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Earlier start works best

A pioneering approach to science teaching is more effective if it begins in primary school rather than waiting until pupils are in secondary, according to new research.

When "collaborative learning" techniques were used with secondary pupils for the first time, there was no evidence of any gain, contrary to the researchers' and science teachers' expectations.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at Dundee University's school of education, said he and his team were surprised there was no significant impact on secondary pupils - particularly when the benefits were clear and sustained with primary pupils, two years after they had first been taught this way.

However, Professor Topping was not prepared to recommend that group work techniques should be discontinued in secondaries, despite the inconclusive results.

The report found that, although pupils who used group science work in primary did better in secondary, the benefits did not last.

"If kids don't have much opportunity in secondary to utilise the skills they learned in primary, these will be lost," he said. "We need to figure out how secondary schools can become better than they are at the collaborative learning approach."

The research studies, led by Professor Topping, and involving academics from the Institute of Education in London and Strathclyde University, were following up a previous project, undertaken three years ago in 24 primaries. It found there were significant gains in science attainment and social connectedness between pupils whose teachers used collaborative learning techniques.

The two follow-up reports aimed to examine how long these gains lasted and whether the techniques could be used as effectively in secondaries as in primaries.

In the first project, on transitions, the researchers found that, compared to other pupils, those involved in the original project were "significantly advantaged" when tested in S1 in a "Forces" science test, which covered what they had learnt in primary, and in a "Materials" science test, based on information not covered in primary.

"This suggested that the project had a continuing effect into the early stages of secondary school," they reported. "In addition, follow-up pupils from urban and rural primary schools reported significantly more positive attitudes towards science than pupils who were not involved in the original study prior to transition."

However, in the second project, on collaborative learning and group work, the pupils taught for the first time in secondary using collaborative learning techniques did not perform any better than pupils whose teachers did not use this method. In two tests - on "Earth and space" and general science - the performance was worse.

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