruler is turned into a scale by knotting the thread around the ruler. Here, it is important to take the exact middle of the ruler. Now a balloon is put on each end of the ruler and the pupils observe what happens to it. After that, one balloon is blown up and put onto one end again. Does anything change? Everyone can participate in the discussion now, as the experiment can be observed also from the last rows in a large classroom.
2.3. Last part of the lesson
Now it was time to discuss what we learned during our example lesson. We went through the experiments and tasks again and checked if there are any open questions. They had none so far, but they took their handout back home – and the worksheets for the experiments are also in our Experiments Booklet in the science lab, which was first created for the Science Lab by Rebecca Dengler and Veronika Golla, and then added to by Shirin Ud-Din. If there were any further questions they could always contact us.
Part 3: Further example activities and tasks
In the Lao school system, teachers need to go by the (one) set book.4 When no additional material supplements this book, e.g. worksheets to practise and consolidate understanding as well as experimental games to transfer this understanding to a new context, the teachers would need to use their own creativity. This is why and how we devised some more ideas for possible activities and tasks on the subject of “air”.
The following example tasks are creative ones. We took out our scissors and by neat cutting and canny folding transformed an A4 page into our own little pocket books on the topic “sight”. Once it was crafted, we enjoyed trying out and explaining the optical illusions.
The next activity we showed them was a game for a topic from human biology. It was a “Memory” game about the inner organs and consisted of cards of pictures and cards of the corresponding names of organs,which were placed face-down on the table. This was probably the activity that everyone enjoyed the most. We took turns in picking two cards to turn over and find a matching pair and the teachers became very competitive. However, at first, they did not want to show their cards to the others and once they did, they had a big discussion about the English words for each organ. Therefore, they searched for the Lao words with the help of labeled pictures of the human anatomy they found by using the Google search engine. After vividly discussing the position of the organs the teachers added the Lao translation onto the word cards of the Memory game. We later added the Memory game to the science lab inventory so that it can be used at all times by the teachers – also after we leave.
The game took longer than expected, not only because they first did not show the cards they turned over but also because they mixed the cards after each turn instead of leaving them in the same place, until it dawned on us that we had better explain the rules of “Memory” to them. We discovered that they were not acquainted with that game and we had assumed – instead of questioning our own culturally determined assumptions – that everybody in the whole world would know this game.5 Never mind! This assumption brought even more laughter to the science lab.
Activities and tasks in science ideally serve some main goals and can be implemented in the teaching phases of practice, consolidation, and performance. This always depends on the level of difficulty of the specific activity as well as on the kind of activity. Most activities match more than just one of our didactic goals: 6
a) Deepen understading
It is important to offer the pupils the chance to process and recycle what they have learned or observed beforehand, apart from only presenting an experiment or phenomenon to them. The process of deepening the understanding can be achieved through very different forms of activities, e.g. games, but also written tasks, thereby serving different learner types. An example from our model lesson could be “Match picture and sentence”.
From our experience, the pupils are very keen on working on activities, exercises, or tasks that are not from the book, like “Fill in the gap”, games, or creative tasks. Hereby, learning becomes more playful and motivating for them and provides some variation from the regular course book work.
c) Transfer from the exemplary to the general
Similar to mathematics the challenge in science is to understand a phenomenon and become able to recognise a certain pattern or deduce a general formula from an exemplary observation. It does not suffice to stick with the exemplary as it does not enable to pupils to transfer their knowledge to other contexts.
This goal is more important in chemistry and physics where the level of abstraction increases grade by grade and the ability to generalise becomes more and more important. This goal is mainly achieved in the teaching phases of performance and consolidation. “Fill in the gap” would be an example for an activity that serves this goal. On the long run it is the most important goal as it enables the pupils to use their knowledge flexibly and critically.
As we had already overrun our time frame – we had planned 1,5 hours in the beginning – we all agreed that this was enough input for one day. We decided to quickly tidy up and then have a little chat about the workshop whilst sharing the rest of the fruits and cookies.
Everybody was very motivated throughout this long afternoon and we are now looking forward to applying what we did together in our upcoming science tandem-lessons!
Text by M. Linder & J. Unterweger, with notes by I. Martin
Photos & videos by A. Schuler
1 It is most rewarding to read that after a year-and-a-half into the science project and the pioneering work of Rebecca and Veronika, who came to work in Laos twice (in Team IV and V), as well as Shirin and Isabell (Team VI), who built on this work, the laboratory is now filled with “life”, i.e. active learning and teaching.
2 The experiment “Who is stronger – water or air?” can be found here under “Fountain Bottle”. It was adapted to the needs of the group and play dough was used instead of clay.
3 The experiment “You against the paper ball” can be found here under “Blow Their Minds”.
4 The course books are written and set by the RIES (Research Institute of Educational Sciences), which works under the Ministry of Education and Sports. Sometimes additional teaching material (e.g. flashcards or audio material) is produced to add variety to the lessons.
5 Our teaching styles and techniques encapsulate cultural meanings and practices that cannot be “imported” to foreign classrooms without constant questioning of our own (Western) assumptions. Our partners’ need of customised teaching demands constant self-examination on the part of the volunteers, which is one of the many valuable lessons learnt by the German tandems in this project. (Games in teaching are not a part of Lao culture. Board or card games as we know them in Europe as such are not a part of Lao culture.)
6 A conscientious teacher would not “pick and mix” at random, however, but make conscious decisions about his or her lesson goals first and then choose suitable activities.
Biemann, Christoph (2003). Christophs Experimente. 105 Experimente und mehr zum Staunen und Mitmachen. [105 experiments to participate and marvel at.] München: Carl Hanser.