Text from DoR
Author: Sorana Stănescu
Photo: Tudor Vintiloiu
During their first physics class after the winter break, 6th graders in the “Vasile Cristoforeanu” School of Râmnicu Sărat are humming, dragging chairs on the floor and moving books from their desks to make room for instruments. They work in teams.
Some of them must roll balls of various sizes and weights down an inclined plane and then on various surfaces (the desk, glossy paper or sandpaper) and observe which ball is moving faster and is more difficult to stop. Others place coins on a thin cardboard over a glass, then pull the sheet and analyze what happens with the coins and why. Another group places weights (100, 50 and 25 grams, respectively) on a cardboard sheet at the edge of the desk and then pulls the sheet. Meanwhile, teacher Diana Coman is writing the title of the new lesson on the blackboard: “Inertia”. She then tells them they will have to answer the following question: “Why does the dust come out of the rug when beaten?”
After 15-20 minutes of experiments the answer and the definition of the new concept are obvious. Following the children’s own observations, coins drop into the glass, weights stay on the desk and the children write the definition on the blackboard: “Inertia is a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless that state is changed by an external force.”
This teaching method is called “inquiry-based learning” and has been the norm in teaching physics in Germany and Poland since the year 2000. Although its results are easily observed, in Romania only slightly over 20% of the middle and high school physics teachers have been trained to use it in class. Because the method is not mandatory, we don’t actually know how many of them actually use it.
Diana Coman is 41 and has worked as a teacher for 19 years. She started teaching physics at the “Vasile Cristoforeanu” school, one of the five schools in Râmnicu Sărat, in 1999. She had always known she wanted to be a teacher (her mother was a French teacher, her father taught mechanics for agriculture).
She learned physics in school only through theory, the chalk-on-blackboard style (she only did experiments when training for the physics olympics/competition, which were mandatory for the county level at the time; now they are only mandatory for the national level).
“In high school, although we were the only math and physics class in the city and we had the materials in the school lab, we never touched them in class. We used to play with them during recess”, Coman recalls. However, she discovered the pleasure and usefulness of experiments while studying physics in French at the University of Bucharest. And she applied them in class, from the very start of her career.
In 2013, when she learned from the physics inspector of the Buzau county that there was an interesting course available for physics teachers, she decided to apply right away. The course had a section of self-knowledge for the teachers and lesson planning: what tasks and charts to give to the students, how to test them and how to keep a diary and self-assess their involvement and work style class by class.
“We were no longer dinosaurs, we didn’t just scribble equations on the blackboard. We conducted experiments,” Coman explains, “but they were chaotic. The course organized them for me and made me aware of them, when to use them and how.”
The initiator of using inquiry-based learning for physics in Romania is Cristian Hatu, 48, an expert in philosophy of science and cognitive sciences and president of Centrul de Evaluare și Analize Educaționale in Bucharest.
Hatu studied geophysics and philosophy at the Bucharest University and, although he taught at the Philosophy department for a time, he wasn’t very much interested in educational reform in the beginning. However, in 2009, when he was working for Societatea Academică din România (SAR), he read the works of Cambridge specialist Hasok Chang about the invention of temperature and thermometers. This book stated that, in order for children to develop mentally, they need to repeat several stages in science history; they must be taught how to manage a situation and ask the right questions.
“While in school, nobody told me I was supposed to think,” Hatu recollects. “In their case, reform was a national priority and researchers had to contribute to the effort.”
With funding from BRD, Siveco and Academia de Advocacy, Hatu started research on the way sciences may help develop thinking and why it was important for society. “It was like skiing through the fog, no idea where we were going,” he says.
This continued until 2010, when he wrote a report analyzing new developments in the economy and society, what skills are necessary in the economic field and how the education system responds to them. There was talk at the time about a new education law, which was to be passed one year later, and the report received a lot of media coverage.
A second turning point followed: the Romanian-American Foundation (RAF) came with a proposal that he continue his research. He started from a McKinsey study saying that, in order to produce real change, one needs to adjust what teachers do in the classroom so children understand the subjects better and the question asked was: what would such schooling look like at the grassroots level?
His team started looking “through the wilderness”, Hatu shares. They had to find a breach in the system: a way of entering schools without resorting to a law to allow them to do that. That opportunity came when they understood that, according to the school curriculum, teachers could choose their own educational tools in order to be efficient.
Then they had to find the best method to train teachers in the key competences they considered necessary for the labor market of the future (such as the capacity of acting autonomously or problem solving). They found the answer in the inquiry-based method that reproduced the path of discovery a science researcher treads on. In parallel, they worked with Societatea Română de Fizică to make sure that the lessons were run according to sound scientific principles.
Then, they had to create the items for the evaluations students received to test where they were before and after the method was applied, and find someone to interpret the results. As no such experts were available in Romania, they called in Eduardo Cascallar, a specialist who has worked for the World Bank and the OECD in drafting assessment tools.
Thus, in 2012 – 2013 the first 900 teachers in 8 counties started the training (now there are 1,300 of them, plus an additional 100 by end of March, from a total of 6,000 around the country). The total budget of the project will reach 850,000 USD, from 2011 to 2017.
“I wanted my students to think, but I didn’t ask myself what would motivate them to find answers to my question”, Daniela Țepeș, a 50-year old teacher from Hârşova, remembers about the time before taking the inquiry-based method course.
“Why would a child care about how high they could jump on the moon? They’re not likely to ever get there.” This was her reflection on the problems she used to give her students. After attending the course, she realized that, although her classes were interactive, what she missed was the connection with the students’ real life, which is their motivation for learning.
Țepeș was part of the group that tested the inquiry-based method in class in 2012 – 2013. In order to have scientific value, the pilot was conducted in over 40 middle and high schools in 10 counties. Țepeș started with two 7th grades at the same level: one was the pilot where she taught using the new method, the other was the reference class, where she taught using the classical method. She didn’t have high expectations, but the differences showed within a couple of weeks, mostly on the part of those children who generally don’t answer in class: “furniture pieces” as they are nicknamed, students no teacher ever engages and who are already labeled – they can’t, they don’t know, they won’t do.
In 2014, Ţepeş was asked to teach at the technological high school in town. During a physics class with the 11th grade where the students had no handbooks and used one notebook for all subjects, she was told: “Never mind, teacher, we’re stupid, don’t bother with us.”
She did bother, however. She took out everything mathematics from the lessons and made them understand that physics is about getting to know the world around you. Together they built pendulums; they identified oscillation in nature and thus covered several chapters in the curriculum.
The test scores of children exposed to the new method improved by 14%, according to the evaluations developed by Hatu’s team and the OECD expert. “I was very much impressed by the scientific approach of the project”, says Gabriel Negrea, headmaster of the “Gheorghe Lazăr” National College in Sibiu and a physics teacher with 30 years of experience himself. “It was for the first time I’d seen the Item response theory applied in Romania, a type of assessment which, statistically, has a higher degree of objectivity than traditional evaluations”. This method is used in international tests, but not for domestic exams.
“It would be downright stupid for me to teach as I used to 30 years ago,” says Virginia Mândruță-Tănăsescu, a physics teacher with the “Bogdan Petriceicu Hașdeu” College in Buzău and a physics and chemistry inspector. Already familiar with the new paradigms of learning, Tănăsescu believes that this course may be one of the better prepared in the world because “it hasn’t sprung from an office” but has been refined continuously, through the teachers’ contributions, since 2012.
“How can we include change in a system which is so obsolete and mediocre? You start the reform from the grassroots. You come with solutions and use the breaches in the system.”
“We bypassed the system,” Hatu explains. “How can we include change in a system which is so obsolete and mediocre? You start the reform from the grassroots. You come with solutions and use the breaches in the system”. He is now almost finished with the project, although one more hurdle still awaits: the ministry needs to approve it.
The new teaching method is analyzed from the point of view of scientific rigor and pedagogical effectiveness. If approved, the ministry would provide financial support for training the remaining teachers around the country and introduce teaching physics by the inquiry-based method at the national level. If the money were there, trainings for teachers would last one and a half years, but no funds are available at the moment (the ministry says they are waiting for the new European funding cycle).
The method would also be suitable for biology and chemistry, but no such move has been initiated for these subjects. The disadvantages of the inquiry-based method reside in the amount of time necessary for covering the curriculum (some teachers say they would be lagging behind if they taught by conducting experiments during every class) and the need for resources (physics labs, where they are still operational, have little equipment).
The counterpoint is that a change in the way of teaching and assessing students is absolutely necessary in today’s society. “When they finish school, many people forget a lot. But if you have problem-solving and investigation skills, here is an educational system that really does its job”, teacher Gabriel Negrea concludes.