Electrify them

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Douglas Newton looks at ways of making science stimulating


It is difficult to teach something you do not know. If your heart sinks at the memory of secondary science textbooks, you will be pleasantly surprised by Understanding Science Ideas: A Guide for Primary Teachers. This interesting and potentially useful book covers most aspects that the primary teacher could be expected to teach: naming and grouping living things; mixing and separating; floating and sinking; electrical circuits; energy and sound and so on, all presented in a large format and user-friendly way.

Explanations are clear and supported by colour illustrations. Key ideas are summarised in boxes and attempts made to stimulate curiosity with titbits for reflection. Particularly useful are the boxes describing ideas that children often bring to the classroom.

Primary teachers' experience in science tends to be varied and this book attempts to raise their understanding and eliminate common misconceptions. Nevertheless, the introduction propagates the misconception that didactic teaching is synonymous with rote learning. Nor is "being like a scientist" the only way of constructing meaning. While it may develop process skills, it may not suit everyone all of the time. Meaning may need a more catholic taste in teaching methods.

For me, the book is at its best where it matters: in explaining the science underpinning its 30 topics. It is not intended to be a direct source of teaching ideas, but could sharpen a teacher's knowledge and result in better science lessons. I welcome it.

Opportunities for Science in the Primary School is a very different book. It starts by describing the emergence of primary science, what young children need to learn in science, and the impact of the national curriculum on practice. It then deals with science as it is taught in the primary school and lessons to be learned. Finally, it discusses how published materials might be used effectively, opportunities for collaboration, a wider view of science learning, and evidence of learning in science.

The machinations of those involved in science education are often complex (see "A sweet taste of heresy", TES January 3 1997, Science Extra) but Peacock's account of primary science's emergence is a straightforward description of some events and their possible significance. He makes the point that the nature of assessment in the national curriculum will tend to shape what is taught and how it is taught so that some aspects may be neglected. Experience with examinations at other levels suggests this is a real danger.

The second part begins with two case studies of Year 6 classes (10 to 11-year-olds) doing science. Subject-content knowledge is not enough for success: strategies that are likely to succeed, ways of explaining, particular instances which highlight significant relationships, all figure in effective teaching. Peacock does not provide "recipes for action", but tries to raise awareness of some general solutions to the problem.

In science teaching, the textbook has almost become something to be read in secret, behind plain covers. But if used carefully, thoughtfully, and imaginatively, surrogate teachers such as textbooks can make a useful contribution. Few student-teachers are shown how to use them. In the third part, Peacock describes aspects of this problem and discusses the needs of children for whom English is a second language. In taking a wider perspective of science teaching, he sensibly condemns irrelevant "lab-land" science and favours science drawn from the "real-world". Principles for doing so are described.

Student-teachers and teachers on in-service courses might find this book useful, particularly its multicultural perspective, but they should take care over the referencing. For instance, it is a pity that Figure 1, plucked from an article I co-authored in 1991, was not at least attributed correctly.

Douglas Newton is a reader in education at Newcastle University

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