Where has the sparkle gone from your primary science lessons? Have you searched under the mountains of planning for literacy and numeracy? Have you looked beneath the paperwork for performance related pay? Have you tried hunting for it around the revision lessons for the end-of-key-stage tests? Wherever it is hiding, I am sure you have not entirely lost what used to be part and parcel of your science lessons, even if, like many primary teachers, you may sometimes feel as if you have temporarily mislaid it.
With all the initiatives that have been coming at primary teachers in recent years, it is hardly surprising that developing creative approaches to science lessons has not been at the top of the agenda. Many teachers stick rigidly to the QCA Science Scheme of Work. Although this document provides useful support in planning for progression through the school and highlights key learning objectives and outcomes, following it too prescriptively can result in worthy, but somewhat dull, lessons. This is not because QCA is part of some dire plan to scupper teachers' imaginative ideas and replace them with a uniform lack of inspiration, but rather that it is impossible to include them in such a document. Where there is only one small box in which to describe an activity, there simply is not room to suggest attention-grabbing contexts.
Anyway, one teacher's idea of a brilliantly zany lesson might be another teacher's idea of a classroom nightmare. If we want to reclaim the effervescence in our science lessons, we cannot expect such things to come from a central source. We have to provide our own sparkle.
What kind of things can help to make science lessons come alive? One suggestion, for teachers who enjoy such things, is to take on a role. Rather than just come into a Year 3 and ask what they think will happen to grass plants that are given more water or kept from the light, turn up instead as Gloria the Ghastly Gardener. Walk into the classroom, complete with wellies, a silly hat or hair band, mucky gardening gloves, a trowel and some pots of dead grass. Moan on about your grass-growing problems and tell the children how you have tried giving grass seeds different amounts of light and water, but all to no avail. Plead for their help in working out how to grow grass successfully. Ham it up, as much as you like - the children will soon catch on to the fun.
When the children have completed all their investigations, suggest that they write their science report in the form of a letter or fax to Gloria. If you can fin the time to reply as Gloria, thanking the children for their useful advice, it will round off the story nicely.
If the thought of taking on amateur dramatics leaves you cold, you can always do things by proxy, particularly if you enlist the help of a passing alien. Notes from the alien can mysteriously arrive in the classroom, asking the children for information about things on planet Earth. These notes can tackle areas of serious science, such as: "Why do half of you Earthlings say it is day, when the other half say it is night? Please explain." If you stick the alien's notes to the underside of a child's desk or chair when the class is out of the room, the first few seconds of the lesson will be full of anticipation while the class finds out who has the note and what it says. Even though today's streetwise children know it is all a fix, it will still add to their enjoyment. It also makes for interesting displays, when the alien, its notes and the children's responses adorn the classroom walls.
Another suggestion, from primary science education lecturer Rosemary Feasey, is to turn things round and ask questions in a back-to-front way. Instead of asking children to pick out materials and tell you why they are chosen for specific purposes on the basis of their properties, ask them to suggest really silly materials for certain objects and to tell you why they are so daft. Offers of metal newspapers, jelly tables and wooden window panes will follow, together with explanations about the properties that make those materials so unsuitable for each task.
It is not just teachers who need to exercise their creativity. We also need to encourage children to use their imaginations in science lessons. Recently, I had a conversation with some key stage 2 pupils about why things rot. We looked at some mouldy bread and started to wonder how the mould first got there. One pupil envisaged mould as a tiny plant with little legs, which moved from place to place. Another suggested that mould was in the air and that it was a kind of living gas, which ate the bread when it landed on it: imaginative and thoughtful responses. What is more, listening to each other's ideas fired the children's interest and left them wanting to find out more. Exercising your creativity and imagination will help you rediscover your science sparkle without losing sight of your learning objectives. The rewards will be more smiles, more enthusiasm and, almost certainly, more learning.
Anne Goldsworthy is chair of the primary committee, Association for Science Education, and co-author of Ginn's 'New Star Science' packs being launched this month and in January 2001. Details: Ginn, 01865 888000