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Toying with the 'big ideas'


Wynne Harlen reviews Star Science - and assesses its impact on teaching skills.

The national curriculum with its bullet points about "what should be taught" raises questions about how closely classroom materials should follow the programmes of study and how much guidance teachers need to ensure that the intended learning outcomes are achieved. Perhaps inevitably there will be more uniformity in children's experience and less call on the considerable flair that teachers have traditionally shown.

These thoughts are prompted by the publication of the first two stages of Star Science for infants; materials for key stage 2 are promised next year. The Reception Pack comprises a group discussion book and a teacher's resource book. For Years 1 and 2 there are 10 theme packs on different topics, while the Big Book and the Teacher's Guide contain material which is also relevant to the forthcoming key stage 2 publications.

It is only in the Teacher's Guide that the national curriculum is mentioned, for the material has its own structure of progressive steps in concept and skill development. The Teacher's Guide shows how these are related to the national curriculum and, briefly, to the Scottish National Guidelines 5-14.

The ReceptionYear 1 material is innovative in setting the science-based activities firmly in the context of children's play. The 15 units are designed around topics, events or places likely to be encountered by children, such as the dentist, the garden centre, the moon. The idea is that children set up a play area and in doing so use the vocabulary, play games, make models and test out their ideas.

Photocopiable masters are provided to support some of these activities, such as naming parts of the body in the "hospital", or listing food eaten in a day. The Teacher's Guide proposes questions to ask and facts for the children to learn through discussion and play. These materials provide interesting and appropriate suggestions for four and five-year-olds which will support a broad base of experience and provide an excellent foundation for later work in science.

The activities themselves are quite challenging for infants. Those on Forces are also likely to be demanding on the teacher, while those in the pack on The Environment introduce words such as "habitat" and expect children to have a good background knowledge of plants and animals. There is also the free-standing Big Book which includes some particular concepts for discussion and others that can be used for group planning and recording.

The structure of the material for the theme of each pack is provided by a progressive set of "big ideas" or concepts. The notion of "big ideas" is to be applauded, since it is much more helpful for indicating the direction and purpose of children's experience than the statements in the national curriculum (or Scottish Guidelines).

However, there are rather too many statements in the Star Science lists, with the inevitable result that some are less than "big" ideas and fall into the category of meaningless or simply factual. Also, when a hierarchy among the statements is suggested, it is easy to challenge its validity. Why, for example, should "some materials dissolve in liquids" come before "some materials burn giving heat and light" and don't both contribute to "heating and cooling change things" rather than come later in the sequence? It is not that the sequences are arbitrary or the activities less valuable, but it may induce an approach of "plodding through", concept by concept, as set out in the teacher's notes.

Star Science goes further than most primary science programmes in providing specific directions for teachers to follow. We are still a very long way from treating the teacher as a technician, but we should question how far we should go in taking away some of the professional decisions from teachers.

Indicative of this trend is the lack of discussion of children's learning in the Teacher's Guide and the superficial section on assessment, which fails to mention the assessment teachers carry out when deciding how to help children make progress. Meanwhile, there is no doubt many teachers will welcome the firm support and well-focused activities these materials provide.

Wynne Harlen is director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education

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