Science

14th July 2000 at 01:00
TEACHING SECONDARY BIOLOGY. Edited by Michael Reiss. TEACHING SECONDARY CHEMISTRY. Edited by Bob McDuell. TEACHING SECONDARY PHYSICS. Edited by David Sang. ASEJohn Murray pound;12.99 each.

These teacher handbooks are a delight. But why weren't they written years ago? The introduction says it all: "The author has kept in mind a teacher confronted with the task of teaching a specific topic, e.g. respiration, in the near future. What does such a teacher need to produce a series of effective lessions?" The answer includes "good, sensible, stimulating ideas for teaching (science) to 11 to 16-year-olds", implemented with enthusiasm and confidence. They will be particularly useful to less experienced teachers, and those teaching outside their subject, such as physicists teaching biology.

The Association for Science Education has assembled an impressive list of contributors, including many well-known names. Their experience ranges over teaching, examining, writing textbooks, teacher education and educational research. Naturally, a high-quality product results - one concise enough to be accessible to busy teachers, based on sound educational theory, distilling the best practice and expertise from years of teaching.

As a chemist, I found Teaching Secondary Biology very helpful. There are practical tips which biologists are born knowing, and the rest of us struggle (or fail) to find out. For example, pondweeds bubbling oxygen to demonstrate photosynthesis, seal their "wounds" quite quickly "so you may need to recut them". No wonder mine never worked.

Fundamental understanding of concept development, and pupils' likely previous knowledge and misconceptions, informs the suggested teaching approaches. For example, Jenny Lewis's chapter on genetics suggests that instead of human variation, which may lead "too quickly into complex concepts of inheritance for which your pupils are unprepared", a better starting point might be "a discussion of gene technoogy and its uses... focusing on social and ethical aspects", which allows most pupils to contribute ideas, thus improving motivation.

In Teaching Secondary Physics, the approach varies with the topics covered. Jonathan Osborne's chapter on astronomy focuses on "intuitive" and scientific understanding; the Earth is flatround; heavier objects dodon't fall faster. A range of strategies is offered, both to transform pupils' ideas and to promote active learning in a topic with limited practical work. In contrast, David Sang's chapter on radioactivity is more obviously directed at the non-physicist, with clear guidance on safe demonstrations and basic theory.

Teaching Secondary Chemistry differs in emphasis. Much of the text gives detailed instructions for experiments, including apparatus lists, safety tips and, helpfully, expected results. John Payne's geology chapter has a good collection of laboratory work for modelling geological processes - useful in an area still "approached with some dread by some teachers".

Chemical theory is outlined; it is often assumed that students have little previous knowledge. There is less coverage of likely pupil misconceptions, except in Judith Johnston's chapter on the mole. This stresses calculations and, contrary to GCSE syllabuses, suggests a drip-feed approach with frequent revisiting to establish understanding.

All three books share the same structure. Suggested teaching approaches are accompanied by helpful tips and thoughtful "enhancement ideas", often a difficulty for the non-specialist. Non-trivial applications will lead to an increased use of ICT in science. Manageable lists of "other resources" cover books, video, websites, CD-Roms, useful organisations, visits and so on.

These books do much to encourage good practice in science teaching. Several copies for the department would be money well spent.

Lynne Marjoram is head of science at Kidbrooke school, south-east London


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