Interest Oriented Teaching of Physics and Chemistry. A study of educational development at the Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer in the Netherlands

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

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Motivating students between the ages of twelve and fifteen for physics is generally considered a problem by teachers. Especially so when it concerns girls (Woolnough, 1994; Weinburgh, 1995). Several attempts at improvement seem to have met with limited success. Usually those reforms focused on the subject physics itself without regard to the school situation as a whole (Shymansky&Kyle, 1992; Shachar&Sharan, 1995).

The teaching of physics and chemistry as one combined subject has developed at the Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer (OSB) within the context of a school that, as a whole, from its beginnings, aimed to motivate and interest students. Therefore it seemed worthwhile to investigate to what extent this method of teaching would appeal to students' motivations. This question is even more interesting because teaching takes places in very mixed groups of students. This indicates the central theme of this research project: the motivation and interest of students in the age group from twelve to fifteen for lessons combining physics and chemistry with special reference to the OSB.


In this research project there is a close relationship between practice and research. The researcher not only teaches and has developed a curriculum but has also taken part in the management team of the OSB. This guarantees a thorough knowledge of the subject and less risk for a research/practice gap (Pekarek a.o., 1996). But it also requires special attention in order to keep the appropriate distance.

First there is a description how OSB-staff try to make the combined physics and chemistry lessons more interesting and motivating for the students during the first three years. This description is confirmed by a diverse group of co-operators who knew the school since long. The conclusions of chapter three and four are checked by looking for support in theoretical and empirical literature.

An empirical research has been done to what degree teaching physics and chemistry in the lower forms of the OSB succeeds in motivating students of all school abilities and of both sexes. This quantitative research followed more than three hundred students in eleven classes over a period of three years. Topics of investigation were appreci¬ation of lessons and degree of difficulty as perceived by these students. The researcher could compare the results of this investigation of third year students with national research of earlier date. In the analysis multilevel models were used (Bryk&Raudenbush, 1992; Goldstein, 1995; Hox 1995).

Finally the results are described of an investigation into what interested and motivated students particularly in the lessons. The investigation relied on open questions and interviews


School culture and organisation originated from a concurrence of social developments and personal initiatives aimed at making education more motivating and interesting for students as well as for teachers. The students are at the centre of the small scale school organisation in an attempt to minimalize alienation. In the first three years no selection takes place. Students are evaluated according to the progress in their own development and not by comparison to classmates. The educational infrastructure of the school is discussed: it consists of many organisational measures that enhance this approach. The aim is to create an informal climate between staff members as well as within class rooms: open discussion has an important place.

Because of the prime importance attached to personal initiative and individual responsi¬bility in staff as well as in students, and the support given to this by school culture and organisa¬tion, the term "emancipatory school" is introduced. The way of teaching of physics and chemistry at the OSB has been developed to motivate and interest students of diverse interests and skills. Teachers try as much as possible to start from what the students consider meaningful and to expand their interests. One of the aims of this approach is stimulate students to think about their own observations (in the fields of physics and chemistry). Attention to cognitive, as well as social and emotional development, is combined with a great variety in working methods. Practical work, discussion and a good presentation of the report are explicitly part of the working method. Knowledge is acquired by "learning from experience". In principle this enables students to connect new knowledge with earlier experiences. The aim is not to ultimately test their knowledge and skills but to find a way of development that fits the individual as well as possible. Not "comparative" but "personal" achievement is set as a goal. Therefore OSB teaching of physics and chemistry can be labelled "interest-oriented teaching" i.e. teaching that chooses contents and methods in such a way that it motivates students of varying interests and abilities and stimulates them to expand these interests.

On the whole, the concept of the emancipatory school and the way in which physics and chemistry are taught in the OSB lower forms, are in line with basic assumptions and analyses by philosopher Habermas (Young, 1992). Common point of departure is that people want to develop, on the basis of their personal interests as well as for social reasons. An "emancipatory" school has a culture and an organisation in which there is a symmetry in interest and participation of all school members. Habermas names the appropriate social action "com¬municative action". Therefore the term "communicative school" can be used when the emancipatory school is perceived from the point of view of cooperation.

Motivation literature shows that characteristic elements of an emancipatory school and of communicative action match circumstances that enhance student motivation and interest. The central attention in the OSB physics and chemistry curriculum to the students' cognitive, as well as social and emotional development, also appears to be related to analyses by Habermas and his theory of communicative action (Habermas, 1988). By means of this theory school culture and the actual contents of the subject as taught can be placed within a bigger frame of reference. Literature in the field of teaching also strongly indicates that paying more or less equal attention to the three areas mentioned, improves the motivation and interest of all students. Clearly OSB staff have put many concepts into practice so as to render the teaching of physics and chemistry more motivating and interesting to their students. It may be expected that this holds true for students who vary greatly in skills and areas of interest, boys and girls. Relevant literature confirmed these conclusions.. The results of an investigation, relying on open questions and interviews into what interested and motivated students particularly in the lessons, confirmed many of the former expectations.

Quantitative analysis showed that OSB teaching of physics and chemistry appeared to be more appreciated than is usual for Dutch teaching of physics in general. Among students with higher ability differences in lesson appreciation are small between boys and girls. These result are all the more remarkable because of the wide range of abilities within the groups that are taught. OSB students find physics and chemistry less difficult than other Dutch students. However, the higher appreciation of the lessons can only be partly attributed to this factor. The way in which a school tries to involve the students in their own process of education is probably important too. And of course the degree to which such a school is successful in this attempt. These elements seems to be especially dependent on school culture.

The last chapter focuses on the implementation of interest-oriented teaching. It seems possible for teachers in other schools to sometimes vary working from a book with the method here described. Expectations are that school culture and the way in which a school evaluates achievements will decide to what extent this method can be effective in motivating students and expanding their interests.


Bryk,A.S. & Raudenbusch, S.W. (1992) Hierarchical Linear Models London: Sage

Goldstein , H.(1995). Multilevel statistical models. London: Arnold

Habermas, J.(1988) Nachmetaphysisches Denken, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Hox , J.J. (1995). Applied Multilevel Analysis. Amsterdam: TT Publicaties

Pekarek,R.& Krockover,G.H.& Shepardson,D.P.(1996), The Research-Practice Gap in Science Education, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33, p.111-113

Shachar,H. & Sharan,S.(1995) Cooperative Learning and the Organization of Secondary Schools School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 6 p.47-66

Shymansky, J.A. &.Kyle Jr, W.C. (1992) Establishing a Research Agenda: Critical Issues of Science Curriculum Reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29 p.749-778

Weinburgh,M.(1995) Gender Differences in Student Attitudes toward Science: A Meta-Analysis of the Literature from 1970 to 1991Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32 p.387-398

Woolnough,B.E.(1994) Factors affecting students’ choice of science and engineering. International Journal of Science Education, 16, 659-676

Young,R.E.(1992) Critical theory and Classroom talk Clevedon: Multilingual Matters ltd.

Key words

Emancipatory education, Habermas, heterogeneous groups, interest, comprehensive school, motivation, physics and chemistry education, school culture, school organisation, interest oriented teaching, communicative school, Wagenschein, secondary education.

Full reference

Genseberger, R.J. (1997). Interessegeoriënteerd natuur- en scheikunde onderwijs. Een studie naar onderwijsontwikkeling op de Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer, Utrecht: CDß Press, Centre for Science and Mathematics Education, Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Utrecht University (Cdß Series on Research in Science Education, 28) – 355 p. including 3 p. summary – ISBN 90-73346-35-5.


Dr. Rupert Genseberger

Centre for Science and Mathematics Education (CDbèta)

Faculty of Science, Utrecht University

PO Box 80.008

3508 TA Utrecht

The Netherlands

phone (+31)/(0)30 2531717

fax (+31)/(0)30 2537494

email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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