Science labs set for a shake-up;News;News amp; Opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00
HMI fears many practical tasks are too trivial and remote from pupils' capabilities and interests, reports David Henderson

ONE OF the few areas of science where Scotland excels internationally has been called into question by a senior inspector ahead of a major 5-14 review. Primaries and secondaries have their work cut out to improve science teaching in primaries and early secondary, Jack Jackson, told a conference in Stirling.

Successive studies showed Scotland lagging behind other countries, including England, in the first two years of secondary and considerable problems among primary staff in understanding science. Most do not have even a relevant O grade or Standard grade.

Fresh advice on improving science teaching is due shortly, Dr Jackson said. Although the Third International Mathematics and Science Study published three years ago showed Scottish students were better at performing practical tasks, overall Scotland came halfway down the table for science performance in primary 4 and primary 5.

Dr Jackson, giving a clear indication of Scottish Executive thinking, said:

"Practical work is very expensive in terms of resources, teachers' time, technicians' time, of laboratories, storage space and equipment. And because of the class size maximum of 20, it is an expensive use of resources."

Research showed that too many practical tasks were trivial and laboratory work was often remote from the capabilities and interests of pupils.

Dr Jackson insisted teachers had to be absolutely clear what they wanted pupils to achieve when they tackled practical work. They also had to consider when and how to use practical work and direct teaching. Greater expectations of what pupils could achieve was important, particularly in S1-S2 where pupils were insufficiently challenged.

Wynne Harlen, former director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education, a scientist who has conducted extensive studies into science teaching, had found that what children liked was not what they learnt.

There was little evidence that the skills developed in science had any transferable value outside the science classroom, Professor Harlen had reported. It was also untrue that science helped to promote scientific attitudes, open-mindedness and critical inquiry.

Dr Jackson said a research council survey had revealed that 63 per cent of primary teachers had no science qualification and many had little confidence in teaching the subject.

"You have got to be very brave to stand up and ask for open questions if you are not on familiar territory," he said.

He advised teachers to place less emphasis on worksheets and stop using "colouring, cutting, copying, pasting" activities. Direct copying of information was also fairly common. Teachers needed to focus on investigative, problem-solving and thinking skills.

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