Creation of Gr4-6 Natural Sciences and Technology workbooks

Note: I have reposted this from our old Siyavula blog from November 2012.

Siyavula is probably most well know for our openly-licensed Everything Science and Everything Maths titles. But, at Siyavula, we like to extend our boundaries, and what better way to extend ourselves than to reach into primary school!

There is much focus on the later grades in high school where learners are grappling with science and maths concepts. But, many of the misconceptions and problems that are evident at this level, often have their roots in the primary school phase. To attempt to improve the STEM subjects in South Africa, we actually need to start at the beginning and secure a strong foundation on which learners can build their future Science and Technology careers.

This is something that we at Siyavula and the Sasol Inzalo Foundation believe strongly in. Not only this, but both organizations recognize the power and potential of open educational resources to make a difference to education in South Africa. This set the stage for a strong partnership to produce resources for Natural Sciences and Technology for Grades 4-6 to be printed by the Department of Basic Education for every child in a government school in 2013.

In attempting to condense all that happened in the space of 9 months, I have sometimes skimmed over some things, but discussed others in more detail. At Siyavula, the idea of sharing underlies everything that we do is, which is why I would like to share our experience of this year and all that we achieved and learned in going through this project.

Designing and planning workshops

In December 2011 a group got together to unpack the project and what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to do it. The initial design team consisted of members from Siyavula (myself, Neels van der Westhuizen and Mark Horner), the Sasol Inzalo Foundation, the UCT Chemical Engineering Schools Project, the Ukuqonda Institute and the Primary Science Programme (PSP).

These workshops evolved into “think tanks” and we realised the scope of the project was growing and growing as we started to discuss what would make the most effective workbook. In summery, some of the goals that were identified during this initial stage are listed below.

  1. The workbooks will be available under an open copy right license
  2. The workbooks will be collaboratively authored
  3. The workbooks will go beyond the Curriculum and Policy Statement (CAPS), making science engaging and exciting for primary school learners
  4. The workbooks will be a quality stand-alone product
  5. The workbooks and teachers’ guides will be available in English and Afrikaans
  6. The workbooks will provide a means to ensure strong foundational base for science learning in South Africa

Some topics were debated at length during the design workshops, and I feel it is worth mentioning some of these in more detail as they helped to set the tone for what we were going to do for the rest of the project.

A workbook or a textbook?

In many schools in South Africa, there is limited or no access at all to other resources and therefore if the book was merely a workbook with only activities, learners and teachers would not benefit from it as there would be no background content to support the activities and act as a foundation on which to conduct scientific investigations.

We therefore decided that we would aim to produce a hybrid between a workbook and a textbook with enough content to support the activities without the need to rely on an outside resource, which many schools would not have access to.

Development of Concept Maps

One of the main outcomes of this project is to produce concept maps which span the Gr 4 to 9 curriculum, showing the conceptual progression in a strand across grades, and also the links between strands within a grade. The Natural sciences and Technology curriculum is made up of four different strands (themes) spanning from Gr 4 to 9.

These concept maps will be very useful to identify any flaws in the conceptual progression in the curriculum and also inform the Table of Contents.

The Concept Maps will be useful to teachers and learners to give an overview of the curriculum in a visually engaging manner. This will enable a viewer to quickly and easily identify where in the curriculum a current topic sits, and what learners should have done previously and where they are heading in future grades. This information is not easily extracted from the CAPS document as it currently stands, thus these maps could become a valuable teaching resource in future.

Below is a detail of the concept map I made for the Life and Living strand to give an idea.

A section of the Life and Living concept map.

Technology integration

Technology integration comes in two forms:

  1. The use of technology in the form of rich media (website links, online videos, etc)
  2. Technology as a subject

The outcome of the workbooks is not increase the digital divide in South Africa. Rather, the workbook at the foundational layer, is a book on a desk which can be used in its entirety to teach and learn about Natural Sciences and Technology.

The use of technology will be encouraged in the workbooks by including links to interesting websites, online videos, simulations and presentations. This will help to make the workbooks more applicable to the modern world and make science exciting and up to date.

From 2013, Technology as a subject is to be integrated into the Natural Sciences curriculum. The aim of the workbooks is to make this integration as seamless as possible. Technology investigations will be built into the science content and not stand apart. This will hopefully encourage apprehensive teachers who have not taught technology before. However, the Technology Design Process will be made evident when designing a technology project, as the Scientific Method is followed when conducting a scientific investigation.

Teachers’ Guides

The Teachers’ Guide presents an opportunity to provide an innovative, engaging and informative book for the educators to supplement their teaching and use of the workbooks. An important outcome of this project is to ensure that the Teachers’ Guides are actually used by educators and are useful to them. It will not merely provide answers to questions, but also tips to teachers about how to set up activities, teach a concept, introduce a topic and pointing out misconceptions which may arise. The Teachers Guide also contains all the links, as does the learners book, for interesting websites to visit or videos to watch and games to play, which support the content being discussed.

Collaborative authoring phase

As mentioned, we decided to author the books collaboratively with volunteers over a period of three weekend workshops. At Siyavula, we had only done this once before in October 2011 where we authored the first draft of a Gr 10 Life Sciences textbook. You can watch a video here. We learned a lot from this first workshop, which we wanted to implement in the next set.

In the lead up to the workshops, I did a lot of back ground preparation as the content coordinator for the project. This included planning the actual workshops and what we would do over the course of each weekend, finishing the Concept Maps for each strand and the Table of Contents, deciding on the basic layout for the books and how to set out activities and investigations, as well as coming up with basic style guidelines for authoring (I got some advice from the Primary Science Programme during this stage).

Bridget Nash, our community coordinator set about recruiting volunteers for the workshops and organising the logistics for the workshops.

The 24 volunteers that we recruited were teachers, mostly from Johannesburg, and predominantly primary school. However, there were also 2 high school teachers who participated, and we brought 3 teachers with from Cape Town. This ensured a diverse group of teachers from various backgrounds and experience of different educational systems within South Africa.

Workshop 1

On the Friday afternoon of the first workshop, we welcomed our volunteers to St John’s College in Johannesburg, which is where all 3 workshops took place. I think most of the volunteers did not really know what the weekend would hold and some were nervous about what was expected of them. Despite this, they had taken a leap of faith to come and find out, learn something new and see how they could have a bigger impact on education in south Africa outside of their own classrooms. Helene smit, our facilitator, helped to put everyone at ease before we got to work.

The goal for the first workshop was to unpack CAPS and brainstorm and discuss about what makes an ideal workbook and how it should be laid out and written. Although the initial design preceding the workshops had already delved into this, it was very useful to get the input of educators. Furthermore, it was a very worthy professional development exercise for the educators as this was the first time they were delving into the CAPS document. We constructed various activities to stimulate discussion and allow for the creative input from a diverse group of educators.

We discussed and established guidelines for writing the workbook. This was led by Rose Thomas from the Primary Science Programme, and although we at Siyavula had already discussed the general guidelines prior to the workshop, it was very encouraging to see such agreement amongst a diverse group of people as to how the workbooks should be styled and written to have the maximum effect.

Volunteers in groups to critique a sample chapter and deciding guidelines for layout and writing.

Educators discussing how to best explain electric current and the flow of charges to Gr 6 learners.

Throughout the authoring of the workbooks and the workshops, the educators worked in groups according to the four strands. This was to ensure that each author always had an awareness of the concepts being dealt with in a particular strand in the other grades. The educators found the Concept Maps to be a very valuable resource.

It was a very enriching experience to see the sharing of knowledge and ideas amongst the educators, and I think this was one of the most influential outcomes of the workshops.

Setting up a gmail account in order to access the googledocs.

The authoring platform that we decided to use was Googledocs, accessible through Gmail. This allowed more than one author to access and edit a document at a time. Furthermore, the Commenting tool proved to be very useful, especially in the later stages of the process, to communicate between authors, editors and myself.

At Siyavula, our mandate is to encourage teachers to share their resources, and the exposure to one platform to allow for this, was enlightening to the participating educators, who even wanted to adopt this strategy within their schools and cluster groups to share resources and collaboratively author online.

We also discussed open copy right licenses and what the Open Educational Resource movement was about and how it could potentially have a huge impact on South African education and the access to resources. We have found that this is a very worthwhile exercise at workshops as educators often do not know what their rights are and what they can and cannot use in their classrooms.

Workshops 2 and 3

The first objective was to look at what authors had managed to do in the interim between the first and second workshop. There was a “Checklist” to go through and assess the quality of one’s work and then report back to the group about where each author was at and highlight any troubles they may have been having.

We have realised after running several workshops, that peer review is crucial in a collaborative authoring process, and the sooner and more often it happens, the better.

The Thunderbolt Kids.

At the second workshop, we also introduced the “Thunderbolt Kids” were introduced. These four characters had been developed in a previous Shuttleworth Foundation project, called Kusasa. Kusasa aims to develop analytical and creative thinking in learners, and more effective teaching practices in educators. These characters will be the guides in the workbooks (more about the kids later).

We also looked at assessment and how the volunteers could go back over the content they had written and put in revision activities which could be used as assessment items. We discussed Bloom’s Taxonomy as well as the different forms of communication for assessment (whether it is written, verbal, doing practical work, building a model or acting out), all of which are very important to build into a curriculum for primary school learners.

An image to explain the different levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

The aim of the final workshop was to focus on brining the excitement back into science, through the inclusion of interesting facts, exciting website links, online videos and simulations, with the help of St John’s College pupils. Over and above this, authors were still busy refining and editing content. This was a very iterative process.

Feedback from volunteers

Siyavula believes very strongly in building a community around a project which will continue to grow. By the end, the volunteers really came to see the value in what collaboratively authoring to create and share educational resources could do for themselves, their schools, and South Africa.

Some comments from the volunteers on the whole process:

  • The concept maps were extremely helpful and well received
  • Educators were able to engage with CAPS on a deeper level, which they had never done before
  • Comments and collaborative authoring was very useful and enlightening
  • Educators enjoyed meeting people with different backgrounds and ideas and sharing with them
  • They came away with a huge sense of accomplishment and were encouraged at what a group can achieve
  • Highest level impact that some of them can have
  • Many educators wanted to take what they had learned forward and use the process for their own events
  • They found it an intense enriching experience and with an emphasis on personal development
  • They thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from learning about different teachers and teaching environments
  • The educators found it energizing and morally boosting

    The group at the end of workshop 3.

Back in the office

There were many pieces of the project running simultaneously back at the office.

Colours, images and design

Concurrently to running the workshops, we started to work with Brandt Botes, a graphic designer, to work out the ideal layout and colours for the books. We settled on a use of colour which is warm and simple so that it is constructive rather than distracting. Each strand was assigned a different colour and one of the Thunderbolt Kids to be the predominant guide through that theme.

The Thunderbolt Kids with the strand that they will each be most prominently featured in, and the colour designated to the strand.

The kids introduce interesting facts, websites and videos to watch online and new words for a section. These are placed in the margins of the pages. They also ask questions throughout the content, which often leads on to the next section, encouraging learners to appreciate the exploratory nature of Science and question the world around us. During the editing phase, I worked this into the content.

I also commissioned an illustrator to draw images and diagrams for the workbooks. We wanted to use photographs of real objects to show that science is about the real world around us. However, this was not always possible, or else an illustration was needed to describe a process or set up for an investigation.

Editing and reworking the content

After the collaborative authoring phase, I then started to edit the content. It must be pointed out at this stage that the volunteers who came to the workshops were not trained authors. They had never written a book before. And we knew this from the onset with the purpose of rather drawing on their experience as teachers and how they might engage with the content in the classroom. We edited the content to ensure a consistency in style and layout, and also rewrote sections to ensure a high standard. I worked with an external editor in this process and the process was going well. Then…

Huge interruption!

The Department of Basic Education changed the curriculum statement for Natural Sciences and Technology Gr 4-6. The project came to a stand still for a few weeks as we awaited to see the new curriculum and how much it had changed. At this time we were unsure as to whether we would continue or not.

On receiving the new curriculum I did a detailed comparison with the old CAPS to see how much it had changed. The conclusion was bitter sweet. I feel the curriculum had significantly improved and was much more clear and logically presented in the progression of concepts and what was covered in each grade. However, the content had changed significantly. Not only was there reordering of content between and within grades, but there was a big percentage which was completely new. You can view a brief summary here.

After some time and discussions with the Sasol Inzalo Foundation, we decided to take tackle the project again and attempt to still finish it, with a slightly extended deadline.

We also realised that there was insufficient time to hold more authoring workshops with volunteers and we therefore commissioned some external authors to help me rewrite and re-purpose the existing content to align to the newly changed curriculum.

We worked to very tight deadlines and something which I found helped to aid the process of working as a small group under pressure to still collaboratively author was to continue using Googledocs. I found the commenting tool very useful to be in constant communication with the other authors. It meant that I also had access to the documents from the beginning and so I could start going through and editing and giving feedback as I was going to the authors.

After finishing one section, we once again drew on the help of some volunteers to help proof read. Finally, we had several specialists review the content and make comments which I implemented, depending on time constraints.

Final layout and translation

Once we had finished the content for the workbooks we then set them on their journey through our automated pipeline. This is an area that I was not hugely involved in. In summary, the googledocs were imported into Connexions using the OER Pub Googledocs importer, developed by Kathi Fletcher as part of her Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship. These files was then transformed to LaTeX using custom in-house software. LaTeX is a typesetting programme which is largely used in academia and many of our team members at Siyavula have experience with it. Ewald Zietsman used the mock ups from the graphic designer to then design the styles that LaTeX would use when compiling the PDFs for the books.

Simultaneously, we had to translate the content into Afrikaans. We used a web-based translation platform called Transifex. This allowed us to upload the content and volunteers could then log in to the site and translate sections at a time from home. We used many volunteers for the translation of all of our books and with the help of Transifex, it really helped to speed up the process compared to our process from the previous year for translation. However, we learned that when using volunteers for translation, it is best if the volunteer has a science background in order to avoid terms being translated incorrectly. We also realised that we needed an editor and proof reader to go through the translated content. Overall, I think this was the stage that we underestimated the most in terms of the work required to also produce the Afrikaans versions of the books ensuring that they were of comparable quality to the English versions.

The way forward from here

This year has been a huge learning curve for Siyavula, and for myself. This project that we undertook proved to be much bigger than we initially anticipated. When we first started planning these workbooks at the end of last year, I did not realise what we would accomplish in one year. I knew that we would produce workbooks for Natural Sciences and Technology. But, I never realised there would be teachers willing to give up their precious spare time to come to a workshop over the weekend, that they knew nothing about; I never realised they would be so willing and eager to learn and collaborate with their peers; I never realised there would be such a huge change in the curriculum well into the project and that everyone would take on the new challenge, determined to still finish; I never realised there would be other contributors afterwards willing to work long hours under tight deadlines; I never realised there would be qualified authors who wanted to be a part of something bigger than merely a commissioned textbook; I never realised what a supportive, dedicated and passionate team we have at Siyavula; I never realised we would start to build a community around a set of books; I never realised we would all do something that no one else in the world has done before.

We really hope that next year these books will go out into the schools and inspire learners to take an interest in the natural science world around them, as well as develop analytical thinking skills and crucial skills for designing and solving problems.

Next year, there will be a revision of these books, where we sincerely hope that educators that have used the books will provide feedback, not only pointing out errata, but giving suggestions on activities to include, tips they have discovered from their own class and sharing their experiences of using these resources so that we can improve them further for the following year. This will not only be a highly useful exercise for educators, by sharing their ideas and experiences, but it will also help us to provide a resource which is improving in each revision and adapting to the needs of South African learners and educators.

Lastly, I truly hope that teachers and schools take advantage of all the freedoms that these openly licensed books grant them to share and adapt them to suit their individual learner’s needs in their own context.

You can download all the PDFs of the books at the website:


2 thoughts on “Creation of Gr4-6 Natural Sciences and Technology workbooks

  1. Pingback: Natural Sciences training: Project goals and design (Part 1) | Megan Beckett

  2. Pingback: Concept, concept, concept mapping! | Megan Beckett

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