Natural Sciences training: Project goals and design (Part 1)

At the end of 2014, Siyavula was involved in planning, designing and conducting training workshops for the Gr 4-9 Natural Sciences subject advisors in all 9 provinces in South Africa. I coordinated the training project from our side and learned an enormous amount, from designing training workshops, to working with different stakeholders in the education system, to delivering training and teaching concepts, to working with a diverse team, and importantly, interacting with the subject advisors and building relationships across the country.

This blog post, and the few to follow, are reflections on the training, including how it was designed and conducted, our experiences, challenges we faced and recommendations for going forward with future, similar training programmes.

Project overview and goals

Siyavula was appointed by the Sasol Inzalo Foundation (SaIF) in partnership with the Department of Basic Education (DBE), to design and conduct a series of training workshops  aimed at developing the capacity of intermediate phase and senior phase (Grade 4-9) Natural Sciences and Technology subject advisors to ensure that they are effective in providing both mentoring and content-related support to their teachers. Concurrently, workshops were also being conducted for Mathematics and Technology Gr 7-9 subject advisors, coordinated by the Ukuqonda Institute.

Over the past 3 years, we have worked on several projects with the SaIF and the DBE, the most relevant to this training being the development of the Gr 4-6 Natural Sciences and Technology workbooks in 2012 and then the Gr 7-9 Natural Sciences workbooks in 2013. I coordinated both of these projects and it was therefore a really exciting opportunity to be involved in the next step of implementation to ensure the success and continued impact of our work, namely “training the trainers”. You can read more about our collaborative production of these openly licensed resources here (Gr 4-6) and here (Gr 7-9).

The Gr 4-6 and Gr 7-9 workbooks, available under a Creative Commons open license.

The Gr 4-6 and Gr 7-9 workbooks, available under a Creative Commons open license.

The objective of this project is to develop a cohort of effective Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST) subject advisors that are capable of providing both mentoring and content-related support to teachers, using educational resources available through a wide range of technology platforms to improve their classroom practice. Ultimately, the goal is to design an effective and sustainable training model for Gr 4-9 subject advisors which is embedded within the DBE structures.

The theory of change and rationale for this project:

If we provide training to all South African MST senior phase subject advisors on content, mentoring, coaching, communication and facilitation skills then they will be able to monitor instruction and provide support to HOD’s and MST teachers who will then be able to facilitate effective teaching and learning of MST subjects in their respective classrooms, which will ultimately result in improved performance by learners.

The South African education system has recently been under scrutiny by the public and media, both locally and internationally, especially regarding our poor performance in STEM subjects. I think the idea of “train the trainer” is one intervention, or mechanism, that the DBE wants to employ and focus on in attempting to improve South African education. The challenges facing our education in South Africa are numerous and complex. They are embedded within and stem from our history. There is and will be no quick fix. In these posts, I would like to just focus on the training that we did, and my personal experiences of the DBE subject advisors, which I believe provide a message of hope.

Programme design and rationale

The brief that we at Siyavula received, outlined the following proposed activities for the training workshops:

  1. CAPS curriculum unpacked
  2. Integration of practical work with teaching
  3. ICT integration with teaching and the use of Open Source resources
  4. Threshold concepts in Math/Science/Technology
  5. Alternative concepts/Misconceptions/conceptual blind spots
  6. Mentoring and coaching skills
    • Classroom observation
    • Providing feedback
  7. Data-based performance analysis
  8. Facilitation skills

Siyavula took a holistic approach in designing and determining the approach to be used in the workshops. We considered the two workshops to be run in each of the three provinces in the entirety so that the second workshop built on what was covered in the first workshop.
Our aim was to make sure the workshops were engaging, practical, fun, challenging at times and served the needs of the subject advisors. We planned a draft for the programme internally and I then consulted with other educational experts in the private, government and non-profit sector, such as the Primary Science Programme, to obtain a diverse input from different stakeholders about what was most needed and what would be most effective.

Myself and Melanie, from Siyavula, consulting and planning with Rose and Nadiema from PSP.

Myself and Melanie, from Siyavula, consulting and planning with Rose and Nadiema from the Primary Science Programme.

I then also wanted to assess and get an idea of the subject advisors’ needs and expectations prior to the workshops starting so that we could modify and adapt our programme accordingly. We designed a “Self-evaluation survey” and I sent this out via email to all of the subject advisors. I was aware that the subject advisors might not have heard of Siyavula before or been aware of our involvement and therefore made it very clear what the purpose of this survey was. Advisors were asked to rate their level of mastery of different skills. I identified the main areas that I felt subject advisors should be skilled in in order to fulfill their roles, not just as content knowledge experts, but also as advisors.

The main skills being:

  • knowing about and using open educational resources
  • understanding CAPS and conceptual progression in Gr 4-9
  • designing and implementing assessment tasks and supporting teachers to do so
  • integrating practical work into the classroom under various constraints, and supporting teachers to do so
  • understanding what it means to be a mentor and provide meaningful support
  • understanding group dynamics and facilitation skills for their own training

We then also asked subject advisors to identify the most difficult or problem topics in each grade and each knowledge strand. Prior to the workshops starting we had about 85 responses from advisors from all the provinces. We used this information to assess what skills the advisors felt they were lacking in, and also which content areas they found the most difficult or problematic. I then used this information to design and plan the programme so that the workshops were addressing their needs, based on their responses.

We realised that each workshop would consist of a group of participants who would be familiar with their colleagues from their province, but not necessarily from the other two provinces present. This presented a unique opportunity for knowledge sharing and relationship building across the country to strengthen the impact of the workshops. In light of this, we decided to put a strong emphasis on first creating cohesion and understanding within the group before moving onto the content-related sessions in the later half of the first workshop and continuing into the second workshop.

Helene Smits' latest book focuses on "depth psychology" which forms the basis of most of her facilitation of groups and managing human interactions and dynamics.

Helene’s latest book focuses on “depth psychology” which forms the basis of her facilitation of groups and managing human interactions and dynamics.

We brought in a professional external facilitator, Helene Smit, who is a recognised author, researcher and lecturer at various business schools on dealing with the social and psychological dynamics that influence the transfer of knowledge. For the first 3 days of each workshop where we spent time on various social, psychological, mentoring and facilitation skills. This was not only crucial for the group to function effectively together throughout the workshop, but also to impart valuable skills to subject advisors so that they can fulfill their roles as a mentor and support to teachers and also in running their own workshops. At Siyavula, we advocate for the inclusion of team building and group dynamics in all of our workshops and have always seen the benefits that such activities afford to the group and success of the project.

In order to provide high quality, engaging and diverse training in the various knowledge strands in Natural Sciences and Technology, I identified external content experts in each area of the curriculum. After identifying the key areas to be covered in each knowledge strand, informed by discussions with the DBE, feedback from the survey and my personal experience, we then planned which content and activities to focus on for each strand. The aim was to use the content and activities from the Gr 4-9 workbooks and not only discuss and unpack the threshold concepts but also the misconceptions associated with these topics. The external experts that we brought in had also all been a part of the collaborative production of the Gr 4-9 workbooks and therefore knew not only the curriculum, but also the content and activities in the workbooks intimately. I felt this was an important consideration when looking for externals to bring into the team.

We were also away that subject advisors in the nine provinces are allocated differently to the phases according to their provincial education system. Some advisors focus only on Intermediate Phase (Gr 4-6), some only on Senior Phase (Gr 7-9) and some do both. We even had some advisors who were advisors for Gr 10-12 subjects such as Life Sciences or Physical Sciences. We therefore chose content to focus on that formed a thread throughout the grades so that it would mostly be relevant to all participants. This was also extremely useful to build conceptual progression throughout the curriculum. For example, in the energy and Change section, we decided to solely focus on electricity and electric circuits as this forms a core thread from Gr 4-9 in Natural Sciences and then further on into Gr 10-12 in Physical Sciences. There are also many problem areas and common misconceptions associated with electricity.

The programme was designed with much thought and input from a diverse group of stakeholders, but we also left room for improvisation depending on the individual participants’ varying needs at each workshop and to be able to adapt and improve from one workshop to the next.

 Training approach

Our aim for these workshops was for them to be an enriching learning experience with a strong focus on best practices, knowledge sharing, integrating technology, working within your constraints and challenges and learning how to improvise as a subject advisor and teacher. Importantly, I also wanted to instill, or re-awaken, the love for Science, the curiosity, the wonder that makes the subject so exciting and rewarding. If subject advisors have the mindset that Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Technology are exciting, interesting, stimulating subjects that are applicable to the world around us, then this will filter down through the teachers and to ultimately to the learners.

I often use the image below (taken from the excellent blog, Brain Pickings) to illustrate an enquiry-based approach and how when we work at the intersection of science and art, we awaken a wonder of the world around us. This is true for any learning environment, from the classroom to training workshops.

I often use this image (taken from Brain Pickings) to illustrate an enquiry-based approach and how when we work at the intersection of science and art, we awaken a wonder of the world around us. This is true for any learning environment, from the classroom to training workshops.

Pursuing both science and art within a learning environment, we create a sense of wonder and curiosity which fuels the pursuit of knowledge, discovery and learning. (Image from Brain Pickings)

I wanted the training approach to be interactive and varied to show a range of teaching and facilitation styles and to also make sure participants stayed engaged and motivated throughout the week. The external content experts that we brought in were from diverse backgrounds and had different approaches to unpacking and teaching the content. This helped to highlight how different people will have different teaching styles, depending on their context and also the nature of the content. The participants responded very well to this and it helped to spark discussion and questions.

Our approach at the workshops was to also make sure that what we were doing would be useful to the advisors for their own work and training in the future. We wanted them to leave feeling they had been equipped with some skills and resources. We were very aware of the diversity of the group and the constraints that many schools face, especially in terms of equipment and resources for Natural Sciences activities and investigations. Our aim was to also show how one can perform science activities, experiments and demonstrations, often with very limited supplies or materials that are easily accessible or cheap to buy. This often sparked discussions after various activities where we discussed the practical implications of performing such a task at a school and how an under resourced teacher could improvise.

Besides creating a stimulating learning environment, I also wanted the workshop to be a safe space for subject advisors so that they in turn feel that they are also supported. Our approach throughout the training was to be open, transparent and welcoming of all questions, debates, discussions and comments.

Image showing a collage of pictures from the workshops - Our aim was to create an interactive, engaging, comfortable, challenging, fun environment for the training to take place.

Our aim was to create an interactive, engaging, comfortable, challenging, fun environment for the training to take place.

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3 thoughts on “Natural Sciences training: Project goals and design (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Natural Sciences training: Closing the feedback loops (Part 4) | Megan Beckett

  2. Pingback: Natural Sciences training: Evaluating content knowledge (Part 3) | Megan Beckett

  3. Pingback: Natural Sciences training: Workshop structure and resources (Part 2) | Megan Beckett

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