How science can pass the teaching acid test

8th October 2010 at 01:00
Analysis - The 'new' primary curriculum, designed for Labour by Sir Jim Rose, has been scrapped as Coalition ministers plan their own review this autumn. The TES asked seven top science experts what must be included - and why

National science, technology, engineering and maths director, and director of the National Science Learning Centre

The science curriculum is always a matter of balancing knowledge and understanding with learning about the processes and "being scientific".

In primary schools, it is important to lay down secure foundations of scientific knowledge, but the emphasis should be on children doing scientific investigations that develop an understanding of what it means to be scientific; that is, by asking questions, collecting and analysing data, developing explanations and solving problems.

This is not to suggest that an understanding of what it is to be scientific can be learned in absence of any factual knowledge. Quite the reverse. Pupils in primary schools should be carrying out investigations in the context of scientific knowledge - for example, investigating how a ball bounces on different floor surfaces, building on their understanding of forces and materials or looking for patterns in plant growth or insect population in the local environment.

But how can all of this be codified in statutory curriculum documents? It is relatively easy to specify basic knowledge and understanding, but the challenge comes in specifying exactly what pupils are expected to be able to do when they are "being scientific". This also raises the vital question of how all this will be judged.

The Government must be careful not to overload the primary curriculum with content, but there needs to be enough for children to be investigative. It's going to be a balancing act.

Ministers need to encourage practical work as a starting point and must look carefully at how science is assessed.

Jonathan Bishop

Headteacher, Broadclyst Community Primary School, Exeter

My school has a #163;250,000 "classroom of tomorrow" said to be the most technologically advanced facility of any school in the country. Children sit behind rows of computer screens in an arrangement that has been likened to Nasa. I believe in keeping specific subject areas for primary pupils and that it is important to promote knowledge and understanding.

But education is more than just knowledge; you can't stuff young children's brains with facts. They also need skills to further their intellectual development. In science they need to use literacy, numeracy and IT. These are critical tools to support learning; you can't divorce it from science.

Children need to compare, analyse, predict and hypothesise. Running multi-disciplinary activities helps them develop these skills and keeps them motivated. It lets them put science into action. It also helps teachers personalise the learning experience.

The example to use in teaching science is learning to ride a bike - you wouldn't make a child watch hours of videos before letting them have a go. Similarly, children should get stuck into practical experiments as soon as possible, with the teacher giving them a helping hand. Too much rhetoric doesn't motivate.

The new curriculum shouldn't force teachers and children to go from A and B to C. It must be more individual, as pupils reach different levels at different ages. The Government should trust teachers and have faith in their knowledge and experience. It must allow teachers to respond to children's needs.

Professor Rupert Wegerif

Director of research, Graduate School of Education, Exeter University

A big issue has always been the fact that science has been treated by teachers as authoritative, and they think they should be focusing on rigorous facts. This doesn't teach children to think scientifically.

In reality the subject is the result of a constant dialogue and experimentation. It is not just about facts but also persuading people of them - collaborative working. If teachers also worked like this, drawing children into reasoning, it would help pupils learn and, I think, improve their results. Schools could also work together in science lessons to share the results of experiments.

It is important that the new primary curriculum creates "real" science. It must answer questions that are significant to children and give them the skills to work in groups to solve them. It must stimulate their imagination and make them enthusiastic. It must be exciting.

The most important thing for primary teachers to do is to motivate and empower. Science lessons should be fun, they should start debates, start the process of enquiry and help pupils learn the basics of maths, too.

Teachers must also be science enthusiasts. Too many are frightened of it. They must make more use of ICT and technology as a medium for teaching science.

Above all, there must be more science content in the curriculum - it is fundamental to what education should be about.

Liz Lawrence Advisory teacher for primary science, Barking and Dagenham, east London I don't believe there are any major problems with the existing primary science curriculum. It has good content that builds on the basics and gives children the building blocks to move on. There is no pressing need for a review.

The problem is piecemeal reforms leading teachers to believe that they have to spend six weeks on one topic, even if they feel that is too long. Teachers view this as a straitjacket. In fact, if they worked with the curriculum, they would see it doesn't have to be this way.

What the new Government should be trying to change is pedagogy and teaching methods. The process of enquiry has become separated from content. We need to go back to basics - the essence of every lesson must be to make sure children become science literate.

There is no point in just teaching children basic facts, they need to go through the process of coming up with ideas and looking for evidence. That way they will have more understanding of what they learn. We need to do more to encourage enquiry, and more to get children asking questions.

Science lessons need time and resources so there is room for the class to investigate and come up with answers.

The review should concentrate on making the curriculum clearer. But it would be better to spend the time and money on teacher training and making sure the existing curriculum is better understood.

Libby Steele

Head of education, the Royal Society

Primary curricula and assessment systems must be engineered so as to optimise children's experiences and enjoyment of science and mathematics.

Moreover, the sort of articulated approach to educational planning adopted of late in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, involving a continuous curriculum from pre-school to the end of secondary schooling, should be replicated in England. Efforts must be focused on ensuring that all children have access to a high quality education that is geared more towards supporting and encouraging their progress than to measuring it.

The Royal Society, therefore, recommends that a comprehensive review is undertaken of the way that children are taught and tested in science and mathematics at a primary level, recognising that science is practical and mathematics linear, so they each need to be taught and assessed in the most appropriate way.

Professor Graham Hutchings

Chair, SCORE: Science Community Representing Education

We support a national curriculum and think science should continue to be a core subject. It is crucially important to pupils' appreciation of the world around them and helps them put things in context. It provides them with a rational explanation of what they see.

But we also need to make sure children are enthusiastic about it. Before written assessment was withdrawn, teachers were teaching to the test. We don't want that straitjacket approach. The new curriculum should be flexible not rigid, and give freedom for teachers to explore. Science needs to be hands-on from the start. Key stages 3 and 4 have been divorced from practicality. In primary schools it should be an exploratory subject, a chance for children to have fun.

Exams would be a waste of time for pupils and teachers in primary schools. The best thing to do during these formative years is to allow children to develop an interest in science. Teachers need to show them the wonders of the world. There should be more practicals and less assessment.

Annette Smith Chief executive, Association for Science Education We are especially concerned that continuity and progression between the early years, primary and secondary phases in science must be improved.

We believe that subject knowledge and understanding can be strengthened through a range of teaching and learning opportunities, including cross-curricular approaches, and we welcome the Government's stated intention to free up the curriculum in order to allow teachers to further develop this range of opportunities, which will include teaching practical science and science outside the classroom.

With the current Government focus on the need for top-quality scientists to maintain the UK's position as a world economic leader for science and technological innovation, a national science curriculum that is an entitlement to all and appeals to our future scientists, as well as creating an increasingly scientifically literate youth population, is now even more necessary than in previous years.

Interviews conducted by Kerra Maddern

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