Catalyst for confidence

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Specialist support for primary science can come from the secondary school, say Bryan Lewis and Patricia Bent

As the Association for Science Education gathers in Dundee, it is worth reflecting on the recent Scottish Office publication Primary Teachers' Understanding of Concepts in Science and Technology, which highlights yet again the relative lack of confidence felt by many primary teachers in their ability to teach science and technology due to their own lack of knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts.

Publication of the 5-14 environment studies guidelines made it clear that teachers were expected to possess levels of skill and understanding across a broad range of scientific and technological concepts. Far from enhancing teachers' confidence, the recommendations merely served as a reminder of their sense of inadequacy and did not make any suggestions as to how to enhance the confidence. In fact, the guidelines assumed a level of scientific understanding that is just not possessed (or perceived to be possessed) by many primary teachers. The result of this was that rather than facing up to difficulties teachers chose to ignore them.

The teaching staff of Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School were presented in August 1994 with a whole-school policy on environmental education based on the national 5-14 guidelines but specifically designed to meet the needs of the school. Aware of the general lack of confidence with regards to the teaching of science and technology, both central components of the policy, a questionnaire was designed and delivered in September 1994 to all teaching staff with the aim of providing a system which would enhance both their confidence and competence.

The function of the questionnaire was to discover how confident teachers were in teaching the concepts and content of the science curriculum and to identify the help they required. The results indicated that, despite being provided with a comprehensive set of guidelines teachers did not feel that they had an adequate knowledge of the progression of scientific knowledge and skill throughout the junior school.

On further investigation, it was discovered that this was not due to a lack of information, nor indeed time to digest that information, but almost entirely to a lack of confidence in their own abilities to assimilate the information. Although teachers from primary 1 to primary 3 were confident that they possessed the necessary skills and resources to teach science effectively, as the complexity of scientific concepts increased many, though not all, teachers with classes of children from primary 4 to primary 7 confessed to a gradual diminution of confidence as more and more was expected in terms of the depth of knowledge they were expected to have.

The second phase of the process to increase teacher confidence developed from the results of the questionnaire whereby the school provided in-service training in the form of a detailed examination of the science and technology curriculum and the resources used by the whole school. This gave the staff an opportunity to air concerns and discuss their worries in small groups and raised the profile of science and technology within the curriculum. This in itself was important as a significant number of staff had commented that both areas needed a higher profile. Perhaps the most positive result of the day was the opportunity for many teachers to admit to each other that they lacked confidence in their ability to teach science as effectively as they would wish.

The third phase involved working with staff who had intimated that they felt little confidence with the teaching of science in pri-mary 4-7. As a result of the initial questionnaire, specialist science support from the science departments of our two senior schools, Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville, was sought which in practice has resulted in the class teacher and specialist working together in each primary 7 class. Through the introduction of specialist science support, we have avoided teachers feeling the need to "skate over" conceptually difficult concepts while spending more time than required on areas with which they feel comfortable. Specifically, the dangers of teachers stressing the process aims in science rather than the aims of developing concepts has been eradicated.

In primary 7 classes, active discussion is encouraged while a balance of teaching methodologies is employed utilising both the skills of the primary teacher and the expertise of the science specialist. Teachers no longer have to rely on kits, prescriptive texts or pupil work-cards and, perhaps for the first time, are now approaching the concepts with enthusiasm and confidence.

As Wynne Harlen and Colin Holroyd state in the report on their research, there are aspects of teaching science with which help is needed other than understanding the subject matter (such as assessment, recording, managing practical investigations) and we should be cautious not to assume that by increasing the teachers' background knowledge we will increase their confidence. But, as we have shown, we can increase their confidence by using team teaching.

As a consequence of having the senior school science specialist there will no longer be an assumption that all children in a year group have no prior knowledge or skills when entering the first year of secondary school. Indeed, continuity, coherence and progression will be ensured as the science specialist has been there to guide and develop.

There has been another significant benefit to the overall education of the children from the opportunity for secondary teachers to work regularly in primary 7 classrooms. Primary teachers often talk about how well their children can organise themselves, accept responsibility for much of their work, be self-critical and generally act as independent learners. It has long been a criticism of S1 and S2 that children's prior education is not taken sufficiently into account and that much of what is achieved in primary 7 is lost during the first months in secondary school. Direct involvement by secondary staff in a team-teaching capacity, is undoubtedly a very effective way of increasing secondary teachers' awareness of the capabilities of primary children.

There is also a very positive benefit for primary teachers to work with specialist colleagues whose commitment to and expertise in a particular curricular area provides opportunities for children which can challenge them in ways they find stimulating and rewarding. Is it Utopian to dream of a national educational system which could offer both primary and secondary teachers the opportunity to share their particular expertise and professional strengths with their colleagues in the opposite sector?

Bryan Lewis is headteacher of Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Edinburgh. Patricia Bent is senior teacher responsible for development and implementation of a whole-school policy on environmental education.

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