How much do children know about different science topics and what is their main source of information? Rae Stark reports on a Scottish survey into their views. In 1996, 6,000 pupils in Scottish schools completed a questionnaire on various aspects of learning science. The questionnaire was part of the government-funded Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP) and the fourth survey of achievement in science.
The main aim of the AAP is to provide objective evidence to inform the debate on standards in English language, mathematics and science. The programme runs on a three-yearly cycle, with one subject area assessed each year. This year the focus was on science.
The survey involved children in Primary 4 (eight to nine-year-olds), Primary 7 (11-12) and Secondary 2 (13-14). Through a package of practical and written assessment tasks it attempted to determine what they know and can do in science at these stages.
For the first time, pupils were also asked what they thought about the kinds of learning activities they encountered in the science classroom and the kinds of topics they preferred to study.
In addition, they were asked about how much they thought they knew across a range of science topics commonly found in the primary and early secondary years, and what their source of information had been. The questions were child-friendly, with drawings to help them understand and respond.
The replies to the first question - "How much do you know about . . . ?" - give an indication of the pupil's confidence in each topic. The second question provides information on the potential sources of learning at different stages in their education, and their relative importance. Although the data is still being analysed and won't be ready until next year, some interesting findings are already emerging.
The youngest group of pupils thought they knew most about "seeds and plants", "animals and wildlife" and "the body" in descending order. They were least confident with "air", "light" and "electricity". This echoes the traditional emphasis on nature study in the early primary school and many teachers' reluctance to include topics from the physical sciences. This was a feature of primary science which we had hoped was on the decline.
The middle group felt they knew most about "the body" (a phase they are going through, perhaps?). Like the younger ones, they also thought they knew a lot about "animals and wildlife", but the third-ranked topic for them was "space and the planets", which they knew about mainly from school. This did not rank high with either of the other groups, which suggests it is a common topic in the upper end of primary.
The 13 to 14-year-olds, like the 11 to 12-year-olds, were most confident on "the body", then "animals and wildlife", but this was closely followed by "sound". Interestingly, they expressed least confidence in their understanding of "space and planets" - a significant shift from Primary 7.
Overall, the findings indicate that the youngest pupils are the most confident in their knowledge and understanding of the science topics, and they become less confident with age. This does not necessarily show that they know more: just that they think they do.
The lower levels of confidence among older pupils may be accounted for in a number of ways. Older pupils are generally aware that there is a lot they do not know and, more importantly, understand. Younger pupils have still to appreciate this. In addition, the complexity of some topics only becomes evident at the upper stages of primary and early secondary when topics are re-visited in greater depth.
The topics in which the youngest children feel most confident tend to be those where learning is close, concrete and familiar.
The survey listed six potential sources of learning - books, school, museums, parents, television and friends - representing formal and informal learning, planned and unplanned. As the pupils get older, school grows in influence as the main source of learning in science.
At the Primary 4 stage, children appear to "learn" science from a range of sources and the influence of school is relatively weak. At Primary 7, television and school were more significant, and by Secondary 2, school was by far and away the most frequently cited source of learning.
Again a number of interpretations are feasible. It is possible that science topics (or at least the ones we included) were not strongly taught or emphasised at the early stages of primary school. At Primary 7, the growing emphasis on school learning and the preparation for subject specialisation at secondary level might account for the increasing influence of the school.
The 13 to 14-year-olds are heavily dependent on the school as their main source of information about science topics and concepts. If this means that, for many pupils, other sources of learning are not part of their everyday experience, then it must surely have implications for the notion of a scientifically literate population.
When pupils leave school or give up science, their main information supply is cut off and alternative learning routes do not seem to have been well established. Television would seem to be the only lasting influence. Will this serve as an adequate information source in adulthood?
A related concern is the limited role which books seem to play in the learning of older children. Again, various factors may be at work here. It may be that older children do read books, but not as their main source of scientific information.
On the other hand, much secondary science teaching is dominated by modules and teacher-prepared hand-outs and worksheets, so that pupils are not encouraged to read books as a source of information about science. Also, pupils at this stage in their education often have less free time for general reading because of homework and examination demands.
Most children in the study seemed to know something about virtually all of the topics listed. Of course, saying that you know a lot about something is a subjective judgement and should be regarded, in the absence of other evidence, with a degree of scepticism.
However, in the AAP science survey we have also gathered a considerable amount of evidence, through assessment tasks, on what children at these three stages actually do know and understand. When this has been collated and analysed next year, we hope to be able to say that their confidence is well justified.
Rae Stark is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Strathclyde and a director of the AAP Science Project. The final report of the project should be completed in June 1997