Material debates

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Margaret Sahin looks at how to focus young minds on observation and investigation skills

Infants are required to learn about the properties of materials and one group of five to seven-year-olds I taught helped to develop a unique approach to this task.

In previous science lessons we had sorted objects into different groups according to what they were made of (metal, wood, glass, paper and fabric) and looked at some of the similarities and differences. From here it becomes personal. Two objects are having an argument. They are called the same thing and do the same job, but each claims to be the best. The children can help decide who's top dog - or, in this case, top hankie.

I produce two hankies, one made of fabric, one of tissue, and I ask the children which they prefer and which is the best hankie. An initial vote without too much analysis is a good idea. This is the hypothesising part of science.

The children then give the hankies a job description. There has to be some criteria by which to measure our idea of "best". At this point the hankies start bickering: "I'm best" - that sort of thing. The teacher speaks to them calmly and firmly, and tells them the children will help decide which is best suited to its job.

Begin by establishing what each is made of. Draw a column for each one on the board and ask the children to speak in support of their chosen hankie.

Some of the suggestions may not be very scientific: "There are lots of tissues in a box"; "It's cheaper to buy a fabric hankie because you can reuse it". However, these comments are part of the debate and are a product of lateral thinking - just the considerations you want children to employ when evaluating technology.

Provided each contribution is true and relevant, accept it. If suggestions are flagging, get the hankies to give hints by boasting.

There may be some dispute over the the versatility of each hanky. If so, make an additional list for each. This gets children talking, thinking and developing ideas (speaking and listening). Some claims, such as absorbency, need testing. Can we devise an experiment to test which absorbs liquid the best? The debate can be put on hold while things are put to the test - the hankies may be eager for an outcome but scientific enquiry is all part of the process.

Before the final decision, give out the list of suggestions so far as homework. Parents and siblings can become involved in "support your favourite hankie" and children love to come in with fresh, innovative ideas thought up by family members.

Finally, count the entries in each column. Is there a winner? We found the outcome to be fairly even. The winning hankie - conceding that the other has some very good points - is an excellent role model for children who need to be able to celebrate their own achievements while acknowledging those of others.

What did we get out of the experience? Maths, literacy, speaking and listening, technology, PSHE and science. Other debates could be held between glass and plastic bottles (tie your bottle securely in a plastic bag before the "breakable" test), wooden and metal spoons, plastic and china cups, or wooden and plastic play bricks. The teacher does not have to have all the answers and the children will surprise you. All you need is enough time to let them.

Having done this with a mainstream class, I tried it with my small class of special school children. Everything needs to visual and tactile. Although we didn't find as many properties, our lists of "same" and "different" were quite respectable.

Everyone compared the softness of each, loved the tearing test and got excited by how each hankie behaved when wet.

Margaret Sahin teaches at Bardwell School, Oxfordshire

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