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Farmyard tricks from the box

Lyn Bradley reports on research with Year 1 pupils on the effectiveness of television as a tool for teaching science.

Children of all ages gain ideas, make interpretations and give explanations as a result of their everyday experiences, both in and out of school. Such personal experiences enable them to link, develop and restructure their ideas and to construct new ones that make sense to them at that particular time. This is a continuing process that is constantly influenced by what children do, see and hear. All educators thus have a responsibility to create opportunities from which children can review and, if necessary, discard any outgrown or incorrect ideas, consolidate and modify their existing ideas, and develop new ideas and understandings.

A pilot study involving 43 Year 1 children of mixed ability was carried out in two village primary schools in the north of England between October and November. This study looked at children's learning of certain science concepts through the viewing of television programmes from the Channel 4 Schools series Fourways Farm. Each programme in this 20-part series aimed at four to six-year-olds tells a story in the life of the farm and introduces a science concept at a level suitable for this age group.

First, all the children were individually asked to carry out a small task, about which they were questioned in order to find out what ideas they already held about a particular concept.

While two groups focused on the television programme that dealt with the concept, another group carried out a related activity taken from the Fourways Farm Teachers' Guide. After either watching the programme, or carrying out the activity, all the children were again questioned individually in order to find out if their initial ideas had changed.

Many children expressed different ideas about the concepts before and after watching the television programme or carrying out the activity, and many of these ideas related directly to the programme that they had watched or the activity undertaken. It would thus appear that young children's most recent experiences are uppermost in their minds.

Some of the programmes appeared to contribute directly to developing children's understanding of scientific concepts. The programme "Animal Magnetism" emphasised that magnets will stick to steel and some other metals. This encouraged many children to move towards a more scientific understanding of magnetism than was possible by testing the objects that were available in the classroom.

Watching television also appeared to broaden the range of scientific ideas that some children expressed. The programme "Birth and Death" encouraged them to include ideas about breathing and eating when considering the characteristics of living things, whereas the activity (to sort a collection of objects into those that are alive, those that are dead, and those that have never been alive) did not produce such extensive ideas.

The different ways of making musical sounds shown in the programme "The Sound of Music" encouraged many children to express a greater understanding of sound production than was possible by using the materials to hand. The learning that children can acquire through carrying out activities is necessarily limited by the resources available, while television programmes can show a wider range of resources, their properties and uses.

However, some of the programmes viewed appeared to contribute directly to the children's ideas moving away from those generally accepted as scientific. The misconception acquired by a number of children, that sinking means drowning, can be directly related to those children misconstruing some of what they had seen and heard in the programme "Floating and Sinking". Children also tended to notice and give importance to details that were irrelevant. The group who watched the programme "Floating and Sinking" saw a stone being painted as a turnip and that stone subsequently sank. A number of these children said that the paint had made the stone heavy and that was why it had sunk.

Although the children did not have "hands-on" experience when watching the television programmes, they actively engaged with them and used the ideas that they saw and heard in the restructuring of the science concepts that they held. This suggests that the television programmes put the learning of science concepts into contexts that were useful and meaningful for these children to develop their ideas.

It should be emphasised that the conclusions of this study are valid only for the small sample of children involved and at the time at which it was carried out. However, the study indicated that television programmes contribute to young children's learning of science by:

o encouraging the children to change and to broaden their ideas

o setting the learning of science concepts into contexts that the children find useful and meaningful

o providing opporunities to learn science in ways that are not practicable in the average classroom.

o The report - Television and the Development of Scientific Concepts in Young Children - is available (Pounds 5.00 inc p p) from: The Educational Television Company, Po Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 0926 433333

o Fourways Farm, produced for Channel 4 Schools by Case Productions, is due to be broadcast on Channel 4 next Spring. Tuesdays 10.00-10.10. Repeated Fridays 10.00-10.10

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