Secure teachers spark creativity

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Providing training sessions, teaching packs and appropriate equipment helps primary teachers and pupils get more from science

The road south to Jedburgh passes through fields of giants with arms that flail in the wind. On the heights of Dun Law, the slim structures sing as they harvest the energy in the air, turning it into electricity.

It's a quixotic vision that lingers in the minds of the pupils at Parkside Primary. The models designed and built by the P5 class for its electricity project feature working wind turbines and windmills of every description, as well as a large black helicopter.

There are also electric candles, a zoetrope, a motor boat, a power drill, a spinning Christmas tree, a roaring fire, snowmen, reindeer with noses that glow and a large house with Santa Claus in the chimney and revellers dancing to music made by an electronic circuit no bigger than a credit card. It is an astonishing outburst of creativity from the minds of nine-year-olds.

"Of course science can be creative," says headteacher Helen Legge, "just like art or music."

To be creative in any subject - or to help others be creative - you need confidence and that is precisely the quality primary teachers lack when teaching science.

A 1995 survey by the Scottish Council for Research in Education found that only 12 per cent felt "fully confident" to teach science. Five years later, school inspectors reported that "large numbers of Scottish primary teachers still lack the necessary confidence and understanding to teach much of the science content of the 5-14 guidelines" (Improving Science Education 5-14, Scottish Executive Education Department, 2000).

This situation seems to be changing. At Parkside Primary confidence in teaching science is now high and this is having an effect on the children's learning.

A couple of months after completing their project on electricity - always a difficult topic - Carole Walls's P5 pupils are still able to explain the principles it taught them.

"The windmill doesn't go round till I touch the two bits of metal with the paper clip. Electricity goes through metal, but not air."

"The paper-clip is a conductor."

"It spun the wrong way because I'd connected the wires the wrong way to the battery."

"Putting an electric current through a filament is like trying to push your way through a crowded tunnel."

Since teaching videos have been used to help the children visualise electricity, they now think of electrons as zippy little characters that talk. That's hardly a problem: many adult scientists think of electrons as little blue balls with minus signs.

So, how did the Parkside Primary staff acquire their new-found confidence in teaching science? "The science adviser, Joy Snape, came in last year and showed us what we should be doing," says Ms Walls.

"I like to know a subject well before I teach it," she adds. "I do feel a lot more confident now and the project was such good fun, so exciting. I didn't expect that in science and I don't think the kids did either. Their work in science seems to be getting better and better."

The influence of the Scottish Borders' science adviser - who is a former science teacher - has been felt in local primary schools in various ways.

By analysing the requirements of the curriculum and promptly passing on science strategy funding to schools, she has enabled them to buy equipment, such as funnels and filters, thermometers, litmus paper, minerals, prisms, lenses, mirrors, models of organs, velcro body parts and posters. This, says Ms Legge, gave her teachers confidence that the resources they needed were in school.

By preparing teaching packs related to the 5-14 guidelines and training sessions, the science adviser helped the staff to learn what to teach at every stage. This gave them confidence that they had the knowledge they needed.

Parkside Primary has not relied solely on the adviser. Ms Legge explains:

"I took two members of staff out of the classroom and asked them to start from the new environmental studies guidelines and produce a detailed summary of what we should be teaching and what the kids should be learning at every stage.

"Another factor is simply time," she says. "We are not scientists, so it has taken us time to get to know the science curriculum, but we are now at the point where we can say that at level B this is what I have to teach, this is the knowledge and understanding the pupils will get, these are the skills they'll develop, these are the informed attitudes, these are the resources I need and this is how I'm going to assess it.

"What that means is that we now have continuity and building on previous learning. That makes a huge difference."

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