What is this project about?

This project is about improving the achievement of students from lower socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds in senior high school physics, chemistry and biology. PISA results show an increase in the proportion of Australian students in the Low band in science literacy and a decrease in higher bands (Thomson, De Bortoli, & Buckley, 2013). While only 3% of students in the high SES quartile fell below the PISA international benchmark in scientific literacy, 22% in the lowest SES quartile failed to reach it (Marginson, Tytler, Freeman, & Roberts, 2013, p.16). In all literacy domains, the higher the socioeconomic background, the higher the students’ performance (Thompson et al, 2013, p xviii). This is reflected in the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) chemistry examinations where ‘the rate of failure soared as the social scale was descended (Teese, 2013, p.105). A major factor contributing to low student achievement in science is their failure to comprehend and compose the disciplinary-specific forms of language and image increasingly required in progress to senior grades (Macnaught, Maton, Martin, & Matruglio, 2013). This was particularly the case for low SES students in chemistry for whom the technical linguistic precision and sophisticated mathematical dexterity required in short answer examination questions exceeded their literacy capacities (Teese, 2013). This reflects the distinctive demands of ‘disciplinary literacy’ (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012) where students are expected to comprehend and create the sophisticated discourse used ‘by those who create, communicate, and use knowledge within the disciplines’ (p. 8). By developing pedagogies to improve low SES students’ subject-specific literacies we seek to facilitate improving their achievement in senior science subjects. Seeking ways to increase low SES students’ achievement in science is important in improving outcomes and reducing disparities for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Independent research in both literacy education and science education recommend the development of a new multiliteracies pedagogy to address educational disadvantage in senior high school. Science education researchers have emphasized that learners need to understand why and how discipline-specific and generic literacies are used to build and validate scientific knowledge (Prain & Tytler, 2012; Tytler, Prain, Hubber, & Waldrip, 2013) and literacy researchers using Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and related visual semiotics have shown how the verbal, visual, mathematical and symbolic discourse of school science is quite remote from the everyday discourse and literate practice of low SES students (O’Halloran, 2003, 2015; Unsworth, 1999a, 1999b, 2000). It has also been shown that explanations by high achieving science students are characterized by an inter-play between everyday forms of communication and the disciplinary representations of science (Georgiou, Maton, & Sharma, 2014; Macnaught et al., 2013) and that such an inter-play characterizes students’ development of a critical stance, as increasingly required in the move to senior science (Collin, 2014; Macken-Horarik, 1996, 1998). This indicates that for disadvantaged students in particular, pedagogic practices of strategic, iterative ‘shunting’ between every day and more specialized, distinctive disciplinary forms of language are essential in developing effective learning (Lemke, 1989, 1990; Tytler & Aranda, 2015; Unsworth, 2001). SFL research, including that of CIs Humphrey (2013; 2015) and Love (2010; 2008) has shown how linguistic analyses can be used in developing such pedagogies. CI Unsworth has shown how functional semiotic analyses of images can further inform these pedagogies to include developing students’ interpretation and creation of multimodal texts (Ge, Chung, Wang, Chang, & Unsworth, 2014; Unsworth, 2001, 2004; Unsworth & Bush, 2010) and CI O’Halloran has shown how mathematical knowledge is accumulated across language, images and symbolism in the classroom (O’Halloran, 2011). CI Tytler and his colleagues have demonstrated the efficacy of teachers and students negotiating the meanings evident in verbal, visual, mathematical and gestural representations in science through guided and exploratory representational production (Prain & Tytler, 2012; Tytler & Hubber, 2010; Tytler et al., 2013). They have developed a representation-intensive inquiry pedagogy in which students, through constructing and evaluating representations are led to understand and appreciate canonical scientific representations (Prain & Tytler, 2012; Tytler & Hubber, 2010; Tytler et al., 2013).

Research in SFL-based curriculum literacies and representation-intensive learning in science are brought together to re-theorize verbal, visual and symbolic representation in senior science learning and to develop new multiliteracies ‘infused’ science pedagogy that will address the chronic underachievement of educationally disadvantaged students. In doing so three under-researched issues will be investigated: (1) the scarcity of theoretical and empirical attention to variation in the use of language and image in different science subjects (Freebody, 2013a); (2) the paucity of research into the relationship between the literate practices entailed in acquiring, displaying and engaging critically with knowledge in science classrooms and those literacy practices required for high stakes examination contexts (Freebody, 2013b); (3) the lack of any systematic account of how language, image and symbolic resources change with the accumulation of semiotic demands in the progression from junior to senior high school science.