Quantum leap for junior science

28th January 2005 at 00:00
At last, 5-14 teachers have a comprehensive pack to help them teach science with confidence and enthusiasm, writes Douglas Blane

As a mature student teacher I was shocked, on first reading the environmental studies 5-14 national guidelines, by their failure to reflect the true nature of science or scientists. The key qualities of curiosity and creativity were never once mentioned.

Much of the target audience had little background in science.

So guidelines that perpetuated a widespread misconception of the subject as a collection of difficult techniques and dull facts was unlikely to inspire. And if the teachers were not inspired, what chance had the kids?

My own love of the subject had been kindled by first-year school science, in which everyday objects did strange, colourful, loud, scary, smelly - but most of all puzzling - things, at the behest of a teacher who seemed to know exactly what was going on.

Over the years and decades my knowledge increased, understanding grew, and the questions just kept on coming. What caused the spark? How can space be curved? Why does a particle act like a wave?

To a scientist this is the essence of science - a bewildering, perplexing, intensely rewarding quest for understanding of the natural world. This essence had been lost in the guidelines' worthy purpose of raising teachers' competence and confidence in a challenging subject.

Fortunately more influential voices were being raised: HMI had begun an investigation into good practice in science teaching, the findings, reflections and conclusions of which would be published in 1999 in Improving Science Education 5-14.

This seminal report stressed the urgency of action, given that less than 10 per cent of science courses in Scotland's schools could be classed as very good, while nearly two thirds in primary and one third in secondary were unsatisfactory or had important weaknesses.

The inspectors' agenda for action focused on four key areas: improved 5-14 guidelines; wider, more consistent implementation; continuing professional development; and new curriculum support and assessment materials.

The final, long-awaited piece of this science education jigsaw has now fallen into place, with the launch and distribution to all Scottish schools of new science curriculum support materials, produced by Learning and Teaching Scotland with the help of 80 experienced teachers.

Consisting of a CD-Rom and a 54-page booklet, the new resource provides a "progressive and flexible" route through the 5-14 science curriculum, illustrating at every stage learning and teaching strategies based on modern research and good practice.

The structure of the new resource demands a little time and effort to master, so more explanation in the booklet's introduction would have been helpful. Once apprehended, however, the organisation into scientifically coherent topics can be seen to deliver an invaluable set of maps to readers familiar or unfamiliar with the terrain.

The entire 5-14 science curriculum is encompassed in 33 groups, ranging from introducing materials to cells and cell function, and covering on the way topics such as water, the Earth and its resources, model of matter, energy, forces, electric circuits, minibeasts, our environment and biotechnology.

The guidelines' three "attainment outcomes" - Earth and Space, Energy and Forces, and Living Things and the Processes of Life - have been retained.

But the three very general and educationally pretty useless strands in each have effectively been superseded by 10-12 of the new groups. Each of these encompasses several targets, strands and levels, and while this might have created irritation and resistance among teachers, the designers have taken pains to ensure that it shouldn't.

The CD provides links for quick and easy navigation between the new groups and the old strands and targets, while the booklet's framework for planning (appendix 2) shows at a glance the mapping between the two for one particular attainment outcome, Earth and Space. This is so valuable that it really should have been provided for all three outcomes The buried treasure of the resource is the material within every group, all of which is organised along identical lines summarised in section 2 of the booklet.

Key questions within a group are satisfyingly few and scientifically focused, such as: "How do particles explain matter?"; "What are the causes and effects of gravity?"; "What's inside the Earth?

Ways of exploring pupils' understanding, before and after lessons, and strategies for teaching key ideas are many, varied and inventive.

Within a pleasingly consistent framework, a certain unevenness of tone and treatment is sometimes apparent, and generally high standards are marred by a few misleading statements like "The Earth spins anti-clockwise on its own axis once every 24 hours", which is only true for an observer directly above the North Pole.

These are minor complaints. Overall, Learning and Teaching Scotland has taken the crucial elements of effective learning in science - key questions, big ideas, prior learning, misconceptions, cognitive conflict, formative assessment -and built a scientifically literate and pedagogically rewarding set of resources that should help bring the smile, the beauty and the enigma back into school science.

AIDs for teaching

Improving Science Education 5-14 is designed to help teachers answer these questions at every stage:l What are the learning intentions?l What do the pupils already know?l How am I going to challenge the pupils' present conceptions?l How will I take the pupils' learning forwards?l How will I develop the pupils' scientific vocabulary?l How can I use ICT effectively in science?l How will I determine that pupils' learning has progressed?

To this end, the material in each of the 33 groups is organised into:l titlel key questionsl key ideas behind the questionsl table of attainment targetsl strategies for determining present understandingl strategies for teaching key ideasl innovative homeworkl developing informed attitudesl strategies for investigating if understanding has progressedl key wordsl related concepts already coveredl future learningl effective use of ICT, andl checklist for formative assessment.

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