Wynne Harlen assesses primary materials based on research from New Zealand There is plenty of good advice about teaching science in these materials from New Zealand, but unfortunately many teachers will be put off by their cumbersome format, the vague curriculum structure and, not least, the price.
On the positive side, the Science Alive teaching framework is based on research on children's learning in science in Waikato in the early Eighties. This work had a pioneering role in devising classroom strategies based on constructivism: developing children's scientific understanding by using the ideas they bring to the classroom. The teaching approach and a brief rationale for it are simply and clearly set out in the first 23 pages, largely common to all the Teacher's Resource Books.
These pages offer excellent suggestions for shaping lessons which start from children's ideas and questions, then proceed through activities and discussion to develop conceptual understanding, ending with some rather more traditional "concluding" activities designed to assist the skills, attitudes and understandings that the pupils have developed.
The Teacher's Resource Book is central to finding one's way round the various components. After the introductory pages, the unit activities are divided into topic chapters giving detailed guidance which teachers could follow blow by blow through a lesson, or use more flexibly.
The activities themselves would not be regarded by teachers in the UK as anything new, but there is a good mixture of investigating natural phenomena and linking ideas to everyday experience.
There are useful ideas for assessment (called evaluation) and particularly for pupil self-assessment and collection of portfolios of work.
Compared with similar programmes developed in the UK, the format of the material for each title is more varied and the items more richly illustrated with full colour photographs. The Teacher's Resource is wire-bound within a substantial hard cover, and contains pockets for 16 activity cards ready for use by pupils and a booklet of black and white line masters for duplication for pupils during investigations, at home or for assessment. There are also some sheets for teachers to use to keep records of their observations of pupils.
The surprise in the package is the Big Book, (525 x 360mm), comprising two page spreads in large print and full of attractive photographs, presenting information on key concepts. These are not only intended for those with reading difficulties but for discussion by groups of pupils. Then there are four small books on selected topics within each unit designed to deepen and extend children's understanding of concepts introduced in the Big Book.
The whole series will comprise nine units for middle and upper primary (eight to 11-year-olds) and nine for five to seven-year-olds, divided equally between life science, earth science and physical science. Each unit emphasises the development of understanding and identifies key concepts, some of which would not be included in work at key stage 2. The accompanying booklet Getting Started (22 black and white pages for an incredible Pounds 9.95 from the UK publishers) attempts some help in relating key concepts to the national curriculum, identifying certain modules as "core" and others as "extension". But planning with the national curriculum in mind is not straight forward.
This series adds useful ideas for the development of classroom practice that aims to find out and use children's ideas in science. But it is possible to take this approach too far. Gaining access to children's ideas should not be turned into a guessing game. There can be too much of the: "What do you think is happening here?" kind of question, for example, in discussing pictures in the Big Book while the captions are covered over, with too little opportunity for children to have formed ideas or even to have a reason for forming them.
With this caveat, the teaching methods are certainly ones that teachers' will find worth considering, although this would be easier if the format and cost of the materials made them more accessible.
Wynne Harlen is director of the Scottish Council of Research in Education