The pain of separation

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Rosemary Feasey on two subjects that make natural partners

Science requires mathematical literacy as much as it requires conventional literacy. In primary science, children use a range of maths skills, from addition and subtraction to averages and percentages, as well as data handling techniques. Children also need to recognise when to apply their maths and why.

But for many primary teachers maths and science are discrete subjects, and it should not be assumed that skills acquired in the former are being applied in the latter. The primary curriculum as a whole suffers from artificial barriers between subjects.

Some aspects of maths are taught and applied successfully in science, but their possible scientific applications are not stressed within maths - for example, measurement. In addition, the drive to gain good national test scores can limit children's opportunities to apply knowledge in a range of contexts. Like literacy, numeracy is of little use if it cannot be applied in different contexts - such as science.

An experienced teacher and science co-ordinator in a large inner-city primary school, Mr Dince Boville, confirms that he does not make "explicit links" and that transferring skills "is not a feature in preparation" because "science is a discrete unit; the national curriculum teaching in science is very focused".

Do the children recognise when they are applying maths skills in science? Introducing a science investigation, Mr Boville asked the children to think about what maths they would need to carry out the activity. "I was surprised to find out that they had little understanding that they were using mathematics in their investigation," he says.

However, when they were prompted to consider the maths they were using, the children's work improved. "It was interesting to see how the quality of children's work began to rise when they were challenged over their maths in science," he says.

Merely asking children to locate the maths in their science will not improve their science; the maths content must be made explicit. For example, the wording of investigations can limit both the science and the maths required.

Take the question, "Does the temperature of the water affect how well a stain can be removed?" The only elements in this test that require measuring are temperature and, probably, the amount of water used. Although an interesting investigation, it offers only a limited mathematical and scientific challenge.

If children are not actively applying their mathematical skills and understanding they may not be achieving their potential in science.

Rosemary Feasey is lecturer in primary science at the School of Education, University of Durham, and chair of the Association for Science Education

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