A new age dawns for evolution in primary schools

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Curriculum changes spark `panic' about sensitive topics

The prospect of teaching evolution to primary pupils is causing teachers to "panic", according to an academic and teacher trainer.

From September, schools will be required to deliver the new primary curriculum, which demands that all Year 6 pupils be taught evolution in science lessons.

In particular, they must learn that living things have "changed over time" and that fossils provide information about life on Earth millions of years ago. Children should also be able to identify how plants and animals have adapted over time to suit their environments.

According to experts, the inclusion of evolution has led to significant concerns among teachers - particularly those who teach in faith schools - who fear difficult questions about religion and the origins of life.

Berry Billingsley, a lecturer in science education at the University of Reading's Institute of Education, has been working on research to help teachers prepare for the topic, which she said would be an increasing source of anxiety for schools as the launch of the new curriculum crept closer.

"Panic is certainly not too strong a word," Dr Billingsley said. "It will only be about this time of year that teachers and their schools will start to turn their attention to it. Up until now they will have been focusing on key stage 2 tests.

"It isn't something they would have taught before so it is a question of trying to show them the kind of hands-on lessons you can create to make the topic more engaging."

The key to avoiding difficulty around religion, Dr Billingsley said, was to utilise both science and RE lessons to pre-empt any tricky questions pupils might have about creationism.

"The key is not to discourage pupils from asking questions about religion. A lot of pupils at this age will not be able to reconcile the two," she said.

"One effective method is to use an RE lesson to talk about famous scientists who had a strong faith, such as Michael Faraday, to show that people can be scientists as well as religious before you tackle evolution in your science class. It can help to sow some seeds into their minds by the time they get to evolution."

`Daunting prospect'

Sally Warrington, a teacher at St Monica's Catholic Primary School in North London, said she took part in the research because she and her colleagues had "high levels of anxiety" about teaching the new topic.

"We are all experienced members of staff but anything completely new can be daunting when you don't know where to begin. It can be hard when you don't have that degree knowledge as a teacher in order to make those connections really clear for the students," she said. "So it's demanding in that respect, but it is also really exciting. Every child that age loves dinosaurs, so why not make more of it?"

The UCL Institute of Education in London has been running courses on the new curriculum for teachers, and programme manager Sheila Curtis said they were in high demand.

"It's a new area for them and there is the added difficulty because of the complexity of ideas around dealing with this topic, such as the ethical and religious issues that it throws up. However, the fact that it is not in the [key stage 2] assessment means there will be slightly less panic among teachers about it," Ms Curtis said.

New guidelines

Pupils should be taught to:

  • Recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago.
  • Recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but that normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents.
  • Identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that this adaptation may lead to evolution.
    • `It can be very tricky'

      Mike Glenton, a teacher at Chopwell Primary School in Gateshead, says the new requirement to teach evolution could be an intimidating prospect for teachers, particularly those without a science background.

      "When people see terms like `evolution' and `inheritance', they think they are quite advanced scientific terms and so it can be very daunting," he says. "The main problem for many teachers who don't know much about inheritance is that they don't know where to turn to get the information they need, and how they can make it age-specific."

      Mr Glenton adds: "There are challenges, particularly with regards to the vocabulary used. Many children that age have misconceptions about evolution. They question how a bird's beak can change because they don't have that concept of time, and don't understand how something changes gradually over millions of years. It can be very tricky."

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