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Bedding-in the big ideas

How do primary pupils' perceptions of science change as understanding grows? Lynne Wright reports on an informal study.

In 1996 the Association for Science Education set up an informal, discursive, five-year study to track the development of children's ideas about science and attitudes to it. Now that the study is complete, patterns are emerging about ways in which individual children's ideas evolve. The findings have provided a fascinating insight into what some children think science involves, and their understanding of some of the "big ideas". Their answers have provided us with an intriguing glimpse of how they feel about science and whether they see themselves as scientists now and in the future.

Adult volunteers interviewed the same child, often their own or a relative, over the five-year period. Many interviewers were teachers and often chose children who had shown an interest in science. Almost all the children attended state primary schools. The children were asked the same questions each year:

* What is the most important science you have learned recently?

* What sort of people make good scientists - are you one?

* How do plants get their food?

* Where does the water go when a paper towel is left to dry?

* What forces are acting on a book lying on a table when it is stationary and when the table is tilted?

* How would you find out whether tall people have the biggest feet?

Here are some of the stories of a small group of young scientists who were six years old at the start of the study and are now 10. The responses of six and seven-year-olds reflected the most recent learning (including "sums" and "Romans"). These children were mainly interested in looking after animals and in environmental problems such as pollution and litter. What was important was knowledge that enabled them to mend things or make things such as light bulbs work. By eight and nine they were beginning to link importance of learning to SATs tests, but at 10 they considered direct relevance of learning to their own lives to be of increasing importance, and some showed a more thoughtful application of given ideas. For example, one boy replied to the first question above: "hydrodynamics - it makes me go faster when I swim" and another, "the planets and solar system because I might want to be an astronaut".

At the start of the study this group implied that children made good scientists if they liked inventing things and listened to their teacher. As they got older, notions of being clever and wearing uniforms or special clothing, using special equipment and having a beard andor glasses persisted, but being patient and enjoying it were recognised as useful attributes. By age 10 these views had become more sophisticated; science is seen as "hard", and "things don't always go right". One girl said: "Science is easy at school - everyone knows it already." So much for investigating their own questions!

Views were divided on whether or not they were scientists at six and by age 10 responses were more negative, as many children did not think they were good enough at it or "not that intelligent". However, some still wanted to do more because it was interesting. Sadly, one girl confided that she was not looking forward to "going over the same stuff at secondary school".

At the start of the survey this group thought plants got their food from people, the rain, sol and their roots, but at eight or nine there was a growing recognition of the importance of the sun in making food. Although many children had not changed their views they could express them more fluently. Children began to mention the terms "nutrients", "photosynthesis" and "chlorophyll" but the use of the words did not necessarily indicate understanding. As 10-year-olds, some still thought that food came from water and soil through the roots, or from people and products (as implied in some advertisements). The rest were beginning to state more often, rather than demonstrate understanding, that plants make their own food and that light is important in this process.

The children moved very quickly towards correct explanations of why a wet paper towel would dry and by age seven were describing aspects of evaporation in some detail, although the term was not used by all. The words "melting" and "dissolving" were used incorrectly by quite a lot of them but by nine and 10 the idea of the water cycle and the concept of evaporation and condensation were bedding in, and they used scientific vocabulary correctly.

Most of the children when they were seven thought a book on a table would not move because it was not alive, had no legs or wheels or because nobody was touching it. They held on to these views until eight, when several children changed their ideas and said the book was too heavy to move. More children thought gravity would pull it down and the table would push up. One child thought there was a "pull of the pages turning". At 10 the idea of balanced forces was more firmly established for half the children but most failed to identify friction as a force acting on the book on the tilted table. Although many children were aware of other forces and used scientific vocabulary well, generally the explanations did not show any understanding of other forces, such as air resistance.

At age six and seven some children did not know how to go about finding out whether tall people had big feet. They would be content to show other people the feet of tall people to "prove" that they were big. By eight some thought it would be a good idea to measure the feet and perhaps look at short people's feet because "they might be bigger". The idea of drawing a chart and using it in order to answer the question was not mentioned. At 10 there had been little refinement in approach although the idea of a bigger sample was mentioned. There was little awareness of ways of systematically collecting, presenting and interpreting data in order to check the truth of the statement. This was disturbing, considering the importance of scientific enquiry in the primary science curriculum and the enjoyment the children said they got from it.

We have learned a lot about the development of attitudes and thinking of small groups of particular children. What we learned most clearly was that we may know what we taught them, but the surest way to find out what they have learned is to ask them.

* Further articles on aspects of the ASE Five Year Study can be found in the ASE's primary journal, Primary Science Review. For further details tel: 01707 267411.

Lynne Wright is the chair of the primary science committee of the Association for Science Education. She would like to acknowledge the contributions of Diane Wiggins, Ronawyn Davies and Jayne Barnes in the analysis of the children's responses

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