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2000, VOL. 22,


1, 89- 111


Exploring the relationship between subject

knowledge and pedagogic content knowledge in
primary teachers learning about forces

J. Parker and D. Heywood, Department of Science Education, Manchester

Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK,
This study explores the tension between subject knowledge and pedagogic content knowledge in primary teacher education. It documents students and in-service teachers learning about forces within the
context of floating and sinking. In doing so it describes not only significant features of the learning
process itself but also examines subject specific aspects of learning, identifying some of the inherent
difficulties for learners within this domain and demonstrating how learners construct links between tacit
knowledge and abstract scientific notions. Implications for teacher education and the teaching of science
in the classroom are explored.

The introduction in 1998 of the Initial Teacher Training National Curricula in
England and Wales (DFEE 1998) situates teacher knowledge at the centre of
aspirations to raise professional status and standards in teaching. For primary
teachers, the statutory requirements specify `the essential core of knowledge,
understanding and skills required for entry into the profession. This encompasses
three categories: `effective teaching and assessment methods, `pedagogical knowledge and understanding and `subject knowledge and understanding. In science,
the latter presents concerns for teachers education with respect to the nature of
course provision where particular difficulties arise in addressing the tension
between subject knowledge and conceptual understanding.
It is in supporting student teachers in acquiring content knowledge in science
that this tension manifests itself most acutely. The concerns are not simply in
knowing something (e.g. that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the earth s
axis), but in having a coherent, causal explanation which makes sense to the
teacher such that they feel skilled in teaching the concept to children. In this
respect, it is therefore necessary to discriminate knowing from understanding and
to identify the implications of this for course provision in Initial Teacher Training
(ITT). To fail to do so accentuates a bias towards transmission notions of curriculum delivery in which the focus of student auditing of their own learning
involves coverage of, rather than engagement with, scientific phenomena.
However, to argue that this is in large part a consequence of an overcrowded
International Journal of Science Education ISSN 0950-0693 print/ISSN 1464-5289 online # 2000 Taylor & Francis Ltd



science syllabus misses the point. What is important is to recognize that in purposefully discriminating between the acquisition of knowledge and the development in understanding, there is opened a fruitful avenue of exploration for
research into the complex relationship between pedagogy and subject. That professional dimension which demands of the teacher not only subject knowledge and
understanding, but also knowledge and understanding of the learning process
itself. It is, therefore, through direct research inquiry towards the learning process
within specific domains, that the potential for supporting course provision is likely
to be optimized.
The cause for concern in Section C of the ITT curriculum, `Trainees
Knowledge and Understanding in Science , rests with the fact that the content
cannot be addressed fully through direct teaching within the time constraints
imposed on current courses. And yet it can be argued that a detailed understanding
of the learning of scientific concepts forms the basis from which good science
teaching might be developed in the classroom.
Section A, `Pedagogical Knowledge and Understanding, required by trainees
in order to secure pupils progress in understanding of `key scientific ideas and the
relationships between them, in effect demands a complex cognitive synthesis of
ideas encountered in section C with the learning process itself. It demands a
subtle, in-depth knowledge of scientific phenomena involving, for example, the
nature of and relationship between pupils ideas and scientific explanations, how
ideas might be developed and the use and limitations of models, illustrations and
analogies in learning.
It is our contention that development of such knowledge and expertise is in
fact a lengthy process for most learners requiring considerable intellectual and
practical engagement on a personal level and that different subject specific areas
may have different characteristics which the learners need to be aware of. What
might be involved in developing these context specific scientific ideas and the
possible implications for teaching and learning science require examination of
both subject and pedagogy. And more importantly, how in the learning process,
each needs to be explicitly recognized by the teacher. First then, the issues in
science subject knowledge.
The debate about teachers subject knowledge has been fuelled through a
variety of research approaches. Such studies have concerned not only teachers
ideas with respect to a variety of science concepts but also consideration of how
these might be developed and what sort of knowledge teachers might need in order
to become effective practitioners.
Several studies have demonstrated that primary teachers may often lack a
personal scientific background on which to draw and that, indeed, many may
themselves hold misconceptions of current scientific ideas. This is particularly
evident in the area of physical sciences (see for example Kruger et al.
(1990a,b,c) Kruger and Summers 1989, Summers 1992, Solomon 1992, Mant
and Summers 1993, Parker and Heywood 1998). Clearly, therefore, one purpose
of teacher education must be concerned with the issue of helping teachers to
develop their own understanding about scientific concepts. However, this is not
the only prerequisite for successful science teaching and, important though it is,
knowing the subject does not necessarily translate into effective teaching of that
subject. This raises a second issue, that of professional insight into the learning and



teaching of the subject, which has been identified over the last decade as pedagogic
Shulmans (1987) notion of pedagogic content knowledge implies that if
teachers are to be effective practitioners they need to possess an in-depth knowledge of how to represent the subject matter to learners. This is predicated on
teachers subtle and detailed knowledge of the subject matter itself. Indeed, it
has been demonstrated that teachers do in fact draw upon a complex array of
various types of knowledge in promoting effective learning. For example, Barba
and Rubba (1992) found that experienced teachers brought more declarative
knowledge to the problem, used more steps to solve a problem and generated
more sub-routines and alternative solutions in doing so than did novice practitioners.
The past 20 years have seen major efforts in physics education to identify
students ideas about scientific phenomena, both prior to and following formal
instruction (Carmichael et al. 1990, Pfundt and Duit 1991, Driver et al. 1994).
That scientific understanding cannot simply be transferred through the use of
words but is constructed actively on a personal level by the learner, is supported
by the plethora of reserach findings under the broad umbrella of constructivism.
In such a so-called constructivist framework of teaching and learning, knowledge
of students conceptions becomes central and there is an impressive body of
research knowledge to identify both childrens and adults notions about a host
of scientific ideas. However, a Niedderer et al. (1992) point out, very few studies
have focused on the teaching and learning process itself and yet a constructivist
paradigm requires that teachers have knowledge of how the ideas of students
emerge during the learning process. This represents a shift in research focus
from pre/post `snapshots of understanding to `strobe pictures of the learning
process in action. Dykstra (1992) reiterates this when considering the importance
of questioning student beliefs and introducing disequilibrations into learning:
`Effective development and utilization of pedagogy requires a better and more
detailed understanding of conceptual change than has previously been described
This study aimed to provide an insight into the process of knowledge acquisition when primary teachers and student teachers were engaged in the learning of
the difficult and abstract notion of forces. As Dykstra observed, this is a particularly challenging area for learners where `simply presenting students with a
Newtonian view of the world however perspicuous and sequenced is not usually
sufficient for getting them to change their thinking about how the world works
There is extensive research literature into learners ideas about forces, (for a
useful summary see Driver et al. 1994), which document well the inherent difficulty in developing knowledge and understanding of what might be described as
the counter intuitive Newtonian view of the world. Common ideas identified are,
for example, a strong association in learners minds between force and motion,
force being an entity which belongs to an object and force being a finite quantity
which is capable of being used up. Such ideas are often deeply embedded in
learners wide ranges of personal experiences of the world and they are notoriously
difficult to shift. Often such notions are held alongside `scientific ideas , which
learners usually fail to apply on reflection.



Gunstone and Watts (1985) stress the need for students to have ample time for the
restructuring of new ideas offered in a form that needs to be both intelligible and
plausible. Several studies identify useful teaching approaches. For example Minstrell
(1982) and Brown (1994) propose the use of bridging analogies between learners prior
ideas and scientific ideas in order to help them to make logical and sensible connections between the two. Finegold and Gorsky (1991) stress the need to help pupils to
extract general rules from instances and apply general rules to instances. Others suggest that learners need to see that their ideas are unsatisfactory (Dykstra 1992) and
develop concrete rather than abstract anchoring conceptions (Clement 1993). Studies
in other conceptual areas have raised the notion of enabling concepts (Sharp 1996)
used in a hierarchical fashion in order to facilitate the construction of meaning from an
intuitive egocentric view of the world to an abstract remote view of the earth in space.
The present study is part of a long-term research inquiry exploring ITT
student and in-service teacher learning about forces. It focuses on the phenomenon
of floating and sinking, an area with a long historic tradition in British primary
schools beginning with exploratory play in early years and currently extending into
learning about forces in the later primary years. In the national curriculum for
primary science education (DFEE 1995) at key-stage 2 (7-11 year olds), floating is
given as a specific example to help children develop the notion of balanced forces.
In order to underpin teaching about forces the teacher training national curriculum (DFEE 1998) demands that students are required to understand that:
. when an object is stationary or moving at a steady speed in a straight line,
forces acting on it are balanced;
. balanced forces produce no change in the movement or shape of an object,
whereas unbalanced forces acting on an object can change its motion or its
. the change in movement and/or shape of an object depends on the magnitude and direction of the forces acting on it.
It has long been accepted that this is a challenging area for learners and indeed the
Institute of Physics (see Campbell 1998) has recently challenged its very place in
the primary curriculum.
The following study therefore explores student learning through a series of
activities designed to develop subject knowledge with respect to the stated
Teaching Training Agency (TTA) requirements. In addition it identifies individuals perspectives on key features of learning within this domain. In doing so it
offers an insight into what is involved in effective science teaching through identifying those elements which support the synthesis between pedagogy and subject
knowledge and understanding.
The Study: Methodology
The research involved two groups of students undertaking a one-year course leading to a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) for primary teaching
comprising 44 students in total. A second group of learners (30 in total) were
primary teachers on an in-service course designed to enhance teacher subject
knowledge and understanding in order to support the effective meeting of the
national curriculum requirements for science in the primary classroom. The background knowledge and experience of course members varied, with PGCE students



having a range of first degree expertise and primary teachers, many of whom were
science co-ordinators, with experience of various levels of teaching within the
primary sector. Although most of the teachers had little experience of forces in
their own educational background they had, nonetheless, all experienced some
teaching relating to floating and sinking during their school careers.
The study aimed to identify how learners thinking was influenced as they
undertook a variety of activities based on floating and sinking. The activities were
designed in order to provide opportunities for students to:
1. experience forces in a physical way;
2. help them to generate ideas concerning factors which might influence floating and sinking;
3. develop and explore their own hypotheses about why some objects float
while others sink.
The activities employed a range of approaches from directed to open and involved
the students in recording responses to specific questions as well as personal observations and reflections. Indeed, personal reflection on the teaching/learning process has emerged in past decades as being a fundamental part of teacher education.
Leat et al. (1992) regard student reflections on experience as providing not only
invaluable data on course outcomes but also assisting in the learning process itself.
The rationale underpinning this process has, in the past proved very successful
in helping students to become aware of their own thinking and how their own
learning has taken place (Parker and Heywood 1998). This is predicated on the
need for teachers to recognize significant elements influencing their learning such
that they might draw parallels with childrens learning and address identified key
features of learning that are problematic in promoting understanding in particular
conceptual areas.

The activities
1. Pushing an inflated balloon into a tank of water
The aim of this activity was to enable students to experience forces in a physical
way prior to considering them in a more abstract manner. They were introduced to
the notion of forces as pushes and pulls and asked to note what they observed from
the activity. This was followed by a class discussion of observations with particular
reference to the notion of weight as a force, upthrust, equal and opposite forces and
forces in balance in a floating object.
2. Exploration of a range of everyday objects with respect to floating and
Learners were provided with a range of everyday objects and asked to predict
whether or not they would float prior to testing. This directed activity enabled
students to bring to bear their personal experience in making predictions and
through the deliberate introduction of some less obvious objects (e.g. candle,
plastic counters), to promote thinking about the causes of floating and sinking.



At this stage students were asked to produce a list of the factors they thought might
be influential in the situation.
3. Large, heavy floaters and small, light sinkers.
Our previous experience of working with learners in this area has shown that the
notion of weight is a central tenet of learners reasoning. Even though most adult
learners recognize that weight is not the only determining factor, it is so deeply
embedded as an intuitive response that they often find it difficult to make progress
beyond this and to articulate their thinking clearly. Consequently objects were
introduced to deliberately challenge notions of the effect of weight on floating
and sinking and to ascertain whether the students were able to clarify their thinking on the role of weight in this situation as a result. Resources provided included a
large glass jar with a screw cap lid, a block of wood, a large block of solid wax, a
paperclip, a small ball of plasticine and a small glass bead. Each student formulated
an initial hypothesis about what they thought determined floating/sinking and then
reviewed/modified this after the practical activity.
4. Floating a screw cap jar in a tank of water
A small, empty screw cap jar was floated in a tank of water and students were asked
to explore and develop explanations for what would happen as they increased the
amount of water in the jar. The purpose of this activity was to facilitate exploration
of increasing the weight of the jar whilst keeping the volume constant. Students
were encouraged to note anything of significance to them during the activity, this
might be in the form of questions arising, significant observations, developing
explanations etc. Reflections were of a personal nature, of significance to the individual and served to reveal something of what might be uppermost in their thinking at that point in time.
Finally students were asked to reflect on what they saw as significant in their
own learning. They were to identify key areas of learning with respect to forces,
floating and sinking and also to comment on the teaching and learning process
itself and to consider any teaching implications arising.

The role of the tutor

The tutors role was to support students in their learning experiences and to help
to orient them into thinking about forces acting. After a brief introduction to the
notion of forces as pushes and pulls, learners participated in activity 1, which was
followed by a class discussion of forces acting (gravity, weight and upthrust). This
culminated in the tutor introducing the notion of balanced and unbalanced forces
acting in floating and sinking respectively. The tutor introduced each activity and
there was a final plenary of significant learning taken from the students perspectives. In the meantime the tutor s role was one of working with groups in order to
support investigations and focus learning on forces as the following extract of a
recorded conversation between tutor (T) and two students (A and B) illustrates:

what s happening to the jar? (students are adding water to the small screw cap




gets to the point where it sinks;

so why do you think that happens?
it s (the water) making it heavier . . . cos theres less air in it and more water, so
it s heavy;
has anything else changed?
no, it s the same, the jar and everything, it s just got more weight with the water
so is it just the weight that makes things float or sink?
no it can t be cos the big jar floated didn t it?
but if you put water in it, it would sink eventually;
so what can you say about it then?
it just gets too heavy . . . for its size;
yes, it must be both things really;
what can you say about the forces?
well it (the weight) just gets bigger and the push back (upthrust) cant keep it up

Activity 1
Initially there was general uncertainty within the learning groups about floating
and sinking, particularly with respect to the notion of forces.
Why is it so difficult is it the balloon or the water?
Is the resistance from the water or from the air in the balloon?

The physical experience of pushing a balloon into a tank of water generated considerable surprise even amongst experience teachers (table 1).
It was surprising to feel such a strong resistance from such a light object.

Table 1. A summary of students responses to activity 1

expressed surprise at how difficult it
was to push balloon into water
referred to resistance/pressure of water
used the term force to describe the
upthrust of the water
referred to push back/upthrust/upward
recognized that it was harder to push the
balloon further into the water
stated explicitly that as the downward
force was increased so the upthrust
recognized water level rising/water being
recognized it was easier to push the balloon
narrow end first into water
reasons given:
surface area

PGCE Students


22 (50.0%)

17 (56.7%)

20 (45.5%)
2 (4.5%)

3 (10.0%)
14 (46.7%)

10 (22.7%)

9 (30.0%)

16 (36.4%)

4 (13.3%)

2 (4.5%)

1 (3.3%)

44 (100%)

20 (66.7%)

36 (81.8%)

14 (46.7%)

9 (20.5%)
2 (4.5%)




Most comments centered on the immediate physical impact (for example, `the
balloon feels harder, like it might burst ) with PGCE students tending to refer
more to the `resistance or `pressure of the water and teachers focusing more on
`push back/upthrust/upward thrust/upward force/counter force . Students commented on the water level rising as the balloon was pushed in or water being
displaced and many noted that it was easier to push the balloon into the water
with the narrow end first. Only 11 students offered explanations as to why this
might be, focusing mainly on notions of surface area (9) and volume (2). Four
learners demonstrated notions of the balloon `wanting to escape:
Why is it so difficult to submerge the balloon? possibly because it naturally wants to
float, in other words we are attempting to force the balloon to sink when if it is left
alone it would naturally float.
The balloon tries to move to the side and get back up where it belongs.

Others sensed that it was `something to do with a variety of factors but they found
it difficult to be explicit about the nature of the relationship between them, expressing an almost intuitive feel for the situation
The force is extremely strong it s something to do with density and surface area. It
must be something to do with the amount of water displaced.

Teachers were more likely to engage in a discussion of forces which is hardly

surprising since in the national curriculum floating is given as a specific example
of balanced forces.
The volume of the balloon displaces the water and the force of the water pushes the
balloon back to the surface.

Fourteen out of 30 teachers stated explicitly that the water was responsible for
providing a `push back whereas only two of the PGCE students made such links
explicit in their writing. Several learners noted that it became more difficult to
push the balloon further into the water but only three people made explicit reference to a relationship between the size of the downward force and the size of the
upward force. Some saw the situation as a `battle of forces :
The balloon resists the water as it battles the upthrust.

Activity 2
As table 2 demonstrates learners readily identified a host of factors which might
influence the floating of an object. Shape, surface area, air content, density, weight
and material from which the object was made, all featured prominently in their
thinking. It was interesting to note that ten learners referred to the size of the
object while 56 referred to its shape. Only nine learners in total associated more
than one factor within a relationship and only three attempted an explanation in
terms of forces, illustrating that floating and sinking is not, for most learners, a
situation in which they would naturally apply the concept of force. Of those associating two factors most identified weight as one of the factors. Three referred
specifically to density with respect to the size of the object, implying that their
notion of density was associated with the nature of the material from which the
object was made, as opposed to the density of the object itself. Thirty-two of the

air content
surface area
surface tension
how object is placed
packing of molecules


33 (75.0%)
29 (65.9%)
28 (63.6%)
26 (59.1%)
25 (56.8%)
32 (72.7%)
19 (43.2%)
22 (50.0%)
8 (18.2%)
6 (13.6%)
5 (11.4%)

PGCE Students





density : size
weight size
weight shape
weight air content
forces on object
weight upthrust
spread of water



PGCE Students

1 (3.3%)
2 (6.7%)


Table 2. Factors influencing floating/sinking identified by learners following general exploration of a range of everyday





Table 3a. Changes in PGCE student explanations of floating and sinking

prior to and following participation in activity 3. Initial hypothesis
based on one determining factor (n
Initial hypothesis
6 students (13.6%)

Air content
8 students (18.2%)

Surface area
4 students (9.1%)

Solid/hollow object
1 student (2.3%)
1 student (2.3%)

Post activity hypothesis


weight in relation to size (1)

weight and size (density) (1)
weight and size (2)
weight per size (1)
air content (not weight alone) (1)
no change (5)
weight is irrelevant (1)
spread of weight and size (1)
how closely packed the molecules are (1)
weight and density (1)
weight and surface area (not weight alone) (1)
air and type of material (1)
object floats on largest surface area (1)
spread of weight and size (1)

. weight and air content together (1)

PGCE students focused on the surface area of the object with only two students
referring to volume.
Activity 3
Results are only available for the PGCE learning group for this activity. Students
worked in small groups in order to develop an initial hypothesis on why objects
float or sink in water; following the exploration they reviewed and amended their
original thinking. Outcomes are summarized in tables 3a and 3b. Table 3a relates
to students using one determining factor in their initial hypothesis and table 3b
illustrates those using two or three.
Analysis of conceptual change revealed no distinct and predictable outcomes
on an individual basis. Rather, the data reflect the complexity of learning with
students starting from the same apparent point, working together on the same
activity and yet identifying different aspects of significant learning. It is possible,
however, to detect some general points of importance.
Firstly, the results reflect the centrality of the notion of weight in learners
reasoning (52.3% cited this parameter), with air content and surface area also
featuring prominently (43.2% and 38.6% respectively). A total of 45.4% of students
employed only one determining factor with 36.4% citing two and 18.2% three.
Weight, air content and surface area featured significantly in most hypotheses,
usually being linked with some aspect of size and shape. The term density was
employed less frequently (18.2%) and it was most often associated with air content
and/or various aspects of size and shape which suggested that it might refer to the
material composition of the object (excluding air content) as opposed to the object

. weight and surface area

(not weight alone) (2)
. volume, surface area and
density (1)

. floats on largest surface area (1)

Surface area and position in water

1 student (2.3%)
Weight, volume and surface area
3 students (6.8%)

Density and air content

4 students (9.1%)

Weight and air content

4 students (9.1%)


no change (1)
weight : surface area ratio (2)
weight and density (2)
weight and volume (1)
density (1)
air content only (2)
weight, air content and size (1)
density (1)
no change (3)
surface area (1)

Post activity hypothesis

Weight and surface area

7 students (15.9%)

Initial hypothesis

Weight : surface area ratio and air

1 student (2.3%)
Density, surface area and volume
1 student (2.3%)
Density, shape and air content
1 student (2.3%)

Weight, shape and material

1 student (2.3%)

Weight, density and air content

1 student (2.3%)

Initial hypothesis

. weight and surface area (size),

weight not a determining factor (1)
. density (1)

. no change (1)

. air content (1)

. air content (weight unimportant)


Post activity hypothesis

Table 3b. Changes in PGCE student explanations of floating and sinking prior to and following participation in activity 3.
Initial hypothesis based on two or three determining factors (n





This activity was largely successful in focusing attention on the role of weight
in floating and sinking and as a result there is a general movement towards the
linking of weight with size (or some aspect of size). The term surface area was often
included in reasoning and some reflections revealed evidence that this was associated with the view that upthrust was a finite entity that resided in water, therefore
the greater the surface area, the larger the area over which upthrust might act:
The larger the surface area the greater the area for the upthrust to push on.

Some students began to move towards a notion of density. For example, table
3a shows clearly a student operating on weight as the determining factor progressing to an association of weight with size and in turn relating this to density. Some
students related density to how closely packed the molecules of materials were and
had begun to incorporate air into their reasoning.
The activity seemed to be less useful for those with initial hypotheses dependent on the air content of the object. Some reasoned that as the three small objects
contained no air then the large floating objects must contain large amounts of air
even if it could not be seen directly:
Although you can t see it, there must be lots of air in the wood and the wax so that
they can float.

The extent to which learners viewed air as a light material as opposed to an

uplifting force was unclear but written reflections did contain evidence of both:
Air is buoyant, it makes things float up.
Air is light because of its loose molecules.

It was interesting that some students who began with a hypothesis based on weight
and air displayed a range of learning outcomes. Two learners subsequently
restricted their view to air alone; others changed their views to incorporate weight
combined with size and density. Where weight, density and air content had been
cited initially then air content emerged a the significant factor. In everyday experience objects with large air capacities tend to float, such logic is likely to be deeply
rooted and may require considerable challenge.
Activity 4
This activity involved exploring and thinking about what happens when water is
added to a screw-cap jar. Learners were invited to make personal reflections of an
open nature and consequently were examined qualitatively. A variety of responses
were recorded with some learners listing questions which were concerning them,
others reporting what they saw as significant observations and others describing
their own explanations for what was happening. Several categories can be discerned:
(i) General why questions
These seemed to represent initial thoughts and were usually of the type:
Why is the jar floating like that?
Why does it sink past a certain point?

(ii) Relevant observations



For example, some focused not on the floating/sinking of the jar but on the sideways position of the empty jar in the water.
I don t know why but I know it will (fall on its side).

(iii) Explanations
Learners explanations were often tentative, in the form of questions e.g.:
Is it because there are 2 materials of different densities? (glass-jar, metal-lid)
Is the glass bottom heavier than the metal top?

Others tried to explain the situation in terms of forces with some engaging in
discussion of equal and opposite forces in balance in a floating object.
I think it s to do with the centre of gravity.
The downward force is the weight and the water gives back an equal and opposite
upthrust, these two forces are in balance when it floats in the water or rests on the
bottom of the tank.

Again there were notions of the amount of force being associated with the surface
area of the object:
On its side - bigger surface area - more space for the water to push on.

Also there were notions that the forces might be unevenly distributed on the jar
Is there more upthrust on the end that s higher in the water?

Adding water to the jar, thereby increasing its mass whilst keeping its volume
constant and exploring the effects systematically seemed to help students develop
their ideas more clearly. Some focused on what was happening when the amount of
air in the jar was changed:
The trapped volume of air keeps the jar light for its size. When it s half full of water
it s heavier volume of air is reduced but still light for its size (density) so it floats
lower in the water.
When changing the amount of water in the jar we looked at it with a view that we
changing the amount of air, making it heavier.
Is the floating to do with the amount of air or the amount of water in the jar?

Others seemed to have developed a clearer sense of the notion of density:

The jar floats lower in the water cos it s now more dense.
Adding water increases its mass for size (density).
You can make the jar float by decreasing the water in the jar, i.e. making it lighter for
its size more dense.

Some developed a clearer notion of opposing forces in balance but often terms
such as mass, weight and gravity seemed to be used interchangeably:
Forces acting on jar = downward - weight and upthrust - in balance when object
Gravity is the downward thrusting force - the water is the counterforce - causes an
upthrust and they balance.



The bigger the mass/weight, the bigger the downward force.

(iv) Making links with wider experience

For some students part of the process of making sense of the phenomenon involved
making links with previous knowledge and experience, this seemed to occur
rapidly when students had developed their understanding of balanced forces and
the effects of changing the density of an object.
It s just like a submarine isn t it?
It ( jar) would float higher in salty water because the salty water s more dense!
Salt water would support a heavier weight.
Would heavy objects sink to the bottom of the Dead Sea?
If we put helium in instead of air it would be lighter and float higher.

Learners perspectives on significant learning

Learners were asked to identify what for them constituted significant personal
learning as a result of the activities they had participated in. They were asked to
comment on their understanding of the subject matter itself as well as significant
features of the process of teaching and learning. Table 4 summarizes responses for
both serving teachers and PGCE students with respect to subject matter. Key
features were the recognition that although air is important in floating and sinking,
it does not actually make objects float. Teachers were more likely to relate this
explicitly to the notion of weight: size ratio. The concept of weight for size seems to
have been a key feature for many learners. Identifying forces acting, in particular,
equal and opposite forces in this situation was also important in learning.
Floating and sinking is a conceptual area where an intuitive sense of what is
happening and why is often paramount in learners thinking:
Before starting I just `knew what would float and sink.
Our first impressions were based on guesswork.
I knew about this but I d forgotten.

Comments on the teaching and learning process were immediate and personal. For
many PGCE students, viewing this situation from a forces perspective was something new:
I just didn t think about floating and sinking with a view to forces.

Developing a qualitative explanation for something so intuitive and possibly from

a different perspective was, for some, surprisingly difficult:
While you may think you know something will either float or sink actually being able
to say why it does is a very difficult task.
Density is difficult to explain verbally, it does not follow common sense.
It s stuff I ve `learned before but never really thought too much about it and it s
surprisingly hard.

Recognizing the difficulties in their own learning led to identifying implications

for teaching and learning. For example, several students commented that having to

air molecules are lighter than

water molecules
weight alone is not the determining
weight for size determine floating
and sinking
heavy objects must be large in
order to float
objects heavy for their size will
size and weight can be changed to
influence floating and sinking

air is a key factor
air is involved
air does not make things float/sink
air changes the weight : size ratio
air is lighter than water









15 (34.1%)
5 (11.4%)
5 (11.4%)

PGCE students




3 (10.0%)


3 (10.0%)



3 (10.0%)

18 (60.0%)
12 (40.0%)
6 (20.0%)


forces act on objects and do not belong

to them
when forces become unbalanced the
object will sink

recognizes forces in balance

recognizes opposing forces










material object is made from is important


density of object is the determining factor
weight for size = density
relates density to mass and volume
relates density to weight and volume
recognizes the effect of changing the
density of the water
density of water = 1

PGCE students











Table 4. Learners perspectives on significant features of their own learning with respect to floating and sinking.



surface area

surface area
interaction of all

. balloon felt heavier

in water
. strong resistance
(in water or air in
. water displaced
. balloon wants to

. difficult to push
balloon down
. water provides
. water level rises

Activity 2


Activity 1
Balloon observations




Activity 3
Activity 4
Jar exploration

weight and size . by changing water

in jar density is
being changed
(weight for size)
. increasing the
downward force
makes the jar sink

weight per size . recognizes that by

adding water, weight
per size is increased
. relates weight per
size to density
. recognizes that jar,
air and water have
different densities


Table 5. Learning identified by 4 students across activities 1- 4.

. weight is not the determining

. weight per size (density)
. opposing forces acting
. forces are balanced when
object floats
. downward force increases as
density increases
. it s the density of the object
as a whole that s important
. weight alone is not the
determining factor
. weight and size
. opposing forces acting
(upthrust and weight)
. forces equal on floating
. forces unbalanced in sinking
. objects need to be bigger for
their size to float

Significant learning identified



Figure 1.


Examples of teachers comments on key features of their own


I now have a much clearer understanding of things. I have learnt about forces in the
past but have tried to understand them at a higher level without having developed the
basic knowledge. The balloon in the water was an important part of my learning as it
meant that I could actually experience the force of upthrust.
By trying experiments on a small scale we were eventually able to make sense of big
questions such as why does a huge liner float.
For me, I never really thought about forces in something stationary and I think this is
the case for children, but experiencing it has been very useful in my own understanding.
I realised that when confronted with the question that big things are heavy thing and
small things are light. I didnt know how to explore this further. In class we weighed
things and identified that this was the case but I wasn t sure where to take it. The
experiment we did today showed how weight for size is central . . . taking two things at
Being able to try out your own hypothesis was the important thing for me.

verbalize thinking and be specific about hypotheses had been a useful part of the
For children I will have to help them to make clear hypotheses . . . otherwise lots of
messy, pointless filling of jars will happen if there is no clarity of thought about what
is happening.
I have learnt the difference between qualitative and quantitative explanation.
I can understand how children might struggle with ideas.
I now feel there s a lot more to understanding floating and sinking than I first imagined . . . it s the building of ideas and putting them together . . . holding two ideas
together is much harder than holding them both separately.

Many of the PGCE students referred to the need to experience forces in a

physical way and clearly, engagement in practical investigation had been very
important. The teachers reiterated the sentiments expressed by PGCE students
with respect to the need to experience forces in a tangible, physical way and to
explore them in a practical sense but in general they were able to identify more
sophisticated implications for teaching and learning. Significant features included:
making links from small scale experiments to real life situations; recognizing and
experiencing forces acting in stationary objects as a possible precursor to understanding forces in moving objects; providing challenge and recognizing the difficulty and manipulation in holding two concepts at the same time (see figure 1 for
examples of reflective writing).

Tracking conceptual development across the activities

As observed previously in activity 3 individual progress was difficult to predict,
even when students possessed apparently similar starting points the learning outcomes were personal and subtly different. Table 5 illustrates the progress of four
students as they undertook the activities provided.

surface area
air content

air content

. pressure, force
increases as the
balloon is pushed
further down
. water is being

. extreme forces
needed to push
balloon down

Activity 2


Activity 1
Balloon observations

air content

surface area


Activity 3

air content

weight and
surface area


Table 5. (Continued).

Significant learning identified

. gravity pushes down . relationship between weight

. water exerts upthrust
and size
. adding water
. density of the object
increases density
relative to water (mass/
of jar
. air does not make things
float air reduces density
. density of water =1
. seawater has a higher density,
pushes back more
. various factors play a role
. removing air from
. air is the key factor
jar makes it sink

Activity 4
Jar exploration




Students A and B worked in the same small group and had similar starting
points. Student A noted that when the balloon was pushed into the water there was
a strong resistance and wondered whether this was due to the air or the water. She
was able to produce a considerable range of factors influencing the situation
(including density) and yet, interestingly, based her initial working hypothesis in
activity 3 on weight alone. Post activity was revised to weight and size in a relationship (weight per size) which seems to have been confirmed through activity four
and extended to make links with density. There was explicit recognition of manipulation of density in the jar investigation and recognition of the contribution of air.
The relationship between weight and size appears to be a significant feature of
learning, which can be related to the balance of forces acting on the jar.
Student B had a similar starting point but provides less comment on density in
the early stages. Activity 3 results in the association of weight and size with the
nature of the relationship (if any) remaining unclear at this point. Activity 4 seems
to be instrumental in developing the relationship between weight and size and this
is related explicitly to the forces acting. This is reflected in significant learning
which demonstrates subtle differences with less of a focus on density compared
with student A and more of a focus on weight for size and forces acting.
Student C displayed notions of pressure and force increasing with depth as a
result of activity 1 and produced a comprehensive list of factors during activity 2.
His initial hypothesis for activity 3 was based on surface area, volume and density,
which was subsequently amended to weight and surface area. Activity 4 resulted in
engagement with development of a forces explanation and this was linked with
density. Significant learning displays strong links with existing knowledge, particularly density.
Only two students in the sample did not appear to make progress with respect
to developing their ideas of forces acting. This is illustrated with reference to
student D. Beginning with the observation that a large force is needed to push
the balloon down in activity 1 and presenting a wide range of influential factors in
activity 2, the central hypothesis in activity 3 (air content) remains intact and is
confirmed by activity 4, where the addition of water is interpreted as removal of air
leading to the sinking of the jar. There is no discussion of forces involved and air
remains the significant feature with various other factors playing an undefined
This study describes in detail some of the complexities of learning pertaining to
both process as well as subject specific elements. These features characterize the
conceptual demands of engaging intellectually in learning situations. Through a
combination of structured and open questions, personal reflection and practical
investigation it was possible to explore not only how learners reasoned about
floating and sinking, but also how that thinking was influenced through the teaching and learning experiences they encountered. Consequently students were able
to identify valuable implications for their own teaching.
Dart et al. (1998), in discussing the evidence that many university students
emerge from degree courses with little but surface declarative knowledge of their
discipline, raised a highly significant concern with respect to teacher education. If
teachers are to become effective practitioners their education must equip them



with a deep knowledge of significant factors which influence learning. The implications are not only a requirement for in-depth subject knowledge but, as Dart
et al. point out, as beliefs about teaching and learning drive decisions to do with
teaching (Biggs 1989), prospective teachers need an awareness of the nature of
learning itself.

Key features of the learning process

Initial thinking about forces was often vague with intuitive thinking and tacit
knowledge playing a dominant role:
I just knew what would float and sink.

Learning is a complex process, highly personal and difficult to predict. As table 5

illustrates, significant differences in learning emerge in students undergoing similar learning experiences. This accords with von Glasersfeld s (1992) view of constructivist learning in that teaching is a social activity but learning is a private
activity with understanding being constructed by each individual `knower . The
learning agenda is clearly set by the learner herself and the challenge for the
teacher becomes one of how best to facilitate the learning within that personal
framework of reference.
It has long been recognized that intuitive/common-sense/naive ideas and alternative conceptions are often firmly embedded in peoples minds and that they can
be stocially resistant to change (Brown and Clement 1987, Steinberg 1990, Driver
et al. 1994). If learners are to make conceptual progress in scientific thinking then
we need to know more about the specific details of what facilitates the process.
Learners reflections revealed some important insights such as:
. verbalizing ideas forced them to confront aspects they were unsure of and to
recognize similarities and differences between their ideas and those of
. formulating and testing personal hypotheses;
. testing thinking through practical investigation;
. reviewing, refining and reformulating thinking in the light of experimental
Some were able to identify sophisticated elements and their observations included:
. explanations are constructed personally by the learner;
. subject knowledge required for teaching needs to encompass much more
than scientific fact if teachers are to nurture understanding;
. thinking often needs to be challenged conceptually if development is to
. teaching needs to help learners to build connections between tacit knowledge and scientific explanation in relevant and meaningful ways;
. the notion of weight for size requires learners to hold together two concepts
in a relationship and this is much more difficult than holding them separately;
. developing qualitative explanations for what had formerly been taught in a
quantitative way during past education was highly significant in developing
understanding and empowering the learner.



The study has thrown into sharp focus the difference between knowing and developing understanding in science. The latter requires that learners develop and internalize coherent and causal explanations for the phenomena they observe and this
has been supported by research findings in other areas (see for example Parker and
Heywood 1998). Explanations must provide learners with a convincing rationale
for their existing observations and ideas about how the world works if they are to
meet the criteria for satisfactory explanations and become part of reasoning strategies. Dillon (1994) in discussing the value of qualitative reasoning in the learning
of physics points out that people seem to reason very successfully about physical
systems where the only knowledge they have is qualitative. Qualitative reasoning
concerns the skills used by expert practitioners to reason about the world in nonquantitative ways. Such qualitative reasoning may have an important role to play
in helping learners to develop an understanding of abstract scientific ideas and
translate this into effective pedagogy.
Effective practitioners require not only a personal understanding of subject
matter but also a subtle knowledge of pedagogical implications for teaching. This
so-called pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman 1987) covers a host of issues
involving for example: how to ascertain and challenge learners ideas in productive
ways; knowledge of the inherent difficulties for learners in the learning of a particular subject; what learners might see as abstract notions and how to represent
the subject matter in that teaching and learning interface. We have identified and
explored some of these issues in student learning about forces with respect to both
the subject matter and the learning process itself.
As we approach the millennium, the nature of science education is under
review and recently the outcomes of a series of seminars on the future of education
were published in the report Beyond 2000: Science education for the future. (Millar
and Osborne 1998). The report examines the successes and failures of education to
date and explore what type of science education might be required for the future.
In advocating a curriculum to sustain and develop the curiosity of young people
and to develop the ability to engage with scientific and technical matters, great
emphasis is placed on empowering the learner through developing `scientific literacy . Such literacy implies the development of understanding of fundamental
scientific notions as opposed to the knowing of explanations and details of processes.
Golby et al. (1995) criticized research that focuses on teachers weaknesses
with respect to subject matter and the assumption that this can be redressed
through supplying appropriate subject knowledge, which can then be transferred
to children. They make the point that this approach implicitly nurtures a transmission view of teaching and learning science and go on to make the case for a
perspective in terms of what teachers can do. Such a focus on teacher capabilities
will enable the setting of realistic expectations for the classroom. We believe that a
close focus on developing qualitative understanding which links and provides
causal explanations for personal experiences must be of significance to teacher
education. The present study demonstrates that through such a process teachers
can and do engage successfully with difficult and abstract scientific ideas. What
teachers can do effectively, given the opportunity, is to scrutinize closely their own
learning and in doing so identify the characteristics of the learning process itself



within specific subject domains. Metacognition refers to the knowledge and regulation learners have of their own thinking and learning (Brown 1987), learning
about learning could contribute to resolving the tension between subject knowledge
and pedagogy.

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