Question time

7th November 2003 at 00:00
John Stringer investigates ways of stimulating gifted children in science lessons

Gifted and talented pupils are a challenge to us all, but especially in science. A four-year-old once said to me in the middle of a lesson on electricity, "I just need a diode and I can make you a transistor radio."

Asked for an interesting word, another infant said "deoxyribose nucleic acid".

This sort of reply does not encourage those of us who lack confidence in teaching the subject, so I welcome the publication of a book about the needs of able young scientists at key stage 2: Challenges in Primary Science by David Coates and Helen Wilson (NACEFulton pound;15).

I found the authors' lists of stimulating questions particularly valuable.

It is so often the ability to ask the right question that distinguishes the gifted scientist. Albert Einstein's genius lay not so much in answering questions as in asking the right ones. At the age of 12, he asked what it would be like if you could ride on a beam of light. His thinking about that was to lead him to answers about time and space.

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidance on teaching gifted and talented pupils describes gifted pupils as those with abilities in one or more subjects in the academic curriculum; talented pupils have abilities in art and design, music, PE or sport or the performing arts.

David Coates and Helen Wilson define gifted children as those with: l a natural curiosity about the world and the way things work;

l an enjoyment of hypothesising;

l an ability to express scientific knowledge;

l an understanding of logic;

l the ability to use scientific vocabulary;

l an ability to transfer knowledge from one situation to another;

l an ability to spot and describe patterns;

l an ability to record data.

All of these sound like the natural skills of science. Challenging these pupils means increasing the breadth and depth of the work they do, or doing it faster, giving more opportunities for independence and time for reflection to evaluate what they have done.

Many of these ideals are extended by engaging the children in cognitive conflict - the mismatch between understanding and new learning. Suitable challenges will engage and excite: low-level challenges will lead to apathy and boredom.

Coates and Wilson's challenges include the following:

l Discuss the odd one out of chocolate, paper and water.

l Look at the pluses and minuses of chocolate door handles.

l Imagine you are Galileo and persuade people that the Earth goes round the Sun.

l Challenge them with a big question - how do we know that the Earth is a sphere?

l Using the Concept Cartoons developed by Brenda Keogh and Stuart Naylor, ask whether putting a coat on a snowman will speed or slow its melting.

(some are in Coates and Wilson's book. Concept Cartoons in Science Education is published by Millgate House Publishers.) While these are imaginative ideas, they can create some teacher anxiety. Do they all have an answer? Do you always need to answer questions at all?

There is a general belief that science is about answers, but no scientific answer is ever final. Even apparently immutable laws, such as the speed of light being a constant, are open to challenge - recently particles have been identified which appear to travel faster than light.

You may think you know the characteristics of life, but recent research has shown that the tiny brine shrimp, sometimes known as the sea monkey, can "hibernate" out of the water in a state in which all metabolic activity is suspended. To all intents and purposes, the shrimp is no longer alive, but put it back in water and it starts to live again.

Perhaps we should be more relaxed about the need to find an answer to every question. As long as the answers children learn in primary school are not misleading, they can develop them later.

Recent criticisms of the curriculum have suggested that science is too narrow and dull. Questions can be engaging and challenging, such as "is a flame alive?"; "act out a solid and liquid and gas"; "what makes a good saucepan handle?"; "where does a puddle go?"; "what if water were as thick as treacle?"; and "how does a silent dog-whistle work?" One Nobel prize-winner recalls that his mother's first words on his arriving home from school were not "what did you do at school today?" but "did you ask a good question?"

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