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Social Interaction In Implementation Of The Primary School Science Curriculum



        Numerous research has shown that successful implementation of a curriculum occurs when teachers interact with and support each other as they try out new practices, cope with difficulties, develop new skills and help each other to improve classroom teaching.  This study, which is a part of a larger study, examines the norms of social interaction among teachers teaching science in four primary schools in the state of Melaka in implementing the Primary School Science Curriculum.  Using a qualitative research approach of diverse methods (document analysis, interviews, classroom observations, field-notes) and sources of validation (teachers, school administrators, education officers), it probes the underlying social and cultural variables of school and classroom processes and seeks the participants’ views, opinions and ideas to understand why such norms of social interaction exists.  This study shows that in reality teachers work alone to fulfil the demands of the science curriculum compelled by workplace conditions, balkanisation, lack of time and a need to get work done.  Interestingly, the study also shows that the need to work alone is a personal choice and social interaction in implementing a curriculum can be enhanced if there is a commitment to change.

1.1 Social interaction or isolation

Like all developing countries, Malaysia places great emphasis on science and technology because she believes that in today’s world, science and technology play major roles in influencing societies and shaping future ones.  Towards this end, Malaysia is consistently working to improve the quality of science education.  The movement for reform in science education is to make it more relevant to the majority of the students and at the same time, to develop the desired pool of workforce in science and technology for the developing economy of the country, in line with its vision 2020.

Its most recent reform in primary science is the Primary School Science (PSS) curriculum which was introduced in December 1994 to all national primary schools at the upper primary level.  It is a large-scale, centrally funded and national curriculum project that replaces the traditional approach to science teaching and learning as information transfer, bringing an enquiry-based learning to science that emphasises the development of process skills and higher-order creative and critical thinking.  As an innovation, it was new to the primary school teachers teaching science.  Change involved learning of new instructional strategies and skills, adopting new behaviours such as modifying teaching styles and use of new curriculum materials as well as modifying beliefs and values in relation to learning. Implementation was through a hierarchical bureaucratic “top down” management that depended on the orchestration and co-ordination of activities between various government departments and schools for its execution.  Supervision of schools was provided by state education officers to apply pressure to ‘do it right’ according to procedures during implementation.

For effective implementation of a curriculum such as the PSS curriculum, numerous research has viewed the importance of social interaction among teachers (Fullan, 1991; Huberman and Miles, 1984).  Through such interactions, teachers learn to share their ideas with colleagues, provide each other support to cope with difficulties, show trust and open communication, tend to like each other more, understood each other’s needs better and exercised greater potential influence over each other essential to the success of the curriculum.  Such teacher interactions or collegiality are enhanced when teachers engaged in frequent staff development, teachers are observed and critiqued, teachers design and plan teaching materials together and teachers teach each other in different ways to try out new practices or to develop new skills (Little, 1982).  Indirectly, there is professional growth that brings teacher development and curriculum development together (Fullan, 1991; Rudduck, 1991).

However, we are reminded that although social interaction are powerful forces for change yet they are also in the minority (Rosenholtz, 1989; Joyce and Showers, 1988).  Teaching is a lonely profession that keeps teachers apart for most part of the teaching day (Fullan, 1991; Lortie, 1975; McPherson, 1972, Sarason, 1971).  In education, it is legitimate to work by oneself in a space that is secure against invaders; the word colleague can refer to a relative stranger on the other side of the wall (Rudduck, 1991; p.31). Thus isolation can represent a potential barrier to the implementation of reform initiatives as well as restricts opportunities for professional growth.  As Eisner (1983) puts it:

“The school needs to become a professional community with space enough for teachers to grow as professionals.  They have much to offer each other, but these contributions. Are not easily made when teachers are isolated” (Eisner, 1983; p.12)
Implementation of the PSS curriculum requires learning new skills, new behaviours and new beliefs and this depends significantly on whether teachers teaching science are working as isolated individuals or are exchanging ideas and support about their work.  This paper examines the norms of social interaction among teachers teaching science in implementing the PSS curriculum and seeks to understand the course of events, problems and constraints faced.

1.2 Methodology

The approach to this study is qualitative or naturalistic, that brings the researcher in direct contact with the people, situations and phenomenon under study.  Four primary schools in Central Melaka were studied.  They were all national type schools with grades from Year One to Year Six for pupils of ages 7 to 12 respectively.  In each school, pupil enrolment was more than 500.  Time was spent in the four schools from June to August 1997 (8 weeks) and in May 1998 (4 weeks).  During this period the PSS curriculum was in its third and fourth year of implementation respectively.

Data was collected from 18 teachers teaching science in Years 4 to 6 through classroom observations, semi-structured interviews, field-notes, informal conversations and document analysis.  Most of these teachers, of various discipline specialisation, were not formally trained to teach science.  The head teachers of the respective schools, state education officers-in-charge of science and state key personnel in primary science were also interviewed.  Interviews and classroom observations were audio-taped and then transcribed.  Analysis of data was continuous throughout the study.  A cross-case comparisons approach with a thematic case structure was employed.  After data analysis of individual schools, they were then compared and analysed for common themes and/or patterns and areas of differences.  The assertions that emerged were cross-checked and triangulated with data collected from various sources and by various methods to support  or refute them.

1.3 Social Interaction: Did it happen?

In all the four schools studied, there was a sense of regularity, order and routine. The schools were organized in the same way in familiar buildings, pupils in ‘cellular’ classrooms, teachers teaching in these classrooms separated by thick walls from intrusion of noise and prying eyes.  About 65 percent of the school work was spent on teaching in the classrooms.  Interaction was mainly a brisk “hello” in between changing classes or along the corridors.

Although the physical scenario was more or less similar in all the schools, I noticed there were similarities in social interaction among the teachers teaching science in three of the schools as opposed to the fourth school that drew my attention.  In three of the schools, I observed that the place where teachers interact was in the staff-room or the canteen.  However, there was segregation by race as well as by sex.  Cliques by race were obvious as groups of teachers gathered during break time and in-between teaching periods to eat, talk or relax.  The male teachers were also seated away from the female teachers.  Most of the classrooms were small and not well-ventilated. As such teachers who were in-charge of the library sat in the library and so on.  I sensed teachers chose to be left alone in their physical and social spaces.  Maybe they ‘minded their own business’ or maybe there is the fear that requests for assistance from other colleagues about the most routine matters imply a lack of teaching competence.  There is the reluctance to give and receive help.

Observations indicated that teachers rarely have time to interact in the staff-room.  Teachers would hurry into the staff-room, put their things down, have some food or drink, read the newspapers or some textbooks to prepare their lessons, fill in the record books or mark exercise books.  If there is socialization, teacher talk is mainly banter, about administrative school matters, school discipline, food, social activities and family.  Rarely is the conversation on subject-matter or instructional strategies.

In implementing the PSS curriculum, teachers told me that they consulted the panel head or teachers teaching the same grade whenever they had problems.  A Year Six teacher said:

“Ah…sometimes because sometimes we have no time, you know to cope with the work.  We have to record, do recording  and all that, ah, so we always the two of us discusslah, everyday  practically.  If you are not here also we ask each other and find out from other schools"                                                                                 (C/I/4-7-97/11)

However, during fieldwork, I hardly saw the teachers teaching science working together or discussing teaching and learning.  The main concerns were administrative matters like filling in the marks for assessments.  In addition, teachers worked with minimal contact with other teachers because all the  teachers implementing the PSS curriculum were just as uncertain as the next teacher.  There was also no one to turn for help.  A teacher said;

“…in fact, if we discuss and sit down, we could have solved a lot of problems.  This is the problem I faced.  In fact, ah…nobody to refer.  Who to refer? The headmistress is so aloof.  High and mighty.  So we trying to do our best actually, the little that we know. Hopefully, as we go along with the experience and all, we might become  better.”        (W/I/29-7-97/13)
The setting was slightly different in the fourth school.  I was struck by the way the three teachers teaching science worked together to share the burden of implementing PSS in the classroom.  They were able to build a working relationship despite work demands.  They sat together at a make-shift staff-room behind the science room.  Everyday they shared their teaching problems and how to teach the science content; they were comfortable observing each other’s teaching; they were proactive in taking action to solve problems; they trusted and supported each other.  Uncertainty and failure were shared and discussed with a view to gaining help and support.  There was reference to teachers as “we” rather than “I” such as “We did this.  We did that” , pointing to an atmosphere of collegiality and cohesiveness.  The teachers took the initiative to train pupils to make charts, scrapbooks from resource materials and organized a science exhibition.  They coped with changes brought by implementation of the PSS curriculum for there was a clear, shared vision of what should be done and strong support for it, as well as serious energy devoted to coping as such despite work demands.  However, a year later when I returned to the school, the working relationship among the three teachers broke up because other teachers appointed to teach science did not share the same vision.  They wanted to work alone.

Panel meetings and in-house staff training that may provide social interaction among the teachers teaching science were few in all the four schools.  There is also less need for interactions between teachers when communications can be engineered through handouts.  Reminders of meetings and administrative matters, school activities for the week, names of teachers on sick leave or away on courses were written on the notice-board in the staff-room.  Every now and then during school hours, the office ‘peon’ would approach individual teachers with teaching time-table or ‘relief’ classes or personal memos or documents from the administrators.  Time was also snatched after the weekly school assembly by the head teacher to remind teachers on administrative matters.  Information about administrative matters was also conveyed by word of  mouth through teachers.

I also noticed that one of the heads was highly evident in the staff-room, but communication was mainly limited to checking that administrative matters were adhered and completed.  Discussions on teaching and learning were rare.  I attended a panel meeting.  It was businesslike, focusing on pupils’ test scores or coverage of subject content, rather than on exploring and understanding teachers’ views on teaching and learning.

Observations of teachers teaching and providing feedback by teachers can go along way to enhancing collegiality (Fullan, 1991).  However, teachers were rarely observed by their peers and were alone in the classroom.  This is consistent with Goodlad’s (1984) study which showed that a large majority of teachers had not observed practical lessons in other classrooms but would like to do so.  However, classroom observation by head teachers and state education officers were carried out but limited due to lack of funds and time.  Such observations for monitoring purposes has an authority stance, to point out teachers’ weaknesses and give recommendations, rather than a professional discussion with the teachers on teaching.  A teacher said:

“It is not an evaluation.  Just to tell us what we have to do in teaching and learning.  She checks me.  Like that day, I was teaching on “Distance”, she said that I lacked the use of rulers.  She wrote comments and showed me the comments. She said it is for monitoring.”                                                                                   (Translated/Ra/C/18-7-97/7)
1.4 Why is there isolation?

In implementing PSS, open collaboration, collegiality and social interactions were not yet an integral part of teachers’ working life.  Isolation, privacy and individualism remain the pervasive conditions of teaching.  To understand this isolation in the context of teaching, we need to understand  why it exists.

No ownership of change: During the first three years of implementation, there was some collegiality between the teachers teaching science in one of the primary schools.  These teachers had a shared meaning of change and commitment.  They believed in themselves and their ability to really change the school for the better.  However, when there was certainty in teaching, the teachers’ self-efficacy increased, reduced the need for collegiality.  Teachers no longer shared the same meaning and commitment.  They preferred to work alone.  Hargreaves (1991), Little (1990) and Smylie (1988) in their studies noted that when collegiality is achieved, it is only short-lived because the social organization of the workplace is not conducive to maintaining collaboration in the long run.

Physical workplace conditions:  Workplace conditions in schools restricted social interactions.  The social structure of the educational system restricted teachers’ professional contacts with the outside world.  Administrators and central office staff controlled the information accessible to teachers.  Due to a high turnover of teachers on transfer during and end of the year, teachers were encouraged to work independently to ensure efficient school management.  The ‘egg-crate’ architecture and cellular organizations of schools (Lortie, 1975) isolated the teachers as most of them spent their time in their  classrooms.  The nature of the tasks performed by teachers, such as filling in the record book, class register and preparing the science room for a lesson, did not involved collaboration with other teachers.

Balkanisation:  A ‘balkanised’ teacher culture (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1992) in the form of sub- groups differentiated by race, sex and subject panel, made it difficult for cooperation among teachers.  It allowed isolation to fester.

Lack of time: Teacher interactions were also greatly reduced by curriculum overload and lack of time.  There was a lot of work to do, such as lesson preparation, extra-curricular activities,conducting extra classes, attending school functions and so on.

Adaptive work strategy: Contrived collegiality, where school administrators arranged for interactions among teachers through staff meetings, did not meet the needs of the teachers, but took time away from their teaching.  Isolation became an adaptive work strategy as teachers chose to be alone to complete instructional tasks as a response to job demands.  It would also mean that the work brought home would be reduced, thus increasing the quality time spent with their family.

Teacher-proof curriculum:  The PSS curriculum with tightly defined and prescribed curriculum guidelines, teacher guides and teaching modules, left little for teachers to collaborate about.  No doubt, in the initial stages of implementation, teachers sought other teachers of the same grade in interpreting curriculum guidelines and for teaching materials, but once the PSS curriculum was institutionalised and became routine, the need for collaboration disappeared.

Effects of evaluation:  Teachers learn from each other about teaching through peer observations (Little, 1990; Joyce and Showers, 1988).   However, the teachers’ experiences of classroom observations were mainly of being evaluated.  There was the fear of humiliation and exposure of inadequacy and incompetence.  Closing the classroom doors and isolation is a protection against scrutiny and intrusion (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1992 ).

Lack of a technical culture in teaching:  Teachers learning from other teachers through professional discussions and conversations was also difficult due to lack of a technical vocabulary and culture among teachers.  Teachers’ talk was mainly personal, teasing and joking rather than professional information borne out of teachers’ experiences of teaching.  There was the underlying culture of not sharing information, lest others become cleverer.  Thus, the teachers learn about teaching through ‘trial and error’ in the classroom and through experience.  This reinforced isolation.

1.5 Conclusion

In  implementing the PSS curriculum, social interaction among teachers is desired but in reality teachers work alone.  Isolation provides solitude.  To Storr (1988), solitude can be a source of personal development and creativity.  The capacity to be alone is a sign of great emotional maturity, linked with self-discovery and self-realisation, with becoming aware of our deepest needs, feelings and impulses (p.21).  However, it can isolate teachers from their immediate colleagues and eliminate opportunities for them to expand their subject-matter knowledge and further develop expertise regarding instructional content.  In this respect, isolation is viewed as a barrier to professional development and school reform (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1992; Fullan, 1991).  For innovations to work school should create a collaborative culture in which there is strong interdependence, shared responsibilities and collective commitment between teacher-teacher, teacher-pupil, administrator-teacher and pupil-pupil.  Indirectly, this create a sense of ownership and identity by teachers and pupils that the school is theirs.  In a study of 78 elementary schools  in 8 Tennessee districts,  Rosenholtz (1989) found that the social organization of the school directly affects the commitment of teachers and the achievement of students.  Schools were classified ‘moving or learning enriched schools’ and ‘stuck’ schools.  The ‘moving’ school has a culture that produces high outcomes for students, sustains quality teaching, does not isolate teachers  but instead encourages professional dialogue and collaboration.  In a ‘stuck’ school, outcomes for students are low, working conditions are poor, teaching is an isolated activity, and a sense of mediocrity and powerlessness pervades.  A regard is how to help schools become ‘moving’, where a collaborative culture is in-built into the schools.  There should be continuing attention to instruction and the curriculum.  Teaching is not isolated but becomes the business of the entire school and staff.

Teachers do not develop their personal and professional knowledge and skills by themselves.  They also learn through social contact with other teachers in the work context, through taking courses or staff training.  Collaboration is essential for personal learning (Fullan and Hargreaves; 1992).  This brings into focus the importance of a collaborative school culture, where norms of collegiality are established.  Through this social development, teachers acquire and practise the skills of renegotiating and reconstructing of what it means to be a teacher of science.


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