Nature of life grows confused

9th October 1998 at 01:00
STAGE TWO SCIENCE: Animals and Plants
Channel 4
Mondays 10-10.15am Rpt Wednesdays 10-10.15am
Age range: 7-11

This Channel 4 series is rather like the curate's egg - good in parts. The five programmes introduce classification (programme 1: similarities and differences) and the seven processes by which living things are defined: nutrition, respiration, excretion, sensitivity, movement, reproduction and growth. Programmes 2-5 cover these in roughly that order.

Considering the resources at its disposal, Granada TV, which produced the series, could have made more of the subject matter. Trying to be all things to all men and cover the life science sections of all the various UK curricula, it begins to lose the thread with too many irrelevancies.

With such a wide brief, and such a short transmission time, it is quite extraordinary to find shots wasted on the "amazed" face of the presenter looking at maggots, or an education officer at the National Marine Aquarium telling us how fishes breathe, not to mention all the other interviews of adults explaining.

For some reason, the biological concepts - difficult enough already - are presented as applications of life processes in industry, farming and horticulture. Was this to satisfy the technology curriculum?

So we have a presenter conducting interviews with a maggot farmer to find out about insect life cycles instead of actually watching the cycle in process; and there's a tomato grower practising hydroponics describing how plants make food. Why not show the plant itself? We see a racehorse galloping on a treadmill, but what is the point of this unless it is shown in slow motion. Repetitive shots of adults talking are neither visually nor intellectually stimulating and get in the way of understanding. Children don't need that.

I'm all for enthusiasts taking children on a journey of discovery to look at interesting things. Television has a unique opportunity to do this in the classroom. But not only are these programmes boring when the adults get to talk (there was no fun there) but the interesting bits like watching paramecium through a microscope (programme 1) or a foal being born (programme 5) are whisked away almost before we have a chance to see what is happening.

One of the most complete sequences, a chiropractor manipulating the hind leg of an injured horse (programme 4) was interesting, but insufficiently explained, and seemed irrelevant.

The promised wildlife photography only really materialised in the third programme - Shelter and Warmth - on a visit to the Farne Islands to look at seabird nests. But the first part was marred by a tedious visit to a walled garden. Why not look for wild plants in the wild?

Let the organisms speak for themselves. Let's see a blowfly laying eggs and more of the pigs rooting in the ground and the plants flapping their leaves. Provide more voice-over commentary.

The programmes also switch from concept to concept too often. Even with preparation children could become easily confused and pick up wrong messages. I found the script biologically dubious in places too (fishes are not the "third" group, or reptiles the "last") and it glossed over fungi - which children would call plants.

Teachers should be selective and show only the bits that really illustrate a point - that means pre-recording and previewing. Key words are sometimes flashed up on the screen and animated diagrams shown at times. There could have been more of both.

The teacher's guide is a must and includes information on the Habitats unit transmitted last year - made by a different company and (in print, at least) sounding much more exciting. The resource books containing photocopiable activity sheets gave me a sense of deja vu. They also contain occasional misleading information - due to ambiguities - which only a biologist would pick out. Does it matter? Well, yes.

'Stage Two Science: Animals and Plants' is available on video for Pounds 17.99; termly teacher's guides Pounds 4.50 for autumn and spring terms, Pounds 3.95 for summer; resource books Pounds 6.96; science cards Pounds 5.95 per set; posters Pounds 8.95 each; Insects CD-Rom education pack Pounds 34.99 (CD-Rom only, Pounds 19.99); Life Cycles CD-Rom education pack Pounds 49.99

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