There is a timelessness about Harold Road primary in Abergavenny, south Wales. Built 101 years ago, it is a small and homely school, each classroom featuring a wooden pulpit where teachers of past generations have conducted their stern proceedings, looking down on their silent pupils. But Year 5 teacher Philippa Taylor is not one for tradition - nor for sitting very much. And her pupils are not silent. The classroom buzzes with stimulation, ideas, challenges. In her own way, Philippa is on the cutting edge of primary science teaching.
For her, literacy and numeracy are integral parts of science, and that's the way she teaches the subject. She's no more oppressed by the notions of literacy and numeracy hours than she is by the Black Mountains that you can almost see from her classroom window.
Her holistic outlook reflects the theory and practice of the AKSIS (Association for Science EducationKings College Science Investigations in Schools) project, with which she has had some involvement. "It comes down to skills-based science teaching," she says, "teaching skills that children can apply in scientific investigations. Things such as how to do line graphs and how to write up investigations have to be taught - they're not things that children are going to pick up otherwise."
Both those tasks have been highlighted in the AKSIS project as problem areas. In an analysis of children's graphs in key stages 2 and 3, 75 per cent were found to be incorrectly constructed, half of them with major faults. Evaluations, too, were below par. Anne Goldsworthy of the Association for Science Education says: "When we spoke to teachers about it, they knew there was a problem but admitted they didn't have time to explain graphs and evaluating evidence because planning and doing took up most of the time."
In Philippa's class, time is spent giving children the number and language-based building blocks they need to carry out these and other tasks. Graph work is made enjoyable and understandable by setting amusing and real-life scenarios to map out in highly interactive ways. The children themselves had the idea of measuring their heart rates by doing a series of exercises and then recording them on graphs. Other measurements explored how long it would take to eat a chocolate bar, the relationship between noise in the classroom and the teacher's exasperation ("tell me scientifically what happens to my mood when you ignore the signs of me getting rattier and continue talking") and the costs of a phone bill in relation to time spent on the Internet (tricky, this one: you have to take into account line and phone rental, which means the axis doesn't start at 0). For each exercise, correct language is emphasised. The same is true of the interpretative parts of the experiment. Philippa gives each pupil another child's work to critique "because they don't like doing their own". By asking them to apply their knowledge and understanding of the scientific task to other children's statements, they are learning to write their own evaluations correctly. "This way, they are learning through others' work how to structure their writing to suit the task. They see through example that they can't write descriptively for science as they would for a story in English."
Philippa stresses that "the vast majority of teachers know that you need to teach these skills", and that a lot of it is common sense. For instance, to aid those children who are good at understanding scientific concepts but find literacy difficult, she writes key words on the board that will help with their investigations. And she starts off each investigation with a brainstorming session, where the class discusses the best way to go about the experiment, how to measure, their predictions of outcomes, etc. Afterwards, they talk about whether their results tie in with their predictions. These strategies fall in line with the AKSIS view, voiced by Anne Goldsworthy, that "pupils have to make their train of thought explicit if they want to bring it into their explanations. Links need to be clarified and explained and there needs to be a clear distinction between the description of their results and their explanation."
Philippa Taylor welcomes the teaching materials that have come out of the AKSIS project. "The strength of AKSIS is that it gives teachers the knowledge to do this kind of work without specialist science expertise. It's a very good safety net for those who don't feel confident."
'Teach it! Do it! Let's get to it! How direct teaching of science skills helps children to investigate' by Anne Goldsworthy and Martin Holmes (pound;5.99) and 'Getting to Grips with Graphs' by Anne Goldsworthy, Rod Watson and Valerie Wood-Robinson (pound;35) are available from the Association for Science Education. Tel: 01707 283000. 'Investigations: developing understanding' will be published this spring