Geological science education and conceptual change
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Geological science is a fascinating subject of learning. We live with and are surrounded by the results of complex natural phenomena such as plate tectonics, earth system interactions and natural hazards such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. We are also one of the products of billions of years of biological evolution. These topics form an essential part of all science curricula and are a vital part of an individual’s scientific literacy, yet the geological sciences struggle for existence in most secondary schools, many tertiary institutions and especially teacher training establishments. A selective overview of the international geological and geoscience curricula is presented. This thesis investigates key issues associated with the teaching and learning of geological science: curriculum and assessment issues, conceptualisations of geological time, biological evolution (within a geological context) and visual spatialisation aspects such as visual penetration ability. Geological science is discussed and differentiated from the generalised label of earth or geoscience and the environmentally oriented Earth Systems Science.The theoretical framework is grounded in constructivist principles and conceptual change theory. Conceptual change in this thesis is viewed as an evolutionary and ecological mechanism of learning within a multidimensional and individually intentional world view. The conceptual status of geological science is investigated from a wide age range of respondents from three different cultural settings: Lebanon, Israel and New Zealand. Data gathering used a modification of pre-validated questionnaires, unstructured respondent interviewing and selective analysis of secondary data. Internal triangulation enhanced reliability issues generated by questionnaire methodology. A case study approach was utilised for discussion of geological science curriculum issues.The history of geological science, conceptualising geological time and student understandings of the fossil record are placed within a conceptual change context. Here, conceptual change theory itself is evolutionary in nature and fits well with an analogous concept of punctuationism. In short, the rise of conceptual change theory from a ‘Piagetian’ stasis over the last 30 years has shown a rapid diversification of approach and ‘niche’ since the mid 1980’s. New Zealand is used as a case study for the status of geological science in a national secondary school Science curriculum.Through stratigraphy, the fossil record and rock deformation, geological science uniquely involves ‘Deep Time’. The GeoTSAT questionnaire instrument asks questions about conceptualisation of relative geological time as deduced from correlation of stratigraphic columns and Steno’s laws of superposition. In essence all age groups from age 13 to 40 years are cognitively able to correlate strata but all groups also demonstrate the same kinds of misconceptions and difficulties. Aspects of diachronic thinking are applied to the interpretation of responses to the GeoTSAT questionnaire. Developing manageable teaching techniques in teacher training institutions that are relevant to the geological sciences for conceptualising scalar dimensions of time, mass and distance are important challenges for educators.Visual spatialisation of deformed rock strata is a key skill in interpreting a geological history. The GeoTSAT questionnaire asks respondents to complete block diagrams of simple geological structures. All age groups again have the same kinds of difficulties in mental rotation and other spatialisation skills such as visual penetration ability. Visual penetration ability is further investigated with the use of a ‘hands on 3-D model.The GeoVAT instrument asks questions about the nature of fossils, the relative timing of geological and fossil events in Earths history and the links of fossil organisms with their life environments. The challenge for educators is to find ways of pedagogically strengthening the contextual links of learning about extant life with extinct life and the importance of the fossil record in the training of biology teachers. Improving the connections between the geological sciences, biology and environments is a key challenge for educators. The thesis concludes with a summary of findings, limitations and future directions for teaching and learning geological science in school curricula.
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