Make light of the elements

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Paul Black finds flaws in four science books, all of which take a different approach to helping primary teachers. Planning Primary Science is very direct - everything that the 1995 curriculum demands is addressed in a way which provides ready-made, term-by-term plans with six programmes for key stage 1 and 12 for key stage 2. Each programme follows the same sequence of activities to establish requisite knowledge and skills, followed by a single investigation.

It would seem churlish to find fault with a work of such helpful intent, but there are significant weaknesses. The advice is sometimes flawed: teachers are to show pupils that with light "images travel in a straight line" - a meaningless proposition - and for forces are advised to consult the National Curriculum Council booklet - a work which is misleading on several points.

More seriously, some of the activities designed to "show" ideas to children ignore evidence that the phenomena used can raise many alternative explanations in children's minds: thus constructivist lessons about learning are ignored.

Finally, investigation topics such as "What effects the speed at which plaster of Paris sets?" hardly arise from the interests of children. Here we have the letter of the law without the spirit. It is to be hoped that teachers who really need such crutches will soon learn to walk without them.

In Science with Reason, Sue Atkinson and Marilyn Fleer adopt a constructivist approach whole heartedly, with general accounts in their opening chapters complemented by many examples of children's thinking in a chapter by Jonathan Osborne. There is also a useful general account of alternative teaching strategies.

The core of the book is 11 chapters in which different people each tell a story about a piece of their own teaching. Their accounts demonstrate the importance of developing children's own ideas through discussions about their work. However, it is only in Sue Atkinson's own chapter that there is strong emphasis on a reflective discussion to explore the ideas in science that the children are developing. Indeed, development of science ideas receives too little attention overall.

These lively stories are helpful and encouraging. They could have been the basis for critical reflection, but the opportunity is not taken up - the closing chapters, while generally useful, are too brief. The chapter on assessment is particularly disappointing, doing little more than state general principles with no examples and little to say about the practicalities.

Wynne Harlen's The Teaching of Science in Primary Schools aims to develop professional judgment rather than to provide such judgment ready-made. While practical examples - of class activities, of dialogue with pupils and of assessments of their work - enrich the account, each is related in its context to the purpose and significance of the example. Discussions of the nature of science, of the problems of organising group work, and of the principles and practicalities of formative assessment are strengths which other books, including the others here, do not rival.

Of course there are imperfections. I would have liked more attention to the inevitable influence that children's conceptual ideas will have on any exercise of "process skills", and some discussion about what teachers should do about the statutory assessment and testing requirements. Likewise, teachers struggling with their real science backgrounds are reassured in a general discussion of their problem, but might have welcomed guidance about where to turn for help when in need.

The first edition of this work appeared in 1991. It has now been extensively revised, to respond to changes in national rules and guidelines in Scotland, and in England and Wales, and to new research results.

Wynne Harlen also refers to "changes in my own thinking": it is to be hoped that others can follow her example in being willing to keep on thinking and learning. This book will give a clear basis for such endeavours.

Steve Farrow sets out to provide the guidance that primary teachers need with their science. It is strange then that the index of The Really Useful Science Book omits important terms, such as gene, aerobic and ionic, even though these are explained in the text. It is also distressing that the science shows weaknesses - heat, for example, is treated only as internal energy, but radiation is said to be the transfer of heat, and potential energy appears to be associated only with gravity after being ignored in a preceding discussion of molecular bonding.

Worst of all, the treatment is that of a standard didactic text, paying no attention to the research evidence that the difficulties and misconceptions of pupils are shared by those teachers who might turn to the book for help. There is need for a good reference source to serve this book's purpose, but it will be a difficult task. In several respects, this one falls short of the mark.

Paul Black is professor emeritus, science education, at King's College, London.

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