Life, the universe and everything

3rd January 1997 at 00:00

Life: Diversity and Evolution Forces and Energy Materials: Chemical change and Physical change Electricity: Making Connections Planet Earth Ecosystems

Each kit (one for each theme): Pounds 59.99 CD-i pack of five discs: Pounds 176.24 (all inc pp and VAT)

BBC Educational Developments PO Box 50, Wetherby LS23 7EZ

Tel: 01937 840206

Jerry Wellington assesses a major new primary professional development pack.

Reports of past research into primary teachers' knowledge and understanding occasionally took great delight in exposing weaknesses and misconceptions. In the Eighties it almost became a witch hunt of Crucible proportions.

Areas of science such as energy, forces and motion, the Earth's place in the universe, and electric current have all come under scrutiny.

Primary-trained teachers, with little background in science, were exposed as "deficient" in their knowledge and understanding and even of adopting "Aristotelian" beliefs in areas such as motion. Who could be dumb enough to believe that a moving object requires a force to keep it going? (The answer is most people, because this is what intuition and common sense tell us if we happen to live on Earth.) Researchers were more sensitive and understanding (in most cases) but their findings provided ideal ammunition for the teacher-bashing prevalent at the time.

The advent of the national curriculum meant that science for all from ages 5 to 11 was now more than desirable - it became a legal requirement. Hence the urgency for action and the birth of attempts to rectify the perceived deficit - but occasionally these have smacked of "remedial science for the scientifically illiterate primary teacher". Booklets hastily produced by the National Curriculum Council on topics such as forces and electricity and magnetism in 1992 were attempts to plug the deficits.

The truth is that nobody is perfect and many scientific ideas (not least Newton's Laws) run contrary to common sense and intuition. Scientific ideas are subject to change (though, in some cases, slowly as Newton's' birthdate of Christmas Day, 1642 reminds us). These should be the premises behind any project for professional development of teachers in science - and the BBC's huge effort in this area largely follows them.

These latest primary science resources, apparently part of a Pounds 6. 5 million initiative, focus on six themes related to the primary curriculum. For this review I was able to examine closely materials (videos, users's guides and teachers' notes) and resources kits for Life, Diversity and Evolution and Forces and Energy.

The Life: Diversity and Evolution kit contains a wealth of excellent activities, each supported with resources such as replica fossils, imaginary plastic animals and colourful activity cards.

The best activities for in-service training of teachers are those which can also be taken away and used with children. I tried this and it worked. The fossil activity, classification game, and the predator-prey exercise with red filter glasses and plastic background mat will all work as well with 10-year-olds as with primary teachers.

The video contains good, supplementary material, largely on classification, with sections on inheritance, genetics and evolution. Some excellent teaching ideas are shown and some fascinating interviews with children. The main problem is that it lasts for 93 minutes. The danger of "video-itis" setting in means that no training day would include such a prolonged viewing. The video needs editing and structuring. It repeats itself in a few places and it lacks structure. By dividing it into coherent sections with visible aims, sections of it could be used to support professional development.

Each section could then be structured using the teachers' guide, which is hard to relate to the video. It is disappointing that more care was not taken to edit the video, write strong supporting material for each part, for example, children's ideas on Life, and then divide up and "map out" the tape so that it could be used selectively by teachers or INSET organisers.

In contrast, the Forces and Energy video (lasting 29 minutes) is an excellent resource and has the added advantage of showing how an INSET session should be run. It contains lots of examples of forces and motion: welly throwing, rockets, and tennis balls rolling in gutters. The teachers and the children talking about their conceptions of force and motion make an excellent starting point for discussion.

The kit has been thoughtfully put together, but the name of this theme is largely a misnomer because there is little on energy. The kit has a home-made newton-meter which supports guided activities using objects like doors and cups; a rather strange and perhaps over elaborate "massive pencil" (a pencil in a long tube inside a cut lemonade bottle) to convey the idea of inertia.

I think a few simpler objects, such as balls, would have helped - like those in the video. The links between kit and video are not strong, almost as if they were written and edited by different people - and this is also true of the Life pack.

In general, the choice of themes for Primary Science Teaching Today covers a good range of the curriculum, although topics such as heat and temperature, and light and sound which make ideal subjects at this level, do not seem to be included in this set. I have not seen the CD-i material but this could provide a useful alternative medium those with the technology.

The ideal mode for INSET with teachers who feel diffident in an area like science involves "guided construction", activity and discussion with a competent teacher educator - as the Forces and Energy video of just this shows clearly.

If, as a result of gaps in advisory and INSET provision, that proves impossible, then this collection provides a good substitute. Despite some of my specific criticisms, Teaching Today looks to be an excellent initiative in providing some of the support which primary teachers need in science without making them feel deficient.

It is to be hoped that they can find the time, money and guidance needed to gain access to these packages and exploit them fully. This is where careful management and ingenuity will be needed, as much as in understanding the science itself.

Jerry Wellington is a senior lecturer in the division of education at the University of Sheffield

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