Natural Sciences Gr 7-9 Brainstorming Workshop

Note: This is a repost from our old Siyavula blog in order to document the brainstorming workshop we held in 2013. I will soon be writing a follow up post about what I learned in 2013 in the creation of OER.

This last weekend’s brainstorming workshop certainly kick started the process to produce workbooks for Natural Sciences! Following the production, and success, of the Gr 4-6 workbooks last year (you can read about that here and download the books here), we at Siyavula embarked on the next phase with the Sasol Inzalo Foundation to continue our collaboration and work to produce workbooks for Gr 7-9.

As we are a fairly new organization and also approaching the production of openly licensed textbooks in an innovative, pioneering way, we need to constantly reflect on what we have learned from past experiences to inform and evolve our model going forward. With the start of this project, we did just that, and looked back before looking forwards.

So what did we learn from last year?

Firstly, we strongly believe in drawing on the strengths and involvement of the community to produce our openly licensed textbooks. This was reinforced in our experiences with the community last year.

At the workshops that we held for the Gr 4-6 workbooks, the volunteers who attended, completely immersed themselves in the process. We found that the highlights of these weekends was when volunteer teachers were in groups discussing the curriculum, brainstorming ideas and sharing their experiences in the classroom.

Secondly, the focus last year was to actually author content for the books at the workshops. We therefore did not have much time for discussion and rather moved everyone on to Google Docs to start authoring. We found that this was quite a pressurized environment for volunteers to work under, especially with our tight deadlines and the fact that most of the volunteers did not have any experience in authoring. Also, on the technical side, there were many interruptions which slowed down the process and caused frustrations. Overall, it was an overwhelming task to expect volunteers to accomplish in such a short amount of time and we also felt that many of the initial ideas were lost along the way.

And what are we doing this year?

We decided to re-look at our model of asking volunteers to author content, and consider what they enjoyed the most last year and where the most insight was gained from them as teachers in a classroom with practical experience. This was definitely captured during those initial brainstorming sessions at the workshops last year. What better way to allow for those ideas to be shared, than to have a whole workshop dedicated to just that. This is exactly what we did.

In terms of authoring, we now have 4 commissioned authors who are responsible for writing the content. In the Natural Sciences curriculum, there are 4 strands (one per term) which run across the three grades. These are:

  • Life and Living
  • Matter and Materials
  • Energy and Change
  • Planet Earth and Beyond

Each author is responsible for one of the strands. They key thing, however, is that these authors came to the brainstorming workshop.

The workshop, which took place this last weekend (1-3 March), was held at the beautiful grounds of St John’s College in Johannesburg once again. We had a group of about 25 participants in total, including the authors and volunteer teachers, curriculum advisers and specialists. Some volunteers had been involved in the workshops last year and so it was very encouraging to see them coming back for more!

The volunteers were divided into 4 groups, one for each strand. Prior to the workshop, volunteers indicated their preference for which strand they wanted to work on, so it was most likely that they were going to be working on area they were most interested in and passionate about. And if not, then we suggested that they use this as an opportunity to learn more about a different subject area and take back the experiences to their classroom to inspire their teaching!

Something else we feel is crucial to our workshops, and to the books being a success, is ensuring there is a diversity in the volunteers present from cultural background, social contexts and different levels in the education system. Bridget Nash, our Community Coordinator, does a rigorous drive leading up to the workshop and contacts many different schools and institutions, and also targeted individuals who we feel would add value to the process. Bridget also keeps in touch with those who have signed up right up until the workshop, giving them the agenda for the workshop, managing their expectations of their roles over the weekend and ensuring they feel comfortable with the process. We really feel this is significant in dealing with volunteers and feeds into their commitment of their free time over a weekend.

After a brief overview of what we do at Siyavula and an introduction to everyone, including volunteers who each said a little about themselves, we outlined the goals of the weekend and what we envisioned the process to be:

  • Discuss the curriculum and how the specific concepts are introduced and ordered within a strand. Do they build on each other? Are they logical as presented in the national curriculum?
  • Think of interesting ways to introduce a topic or concept that will engage and excite learners.
  • Brainstorm ideas for activities and investigations to support the content, specifically drawing on the experience of the teachers of what is practical in their classrooms in a variety of contexts.
  • Think about what learners of this age (14-16 years old) respond to, and how we can make the content applicable to them and their lives.
  • Discuss how we want to implement the “scientific method”, which will also vary slightly for each strand, and how we want learners to approach science topics, and also the world around them – with a questioning, investigative, curious mind.

In the lead up to the workshop, I had also done some preparation from the content side. This included developing the style and writing guidelines which I discussed with the authors prior to the workshop. Secondly, I produced a concept map for each strand with maps the concepts from Gr 4 to 9, showing how they build on each other and also how they link together across grades, and also with other subjects. Having an overview like this is crucial to understanding how everything fits together, and especially inform how and when to introduce topics.

The groups started out with a general discussion of the strand and going through the concept map. The teachers found this resource to be hugely beneficial to them as often they said they focus on what they are teaching in a grade, but do not take note of what comes before and after. The maps provided a very visual representation of this. Knowing where a learner has come from and where he or she is going is crucial for thorough conceptual progression and should inform your teaching as well.

Life and Living looking at the concept map to get an overview of the strand.
Matter and Materials interrogating the curriculum stuck up behind them.

From this point, it was very interesting to see how the 4 groups quickly digressed in how they were discussing the content and brainstorming. This also speaks to how “Natural Sciences” covers such a broad range of content within the sciences, which all deserve individual attention to see how best to present and teach them. Some groups started with a broad overview of what they would like to do in each grade, whilst others did a more detailed review of each grade. Some groups then went on to interrogate the curriculum statement in more detail and discuss how best to introduce topics and in what order. Other groups drew on the teacher experience in their groups for discussing ideas for activities and practical tasks, especially where a group had volunteers from very diverse teaching contexts. We ended off Friday with a session where the groups shared what they were doing and how they were approaching the content, followed by some cocktails and snacks.

Energy levels were rising as they discussed how to avoid misconception about electricity in Energy and Change.
Earth and Beyond enjoying themselves as they too become enthralled by the wonders of Space.

On Saturday morning we jumped straight into a discussion about the scientific method. I opened up the floor for opinions and insight into how we are going to approach instilling the idea of investigating and answering a science question in learners. We very quickly entered into a debate about the scientific method, its strengths and weaknesses and also how different teachers in different subject areas within the sciences approach it. It was wonderful to see such a lively debate going on and everyone was very animated in expressing their opinions! We took away what we could about how to come to the understanding of a general “method” for investigating and answering a question in science, without just drumming the “6 steps of the scientific method” into learners and expecting them to memorize and regurgitate these steps. With some volunteers coming from the university space, they raised some insightful points about how learners come away from school science expecting all science experiments to follow these defined steps, whereas in science research, findings often happen by chance and many experiments also do not work. We want learners to start interrogating their investigations at school and not expecting them to always work. We eventually had to bring the discussion to a close otherwise it could have gone on all day, and we still had lots more brainstorming to do on Saturday!

After lunch on Saturday we met back together as a group. We had started to notice that some group were really grappling with some controversial topics within their strands, and they also wanted to know how other strands were dealing with topics that linked to their content to ensure some consistency. We therefore decided to have a space for groups to do just this. “Matter and Materials” had a lot to say! Especially regarding the ordering of some topics within the curriculum which they did not agree with. It was wonderful to discuss this as a group and also get input from curriculum advisors and the Department of Education (DBE) on the curriculum statement. Going forward we have decided that when groups felt there was an illogical ordering of concepts in the curriculum statement, we will make adjustments in the learners’ books to ensure a more sound pedagogy, and specifically make a note of why this was changed in the Teachers’ Guides so that they also know the reasoning for the changes. It was also very encouraging to see how DBE was open to remarks, comments and suggestions for improvements on the curriculum statement going forward. Overall, this discussion really helped to integrate the 4 groups and strengthen the links between the different subject areas to hopefully present a set of books that is cohesive in its approach to science.

It was so encouraging and inspiring to see the majority of volunteers return for more on a Sunday morning! After a brief check in (to see if anyone had had any brilliant ideas or enlightening dreams during the night!), the groups gathered again to finish off their discussions. Most groups actually finished earlier than we had anticipated. I think this also showed us that this is a process that works and is achievable within a weekend – we do not want to have to stop on a Sunday afternoon with participants feeling that they have not finished or need more time. It is a much more satisfying and rewarding feeling for all involved to know that you accomplished all, and more, that you set out to do.

With some of the spare time that we had, Colleen Henning from St John’s dashed off to her science lab and came back with a box to show us one of her very basic, but awe-inspiring experiments that she does with her learners to demonstrate static electricity and how like charges repel and opposite charges attract. We filmed her demonstrations so we know have our first 2 videos for the books! Have a look at one of them below!

Feedback from the workshop

Bridget and I sat with the 4 authors at the end of the workshop to get their feedback from the weekend. They all unanimously agreed that is was hugely beneficial to them as authors and were all highly complimentary of all their group members and how they each had something unique to add to the discussions. The authors felt this workshop has given them a wealth of information and ideas to draw on for their authoring of the content which will also help speed up their writing. They also pointed out that they have learned a lot from the teachers about how learners learn and what they respond well to, which we want to be evident in the final books.

The feedback from the volunteers was also very encouraging – as much as we are getting a lot from the volunteers in helping to produce these books, we also want them to feel that they got something out of the process.

Some comments to highlight their responses:

“It is so nice to feel that someone wanted input from those of us on the ground! Usually we are just expected to put the programme in operation, no one cares what we think. I know this will be a very successful, worthwhile project.”

“As a curriculum advisor, I can say that this was hugely beneficial to me and I feel all curriculum advisors should be made to come to future workshops like this!”

“This was also professional development for me. I will take what I have learned back to my classroom.”

“I have made some new connections and really enjoyed sharing with my group.”

“It was stimulating and inspiring.”

“I was struck by how often we laughed together!”

In asking how we could improve our process going forward, one volunteer remarked that she just wishes she could have sat in on all the groups!

The group at the end of the workshop.
The group at the end of the workshop.

What’s next?

The authors have now started writing the content in Google Docs. I will concurrently start doing some editing, photo searches, finding rich media to support the content, commissioning illustrations and working with a graphic designer on the layout and design. Besides our work within the office, we already know that since the workshop, some of the groups have been communicating with each other, sharing resources they discussed over the weekend and as one author put it, she thanked her group post-workshop for offering to be “sounding boards for further ideas around the task that may flow from our discussions over the weekend.” We are so excited about this and really hope that our workshops are seeds for communities to develop and flourish outside of the weekend, strengthening the network of like-minded individuals who want to share, grow and learn from each other.


The workbooks are now available for download from


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