This year I seem to be waging a war on the idea that Science and Maths are not creative and the latest place I have gleaned inspiration from in this respect is the Primary sector.
I came across a fantastic group called ‘Science Oxford’ from an excellent article they had written about the value of open-ended investigative work at this level. On further investigation it turns out they run, in their part of the country, an amazing thing called a ‘Big Science Event’. Teachers are trained the autumn to support them in feeling brave enough to let the children get on with something, preferably anything! Charming examples include ‘Which colour gummy bear is the toughest?’, ‘Do ants like salty or sweet food best?’, and ‘Which fruit is the most hard wearing after being dropped from a fire escape?’. The mind boggles at some of the experiments these questions resulted in! I got on a train, or three, in the summer and went to see the results of the pupils’ endeavours in the Big Science Event – an event for the finalists from each school to come together and present their experiment in the form of an A2 poster and an accompanying verbal presentation. Very young pupils spoke confidently and, often, fairly obviously not scripted by their teachers which was exactly the idea. The pupils in their school may not have all learnt about the content of one particular topic, but they had all learnt about designing experiments, fair testing, variables, data presentation and data analysis in the context of something which interested them – they had ownership over their own projects. Their enthusiasm shone through in their feedback. Of course they had also learnt to organise themselves, plan, work as part of a team, communicate their findings and, of course, be creative! If they only ever did experiments they were told to do, and often already knew what the outcome would be, it would be unsurprising if they misunderstood the nature of Science to be uncreative. Without these activities we are training pupils to be computers, not scientists, to blindly go through the motions instead of asking questions and thinking outside the box.
So surely all this applies to secondary teaching. Of course, the time to do this sort of activity is hard to come by in an exam-focused environment. But again, what better way to teach those principles of experimental design, procedure and analysis which the pupils are tested on? Why not teach this independently of any particular topic? In fact, is the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) not really an embodiment of this principle? Too often the rhetoric in schools surrounding the EPQ is as though to assume that most pupils will want to write an essay, but there is absolutely no reason, in terms of the specifications and mark schemes, why this has to be so. Instead of yet another project proposal entitled ‘What are black holes?’ (these are in no way going to be evaluative pieces of work, merely a few notes on some popular science books the pupil has, admirably enough, read), why not propose that students go away and think of a question about Physics or Engineering that they want to try to answer? Like the Primary students, they are not necessarily going to find out something ground breaking, or even achieve results that would stand up to much scrutiny (although of course they might and we should be ambitious for them), but that does not matter. The key is in the process and the quality of the evaluation and reflection. More broadly, the advantage is in unlocking their enthusiasm for their chosen subject and their ability to be imaginative and curious to find out more. One of the best groups at the Big Science Event in the summer had been not at all happy with their initial experiment and had insisted on spending extra time outside of normal school hours in re-doing it to discover the true answer to the question they had posed and genuinely wanted to find an answer to. What a fantastic testament to the hard work of Science Oxford.
Stephanie Grant teaches Physics in Norwich and is an Ogden Trust Physics Teaching Fellow