Filling the training gap
When offering in-service training to primary science teachers it is important to remember that as well as help with the management of children's learning, they probably also want help with the subject itself. The majority of primary teachers have had little or no experience of science, either in their own schooling, or professional training. This can apply to newly qualified teachers as well as the more experienced. Furthermore, any experience they have had as learners of science probably did not involve them in carrying out their own investigations.
These important background issues have been taken on-board very effectively in the Channel 4 series Making Sense of Science. This series of 10 programmes, and the supporting materials, provide teachers with help both in understanding the content of national curriculum science for key stage 2 and in developing strategies to teach it.
Effective professional development is not easy to provide or to put into practice for the individual teacher. One-day courses, for example, have little chance of developing classroom practice, and longer courses, which could let teachers try out new materials and approaches, are now few and far between. As a result schools are often thrown back on their own resources to provide training during statutory in-service days.
A teacher who has good science teaching skills may have to lead a series of in-service sessions for colleagues. This can be very daunting, as teaching your peers is very different from teaching a class, and the difficulties they experience as learners are different as well.
The book available to support the Making Sense of Science programmes takes all of this into account and offers some simple but sound advice to the novice. This covers things like the importance of testing everything, and cueing the video accurately before the session starts. In addition to notes on the content of each programme there are also examples of hands-on practical activities which teachers can try for themselves.
These will help to develop both an understanding of the science content and the investigative process. There are also materials which offer guidance on good questioning of children about their ideas; to find out what they think already and help them to develop greater understanding.
The programmes themselves visit classrooms all over the country to hear and see children and teachers talk about lessons. This sometimes includes material on real-life applications of the science which could also be of use with older children. Some of the work we see in schools is highly ambitious, this is particularly so in the programme on "Communications and IT". Northgate Primary school produced a multimedia presentation on bones which went on to win an award in the National Education Multimedia Awards run by the National Council for Educational Technology.
In the programme, we hear from the children and their teacher how they did it. It is very easy for some teachers to distance themselves from such high-quality work, claiming that such things are not possible in their school or with their children or their resources. However, the equipment these children used, a computer with CD-Rom drive, can be found in around 30 per cent of primary schools. The hand-held scanner is less than Pounds 100, and your own photo-CD can be made at Boots. The results these children achieved are stunning. But if this does sounds too daunting, don't despair. The other programmes include examples of children incorporating more routine computer use into science topic work.
It is quite refreshing to see in-service material which shows classroom work of such a high standard, as is the case throughout Making Sense of Science. There is usually a lot of material to help teachers get started with a new initiative, but it can be hard to get help with moving on past the first stages. Anyone who is very insecure about science may well find the examples in Making Sense of Science intimidating, but for those who have made a good start there is much here to stimulate further development.