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Diving into life's details

CHALLENGE SCIENCE, Series edited by Mike Clemmet, Alan Jones, Pat O'Brien Ginn. Teacher's Handbook pounds 4.99. 0 602 26624 6. Variety of Life: Teacher's Resource Book, Pounds 17.99 0 602 26615 7. Challenge Cards Yellow Source Book Pounds 3.99. 0 602 26420 0. Red Source Book Pounds 3.99. 0 602 26414 6

Lynne Marjoram reviews new modules in a series for all abilities at key stage 3. Challenge Science is modular course for the full ability range at key stage 3. Variety of Life covers two of the 18 modules. Its principal components are the teacher's resource books, sets of workcards and pupils' books. The teacher's resource book, fully photocopiable, contains learning objectives, teacher's notes, worksheets and assessments. The teacher's notes, usually two or three paragraphs, are sound rather than inspired, and they often reflect a traditional style: introductory teacher talk followed by closely directed activity from the workcards.

The worksheets have large clear diagrams with text-based activities. The assessments, three for each module, are simple written tests emphasising factual recall. Answers are provided, related to national curriculum levels.

Of the 24 workcards for Variety of Life, I have seen six. Robust, with wipe-clean surfaces, one colour, they look crowded and the initial impression is rather dull. They list objectives, present information or refer to the pupils' book, and include up to five written exercises, mostly basic comprehension. One of these six cards has instructions for practical work. There are also free-standing Skills Cards, on measurement, chemical tests and so on.

The pupils' books give context and background reading. They are slim, at 48 pages, with densely coloured illustrations. Information is often presented in stories - continuous prose or comic strip. In Inside Cells a "reporter", shrunk to cell size and equipped with a frogdiver's suit and guidebook in a waterproof bag, takes a "microtour" of a plant cell. This mingling of science fact and faction might alarm purists, patronise sophisticates, but delight others.

Variety of Life, for Year 7 or 8 covers two modules, Living Systems and Ecosystems. Each contains three units. Living Systems covers characteristics of living things, classification and cells to organ systems. Ecosystems is well structured and includes competition, food webs and decomposition.

In the Teacher's Handbook, much is made of the way the course allows "effective differentiation to be introduced into the classroom while leaving the level of differentiated activity entirely in the hands of the teacher". This is realised in two ways. First, there are two versions of the pupils' books, yellow (reading age 7 - 10) and red (reading age 10 - 14).

It seems wishful thinking to maintain that "children using the Yellow Source Books are highly unlikely to feel stigmatised, because (they) cover the same scientific concepts as the Red books, and look just as attractive throughout". The yellow books use larger type, the red books have more substance and different contexts are used, although the choice is sometimes puzzling: for competition, budgerigars for the less able, tadpoles for the more able.

Differentiation is also achieved by the teacher's use of the workcards. The first activity in each unit is to allow "broad brush differentiation of a class" which "will throw up two broad groupings of pupils: those that have an everyday understanding of the concept . . . and those who have the beginnings of a scientific understanding". Typically, this is whole-class activity, sometimes brief, summarised with a discussion, from which the teacher assigns pupils to "core" or "access" workcards, the latter for those who "cannot clearly state" the main points. Wherever they start, all pupils progress through the same six core workcards; it is suggested that the less able might do only the first two.

The effectiveness and desirability of this approach to differentiation is questionable. Some teachers might prefer a more innovative course, using a broad range of strategies to ensure accessibility and leading to more open-ended investigative work, with the emphasis on scientific method as well as content.

Lynne Marjoram is head of science at Kidsbrooke Comprehensive

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