Graphics—key to science and maths success in schools

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Developing diagrams and visual representations can lead to huge improvements in student performance and engagement in STEM subjects. Deakin researchers are taking their findings to schools across the country.

Diagrams, graphs and sketches – and even physical gesturing – have always played a role in , but a research team at Deakin has identified the central role they play in learning processes in both science and mathematics. The team is using this knowledge to work with international researchers to achieve a whole new level of performance and engagement in STEM for primary and secondary students.

Since undertaking their first Australian Research Council (ARC) project in 2007, Professor of Science Education, Russell Tytler, Associate Professor Peter Hubber and Professor Vaughan Prain have developed an innovative "representation construction approach" that is achieving significant improvements in – and influencing science educators around the world.

"Really it's about engaging kids in the genuine practices of science," said Professor Tytler. "It's about investigating, asking questions, exercising curiosity, or developing curiosity about the world.

"It gives a much more powerful way of learning than simply through text and talk."

Working within Deakin's Research for Educational Impact Strategic Research Centre (REDI), the team has worked with the Victorian Department of Education to conduct professional development for hundreds of Victorian teachers and with an increasing number of individual schools in Victoria and interstate to support teachers engage their students in these powerful learning practices.

Credit: Deakin University

Maria Capsalis, Year 4 Co-ordinator at Essex Heights Primary School, has been working with the REDI researchers for the past three years and has noticed a huge improvement.

"I've been teaching for over 30 years and this has been such a wonderful experience; to see the kids being totally engaged and be able to talk about their learning – and own it," she said.

The researchers developed their approach through two further ARC projects that deepened their understanding that science and maths require co-ordinating and reasoning with multi-modal representations, such as verbal and written language, drawings and diagrams, 3-D models, mathematical forms, such as graphs, tables or equations, and embodied language, such as gesture and role play.

"What could be more effective in describing how a snake moves through grass than gesturing with a hand movement?" said Professor Tytler.

"Communicating through representations requires students to make their thinking explicit, providing opportunities to exchange and clarify meanings."

"In our digital age, there are boundless new opportunities to create maps, simulations, videos, or enhanced photos on computer technology," added Associate Professor Hubber. "This way of exploring ideas matches the knowledge-producing practices of scientists."

The researchers have developed units on a number of topics for teachers in Years 5 to 8, including astronomy, substances, forces, geology, adaptation, heat, light and energy. They are currently working across the school year levels with interstate and international researchers and teachers to explore interdisciplinary approaches to science and mathematics in the primary years, and to develop multi-modal language approaches in senior school science.

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