How to win friends and influence pupils;Reviews;Science;Books

10th September 1999 at 01:00
EFFECTIVE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. By Wynne Harlen. Scottish Council for Research in Education, pound;10.50.

Joan Solomon ona book that reviews research on the key to good learning.

What makes teaching effective and why isn't some teaching effective? These are the kind of questions demanded of researchers in these quality-control days. In reply, there has been a spate of books with titles like What research has to tell teachers about..., or How to make teaching effective. This little book contains snap-shots of research findings from all over the world, as well as summaries at the end of each chapter suggesting how much weight might be given to each.

Research into learning is not impossible, but teaching is a different matter. However, there is one uncontested finding on this point missing from this book: the teacher is the most influential factor in children's learning.

Work by Nancy Brickhouse showed, through in-depth interview studies, that teachers' attitudes towards science re-emerged in their pupils. A large-scale quantitative study of British pupils showed that those taught by the same teacher gave significantly similar answers to previously unseen questions about the nature of science. So teachers are central to the learning process - and who would have doubted it?

This book concentrates on pupils at the top of primary school and in the first three years of secondary school. The topics are: practical work, using computers, constructivism, cognitive acceleration, curriculum planning, and teachers' understanding of science. An interesting point is the finding that although pupils (aged 13-14) who liked mathematics usually did better in maths than those who liked it less, pupils from the highest performing countries were not those who liked it most.

The chapter on practical work reports, once again, that teachers and relevant equipment are far more important than the tactics used. I was sorry that the chapter on constructivism did not report the widespread feeling among teachers that getting the pupils to clarify their "alternative conceptions" solidified them in a counter-productive way. The chapters on computers, cognitive acceleration and formative assessment are helpful, while on planning and the curriculum, there is more promotional polemic than real research, with fewer findings to summarise.

The final chapter tackles a more contentious issue. The knee-jerk conclusion that the confidence to teach primary science depends exclusively on how much knowledge the teachers possess is being contradicted by findings from many quarters. It seems that to teach it with confidence, primary teachers need both to value science as a suitable pupil activity, and to see their own experience of both teaching and life as relevant to science. And that holds even if they have to learn the science as they go along.

Research into teaching very rarely gives neat and reliable findings. But both teachers and inspectors will find food for thought in this topical little book.

Joan Solomon is professor of science education at the Open University

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