A lousy idea

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The Government's targets for teaching knowledge and understanding of the world do not say anything new; they merely describe what already happens in decent learning environments. In part five of our series on 'desirable outcomes' for five-year-olds, Mary Jane Drummond argues that setting formal goals is pointless. Spontaneous science holds the key to meaningful discovery

"Rather than asking, "What stick or carrot will make children active in certain ways?" or, "What will make them go in this direction rather than that?" we would do well to turn the problem round and to say: children will go in any case, for it is an expression of their being to be purposeful and energetic"

R A Hodgkin "Playing and Exploring" (Methuen 1985)

A memory of my days as a classroom teacher. The scene is a playground in an inner-city primary school. An excited child accosts the teacher on duty (me): "Miss, Miss, this woodlouse is having babies!" The staff know why five-year-old Gerry is interested in babies. Until last week he was the youngest of five children; now he is the proud big brother of a new-born sister. Even so, I regard his excitement as exaggerated, not to say misplaced. Woodlice lay eggs; they don't have babies.

Or do they? Five minutes later, back in the classroom, with the magnifiers and the binocular microscope, it seems that Gerry is right. Tiny and perfectly formed, there are the baby woodlice, swarming across their parent's underside, from some part of which they have just emerged. Raiding the Junior library for the relevant book, we find this: "In female isopods certain of the legs bear flat plates, the oostegites, probably modified epipodotes, which enclose a brood-pouch or marsupium for the reception of the eggs . . . the eggs remain in the marsupium until shortly after hatching when they leave the fem-ale, except in Arcturus, a mar-ine isopod, which carries the young about attached to her long antennae."

My first degree in natural science (zoology) had not helped me and my reception class to this bit of their (and my) growing understanding of the world. Gerry's inquisitiveness had been the key to the discovery, which was energetically discussed and celebrated by his friends, his teachers and the school community. It figured in Gerry's record-file and in his end-of-year profile. And it confirmed my belief that spontaneous science, because it is likely to be children's science, has an essential place in the early years curriculum.

The other kind of science, teacher's science, lesson-plan science, aims-and-objectives science, has a place too, of course. Now that you know about the woodlouse's brood-pouches, please feel free to include them in your next biology project (if you just happen to be covering reproduction and birth this Easter). But your second-hand knowledge is strictly supplementary to your children's scientific studies. It is no substitute for their first-hand experiences, nor for their power to act for themselves as scientists - observing, comparing, connecting and demanding explanations.

In focusing on children's sci-ence, however, the early years educator still has a part to play. If our children are to exercise these powers, there must be time and space and opportunities for them to flex their growing intellectual muscles. And the more opportunities there are, the more exercise they will take. So the "desirable outcomes" approach, which sets out goals for learning, is essentially a distraction from what will happen anyway in an environment that's halfway fit for children. On entry to compulsory education, children are required by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to "talk about where they live, their environment, their families and past and present events in their own lives . . . (to) explore and recognise features of living things, objects and events in the natural and made world".

They will, never fear; unless, that is, you forcibly drive their energetic and enquiring minds underground, by substituting your questions for theirs, your list of topics for their pressing concerns, your curriculum for their reality.

so what does an environment fit for children's science look like? Susan Isaacs's account of the experimental school she directed in the 1920s, the Malting House, can give us some starting points. Indoors, the children used pulleys, a pendulum and bunsen burners. Outdoors, there were several families of mice and rabbits, guinea pigs, two cats and a dog, a hen and chickens, snakes and salamanders, silkworms, a fresh-water aquarium, and a wormery. There were two lawns and plenty of trees, many of them bearing fruit, a sandpit with a water tap, movable ladders, and a see-saw with detachable weights hung at intervals underneath. All this was provided so that the Malting House would not resemble other schools, which, according to Isaacs, function as "a closed-in place, a screen between the child and his living interests".

In early years settings today, this screen may take several forms. Health and safety regulations may seem to rule out bunsen burners; and the educator's love of cleanliness (shiny floors and spotless sinks) may forestall any serious investigation of the wetness of water, or the muddiness of mud. But surely there's still space for a guinea pig. And time for the children to handle it. And opportunities to discuss the responsibilities this entails.

"I am sorry to say," said an infant teacher to her mixed-age class in my hearing, "that some people are acting as if guinea pigs are toys. But I must point out that guinea pigs do not like being shut in people's drawers." The discussion that followed covered, in some depth, the key characterist-ics of living organisms, with interesting detours. "Do guinea pigs clean their teeth?" asked Charlotte. And later that morning, someone pondered "Do cats have to chase mice in real life?" Here we have spontaneous, living science, and sustained, purposeful enquiry. These young learners do not need stick or carrot to "make them go", to use R A Hodgkin's memorable phrase. Early years educators in nurseries and playgroups, as well as in the reception class, have nothing to learn - or to fear - from statements of "desirable outcomes".

Mary Jane Drummond is a tutor in the education of three to 11-year-old children at the School of Education, Cambridge University


These outcomes focus on children's developing knowledge and understanding of their environment, other people and features of the natural and made world. They provide a foundation for historical, geographical, scientific, and technological learning.

Children talk about where they live, their environment, their families, and past and present events in their own lives. They explore and recognise features of living things, objects and events in the natural and made world, and look at similarities, differences, patterns, and change.

They show an awareness of the purposes of some features of the area in which they live. They talk about their observations, sometimes recording them, and ask questions to gain information about why things happen and how things work. They explore and select materials and equipment and use skills such as cutting, joining, folding and building for a variety of purposes. They use technology, where appropriate, to support their learning.

* Next week The series concludes with part six, personal and social development

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