Cycle 1 Reflection
“I’m your lab rat,” said the confident young voice at the other end of the phone line. I introduced myself and explained the concept of the literacy project. I thought he got the idea so I asked him to think about a topic in biology or chemistry that he might be interested in but that he found difficult. The next day I got an email from him saying that his ideas were, “chemical reactions and catilysts eg explosions.” In a follow up phone conversation I asked him if he had difficulty with these topics and he replied, “not really, I just haven’t really been taught any of it before.” I asked him why he chose these topics; he said that he was curious about what makes chemical reactions occur.
Then came the difficult bit, finding a text about chemical reactions that would challenge him. I was expecting the lab rat to suggest a text that he was already having trouble with rather than a topic to which he had never been exposed. Thoughts that occurred to me included only showing him a graph or a chemical formula. I was a little concerned about whether I would be able to find content that he would have difficulty with. Imagine if he simply reads and understands the text I give him with ease. In the end I settled on two pages on the collision theory from a Year 9 workbook. It included a description of the collision theory, an illustration of particles colliding, and a graph showing the activation energy of catalysed reactions. I chose this text because it uses scientific terms that I think the lab rat may not be familiar with and because I want to see whether he uses the illustration and graph to help interpret the text. Fingers crossed.
Cycle 1 Analysis
I slid the two pages of text over the table to the lab rat and he began to read. I had explained to him that I was going to closely observe him and that I was not going to assist him during this first session. He concentrated carefully as he read with his arm crossed on the table. I watched him intently and noticed that he had started at the very beginning of the two pages. Every now and then he would nod to himself as if he was clear on what he had just read. To my surprise he did not make any notes, underline any words, or highlight any text. After around five minutes he looked up at me and said, “okay” to indicate that he had completed the reading. This threw me off guard a bit as I was expecting him to perhaps ask me questions or to need clarifications on things he didn’t understand. To initiate a discussion I then asked him to explain to me what he had just read. I was slightly amazed and bemused as he eloquently and fairly accurately paraphrased the content of the text. The purpose of this project was to help a student with a text that they would find challenging, not one that they would understand with relative ease. Keep in mind that this was a year 8 student reading a year 9 text on a topic for which he had very limited background knowledge. I then decided to change tactic slightly and moved straight into the second session of the project.
Cycle 2 Reflection
As I had decided to move into the second session rather quickly, my reflection was rather brief but focused. The lab rat was fairly confident in explaining the text to me in the first session. I had feared this situation from the outset and was hoping that he would struggle a little with the task. However, I had an ace up my sleeve. I purposefully selected a text that was ill structured. When I first read it I noticed that it didn’t paint a whole picture and was a little confusing for various reasons. So, although the lab rat understood and could explain what he had read I knew that he didn’t have the whole picture. I decided quickly that the first aim of my second session would be to assist him to identify the holes in the text and to help him fill them in. My second aim was to gain a better understanding of the strategies he used to read the text because they were not evident from my observations.
Cycle 2 Analysis
I asked the lab rat to read the text again and to raise anything that he did not understand. He spent a few minutes concentrating on the text and then said that he was a little confused about the collision theory because, “the text says that particles have to collide with sufficient energy to overcome activation energy, but the illustration shows the opposite.” I though he was mistaken until I took a closer look, the illustration was mislabeled and contradicted the text. This was something that I hadn’t even noticed because I had a strong understanding of the collision theory. I took this as a very important lesson. There are many mistakes in high school scientific texts that teachers may not notice but which can mislead students. Another thing he was unsure about was what the word ‘thought’ meant in the text, “a catalyst is thought to decrease the activation energy for a reaction.” He was confused as to why the text would include such an uncertain term. I asked him to consider the word thought in reference to a theory. He considered my question for a few seconds and then answered, “Because they don’t really know.” “That’s right,” I said, “much of science is based on theories that best fit the current knowledge of a topic. They are subject to change as we learn more about these topics.”
Something he did not notice and that I pointed out was that the text did not include a definition of activation energy, which was crucial to understanding the collision theory in chemical reactions. I asked him what he would normally do if a text did not include an important definition and he answered sheepishly, “I’d Google it” and that is exactly what we did. This was the beginning of our discussion on reading strategies because we had just used online resources as a strategy to support the reading and understanding of a text. Additional strategies he said he used included reading titles to gain a better understanding of the focus of each section in the text, skipping over sections that he had previous knowledge about, and double reading key words. From this discussion he also rightly pointed out that the text lacked a sub-heading that would have made it easier to understand. I agreed with this suggestion and asked him to write in the sub-heading he thought was appropriate. Many of the lab rat’s peers would have struggled with this text and I was impressed with his ability to utilize strategies that were advanced for his year. I will remember the strategies he used and endeavor to provide assistance to my students who are having difficulties in reading scientific text.
Cycle 3 Reflection
After completing the second session I wanted to change tactics slightly. Science is based on testable explanations and predictions about the world. The lab rat and I had worked together to gain a strong understanding of the scientific theory in the text. Now I wanted to see if he could apply what he had learned to explain and predict what might occur in an experiment. In essence, I wanted to assist the lab rat to ‘read an experiment.’ This is a large part of scientific literacy, and honestly, conducting experiments is far more fun and interesting than simply reading about science. A fellow Grad Dip student recommended an experiment called Elephant Toothpaste. Elephant’s Toothpaste rapidly converts hydrogen peroxide to water and oxygen with fantastic effect. This was also a great experiment because I could change certain variables that would alter the rate of the chemical reaction in the experiment. My plan for the final sessions was to ask the lab rat to predict what might occur when certain variables where changed, conduct an experiment, and then ask the lab rat to explain what he observed based on his knowledge of the text.
Cycle 3 Analysis
Being the first day of the school holidays, I was impressed to see that the lab rat was excited about conducting an experiment in his back yard. Before we commenced I explained to him that I wanted him to use his knowledge of the text to explain what he observed and to predict how the rate of reaction might change when we altered certain variables. As I set up the experiment I asked him to review the text one more time. Standing in the middle of his back yard I placed a 600 mL plastic bottle on the ground. I then asked him to pour 150 mL of hydrogen peroxide into the bottle. Once he had done this I asked him to observe the liquid in the bottle and to tell me if he thought there was a chemical reaction occurring, he answered, “I don’t think so.” It was a bit of a trick question. I explained that the hydrogen peroxide was slowly decomposing to water and oxygen, but that there were no obvious signs that this was occurring. I then asked him to relate this observation to the text and he correctly answered, “so a chemical reaction is occurring but it is a slow rate of reaction.” Next I added a good amount of dish washing liquid before asking him to pour yeast into the bottle. I stood back a fair distance for dramatic effect as if to suggest that something might explode. This had the desired effect and he paused temporarily as if considering the dire consequences of adding this ingredient. Curiosity eventually got the better of him and he poured the yeast into the hydrogen peroxide. Something quite unique occurs when you add these two ingredients together; the rate at which hydrogen peroxide decomposes to water and oxygen accelerates dramatically. The oxygen causes the dish washing liquid to froth and the resulting effect is that foam quickly fills the bottle, gushing out in a tubular shape resembling very fat toothpaste. After the reaction had stopped I then asked the lab rat to explain what he had observed based on the text. He correctly observed that the rate of reaction had increased and accurately referenced observation to the collision theory. He was unsure, however, about what had caused the rate of reaction to increase. I suggested that he ask questions of the text based on what he had observed to see if he could figure out which one it might be. He did this and, with a little assistance, he was able to determine that the rate of reaction must have increased because the yeast acted as a catalyst. Over the next hour we repeated the experiment altering different variables. Each time we predicted what might occur, observed the experiment, and explained how different variables affect the rate of reaction by asking questions of the text.