Sense of the whole world

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Max de Boo argues for the importance of science across the primary curriculum.

Primary science has been a success story so far. Fifty years of national projects and research (for example, Nuffield, SPACE), individual teachers' commitment, the Association for Science Education (ASE) and government initiatives have all led to science being a core subject in the curriculum.

Pupils are scoring well in the key stage 2 SATs and teachers at KS3 are having to modify their teaching to cope with the skilled and knowledgeable pupils arriving in their secondary schools.

However, the Year 6 pupils who are achieving these results came into the primary school before the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies. It is almost certain that most of these pupils had more opportunities to study science than pupils in KS1 right now. A study, The Effect of the National Literacy Strategy on the Teaching of Science, carried out by the ASE in 1999, only one year after the introduction of the literacy hour, revealed that primary schools had cut back the amount of time allocated to science each week. In KS1 classrooms, time for science had been reduced by 13 per cent on average; in KS2 classrooms, science had been reduced by 10 per cent per week and relegated to afternoons.

Some schools elected not to teach science at all for one term each year - a policy that has had a damaging effect on student teachers, who are required to teach science during their school placements and observe science being taught.

Since the advent of the numeracy hour, many teachers have cut out practical investigations. They are relying more on "short, well structured tasks with known outcomes, to be assessed and ticked off, to prove coverage", reminiscent of some secondary science experiences where science is "aimed towards a certain end point and (the results) are massaged" to ensure students get the "right answer" (Paul Waring-Thomas, Primary Science Review, JanFeb issue 2001).

Unfortunately, non-experimental, transmission teaching approaches leave little room for pupils' own questions and enquiries. This is in spite of statutory expectations that the pupils should be taught to ask questions and decide how to find answers, as stated in the national curriculum.

Schools that have adopted the QCA Scheme of Work for Science will not find much support there for encouraging children's own questions and ownership of the subsequent investigations. Only a handful of the innumerable learning objectives in that scheme focus on children's own questions.

Curriculum time spent on science has been reduced, and pupils have fewer opportunities for practical, hands-on science or for asking and investigating their own questions. If children are to have a broad, in-depth education in science, we need to get around the constraints of the timetable and adopt an effective approach to teaching primary science. Science sessions need to be used for the real science: that is, for in-depth practical enquiries.

Science co-ordinators have a vital role to play in persuading reluctant and weary teachers of the importance of first-hand experience in science. We know now that such enquiries encourage children's thinking skills - observing, predicting, testing, reasoning. Children with creative thinking skills develop into independent learners and thoughtful citizens. Recent Government documents (All Our Futures - Creativity, Culture and Education, DFEE, 2000) and national speakers are all urging the process of creativity. Science is one of the best vehicles for this.

We can create opportunities in the rest of the curriculum to give science the breadth it needs for children to understand scientific concepts. Such strategies do not devalue other curriculum areas - they make them more meaningful.

Literacy and numeracy skills: Although note-taking is necessary during the science session, the full reports can be written and edited in the literacy hour. This might take the form of a prose report with a sequential framework ("This was our question; this is what happened; we think this happened because...") but science can also stimulate wonderful poems and stories: Science is fun.

Lightning flashes

Then comes the sound

It's thunder

I'll be bound

Light is faster

Than the sound

Jake Phillip, age 7, in the anthology Science is Like a Tub of Ice Cream - Cool and Fun!

(Association for Science Education, 2001) A study of materials can lead to stories about "The snowman who didn't want to melt" or "The clay pot that was afraid of the oven". A study of forces could lead to stories and poems about "The car with no brakes" and "SOS Rescue: The bridge made of sticks" Using science as the stimulus for mathematics is an excellent way of integrating science into the numeracy hour. Data gathered in the science sessions can be used later for graphs and interpretation; the shape of leaves can be described in mathematical terms and the area measured. Training given in the use of measuring instruments, such as stopwatches and thermometers, not only reinforces concepts of time, scales, estimating and accuracy but frees time for more practical work in the science session.

Technology: Nine out of 10 primary science enquiries can stimulate design-and-make activities. Electricity studies can lead to making shoe-box houses with buzzers, choice cards, a lighthouse or a miniature, floodlit football stadium. Observing live plants and animals can lead to ingenuity with materials and mechanisms to make models of snails and daffodils, imaginary animals such as Elmer or a Pushmi-Pullyu, outdoor gardens and classroom habitats for woodlice or stick insects. The learning objectives will have shifted towards design and make but scientific concepts would be reinforced.

Technology can be used to help children understand difficult scientific concepts. 3-D models can illustrate concepts that are "inaccessible", such as the solar system, the heart or metamorphosis. A cut-down lemonade bottle with a balloon inside can illustrate the expansion and contraction of the lungs (an activity in an ASE book Strategies for Understanding Scientific Concepts by H Asoko and M de Boo to be published later this year); a "pond" with simultaneous frogspawn, tadpoles and frogs is unlikely in real life but allows discussion of the life-cycle process; a papier mached balloon with a convex lens at one end and a tracing paper screen at the other can inspire wonder at the human eye and brain.

Art: Observational drawings broaden children's scientific knowledge and develop their aesthetic skills. Keeping the results of an enquiry for display and an art session not only values both disciplines but drawings express much more than words can: ink drops falling through water, a piece of granite, a worm, the children's own faces reflected in a mirror. Observations lead to questions and further enquiries, particularly the pupils': "What's that thing on the worm's back? What is it for?" leading to discussion, speculation and the use of reference books.

Music and movement: Ideas become real when the children "experience" them with their bodies or illustrate them with instruments: moving like a frog, growing from a seed, the water cycle, photosynthesis, electric current, light and shadows.

A teacher in the ASE study mentioned above said: "I really feel the clock is ticking. If (a child does not) understand a concept first time - well, hard luck, as we're moving on without you." We have to adopt strategies for teaching and learning science until the subject is given its due importance again. The strategies outlined here help pupils to make sense of their whole world and may also persuade non-science specialist teachers of the value of science to their discipline.We may not have much time set aside for science each week but we can make science effective right across the curriculum, giving it depth and breadth.

Max de Boo is an independent consultant on primary science

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